History of the U.S. Navy battleship USS Utah (BB-31) including information about asbestos exposure for workers.
The USS Utah (BB-31) was ordered for the U.S. Navy several years before the start of World War I. Her keel was laid down at New York Shipbuilding Corporation on March 9, 1909. She was launched on December 23, 1909 and commissioned on August 31, 1911 under the command of Captain William S. Benson.
USS Utah was involved primarily in training exercises until tensions with Mexico escalated in 1914. She headed south to Vera Cruz to intervene in a delivery of arms meant for the dictator Victoriano Huerta. When she landed on April 21, 1914, the fighting that resulted led to seven of her men winning Medals of Honor. The battleship remained at Vera Cruz for two months before heading north to Brooklyn Navy Yard for overhaul.
When World War I began, the USS Utah conducted gunnery training in Chesapeake Bay until she joined with the Atlantic Fleet to cross the ocean in August 1918. She then protected the Irish waters as the flagship of Rear Admiral Thomas S. Rogers, Commander Battleship Division 6 (BatDiv 6) until the end of the war. She joined President Woodrow Wilson’s honor escort on his way to the Paris Peace Conference before heading home for New York.
Between the two World Wars, USS Utah performed a variety of duties, from battle practice and maneuvers to ceremonial and diplomatic missions. She was modernized and fitted to burn oil instead of coal in 1925.
USS Utah was selected for conversion to a mobile target under the London Naval Treaty of 1930. She was redesignated from BB-31 to AG-16. She spent that time putting her radio control gear through trials and then serving as a mobile target for development of tactics. She was a part of the annual fleet problem exercises and machine gun practices for Submarine Squadron 6. The ship was overhauled again at Puget Sound Navy Yard in May 1931 to make her more effective as a gunnery training ship.
The USS Utah was at Pearl Harbor after a gunnery cruise in December 1941. When the Japanese attacked on December 7, she took a torpedo hit early on in the fighting. As she began to sink, efforts to abandon ship were hampered. Lieutenant Commander Solomon Isquith nearly became trapped when inspecting the ship to make sure his men got out, but he was pulled out by another man just in time. When the fighting was over, six officers and 52 crew members had died.
The ship was partially righted and decommissioned on September 5, 1944. Her name was struck from the Naval Vessel Register on November 13, 1944. She was awarded one battle star for her service in World War II, added to the National Register of Historic Places, and declared a National Historic Landmark in 1989.
Like the other ships of its era, the USS Utah was built using a number of asbestos-containing materials. The hazardous material asbestos was known for its fireproofing properties and its resistance to heat, water, and corrosion. Because it was a cheap and readily available insulator, it could be found in virtually all areas of the ship, including wall insulation, floor and ceiling tiles, fire doors, electrical wiring, engine rooms, turbines, incinerators, boilers, steam pipes, caulking, hot water pipes, valves, gaskets, and sealants. Men who served aboard the USS Utah or were involved in her repair and overhaul were exposed to dangerous levels of asbestos without having been provided with protective clothing or respiratory gear. This put them at risk for developing a variety of life-threatening asbestos-related illnesses, such as asbestosis, lung cancer, throat cancer, stomach cancer, colon cancer, rectal cancer, or mesothelioma, which is a rare form of cancer that attacks the protective lining that surrounds the lungs and other organs.
USS Utah 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 Utah, and is diagnosed with mesothelioma, should also consider contacting a lawyer to discuss their legal rights.