Consolidated Steel came into existence in 1929 when Union Iron Works, Baker Iron Works and Llewellyn Iron Works merged into one company. Consolidated Steel operated a small fabrication yard in Orange, Texas, which burst into activity when Consolidated Steel secured a Navy contract to build destroyers, in 1940.
Between 1942 and the end of the war, Consolidated Steel launched 12 Fletcher-class destroyers, 102 destroyer escorts and 27 smaller Gearing-class destroyers. At its peak, the Orange shipyard employed 20,000 people, mostly women brought in from Beaumont, 60 miles north, by railway line.
After the war, Consolidated Steel tried to remain in business as a ship builder by building warships for foreign governments. When this effort failed, the company returned to fabrication and eventually became a part of U.S. Steel.
Eventually, a division of Signal International purchased Consolidated Steels assets and a shipbuilding and repair yard resides in a portion of what was once an extensive shipyard.
One of the Gearing-class destroyers, Orleck, after service of 55 years in the U.S. and Turkish Navies, was towed back to Orange in August of 2000. It is being restored at a Front Street berth by the Southeast Texas War Memorial and Heritage Foundation.
Fortunately, the volunteers restoring the Orleck know something that the workers during the war didn't. Asbestos fibers are extremely harmful to humans, whether breathed or ingested. Breathing the fibers is far more common. All the warships built during World War II used asbestos everywhere. It was fireproof and insulated well.
Asbestos wrapped pipes. It lined floors and walls. Boilers were packed with it. Bulkheads were blanketed with it to stop the spread of fire during attacks. Workers faced daily exposure.
For years, symptoms related to shipyard asbestos exposure were misdiagnosed. Fluid in the lungs was mistaken for pneumonia. Chest pain was misdiagnosed as a heart problem. Lung cancer was attributed to other causes, which may have had some justification if a worker was a smoker. But many cancer victims weren't smokers.
The real problem lays in the fact that asbestos fibers slowly perforate the delicate air sacs of the lungs. This process can do two things. It can cause scar tissue which is rigid and inflexible, or it can break down the air sac. In both cases, shortness of breath occurs as oxygen capacity decreases. Damage can take 20 to 50 years to show up. The irritation of the asbestos fibers has also been linked to mesothelioma, a cancer.
Anyone working in these shipyards during the war probably faced some degree of asbestos exposure.