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U.S.S. McCalla DD-253 (Destroyer, Clemson-Class)

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

This World War I ship was named for a US Marine, Bowman H. McCalla, who started his career as a Navy midshipman. From the Civil War, through protecting the Isthmus, and even to fighting in the Boxer Rebellion, Bowman McCalla answered his Nation’s call of duty and eventually reached Admiral’s rank. As with her namesake, the U.S.S. McCalla and her sister-class ships (the Clemson-class, with its 156 vessels) saw some of the heaviest fighting during her service. Twenty vessels in the class were eventually lost to the enemy. To keep these older vessels in the fight often called for heroic measures, and as history later proved, had additional risks of asbestos exposure.

The McCalla was lost (as a British vessel) within weeks of the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. These dark days of worry for the American Navy created a sense of real urgency in shipbuilding, as experts believed the war with Japan would rest on testing the two nations’ naval strengths. Experts also noted the use of asbestos, which had been discontinued as a health hazard in other nations, was often accepted as a way to more quickly rebuild the decimated American Navy. Ironically, asbestos was also at first justified as a way to protect lives.


The McCalla’s keel was laid at the famous Fore River yard in Quincy, Massachusetts, on September 25, 1918. As World War I had wound down, many contracts (such as for the McCalla) for Naval vessels were rushed to completion. The US government also concentrated its work with fewer shipyards. By the start of World War II, older vessels like U.S.S. McCalla, often laden with outdated asbestos, were desperately needed.

This mix of economy and versatility also reflected some of the vessel building practices at the time, as critics argued safety rules were dangerously ignored or relaxed. Asbestos, the use of which had been banned in several countries before the war, saw an explosion in use by US shipyards, sometimes even tripling in its total volume of use in vessels. Many major yards of the WWII era, even though sold to later owners in the 1950s and after, failed to avoid a legal duty for what turned out to be an epidemic of asbestos-related illnesses.

Repairs and Upgrades

The McCalla was transferred to the desperate British navy in 1941. This trade for an aging US vessel was interesting, in part because it was Britain that had led the fight against using asbestos in peacetime. World War II changed the rules of asbestos use.

Repairing vessels, like the aging McCalla, was tough work under the best of circumstances. Unknown to almost all crew members was the possibility that the heavy use of asbestos very often meant they were at risk of contracting possibly deadly disorders and diseases.

Resulting exposure to asbestos on vessels such as the McCalla took place over decades, since the policy of using asbestos was slow to change (only in the 1970s did the Navy phase out asbestos). Owing to its reliability and design, the McCalla remained a popular vessel for much of that time. In terms of asbestos, this also meant long-term exposure to asbestos as it deteriorated.

Asbestos Risks On the U.S.S. McCalla (DD-253)

The Bowman-class of aging vessels, such as the McCalla, meant new risks in handling asbestos would emerge in WWII. Miles of cable might need removal, making way for newer equipment…which also, in turn, used asbestos as a fire retardant. Even bulkheads might use asbestos as insulation, along with asbestos in weapons systems and throughout renovated engine compartments.

Wartime conditions on a vessel such as the U.S.S. McCalla probably meant there was an unnecessary use of asbestos. Various engine room pumps, for example, were later shown to have been able to run without any asbestos. The possible dangers of battle, and uncertainty about how parts were going to be used led some manufacturers to use asbestos in gaskets and machinery that might not otherwise be susceptible to fire or heat. As a result, many surprising cases of asbestos-related illnesses to all types of crew or shipyard workers were discovered in coming decades.

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