U.S.S. Mississippi (BB-41)

Named for the State of Mississippi (meaning “Great River”) the U.S.S. Mississippi was the second US Navy vessel of three bearing the name. The State of Mississippi’s importance, especially based on its famous military leaders, is reflected in a proud Navy tradition. The USS Mississippi had innovative construction and became the most formidable New Mexico-class vessel of its era. The vessel and her seasoned crew were part of explaining America’s rise to dominance as the preeminent Naval power in the 20th Century. Interestingly, even as technology improved vessel performance, ship designs relied on more and more asbestos as a fire retardant.

The U.S.S. Mississippi BB-41, despite her age at the time, went on to be highly decorated in WWII. Through heavy fighting in both the Mediterranean and in the Pacific, the Mississippi won an impressive 8 battle stars.

Construction

With a keel laid in the pre-WWI lull of 1915, rapid ship construction was becoming a skill at the Newport News Shipbuilding. Asbestos was to play an unfortunate part in setting ship building speed records. The U.S.S. Mississippi launched in January 1917, but was too late to actually see service in WWI.

Experts were able to later prove that pre-WWII plans for faster ship construction, such as in the New Mexico-class, would often come at a potentially high price in health. These new ship designs also used more asbestos in engine compartments and bulkheads as a cheap way to control heat and fire. The Mississippi saw most of its weapons mounted into the actual superstructure, and asbestos was commonly added to these emplacements too. Decades passed, and crew members (as well as shipyard workers) later showed serious illnesses and symptoms. All too often, these illnesses were asbestos-related diseases and later diagnosed as having some roots in asbestos exposure.

Repairs and Upgrades

The duties of the Mississippi, one of only three ships built in the New Mexico-class, were varied and frequently dangerous. By 1923, the USS Mississippi had begun to take on a leading role in testing new weapons firing systems…in that year, performing a highly publicized sinking of a radio-controlled target ship (the old Iowa). The results were less laudable in 1924 when part of a gunnery turret blew up and killed 48 crew members on the Mississippi. The dangers of such devastating explosions undoubtedly helped justify the extensive use of asbestos, regardless of any known risks regarding its dangers.

From summer of 1941, the USS Mississippi served extensively in both the Atlantic and Pacific Theaters. In January 1944, she was shown to real advantage, owing to her extensive refits in 1942, when her original 51 caliber guns were replaced by AA machine guns. Her radar equipment had also been extensively updated from WWI and was state of art. Ironically, these newest advances in Naval technology (aimed at saving crew members) could also have also put crew members at risk with cable and wiring wrapped in asbestos.

Another refit came at San Francisco in 1943. This refit followed a turret explosion in 1943 and was reminiscent of the same type of weapons explosion from 19 years before. Decades later, experts pointed to these explosions and emergency repairs as possible times of exposure to asbestos. After WWII, refits for the Mississippi became more and more needed, as she assumed a leading role in testing gunnery problems. In similar situations, experts have pointed out the risks to the crews who kept these older vessels sailing…usually with inadequate asbestos safety rules.

Asbestos Risks On the USS Mississippi (BB-41)

Mothballing any aged vessel such as the U.S.S. Mississippi meant special health risks when dealing with asbestos. Scrapping these old vessels, it was later shown, had all too commonly exposed workers to decaying asbestos, as well as to asbestos dust and fibers.

The Mississippi was finally decommissioned from Navy rolls in 1956, well before asbestos risks were openly admitted to by the US Navy. An effort to save the ship and convert her to a museum vessel almost saved her from destruction. Instead, the final service of the proud old USS Mississippi was to be used as scrap metal by Bethlehem Steel, in 1956-57.

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