U.S.S. Colahan DD-658 (Fletcher-Class Battleship)

The history of the USS Colahan (DD-658):

The vessel was named after Charles Colahan, a long-serving Naval officer, including the first American “battleship,” Indiana, BB-1. The USS Colahan would go on to protect many of the most important Marine landings, from the Caribbean to the Pacific. By the start of the Korean War, the Colahan would be one of more than 170 Fletcher-class destroyers.

The U.S.S. Colahan, not unlike the original Charles Colahan, would make contributions in two very different eras of war: WWII, then Korea and (very briefly) Vietnam. Unfortunately, all too many of these wonderful vessels also shared a common, less noble legacy. Asbestos was a common ingredient in their construction and operation, often used almost indiscriminately throughout hundreds of Navy vessels.

The Colahan and her sister Fletcher-class destroyers were important innovations for the Navy. As the Colahan and her crews won thirteen battle stars, she became one of America’s most famous combat ships during WWII: nine stars in WWII and four in Korea.

Construction

The Colahan’s keel was laid at a Bethlehem Steel shipyard in New York, at Staten Island. Engineers still praise the Fletcher-class breakthroughs, such as GE’s electric geared turbines and 38 knot top speed. Unfortunately, these designs often concealed asbestos in the places where many crew members toiled in its midst.

Ship designs of the era did depend on using asbestos. Though some other nation’s ship designs deemphasized asbestos, American wartime needs emphasized speed and economy. American concerns about fire risks and high engine operating temperatures meant asbestos would very often be used almost indiscriminately. Years later, crews and shipyard workers described seeing “mountains” of asbestos.

Repairs and Upgrades

An example of how common were at-sea, emergency patches, often using asbestos, could be are in the maintenance records of the Colahan, when she went to Pearl Harbor during WWII. In the 1950’s, Cold War upgrades made to the Colahan’s radar detection and warning systems onboard the Colahan helped the US shift into fighting a cold war, with its need for long patrols and new equipment upgrades. At the same time these vessel technology advances helped accomplish missions and save lives, there was an unknown hazard to many crew members in the uses of asbestos insulation.

Equipment, cables, and tools commonly used asbestos. Experts later identified these intense, war zone upkeeps as potential instances of when asbestos was replaced by crews acting under urgent demands to get back into action. Colahan went into reservist status in 1946.

Joining the “mothball fleet” didn’t automatically mean there were no longer asbestos risks. Repairs in decommissioned status could still lead to asbestos risks, since there was no permanent change to Navy asbestos policy until the 1970s. The Colahan stayed in this decommissioned state, until 1950, when the United States led the UN into blocking a Communist advance on the Korean Peninsula.

Asbestos Risks On the USS Colahan (DD-658)

Since the Fletcher-class destroyers (such as the Colahan) relied so heavily on asbestos, later engineers sometimes at first missed the many places asbestos was used. Known (but undisclosed) asbestos-exposing sources onboard often included engine room gaskets, and inside the bulkheads and hulls. Cables and even some types of rope were eventually shown to have sometimes hidden potential asbestos exposure. And decades later, the company (Bethlehem Steel) that owned the yard where the Colahan was constructed faced its own accounting for illnesses and even asbestos-related deaths. Experts later helped prove the dangerous results of asbestos being used in that yard.

Cramped living conditions were a common condition on destroyers. Sometimes, this overcrowding meant people who might not be working around asbestos, would still be sleeping only scant inches away. One example of this typical overcrowding was after the Colahan rescued 140 survivors of a kamikaze attack.

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