The S.S. Defiance was a freighter built for the U.S. Navy at the Bethlehem Steel Corporation Shipyard in Alameda, California. She was launched in September 1918. Her first assignment was to carry supplies from San Francisco Bay to New York City, followed by a convoy run to Europe during the final weeks of World War I. She returned to the States in February 1919 and was decommissioned from Naval obligations, ultimately returning to civilian service in the 1920s with the Atlantic Transport Line.
Defiance was primarily a freighter making runs between London and New York City, but had some limited accommodations for passengers as well. The company fell victim to the economic depression of the 1930s; its last ships were sold in 1931 though ATL itself continued to exist as a holding company until 1936. Unfortunately, there is little information about the ultimate fate of the S.S. Defiance after this time; ownership of the vessel was apparently transferred to the American Export-Isbrandtsen Lines. That company was eventually taken over by Farrel Lines in 1977. It is unlikely that the Defiance was still operating at that time, as the vessel would have been nearly sixty years old.
Asbestos has been used as fireproofing since the time of the American Civil War, but it was in the mid-1930s that the federal government began mandating its use in the construction of seagoing vessels. This was due mainly to the S.S. Morro Castle disaster off the coast of New Jersey in September of 1934 in which 137 people lost their lives when the vessel caught fire.
Asbestos product manufacturers had known about asbestos' toxicity by the late 1930s. However, in order to protect profits, corporations such as W.R. Grace, Johns-Manville, Raysbestos and others worked to hide this information while spreading propaganda about the safety of their product. As a result, when the U.S. government finally started recommending that shipyard workers use respirators and ventilation in 1943, the warnings were not taken very seriously and many mesothelioma navy cases have resulted from such ignorance.
Finally, in 1977, the plaintiff's lawyer in an asbestos lawsuit discovered documents that had been stored in the CEO's office at Raysbestos, Inc. for four decades. Known today as the “Sumner Simpson Papers,” these documents proved the existence of a conspiracy dating from before the Second World War. Limited asbestos litigation had been going on since 1966; however, corporate defense lawyers always argued that their clients had been unaware of asbestos hazards and therefore could not be held liable.
Asbestos disease has a long latency period; symptoms of cancers such as mesothelioma may not appear until twenty to sixty years after initial exposure to asbestos. Diagnosis is also a challenge, and proving that a specific asbestos product caused the malignant mesothelioma is more difficult still. In order to win a judgment in an asbestos case, it is necessary to get diagnosed by a qualified oncologist and have a detailed work history. Such a history should include the name of all vessels aboard which one had worked or traveled as well as the dates and the ownership and registry of the vessel at the time.Sources
Bowker, Michael. Fatal Deception: The Terrifying True Story of How Asbestos is Killing America. New York: Touchstone, 2003.
De la Pedraja, René. The Rise and Decline of U.S. Merchant Shipping in the Twentieth Century (New York: Twayne, 1992)
Naval Historical Center. "S.S. Defiance (American Freighter, 1918)."