U.S.S. Claxton DD-140 (Wickes-Class Destroyer)
The History of the U.S.S. Claxton:
This aging but important vessel carried the name of Thomas Claxton. The Claxton was to become a highly reliable workhorse of several navies, but was usually still protecting American shipping and interest in some way all during her lifetime. One irony of her service was in her transfer to Britain, which had for decades largely banned asbestos from the UK’s own vessels. The U.S.S. Claxton was part of the vessel class that would carry much of the fighting in the Pacific, with nine of the destroyers sunk in battle.
The U.S.S. Claxton’s keel was laid at Mare Island Navy Yard in 1918 and launched in January 1919. The times represented great advances in vessel technology. Most yards of the era, however, relied on what would later become linked to a host of potentially deadly illnesses…asbestos. The importance of Wickes-class destroyers was seen in the more than doubling of orders from the US Navy. The Claxton was one of these additionally ordered ships. The U.S.S. Claxton was to be one of the answers to a dual war needs: (1) to face submarine dangers and (2) the need for screening other US Naval vessels. Congress originally budgeted for only 50 vessels like the Claxton. This represented the fact of “destroyers” being a new concept in 1918 American naval warfare.
As carriers and slower moving vessels were needed, high speed and mass production became an essential part of the Wickes-class. Specs called for the Claxton to reach more than 35 knots. Asbestos, in increasingly large amounts, was seen as an economical part of the answer to increased production. This meant massive overhauls could add longevity to older vessels, and were common to vessels of the Wickes-class such as the Claxton. These periods of alternating use and renovation were apparent in the revolving use of the U.S.S. Claxton. Decommissioned in 1922, recommissioned in 1930, decommissioned in 1940, and then transferred to Greta Britain (and renamed HMS Salisbury).
After she was recommissioned for WWII service, surface torpedoes were seen as a threat. Desperately needed vessels like the Claxton went through reconstruction, to accommodate depth charges in lower levels and decreasing top weight. Once again, asbestos was used in areas of a vessel that might be vulnerable to high temperatures or explosion. These massive ship rebuilding efforts exposed old asbestos, while adding new asbestos. Asbestos was commonly used in wiring, equipment, heat-sensitive tools and gaskets, and even in bulkheads.
Repairs and Upgrades
The adaptability of the U.S.S. Claxton’s “flush deck” allowed her speed to increase, allowing Wickes-class destroyers to keep up with US light cruisers. Few insulating materials were more preferred for affordability, as was asbestos, even when engineers apparently became aware of its dangers.
Asbestos Risks On the U.S.S. Claxton (DD-140)
Destroyers became a dominant part of US Pacific strategy. Their flexibility aided attacks on Japanese strongholds while replenishing desperately needed air support and material. But owing to the great risks of fire on destroyers, tons of asbestos was also a common ingredient in vessels such as the DD-140. Decks, bulkheads, asbestos fire suits, and electrical wiring were all commonly asbestos-insulated.
How to scrap an aging vessel, such as the Claxton, presented special health problems. Scrapping these old vessels, it was later proved, would often expose many workers, from ship crew to civilians, to asbestos, as well as asbestos dust and fibers. These processes of decommissioning often involved removal of salvageable equipment. Once again, this detailed removal was possibly linked to asbestos-related illness. In those days, even as crews bravely faced extreme danger, few of them were adequately protected from asbestos exposure. On June 26, 1944, the process of dismantling the great old Claxton was begun.
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