The USS Robert L. Wilson (DD-847) was a Gearing-class destroyer that served in the U.S. Navy between 1945 and 1974. She was named for a Marine killed in action and posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for gallantry in 1943.
Like most of the other Gearing-class destroyers, the "Willy Boat" was built at the Bath Iron Works in Bath, Maine, where she was launched in January 1946. She was commissioned at the Boston Naval Shipyard in March 1946 under the command of Captain K.P. McGovern.
The Gearing type destroyer was over 390 feet long and just under 41 feet wide amidships, displacing more that 3500 tons when fully loaded. Her four Babcock & Wilcox boilers powered two General Electric steam turbines, giving the vessel a top speed of 35 knots. Usual crew compliment was 336 officers and seamen.
Wilson underwent her shakedown trials in the Caribbean off the coast of Cuba in the spring of 1946. Initially based out of Norfolk, Virginia, she was transferred to Newport, Rhode Island in February 1947. Until 1950, she operated primarily in the Atlantic and Caribbean.
In March 1950, the vessel was redesignated as an "escort destroyer" and renumbered DDE-847. Over the next ten years, her primary focus was anti-submarine warfare and training. During this period, Wilson was deployed to the Mediterranean eight times.
In January 1961, Wilson was dispatched to the South Atlantic in pursuit of a hijacked Portuguese passenger liner. The remainder of that year was spent in local operations out of her home port of Norfolk.
In 1962, the destroyer took part in the recovery of a Project Mercury space vehicle, then joined the anti-submarine combat squadron Task Group Bravo. That summer, she reverted to her former classification. In October, Wilson took part in the Cuban blockade during the diplomatic crisis over Soviet missile deployments.
Significant alternations to the vessel's weaponry and superstructure were made during a Fleet Rehabilitation And Modernization procedure that was carried out at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard from March 1963 until well into 1964.
Until 1968, Wilson operated close to home. During this period, she served as the prime recovery vessel for the Gemini IX space mission and conducted training for sonar personnel.
Wilson made her first combat tour of Vietnam in September 1968, remaining in the Gulf of Tonkin until the following March.
Her last years were spent operating out of Norfolk, taking part in NATO exercises and making two voyages to the Mediterranean. She was decommissioned in 1974 and scuttled in a missile test after six years at the Inactive Fleet Facility in Philadelphia.
Asbestos Risk on the USS Robert L. Wilson (DD-847)
Gearing-class destroyers depended on asbestos products to provide insulation and fireproofing throughout the ship. Wison’s boilers, pumps, engines and turbines all contained asbestos. Her steam pipes were often covered with asbestos blankets. Most sailors aboard the Wilson suffered at least some exposure to this dangerous mineral.
Damage control, engineering, and firefighting duties were the most hazardous assignments for Wilson’s sailors. Stations that required regular, sustained contact with asbestos containing parts present the greatest health risk. The high concentration of asbestos products aboard destroyers of this era has resulted in a disproportionately high number of Navy veterans being diagnosed with mesothelioma.Sources
Destroyer History Foundation. "Gearing Class"
Mooney, James. Dictionary of American Fighting Ships. (Washington DC; Department of the Navy, 1991).