Since asbestos was a heavily used material in shipbuilding during the last century, everyone who served on a Navy vessel was exposed to this carcinogen, to a greater or lesser extent. However, some occupations were at a higher risk than others, including radiomen. They were responsible for maintaining the communication equipment of the ship and repairing it, if any problem arose. Radiomen were also in charge of transmitting and decoding messages. Nevertheless, the equipment they worked with contained asbestos, which put their health in great danger.
For instance, the bases of radio tubes were made with plastic molding compounds, which often had asbestos as filler. By handling such radio tubes, one was inevitably in contact with the asbestos fibers which had been released in the air. A 1972 Navy training manual instructed radiomen to always install a heat shield made of asbestos to protect the heat-sensitive parts of the equipment.
Another hazardous occupation is operations specialists, who maintain strategic and tactical information, operate surveillance and radars associated equipment, and perform air traffic control activities.
Radioman Ed Chlapowski, who transmitted the famous warning message "This is no drill. Pearl Harbor is being attacked by the forces of the Imperial government of Japan. This is no drill." on December 7, 1941, subsequently developed mesothelioma and passed away in 2011 due to this unmerciful disease. The asbestos fibers he had constantly inhaled remained stuck to his lungs and gave way to cancer several decades after he retired from the Navy.
Testimonials of Veterans Who Served as Radio Operators in the U.S. Navy
The most common type of asbestos used in electrical wiring was crocidolite, also called blue asbestos, considered the most hazardous type of asbestos in the amphibole family because its extremely fine sharp fibers are particularly easy to inhale or ingest.
"I'm a Vietnam era veteran. I was on the Columbus, 1974 and '75. I was a radioman and I worked in the transmitter room. I remember back then, we would have to dust every day, it was like dandruff, this stuff falling down from the pipes. We knew is asbestos, but we didn't know it was bad for us. I remember we would have to clean all of our equipment daily because of a white powder dust", said another veteran exposed to asbestos while serving aboard the USS Columbus (CG-12).
"As a radioman, I was responsible for repairing and maintaining the ship's communication equipment. That involved working with asbestos-containing materials. I recall sleeping in bunks where asbestos wrapped pipes were placed inches from our mouth and nose. I remember there were pipes that carried steam and cold water wrapped in an asbestos blanket", said a Navy veteran who served in the US Navy for 8 months.
If you worked as a radioman in the U.S. Navy between 1920 and 1980, we strongly advise you to pay close attention to your health by undergoing annual medical examinations to make sure the asbestos you breathed in has not caused any damage to your lungs. In the unfortunate case you have already been diagnosed with lung cancer or mesothelioma, please keep in mind that you can recover the financial compensation you deserve by filing a claim with the VA. The money you will receive every month will also help you cover the cost of your medical care and treatment.