U.S.S. Cole DD-155 (Destroyer, Wickes-Class)
The History of the U.S.S. Cole:
Named for Edward “Ned” Cole, who was a highly decorated Marine who rose to hold the rank of Major. Major Cole was to die of wounds in a French field hospital in 1918. Part of his legacy included extensive training and development of the machine gun in combat. The U.S.S. Cole was also the first escort vessel for the very first US carrier (U.S.S. Langley). Sadly, the vessel named for Major Cole may well have passed on another, less welcome legacy: undiscovered injuries caused by asbestos on many Wickes-class vessels.
The Cole was one of the older US Navy destroyers that narrowly managed to survive scrapping under post-Armistice treaty goals. The resulting shortage of destroyers was to be a serious problem for America after Pearl Harbor. Saving the U.S.S. Cole from an early retirement was lucky, since by the end of World War II, the Cole and her crew would be awarded three battle stars and a Presidential Unit Citation.
The U.S.S. Cole DD-155 had her keel laid, ironically enough, only a week after Major Cole died. William Cramp & Sons launched the vessel in January 1919. She was a nimble ship, at something just over 300 feet overall, and with under a 9-foot draft. At the time, she used some of the first geared turbines. Decades later, studies suggested that asbestos was a common ingredient in most of these sorts of power plants in early 20th Century Navy vessels.
Construction standards of the day put an emphasis on controlling for the risks of fire while ignoring what was even then known probably very well known about asbestos. This choice allowed asbestos to be liberally used in vessels such as the Cole, for potentially hundreds of uses, incuding in gaskets, tools, weapons, engine rooms, or even hand-held machinery.
Repairs and Upgrades
The Cole’s duties for her first commissioning emphasized American interests in the Middle East, where she also helped save thousands of refugees. As later experts noted, these vessels (always overcrowded, let alone when transporting evacuees) often exposed passengers as well as crew to asbestos. Decommissioned from 1922 to 1930, the Cole began to require refitting for short missions, and even for extended idleness. These long periods of alternating idleness and intense maintenance were often times when asbestos was replaced or added to vessels such as the U.S.S. Cole.
The age of the Cole and the shortage of vessels at the outbreak of WWII also meant she needed frequent repairs. As a screening vessel, she relied on her heavy guns and impressive speed of 35 knots. New WWII Navy and private ship designs often counted on asbestos for fire suppression on ships, such as the U.S.S. Cole DD-155. Additionally, the high temperatures associated with her guns also meant asbestos was liberally used in her superstructure and around those weapons.
Similar Wickes-class destroyers saw their gun bores literally “worn down” by almost constant front-line duty. The U.S.S. Cole’s age also guaranteed upgrades would often be done at sea. Experts later noted such upgrades might well be with what would now be viewed as very inadequate protections against asbestos exposure.
Asbestos Risks On the U.S.S. Cole (DD-155)
Scrapped in 1947, the Cole still remains an example of a highly regarded Naval vessel. Her flexibility and crews’ valor was reflected in receiving several WWII commendations (including the Presidential Unit Citation), such as for making repairs while under fire, when she boldly landed 175 Marines in French Morocco. Asbestos was used as a fire retardant in hundred of places aboard vessels in the Cole era. Concerns over high temperatures also meant that machinery was encased with asbestos, and generous amounts of asbestos were in her gun emplacements and bulkheads.
There were other ways that asbestos was spread throughout the confined areas of vessels, too. Since the Cole became so adept at screening her sister ships, she took beatings from nearby splashdowns, crashes, fragmentary explosions, and weapons fire. Finally, as passing years showed, even scrapping operations posed asbestos risks, as work crews salvaged valuable equipment, but usually without safeguards from asbestos and its fibers.