U.S.S. Alger (DE-101)
The Alger was named after a leading ordnance officer in the US Navy, Philip Alger. Alger helped American forces win successes in the Philippines, and later became a Lieutenant and finally a Naval Professor of Mathematics at Annapolis. Alger (author of several standard Naval textbooks on ordnance) never saw the start of WWI, since he died in 1912 at age 53. But Philip Alger’s early work was instrumental in developing powerful new naval ordnance, especially in what was known in the early 1900s as America’s “New Navy.” Decades later, coincidentally enough, there was evidence that the New Navy would rely on using asbestos to help lower fire risks associated with the new, high explosive ordnance. Lieutenant Alger’s pioneering work was recognized in the Cannon-class “USS Alger, DE-101,” launched in the summer of 1943.
The long and distinguished history of U.S.S. Alger included a WWII service star, and her later service as a “loaned” vessel in the Brazilian navy. Demonstrating her continued value, Brazil eventually purchased the Alger outright, in 1953.
The U.S.S. Alger had her keel laid by the Dravo Corporation in Wilmington, Delaware. The year before the USS Alger launched, US shipbuilding used 633 million pounds of potentially deadly asbestos. Every year of the Second World War, US Naval asbestos use averaged 783 million pounds.
At 306 feet in length, and with its impressive range of 10,500 nautical miles (at 21 kN), most ships like the Alger had been constructed with a focus on speed for working in the vast Pacific Theatre. The USS Alger, especially, was a formidable foe to Axis subs. The ship was designed for a crew of 216 enlisted and officers but often carried many more. Overcrowding of crews may also have been a factor in some asbestos exposure risks.
Speed in WWII shipbuilding also meant a certain tolerance for risks and hazards, even in distinguished yards such as Dravo’s. In 1942, Dravo was the very first corporation to get the Navy’s “E” award for excellence in shipbuilding. One of the common hazards of US shipbuilding was the widespread use of asbestos, used in so many of the era’s naval ships. Wanting effective fire suppression, asbestos was a relatively cheap alternative to more costly fire-fighting systems. Unfortunately, several decades passed before the painful results of this asbestos exposure became evident. Eventually, testimony from Navy seamen, such as those who served onboard the USS Alger, described just how common asbestos exposure had been. First-hand reports and studies often described asbestos, not only in insulation around pipes or engines and wiring, but also in open gaps of exposed workspaces. The asbestos in these gaps sometimes dusted crew members with asbestos fibers and asbestos dust, through the night, as they slept right under it.
Repairs and Upgrades
The simplest repairs and upgrades often caused excessive opportunity for dangerous asbestos exposure. A common example of emergency at-sea repairs came with the first mission of the Alger. While heading to Brazil, the U.S.S. Alger had a collision with a merchant marine vessel, causing damage to the Alger’s bow. Making these emergency repairs, experts later knew, were also times when many crew members, often working under extreme risks, were likely to be exposed to asbestos as they struggled to complete their mission.
By 1955, the first of a medial asbestos epidemic, caused by its largely unrestricted use, was set to begin. Experts have since pointed out there was still, in that year, unawareness on the part of crew members of what their asbestos exposure could do, with each passing year. Among the discoveries that came, years later, were those high risks of repairs and upgrades with so much asbestos being used…especially on a crowded, over-worked Naval vessel such as the DE-101.
Asbestos Risks On the USS Alger (DE-101)
Asbestos risks were already widely known by the time of the Alger’s launch. Britain had been limiting its own asbestos use on vessels for several decades. But in American shipyards, there was little talk of shielding workers or crew members from asbestos use….and heavily “using” asbestos was what US shipyards and the Navy chose to do. Asbestos was, over the years, used in almost every conceivable place onboard vessels like U.S.S. Alger. Wherever there was a need to worry about blocking fire or high heat, asbestos was used. In the same way, if there was a real need for more insulation, or in sealing ducts, covering wires and conduits, equipment, and machinery, then asbestos was considered practical.
The use of asbestos not only continued during the years when the Alger and her crew served but actually increased for most of the Cold War, starting in the 1950s. Sold for scrap in 1964, the Alger presented one last asbestos risk: how to safely salvage valuable equipment, which was often encased in decaying asbestos.