USS Wichita AOR 1 (Replenishment Oiler)
Built by General Dynamics Quincy Shipbuilding Division in Quincy, MA, USS Wichita was commissioned in 1969. Although constructed in the shadow of Boston, the ship was destined to spend the bulk of its service in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
Replenishment Oilers were designed to provide ships deployed with fuel and bulk cargo, including refrigerated goods. Although not as fast as the Navy’s combat support ships, nor capable of carrying as much cargo, they were able to provide more fuel oil to the ships they serviced.
Because of they’re design, ships like Wichita would usually leave their west coast homeport, in Wichita’s case, Long Beach, laden with bulk cargo for an advance base such as Subic Bay. There it would exchange its cargo for goods needed by the operational task groups deployed at sea, as well as fuel, and begin a series of shuttle runs back and forth between the fleet and the advance base. In the early 1970’s Wichita made numerous such voyages between Subic Bay, in the Philippines, and the ships operating in the Gulf of Tonkin, engaged in hostilities with the North Vietnamese.
After returning to its homeport, the ship would conduct a post deployment stand down period, resting its crew and preparing for maintenance and upkeep operations, before commencing the cycle again.
Wichita would earn four combat stars for its services to the fleet off Vietnam. One change in the ship’s routine occurred in 1971, when the ship deployed to the Indian Ocean during the enhanced American presence there corresponding to the indo-Pakistani War.
In the mid-1970’s, after the end of American involvement in Vietnam, Wichita shift homeports to San Francisco, while continuing to deploy on western Pacific tours of duty, as well as operating off the coast of Central America and in the northern Pacific.
The 1980’s saw the ship providing replenishment to fleet units across the Pacific, off Mexico and Central America, in the Indian Ocean and in Alaskan Waters. An encounter with Thai pirates that were harassing and robbing a boat full of Vietnamese refugees was a highlight of this period, with Wichita’s crew receiving a Humanitarian Service Medal for their intervention in which the refugees were rescued.
The ship was also involved in anti-drug smuggling missions in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, embarking US Coast Guard personnel and interdicting suspicious vessels.
Decommissioned in 1993, the ship was transferred to the Maritime Administration and laid up in the reserve fleet in Suisun Bay in 1998.
Asbestos Exposure on USS Wichita
Like all ships constructed at the time, USS Wichita was built using a wide variety of materials containing asbestos, because of its ability to provide insulation and resistance to fire.
Boilers in all Navy ships of its day were lined and insulated with asbestos. Other uses included brake linings, capstan and winch brakes, electrical insulation, electrical distribution panels, deck tiles, overhead tiles, fireproofing of decks and bulkheads, gaskets and seals, pipe mud and pipe insulation.
Pipes which ran throughout the ship, including berthing and dining spaces, were insulated, or lagged, with an asbestos cloth. This insulation, which was easily damaged by bumping, jarring or even the vibrations inherent in normal operations, could have become friable, releasing asbestos fibers into the air, where they could be distributed throughout the ship by contact with clothing, or by the ship’s ventilation system.