U.S.S. Melvin (DD-680)
The vessel was the second destroyer to be named for John Melvin, who was a valiant Marine who rose to hold the rank of Lieutenant (jg). Lieutenant Melvin was the first US Navy officer to die in World War I, after his vessel (the patrol boat Alcedo) was sunk by a German U-boat in November, 1917. The vessel named for Lieutenant Melvin may also have passed on another, less welcome legacy: long undiscovered injuries, caused by asbestos on many Fletcher-class destroyers.
Between 1942 and 1944, American shipyards made 175 vessels of this destroyer class. The popularity of the Fletcher also meant Melvin and her sister ships were one of the most common surviving type of WWII US Navy destroyers. Over time, special concerns arose about the way asbestos was used in these vessels.
The U.S.S. Melvin DD-680 had her keel laid on July 6, 1943. Federal Shipbuilding and Drydock Company launched the vessel in October, 1943. She was a nimble ship for a destroyer, at something just over 2,000 tons, and with under a 17 foot draft. At the same time, Melvin used some of the first geared turbines. Decades later, studies suggested that asbestos was a common ingredient in such power plants.
Construction standards of the day put an emphasis on controlling fire hazards while minimizing concern about what was even then probably known about asbestos. This seemingly economical, short-term choice allowed asbestos to be liberally used in vessels such as the Melvin, in dozens of uses….in gaskets, engine rooms, or even hand-held machinist mate’s tools.
Repairs and Upgrades
The Melvin’s duties for her first commissioning emphasized American interests in the Far East, where she also helped save thousands of refuges. As later experts noted, these vessels (overcrowded, with a complement of 273 in the vessel’s 376-foot length) often exposed passengers as well as crew to asbestos. Decommissioned after Korea, in 1954, the Melvin began to require upkeep for her extended times of idleness. This period of idleness and intense maintenance was also possibly when asbestos was likely to be replaced (or added) to vessels such as USS Melvin. Valuable equipment, with asbestos used to insulate machinery and wiring, was probably removed: once again, a time of potential asbestos exposure.
The immediate need for the Melvin and the shortage of destroyers at the start of WWII also meant she would carry a heavy load of patrol at sea, and she needed more frequent repairs to accomplish her missions. As a screening vessel, she relied on her heavy guns and impressive speed of 38 knots. The WWII Navy ship designs counted on asbestos for fire suppression on ships such as the U.S.S. Melvin DD-680. Finally, high temperatures associated with her guns also meant asbestos was generously used, not only in her superstructure but also around weapon systems.
Similar Fletcher-class destroyers reported to Navy engineers that gun bores had been literally “worn down” by almost constant front-line duty. The U.S.S. Melvin’s importance in the Pacific also guaranteed upgrades would often be done at sea. Experts later noted such upgrades and “replenishment at sea” demands could also have meant inadequate protections against asbestos exposure.
Asbestos Risks On the U.S.S. Melvin (DD-680)
The U.S.S. Melvin remains an example of a highly regarded US Naval vessel. Her crews’ valor was reflected in receiving several commendations (plus 10 Battle Stars in WWII), and the crew repeatedly made crucial repairs while under enemy fire. For sub hunting, asbestos was also used as a fire retardant in hundred of places (especially in lower levels affected by depth charges) for vessels in this dangerous mission. Concerns over high temperatures also meant heat-sensitive machinery was frequently encased with asbestos, and generous amounts of asbestos were in both the gun emplacements and the bulkheads.
There were other ways that asbestos was spread throughout the confined areas of vessels, too. Since the Melvin became so adept at screening her sister ships, she took beatings from nearby splashdowns, Kamikaze crashes (especially at the Marshalls), and fragmentary explosions. Finally, as passing years showed, even scrapping operations (the Melvin was finally sold for scrap in 1975) posed asbestos risks, as work crews salvaged valuable equipment, too often without enough safeguards from asbestos and its fibers.