U.S.S. Willis A. Lee DL 4 (Destroyer Leader)
Built as a destroyer at Bethlehem Steel, Quincy MA and reclassified as a destroyer leader while under construction, Willis A. Lee was commissioned in October 1954 and began a career which saw the ship spend nearly all of its service life with the Atlantic Fleet.
Willis A. Lee was designed as a destroyer, but modified during construction, with larger living and command and control spaces, as well as improved communications abilities. These were done to accommodate a squadron commander and his staff, making the ship a better platform from which to direct the operations of several ships, hence the designation destroyer leader.
Willis A. Lee operated in the Atlantic, Caribbean, and Mediterranean for the bulk of its career, interspersed with maintenance availabilities and scheduled overhauls. It participated in fleet exercises, anti-submarine warfare training and drills, good-will visits and routine peacetime training.
In 1957 the ship carried the King of Saudi Arabia, Ibn Saud, to New York for his visit to the United States. The International Naval Review was held in Hampton Roads that summer, with Willis A. Lee playing its part. Later the same year Willis A. Lee entered Arctic waters for the first time in its career.
In 1959 the ship served as flagship for Task Force 47, a command created for the purpose of that year’s Great Lakes cruise, and visited several inland ports, including Erie, PA, and Milwaukee WI, via the newly opened St. Lawrence Seaway.
NATO operations and modernization overhauls occupied much of the ship’s time in the opening years of the 1960s. The modernization increased the capabilities of the ship’s sonar suite, with anti-submarine warfare the new focus of the ship’s mission. Willis A. Lee exercised that enhanced ability by being part of the ten-day Naval Quarantine imposed by President John F. Kennedy in October of 1962.
For the remainder of its operational life, the ship served as a sonar development and training platform, contributing to the growing superiority of US sonar over its Cold War adversary. Operating off the US east coast and in the Bahamas, Willis A. Lee worked with US submarines, helping them to develop advanced techniques for evading sonar and developing tracking tactics for detecting Soviet vessels.
The ship’s last Mediterranean was completed in 1966 and 67. Willis A. Lee was placed out of commission in 1969 and subsequently sold for scrap.
Asbestos Exposure on U.S.S. Willis A. Lee
As a conventionally powered and gunned destroyer built in the 1950s, Willis A. Lee contained asbestos materials in virtually all spaces, in a variety of applications. The engineering spaces contained asbestos in the liners of the ship's boilers and in the gaskets used in watertight doors, as did all such doors in the ship.
Asbestos wrapped pipes ran throughout the ship, wherever thermal protection was required. Deck tiles and fireproofing for decks and bulkheads all contained asbestos, and all were used by the Quincy yard during construction of the ship.
Because of its evolution into a sonar testing and development platform, Willis A. Lee spent numerous periods alongside with new equipment being installed by shipyard personnel. Because of the heavy use of asbestos equipment and materials in the shipyards of the day, additional airborne asbestos particles would have been introduced to the ship during these periods.