U.S.S. Platte (AO-24)
This ship and class was named for a unique geographic location in present-day Missouri, first mapped by Lewis and Clark, and later named the “Platte Purchase.” The USS Platte AO-24 was one of the Cimarron-class, with its thirty-five sister ships, and saw heavy fighting in World War II, with two vessels in the class lost during WWII to enemy attack. Owing to America’s desperate need for supply ships, not all safety concerns received the same attention as in peacetime: including asbestos use. Vessels such as the USS Platte went to sea, often laden with asbestos. For all the speed in their launching, the Platte and her sister ships showed real toughness, and many of the vessels continued to be useful well into the 1960s.
After WWII, the Platte was eventually used in America’s Asia military policy, and had an important role, from WWII and in both the Korean and Viet Nam wars. The crews of the USS Platte served widely, from a supply role in the Texas Gulf, then conveying passengers to Hawaii, and even occupation duty in Tokyo. The USS Platte was a real workhorse, with its 12,000 nautical mile range.
Demand for faster ship production meant the Platte’s keel was laid on July 8, 1939, at BethShip’s Baltimore, Maryland yard (at Sparrow’s Point) and launched less than six months later. Critics argued (both then and later) that some safety rules, such as indiscriminate use of asbestos in almost every corner of a ship, were ignored. This reliance on asbestos also reflected common shipbuilding practices of the time. Asbestos, which had actually been banned by many countries other than the US, saw an explosion in use here, and sometimes even tripled in use after WWII began.
Shipyards of the era, including several of Bethlehem Steel’s yards, were later sold to successive owners. But the old owners often failed to avoid their responsibility for what turned out to be an epidemic of asbestos-related illnesses.
Repairs and Upgrades
Battle conditions undoubtedly led to extensive asbestos exposure for thousands of crew members in the US Navy. The extended periods where the Platte stayed at sea could have contributed to a crew member’s asbestos exposure. Equipment surfaces and insulation (much of it coated with asbestos) deteriorated under these heavy periods of sea patrols. Owing to extreme conditions, hard choices were constantly being made about simply keeping vessels afloat. For most of 1942, she was in the same task force as the USS Enterprise and provided vital support for the Battle of Midway. Undisclosed to most crew members was any possibility that potentially unhealthy asbestos was on the USS Platte, on gears and machinery, and could jeopardize their health…much more quietly than open combat.
The work aboard the Platte was often grueling, and before the final US push toward mainland Japan, the Platte had to return to the West Coast for major overhauls. Her next mission took her to Iwo and to support carriers attacking Tokyo. Asbestos on vessels such as the Platte was used over many decades since a Navy policy to discourage asbestos in vessels didn’t really take effect until the 1970s. Since the Platte was a working vessel until 1969, this could have meant more than two decades of exposure to asbestos, for hundreds of crewmembers, contractors, and shipyard repairmen.
Asbestos Risks On the USS Platte (AO-24)
Wartime battle needs on vessels such as the Platte AO-24 probably meant unnecessary asbestos use. Various pumps were later shown by asbestos experts to have been able to operate safely without asbestos. Yet, a potential danger of explosion and fire, from enemy attacks, led some vessel parts manufacturers to insulate virtually all of their gaskets and engineering machines with asbestos, which might not otherwise be susceptible to fire or high temperatures. The high volume of aviation fuel aboard the Platte also suggested a need for extensive asbestos. The extent of the Platte’s efforts were recognized repeatedly…eleven battle stars in WWII, 6 in Korea, and 8 battle stars for the Viet Nam war.
As these WWII-era vessels reached the ends of usefulness, risks of deteriorating asbestos also became even more common. The USS Platte was still maintained and updated, even as she was updated for service to Viet Nam in the 1960s. In both replacing and updating the Platte’s electrical equipment, the Navy typically never required what are now regarded as “modern” safety procedures for handling, removing, or replacing asbestos. In 1969, the USS Platte was stripped of her valuable gear and towed away for scrap metal in May 1971.