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U.S.S. Colhoun DD-85 (Wickes-Class/Destroyer)

The History of the U.S.S. Colhoun:

The Colhoun was named after Edmund Colhoun, who began a long Naval career as a Midshipman in 1839. Colhoun served under famed Admiral Perry. Colhoun also fought in the Mexican War and then served from the beginning of the Civil War until 1883, finally reaching the rank of Rear Admiral. He ended his distinguished career as a Superintendent at Mare Island Navy Yard. Admiral Colhoun’s namesake was also a pioneering vessel, and was the first to use new underwater sounding equipment (1919). Ironically, it was a common practice to use asbestos in protecting valuable equipment from harm. Experts later noted that in 1919 there was already evidence of asbestos causing grave illnesses.

The U.S.S. Colhoun fought valiantly at Guadalcanal in WWII, taking a series of brutal hits before sinking.


The U.S.S. Colhoun had her keel laid by Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts. The Fore River Shipyard still holds the record as the builder of the largest “pure” sailing ship ever made. The U.S.S. Colhoun served for a year in WWI, screening other vessels and doing sub chasing. Put on reserve status in 1922, she was then refitted in 1940 and overhauled to become a high-speed transport in 1940. The exigencies of the US Navy’s 1930s vessel shortage meant asbestos was commonly used to speed ship construction. In pre-WWII America, US shipbuilding used slightly over 600 million pounds of potentially deadly asbestos every year. By the end of the Second World War, US Naval asbestos use had jumped to at least 783 million pounds per year.

At 315 feet in length, and eventually refitted to reach 35 kn, the U.S.S. Colhoun was one of the famed, early four-stackers that went on to serve in WWII. The ship was designed for a crew of 100, but often carried many more. Often, she rescued and transported hundreds more people: such as when she rescued 194 troops from a stranded transport in 1919. Experts later noted the cramped spaces of the vessels also contributed to the likelihood of asbestos exposure. Most older destroyers (such as the Colhoun) had been redesigned to focus on speed for the crucial Pacific Theatre, to keep up with the light cruisers then being made. These redesigns often meant reliance on asbestos to decrease the dangers of explosions and high temperatures.

Increased production in US shipbuilding meant a certain tolerance for risks and hazards. One common hazard was an avalanche of asbestos in so many of the WWII era’s Liberty Ships. To get effective fire suppression, asbestos was used as a relatively cheap alternative to more costly alternatives. Almost thirty years passed before the full consequences of WWII asbestos exposure was disclosed. Testimony from Navy seamen, such as those who served onboard Wickes-class destroyers (including the redesigned Colhoun), described their exposure to asbestos. Crew members later described finding asbestos not only in the insulation around pipes or engines and in wiring, but also in exposed insulation, which frequently ‘dusted’ them with fibers or dust through the night as they slept a few inches from it.

Repairs and Upgrades

The U.S.S. Colhoun was not unusual in needing extensive refits, which often depended on asbestos in new equipment, redesigned engine rooms, and duct insulation. Just operating the vessel in wartime conditions meant risky repairs and possible asbestos exposure. A common example of the Colhoun’s at-sea repairs occurred, just before the U.S.S. Colhoun accomplished before her sinking in 1942. The Colhoun was awarded a battle star for her exemplary performance in screening, troop transport, and anti-sub patrols. These difficult missions often exposed the Colhoun to near-misses and heavy seas.

The need for emergency repairs, experts later knew, were also times when many crew members acted under extreme urgency, and frequently exposed to asbestos, as they struggled to fight. The day the Colhoun was attacked and sunk (August 30, 1942) she showed unlimited heroism, as fifty-one of the crew died, as she screened other vessels.

Experts point out that by the end of the 1950s, there was still no policy against using asbestos. In fact, the Wickes-class ships were extensively redesigned to accommodate new equipment, again using asbestos, for the Cold War. Among the discoveries about asbestos that came years later was admitting high risks of exposure during repairs and upgrades…especially to aging WWII Naval vessels.

Asbestos Risks On the U.S.S. Colhoun (DD-85)

Although asbestos risks were becoming widely known (Britain had been limiting asbestos use on its vessels for decades), there was little discussion in the US about telling workers or crew members about asbestos dangers. Asbestos was, over the years, to be used virtually everywhere there was reason to worry about fire. This included insulation or sealing ducts, wires, conduits, and almost everywhere in the engine room.

The use of asbestos continued well after the time in which the U.S.S. Colhoun and her crew served. Other Wickes-class ships which survived the U.S.S. Colhoun presented one last asbestos risk, decades later: how to safely salvage valuable equipment, often covered in decaying asbestos. For decades, Congress tried to budget funds to address issues of what to do with mothballed Navy vessels and their asbestos, left from WWII heroes like the Colhoun.

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