The S.S. Buckeye State was one of hundreds of “Victory Ships” built during the Second World War that later went on to commercial service with private shipping companies and cruise lines afterwards. Built at the Ingalls Shipbuilding Corporation of Pascagoula, Mississippi, Buckeye State was launched in December 1943.
Victory Ships were the successors of the Liberty Ships, and were essentially an upgrade of the design. As millions of tons of Allied shipping was lost during the war, the need to replace these vessels with something sturdier and faster – thus being able to outrun enemy submarines – became urgent. A Victory Ship could be built in as little as four weeks, and was equipped with more powerful engines.
The Buckeye State went on to serve with the States Marine Lines shipping company after the war.
Until the 1980s, virtually every seagoing vessel was full of asbestos insulation, particularly in the enclosed spaces below decks in the engine room and around the boilers. This was in part due to a mandate by Congress that followed a cruise ship disaster in September 1934 in which nearly a quarter of the passengers and crew aboard the S.S. Morro Castle perished in a fire off the coast of New Jersey. Of course, lobbying from the asbestos industry helped to advance the cause as well.
What asbestos industry lobbyists failed to tell lawmakers was that their product was making people very sick with illnesses like mesothelioma. Medical researchers began to suspect the dangers of asbestos as early as 1899; doctors in the U.K. had pretty much figured it out by the mid-1920s. The connection between asbestos and respiratory disease was firmly established in the U.S. by the mid-to- late 1930s, but the corporations that produced asbestos products – who had financed much of the research – chose to suppress this information, an act that has resulted in many mesothelioma navy cases.
By 1940 however, results of this research was starting to reach those in government. At first, the Roosevelt Administration was hesitant to disseminate this information for fear of “creating disturbances in the labor force.” By 1943 however, the federal government did start issuing “advisories” to shipyard workers and management. Recommendations were made for the use of ventilators and respirators when working with and around asbestos.
These advisories did not have the force of law and were not taken seriously. Meanwhile, asbestos companies did everything they could to insure that their product was perceived as being “safe.”
By the 1960s, it was patently obvious that a connection existed between asbestos and respiratory disease; the first asbestos lawsuit was filed in 1966. At the time however, corporate lawyers defended their clients by claiming ignorance; these health hazards were not known prior to 1960, therefore the companies could not be held liable.
In 1977, a plaintiff's lawyer discovered documentation in a corporate office proving that the asbestos industry in fact did know, and had known for forty years that its product was harmful to human health.
Symptoms of asbestos disease or malignant mesothelioma often do not show up for several decades after a worker is exposed to the substance. Anyone who sailed or worked aboard the S.S. Buckeye State should be checked regularly, even if they are not showing symptoms at present. Not everyone who is exposed to asbestos will develop cancer, but if you were exposed, regular check ups and health monitoring will increase the chances that the disease will be diagnosed at an earlier stage when it is most treatable.Sources
Bowker, Michael. Fatal Deception: The Terrifying True Story of How Asbestos is Killing America. New York: Touchstone, 2003.
States Marine Lines. “Buckeye State #2.”