The S.S. Excalibur was built in 1930 by the New York Shipbuilding Company in Camden, New Jersey. She had been ordered by American Export Lines and served throughout the decade of the 1930s as both a passenger liner and a cargo ship. It was aboard the Excalibur that Edward VIII, former King of England and the wife for whom he abdicated the throne, American divorcée Wallis Simpson, traveled from Europe to the Bermuda, where they made their home in August of 1940.
With the outbreak of the Second World War, Excalibur was appropriated by the U.S. Navy and converted into a troop transport vessel. Until November 1942, she served as the U.S.S. Joseph Hewes (AP-50).
On the morning of 8 November 1942, Hewes had just finished landing troops in Morocco for Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa. Just over twelve hours later, she was hit by a torpedo from the German submarine U-173. Despite heroic efforts by the captain and crew, the Hewes went down in forty-two minutes, along with the captain and 100 seamen.
Ironically, the most insidious enemy lie not beneath the waves, but below decks – in the form of massive amounts of asbestos insulation.
The use of asbestos is understandable; there is nothing more frightening to seasoned mariners than a fire at sea. The hazards of such an event were graphically illustrated in September 1934 when the passenger liner S.S. Morro Castle caught fire off the coast of Asbury Park New Jersey, killing nearly 140 people.
Because of this tragedy, the U.S. Congress was led to pass regulations requiring the use of asbestos in the construction of seagoing vessels.
Meanwhile, the asbestos manufacturers were less than forthcoming about the health hazards of their product. It was a secret they attempted to hide for forty years until the industry was exposed by a trial lawyer in 1977. Still mesothelioma navy cases are the most often reported.
Asbestos disease is relatively rare, but cancers such as mesothelioma are invariably deadly. Unfortunately, symptoms can take decades to manifest. By this time, it is usually too late for anything other than palliative treatments, however.
Those who may have traveled aboard the S.S. Excalibur/U.S.S. Joseph Hewes should discuss the possibility with a physician, even if they are not experiencing malignant mesothelioma symptoms at present.Sources
Bowker, Michael. Fatal Deception: The Terrifying True Story of How Asbestos is Killing America. New York: Touchstone, 2003.
Dictionary of American Fighting Ships. “Joseph Hewes.”