Asbestos Use on Liberty Ships

There were 2,751 Liberty Ships built during the pivotal World War II years in shipyards throughout the United States. They were powered by steam reciprocating engines. These engines and the steam powered auxiliary machinery all used asbestos insulation.

There were thousands of pounds of asbestos insulating materials used on each of these ships. Shipyard workers were exposed to these asbestos products on a regular basis as they worked three shifts each day to build these vessels as quickly as possible for the wartime effort. Seamen who later sailed on these ships were exposed to the asbestos dust generated through the routine operation and maintenance of the asbestos-covered equipment, machinery, and piping.

The shipyards where these ships were built worked at a fast pace to complete these ships as quickly as possible. The shipyard workers constructing these ships were exposed to the asbestos dust from the many insulation products used on these ships, including pads, felt, cloth, pipe covering, cement, gaskets and packing–all of which contained asbestos. The ship’s crew ranged from 45 to over 80 men who were involved in the operation and maintenance of these ships. These crewmen had to routinely remove and replace the asbestos insulating products unknowingly exposing themselves to this deadly dust.

The shipyard workers and crewmen who worked on these Liberty Ships are at risk of asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma because of their exposure to asbestos. The Liberty Ships that remained in service for years after the war put many more crewmen at risk of asbestos-related diseases.

Built at Seventeen American Shipyards

Seventeen American shipyards produced 2,751 Liberties between 1941 and 1945.

Liberty ships were built at seventeen shipyards located along the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf coasts.

  • Alabama Drydock and Shipbuilding, Mobile, Alabama
  • Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyard, Baltimore, Maryland
  • California Shipbuilding Corp., Los Angeles, California
  • Delta Shipbuilding Corp., New Orleans, Louisiana
  • J.A. Jones Construction Company, Panama City, Florida
  • J.A. Jones Construction Company, Brunswick, Georgia
  • Kaiser Company, Vancouver, Washington
  • Marinship, Sausalito, California
  • New England Shipbuilding Corporation, South Portland, Maine, East and West Yards
  • North Carolina Shipbuilding Company, Wilmington, North Carolina
  • Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation, Portland, Oregon
  • Permanente Metals Corporation, Richmond, California (a Kaiser facility)
    • Yard No. 1
    • Yard No. 2
  • St. Johns River Shipbuilding, Jacksonville, Florida
  • Southeastern Shipbuilding, Savannah, Georgia
  • Todd Houston Shipbuilding, Houston, Texas
  • Walsh-Kaiser Co., Inc., Providence, Rhode Island

This was the largest number of ships built to a single design. The need for the United States to protect her maritime interests was of obvious importance before the attack on Pearl Harbor. However, after December 7, 1941 and the declaration of war, it was even clearer that a vast number of cargo ships would be needed to transport food and material across the oceans. America needed ships that could be built quickly in large numbers and capable of transporting tons of cargo.

Thousands Built in World War II

The Liberty Ships were at the heart of this huge shipbuilding effort undertaken by the United States Maritime Commission during World War II. The Liberty cargo ships were British in conception, but the United States decided to adopt the design because they were economical and easy to build. The speed at which these ships were completed came to symbolize the ability of the United States to produce a substantial wartime industrial output. Based on vessels ordered by Britain to replace ships torpedoed by German U-boats, Liberty Ships were purchased for lend-lease to Britain as well as for the US fleet.

Many Added to National Defense Reserve Fleet After the War

After the war, the United States sold some of its Liberty Ships to her allies. Others were operated privately for the U.S. Government. The vast majority of these ships, however, became part of the National Defense Reserve Fleet. Still others became radar picket ships, technical research ships, and the like. As the Liberty Ships aged, the U.S. undertook efforts to extend their usefulness. The “Liberty Ship Conversion and Engine Improvement Program” began in 1953 which added years to the life of many Liberty Ships.