History of the U.S. Navy battleship USS Oklahoma (BB-37) including information about asbestos exposure for workers.
The USS Oklahoma (BB-37) was ordered for the U.S. Navy before World War I began. Her keel was laid down at New York Shipbuilding Corporation on October 26, 1911. She was launched on March 23, 1914 and commissioned on May 2, 1916 under the command of Captain Roger Welles.
USS Oklahoma began as a member of the Navy’s Atlantic Fleet, homeported at Norfolk. She was involved in training exercises along the East Coast until August 13, 1918, when she was assigned to protective duty for Allied convoys in European waters. She was a member of President Woodrow Wilson’s escort of honor as he sailed to and from Brest, France for the Paris Peace Conference.
The USS Oklahoma remained in the Atlantic fleet for two more years. She was overhauled and involved in a number of training exercises. In 1921, she joined the Pacific Fleet for exercises off the coast of South American. The battleship was present for the Peruvian Centennial celebrations before joining the Pacific Fleet for their good will cruise to Australia and New Zealand in 1925.
After undergoing modernization at Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, the USS Oklahoma was involved in a number of training cruises from the Caribbean to northern ports in Europe. While on one of her training cruises, civil war broke out in Spain. The USS Oklahoma headed to Bilbao, where she rescued American citizens and other refugees on July 24, 1936.
Following the rescue, USS Oklahoma headed to Norfolk and then the West Coast. She took part in joint operations with the U.S. Army and helped train reservists for the next four years.
USS Oklahoma became based at Pearl Harbor in December 1940. She was moored in Battleship Row when the Japanese attacked on December 7, 1941. The battleship took three torpedo hits as the attack began. As she started to capsize, she took two more torpedo hits. Crew members were strafed as they abandoned ship. Within 12 minutes, the battleship had rolled over until her masts hit bottom.
Surviving crew members boarded the USS Maryland to remain in the fight. When the fighting was over, 429 officers and men from the USS Oklahoma were killed or missing, including Father Aloysius Schmitt, the first American chaplain of any faith to have died in World War II. Another 32 men were injured, and many were trapped with the capsized hull. Civilian yard worker Julio DeCastro organized the rescue team that saved 32 of the trapped sailors. Some of the men who were killed later had ships named after them, like Ensign John England, who had DE-635 and DLG-22 named after him.
Salvage efforts began on July 15, 1942 under the command of Captain F. H. Whitaker. It took from March 8 until June 16, 943 to right the ship. She was towed into dry dock later that year on December 28. The battleship was decommissioned on September 1, 1944 and sold for scrap on December 5, 1946 to Moore Dry Dock Company. She sank in a storm on May 17, 1947 while she was being towed to San Francisco for scrapping.
Like the other battleships of her time, the USS Oklahoma was built using a number of asbestos-containing materials. Asbestos was known for its resistance to heat, fire, water, and corrosion. Because of this, it could be found in wall insulation, floor and ceiling tiles, electrical wiring, sealants, fire doors, rope, engine rooms, turbines, incinerators, boilers, steam pipes, hot water pipes, caulking, pumps, valves, and gaskets. Men who served aboard the USS Oklahoma or those who were involved in her repair, overhaul, or salvage efforts were exposed to dangerous levels of asbestos without the aid of respiratory gear and protective clothing. This put them at risk of developing serious asbestos-related illnesses like asbestosis, lung cancer, throat cancer, stomach cancer, colon cancer, rectal cancer, or mesothelioma, which is a type of cancer that affects the protective lining surrounding the lungs and other organs.
USS Oklahoma workers should monitor their health carefully, and consult a doctor if they experience any symptoms associated with mesothelioma. Anyone who worked on or around the USS Oklahoma, and is diagnosed with mesothelioma, should also consider contacting a lawyer to discuss their legal rights.