Asbestos Use and on Navy Destroyer Escorts

From the 1930s until the end of the 1970s, asbestos was widely embraced by the shipbuilding industry for its superior properties as an insulator and fire retardant material. It was strong and it was inexpensive. The U.S. Navy mandated its use in every ship in its fleet, including the destroyer escorts.

Written and Fact-Checked by: Laura Wright

About Destroyer Escorts

The Destroyer Escort (DE) was designed in 1939 to be built quickly and in large numbers. It was a small and maneuverable ship. It could be powered either by steam or diesel, therefore the process of manufacturing its engines could change and adapt with the Navy’s needs.

Well armed with guns, cannons and torpedoes, the DE’s primary purpose was to escort and defend unarmed merchant vessels during World War II. The DE also transported troops, hunted U-Boats and performed anti-aircraft support.

By 1943, the DE was the most common U-Boat hunter in the U.S. Navy. In fact, the Battle of the Atlantic was decisively won due to the arrival of DEs and the “hunter-killer” task forces they formed with other smaller aircraft carriers such as CVEs (escort carriers). In the last two years of the war, they essentially eliminated the threat from the U-Boats.

In total, 503 DEs and conversions were delivered to the allied forces.  Of these, 479 were commissioned by the U.S. Navy and some were later converted to fast transports (APDs). The U.S. Navy retained the DEs and the converted APDs into the 1970s. Afterward, some were reclassified as frigates. Today, all of the vessels are inactive.

Asbestos Use in Navy Destroyer Escorts

The Destroyer Escorts were built during an era of liberal asbestos use. At the time, asbestos was revered for its strength, affordability, resistance to heat and chemical damage, its ability as an insulator, and its effectiveness as a fireproofing material. It was employed from bow to stern on every ship in the U.S. Navy, including the Destroyer Escorts.

Types of Asbestos Products Used in Destroyer Escorts

Asbestos was combined with many other materials to reduce the transfer of heat and the risk of fire.

Some of the 300 plus materials containing asbestos that would have been found on a destroyer include, but are not limited to:

  • Insulating materials
  • Valves
  • Gaskets
  • Non-skid flooring
  • Flame retardant coatings on walls and bulkheads
  • Blankets covering boilers
  • Firefighting equipment
  • Felt covering for pipes
  • Cement
  • Turbines
  • Hulls

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High Asbestos-Risk Occupations on Destroyer Escorts

While many Navy roles posed health threats to veterans, some of the most high-risk occupations aboard DE ships involved daily, unventilated asbestos use. These roles typically fell to Navy veterans who worked in trade roles maintaining and operating DE vessels.


Boilermakers and tenders were exposed to high amounts of asbestos. The boilers were covered in asbestos-containing insulation. Additionally, installation and routine maintenance of boilers took place in confined spaces amidst clouds of asbestos dust.

Pipe Insulation

The felt wrapping of pipes contained 50% asbestos. The pipes supplied water and other fluids to every part of the destroyer. The felt covering would often become damaged and fray, releasing asbestos particles into the air and exposing servicemen throughout their normal activities. When it was time for the felt covering to be replaced, pipe fitters would make new insulation by mixing dry asbestos with water, inhaling asbestos dust.


Machinist’s mates, who maintained the pumps, were exposed to asbestos throughout their daily maintenance activities. The outer surface of the pumps was coated in asbestos and many of the internal parts also contained the toxic material. When the machinists replaced worn or jammed parts, they used scrapers, sanders and wire brushes, exposing themselves to high concentrations of airborne asbestos.

Help for Navy Veterans With Mesothelioma

Navy veterans are one of the populations most sorely affected by their exposure to asbestos. The prolific use of asbestos by the U.S. Navy, confined and cramped quarters and continuous daily exposure all contribute to the high rate of asbestos-related disease, such as mesothelioma, in veterans.

There is support for veterans affected by asbestos. The U.S. Navy offers health benefits, and many lawsuits against the companies that manufactured asbestos have been successful, allowing veterans to manage medical expenses and support their families.

If you’re a Navy veteran exposed to asbestos aboard Destroyer Escort vessels and have since developed mesothelioma, contact our VA-Accredited Claims agent today. We can assist you with filing a claim against the VA and help you obtain financial compensation.

Written by:

Lead Editor

Laura Wright is a journalist and content strategist with more than 15 years of professional experience. She attended college at the University of Florida, graduating magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 2008. Her writing has been featured in The Gainesville Sun and other regional publications throughout Florida.

  1. “Allied Warships” Accessed on April 2, 2018

  2. “Classes of Destroyer Escorts” Accessed on April 2, 2018

  3. “Destroyer Escorts” Accessed on April 2, 2018.

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