U.S.S. Cimarron (AO-22) Cimarron-Class, Oiler-Underway Replenishment
The Cimarron-named US Naval vessel entered into service in the rapidly changing pre-World War II period. The word “Cimarron” means wild, or untamed, when applied to a ship. As unknown military and economic conditions prevailed in 1930’s America, some safety practices in building those ships (including knowledge about asbestos and health risks) were sometimes put aside. The entire Cimarron-class also had special characteristics, owing to its design by Sun Shipyards…a subsidiary of the once enormous Sun Oil Company.
Many years passed before it became apparent, however, that the extensive uses of asbestos in ships such as the USS Cimarron had been yet another unknown danger in preparing to face a world at war.
Only two ships have ever been registered with the name Cimarron. The USS Cimarron had her keel laid in Chester, Pennsylvania, on April 18, 1938, at the storied Sun Shipbuilding & Drydock Corporation. Though heavily borrowing from earlier transport ship designs, the Cimarron was also expected to be an innovative “hybrid.” And despite her originally carrying 1930’s armament, the vessel was also speedier than earlier transports, with a top speed of 18 knots. Sometimes compared with light cruisers, the flagship Cimarron was both narrower and almost 200 feet shorter than the Navy’s more common light cruisers. Eventually, four of the Cimarron-class were converted to escort carriers.
Many of the earlier oil tankers were also popular transports with private companies (e.g., Standard Oil). The intended class of “Cimarron,” however, had been designed specially to accomplish several important military goals. Anticipating a long Pacific campaign, replenishment vessels raised concerns with the Navy, since the entire Cimarron class ended up being only 35 vessels. Nevertheless, as an expected war with the Japanese developed, the Cimarron was brought into military use in 1939. In her WWII Pacific service, the ship and crew earned an astounding ten battle stars. But the Cimarron also continued service through most of the 1960s, from Korea (seven battle stars) to Viet Nam (four campaign stars).
Repairs and Upgrades
Carrying less armor contributed to her increased speed, but also added to the issues associated with dangerous repairs and fire hazards. The Cimarron’s need for gun power had also possibly added extra asbestos as a fire retardant and insulation. Though asbestos risks were known to many shipbuilders at the time, there was more urgency in keeping vessels in service than dealing with the potential risks of asbestos. Yet, the Cimarron and her crew were remarkable in another way: in 1963, she became the longest continuously serving vessel in the Navy. This was a remarkable testimony to her workmanship and crew.
For the Cimarron, urgently needed for its logistical support, there was little chance to effect repairs at any distant home ports. Even as the crew of the Cimarron participated in some firefights (though her AA armament was reduced in the Korean War), the crew also had to labor to make repairs in incredibly cramped conditions. The crew had limited space for its recommended complement of 304. So it was not uncommon on similar vessels to find that crew members often worked and slept within inches of exposed asbestos in the bulkheads of US Naval vessels.
Asbestos Risks On the USS Cimarron (AO-22)
Within a year of her final service in Viet Nam, the Cimarron was forced into mothball status by the Navy. The USS Hornet had caved in the Cimarron’s port side in a replenishment mission. The Cimarron was decommissioned from the Navy in 1968. The military began to admit to Congressional investigators that there were difficult decisions in handling asbestos for decommissioned vessels. How to manage their slow deterioration may have been a factor in finally uncovering the dangerous use of asbestos.
Within a month of being stricken from the rolls in 1968, the Cimarron was cut into scrap. As older Naval vessels were scrapped, private ship salvage companies finally used better safety procedures to remove the tons of asbestos used in the ducts, wiring, and mechanical systems of vessels such as the Cimarron.