U.S.S. Cleveland (CL-55)
Over A Billion Recovered Nationwide
Asbestos Exposure On the U.S.S. Cleveland CL-55
The History of the U.S.S. Cleveland: Call Name, “Charlie Love Five Five”
Named for the City of Cleveland, Ohio, the U.S.S. Cleveland was the second vessel of the name and flagship of the Cleveland-class vessels. Cleveland’s importance on the Great Lakes has led to a proud Navy tradition in Ohio. The rapid construction of the formidable Cleveland-class vessel (the very first new class vessel used in WWII) was a strong demonstration of America’s rise to dominance as the greatest naval power in the 20th Century. Interestingly, even as technology improved her performance, engineering still relied on more and more asbestos as a fire retardant.
The Cleveland went on to be one of the most decorated vessels of WWII. Through heavy fighting in both the Mediterranean (off French Morocco) and in the Pacific, the U.S.S. Cleveland won 11 battle stars.
With her keel laid in the pre-war lull of 1940, rapid construction was becoming a skill at the New York Shipbuilding yard in Camden. The U.S.S. Cleveland launched in November 1941, only weeks before the war began with the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Experts were able to later prove that pre-WWII plans for faster ship construction, such as the Cleveland-class, would come at a potentially high price in health. New ship designs usually called for more asbestos in engine compartments and bulkheads, and asbestos was added to the extra gun emplacements and triple-torpedo tubes. Decades passed and not only crew members, but also shipyard workers, later showed serious illnesses and symptoms. All too often, these diseases were diagnosed as apparently having been caused by their asbestos exposure during wartime.
Repairs and Upgrades
The duties of the Cleveland, as a light cruiser, were varied and frequently dangerous. In October 1942, to help weaken the German occupation of French Morocco, she screened other Allied vessels, patrolled for subs, and performed shore bombardment.
From late 1942, the U.S.S. Cleveland served heroically in the Pacific Theater. In January 1943, she began what was to be years of air assaults from shore batteries and Japanese air attacks. Her radar equipment was state of art and helped intercept enemy vessels. In November 1943, she used this technology to intercept a night movement. Bravery in the engagement led to her receiving a Navy Unit Commendation. Ironically, the newest technology often also included miles of cable and wiring wrapped in asbestos.
In May 1944, the U.S.S. Cleveland was conducting a practice shore bombardment. Unexpectedly, an unknown shore battery answered, strafing the Cleveland. The crew quickly ended their practice and began firing for real, silencing the enemy. These instances of sudden, unexpected danger demonstrated how vessel crews acted quickly, sometimes extinguishing fires, or saving damaged equipment. Decades later, experts identified these emergency repairs as times when exposure to attacks also meant exposure to dangerous asbestos.
That summer, the Cleveland fought in the Marinas. Her sister ship (the Norman Scott) was badly hurt. Boldly, the crew of the Cleveland moved into position to protect the Norman Scott from attack. Once again, it fell to her crew to make repairs. Asbestos exposure in such crises was not on their minds.
Refits became more and more needed, even as her duties became more dangerous. In similar situations, experts have pointed out the risks to the crews who kept wounded vessels sailing, usually with nothing to prevent asbestos exposure. The next major refitting of the Cleveland came at the US Navy’s Australian repair yard (Sydney) in 1944. After that, the Cleveland helped to repatriate Japanese-held American POWs. Years later, crew members described how they were often in necessarily overcrowded vessels (such as with POW transport), sometimes packed into bunks, and only inches away from exposed asbestos.
Asbestos Risks On the U.S.S. Cleveland (CL-55)
How to mothball an aging or wounded vessel, such as the U.S.S. Cleveland presented special health problems. Scrapping these old vessels, it was later proved, would often expose many workers, ship crew, and even civilians, to asbestos, as well as asbestos dust and fibers.
The Cleveland was struck from Navy rolls in 1947, well before asbestos risks were openly admitted. The final duty of the proud old U.S.S. Cleveland was to serve as scrap in March 1960.
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