U.S.S. Memphis (CL-13)

The vessel was named after Memphis (meaning “enduring”), Tennessee. The U.S.S. Memphis would go on to protect crucial Marine landings, throughout the Pacific. By the end of the Second World War, the Memphis would be one of only 10 Omaha-class destroyers. The U.S.S. Memphis would have also made contributions in two very different eras of war: first in the time of American neutrality and then in WWII. Sadly, many of these famed ships also share a common, less worthy legacy. Asbestos was a common material in their construction and repair, used almost indiscriminately in hundreds of the era’s most famous vessels.

The Memphis and her ten sister Omaha-class light cruisers were also important innovations for the Navy. With battleships increasingly important, these light cruisers also took on the valuable role of scouts, using cutting-edge sonar. Experts later noted the new detection equipment was commonly protected with asbestos insulation. As the Memphis aged, she also had increasingly played host to decades of America’s most distinguished…kings, presidents, and explorers.

Construction

The Memphis’s keel was laid at a William Cramp and Sons shipyard in Philadelphia. Modern engineers still have praise for the Omaha-class improvements, and later such advances as GE’s electric geared turbines and 35-knot speed. Unfortunately, these designs often included asbestos in places where many crew members worked in such tight proximity.

Ship designs of the era did depend on using asbestos. Though some other nations’ ship designs decreased the use of asbestos, crews and shipyard workers later described seeing “mountains” of asbestos in US shipyards. American shipbuilder concerns over fire risks and high engine operating temperatures meant asbestos would very often be used extensively. Almost from the day of her commissioning, the Memphis hosted famous names. King Alfonso XIII of Spain in 1926, as an escort for President Coolidge in 1928, or her flying FDR’s flag for the Casablanca Conference (and again later at Algiers), and shipboard inspections by the Presidents of Uruguay and Brazil in 1944.

Repairs and Upgrades

Examples of how common were at-sea, emergency fixes, often using asbestos, could be found in the maintenance records of the Memphis, when she helped patrol trouble spots in the Caribbean before WWII. The Memphis helped the US shift into preparing for war, with its need for long sea patrols and in testing new equipment upgrades. At the same time technology advances on such Navy vessels helped accomplish missions and save lives, there was also an undisclosed hazard to many crew members in the many ways asbestos might be used.

Equipment, cables, and tools that were used in engine work also used asbestos. Experts later identified these intense, war zone upkeeps as potential instances of when asbestos was replaced by crews. Joining a “mothball fleet” didn’t automatically mean there were no longer any asbestos risks. Repairs in a vessel’s decommissioned status could still cause asbestos risks, since there was no permanent change to Navy asbestos policy until the 1970s. The Memphis stayed in her decommissioned state until 1946.

Asbestos Risks On the U.S.S. Memphis (CL-13)

Since the Omaha-class destroyers (such as the Memphis) relied so heavily on asbestos, later engineers sometimes at first missed the places asbestos had been used. Known asbestos (often not disclosed until years later) might range from being in engine room gaskets, to bulkheads, hatches, and hulls. Cables —even many types of rope —were eventually shown to have sometimes had a dangerous potential for asbestos exposure. And decades later, the famous company (William Cramp and Sons) who owned the yard where the U.S.S. Memphis was constructed faced its own accounting for illnesses and even asbestos-related deaths. Experts in one case (an asbestos suit filed in California, C08-982-JCS) related Cramp Shipbuilding with General Electric’s work with asbestos while documenting some of the dangerous results of asbestos being used at shipyards.

The full crew complement on the 555-foot vessel was almost 800 men. This meant cramped living and working conditions were a common condition on Naval vessels. Sometimes, this overcrowding meant people who might not necessarily be working around asbestos, would still be sleeping only scant inches away. One example of vessel crowding was when the Memphis acted as an escort for one of its most famous visitors, such as when she brought Charles Lindberg home to America from his solo flight.

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