In commission for nearly two years, the USS Colleton (APB-36)—a Benewah-class barracks ship—was the second of 17 ships in this class of barges that served as temporary residences or hospitals for sailors.
Ordered by the US Navy on December 17, 1943, the USS Colleton was originally designated as a non-self propelled barracks ship (APL-36) before being redesignated as a self-propelled barracks ship (APB-36) on August 8, 1944. Her keel was laid down by the Boston Naval Shipyard (Boston, Massachusetts) on June 9, 1945 and she was launched by the end of the following month on July 30, 1945. Instead of entering into active duty, the USS Colleton was immediately sent to the Atlantic Reserve Fleet. As World War II was drawing to a close, the Navy did not see an immediate need for her services. After an extensive conversion period in the summer of 1966, the USS Colleton was finally commissioned at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard on January 28, 1967—over 20 years from the date of her launch. At the onset of her career, the USS Colleton employed a complement of 193 officers and enlisted men led by Lieutenant Commander F. R. Banbury.
The 328 foot Colleton was powered by two General Motors diesel engines in conjunction with five diesel-drive generators, double reduction gears, twin rudders, and two propellers. She displaced 4,080 tons (full load) and was capable of reaching speeds of up to 12 knots. Her armament consisted of two three-inch 50 slow fire gun mounts, two quad 40mm AA gun mounts, and twenty .50 and .30 caliber machine guns.
Within days of her commissioning, the USS Colleton was en route to Norfolk, Virginia for a brief period of training in preparation for a tour of duty in Vietnam. Underway to Vung Tau, Vietnam by March of 1967, Colleton trained her crew and underwent a series of drills while traveling with the Pacific Fleet. Upon her arrival in May of 1967, she supported the Mobile Riverine Force (MRF), a union of the 2nd Brigade, the 9th Infantry Division, and River Assault Flotilla One by providing aeromedical evacuations in union with other hospital vessels. Upon completion of this task in December of 1967, Colleton entered the US Naval Base Subic Bay (Philippines) where she underwent a refit period through January of 1968 in response to a need for additional space for the holding and medical treatment of patients.
Newly outfitted with two levels of sick bays in addition to two more operating rooms, additional recovery rooms, a pharmacy, and an upgraded landing pad able to accommodate a vast array of helicopters, the USS Colleton quickly resumed her duties in the face of the Tet Offensive. During the time period ranging from January through May of 1968, Colleton treated 890 casualties, admitted 134 patients, and airlifted 411 patients after performing life-saving treatment and stabilization procedures.
Following further service in Vietnam, the USS Colleton returned to the United States where she was decommissioned in Bremerton, Washington in December of 1969. Notably commissioned solely for the purpose of assisting US Forces in Vietnam, the USS Colleton’s service during this conflict earned her numerous awards including seven battle stars, two Combat Action Ribbons, two Presidential Unit Citations, and two Navy Unit Commendations, in addition to numerous other honors.
Stricken from the Naval Vessel Register on June 1, 1973, Colleton met her ultimate fate on August 1, 1974 at which time she was sold for scrap at a price of $172,226.62 to American Ship Dismantlers of Portland, Oregon.
Asbestos Risk on the USS Colleton (APB-36)
Ultimately utilized as a vessel equipped to provide medical treatment to Navy personnel in need, it is highly likely that a silent threat lurked within the confines of the USS Colleton that posed significant long-term health risks to US Marines that were unrelated to their initial injuries.
As with the majority of ships constructed prior to the early 1980s, vessels such as the USS Colleton contained substantial amounts of the naturally-occurring mineral asbestos. This mineral, valued for its heat- and fire-resistant properties, was mandated for use by the Navy in over 300 products purchased for the construction and maintenance of her ships. Literally every area of the ship was an environment conducive to the inhalation and/or ingestion of asbestos fibers that often became airborne by means of disturbance by human interaction or deterioration due to the natural process by which a product ages.
Once present in the human body, asbestos fibers pose their greatest risk by attaching to the inner linings of the heart, lungs, and abdomen which can give way to the development of one of several asbestos-related diseases: asbestosis, lung cancer, mesothelioma, and gastrointestinal cancer. At the present time these diseases are directly linked to nearly 10,000 deaths per year in the United States alone.
Ships such as the USS Colleton are asbestos sites that are responsible for exposing numerous individuals to the harmful, and sometimes fatal, consequences of this toxin. Not only was the ship’s crew of nearly 200 placed at-risk for the development of an asbestos-related illness, but thousands of individuals who took up a temporary residence aboard the ship in an effort to obtain medical treatment became victims of exposure as well.
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Wikipedia–USS Colleton (APB-36)
NavSource Online: Submarine Photo Archive
Mobile Riverine Force Association