Bugle Boy Blues: A Fine Howdy-Do to Heroism
If your father was a WWII Navy veteran, you might have heard his stories about adapting to seasickness on a submarine: As a sailor moved deeper toward the Engine Room his nausea got worse because the human inner ear cannot balance such intense double-rocking. Only as an afterthought, he might have mentioned dusting off his bunk before climbing into bed—whenever he climbed into bed. What was he dusting off, anyhow?
Mea culpa. In the late 1930’s modified asbestos, much like Great Britain’s invention of radar, seemed a breathtaking game-changer. Asbestos, the name given to an old group of natural mineral fibers stubborn to heat, fire, chemicals, and electrocution, swathed every tiny part and parcel of a WWII sub’s deck and submersible design to keep fire from ever gaining the upper hand if a vessel received enemy torpedo fire or internally malfunctioned.
Scientifically modified to fireproof whatever it capped or encased, asbestos was cheap and forgiving in wartime real-time. It was easily melded, welded, layered, lacquered, and woven—and not just for the Navy. The Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps all used asbestos for the same insulation and heat resistance properties. It was (and to some extent still is, despite the Clean Air Act of 1970) everywhere a soldier breathes.
For veterans of war a diagnosis of life-changing disease— like mesothelioma, asbestosis or asbestos-related lung cancer— is especially devastating because it can pop up like a sniper out of thin air and often the life expectancy of such latent diagnoses is short. Mesothelioma patients often are not properly diagnosed until advanced stages when treatment is about as effective as a gun shooting blanks. Soldiers don’t expect to shoot their last bullet with such poor aim.
When, decades ago, it was recognized that asbestos could cause respiratory disease and lung cancer, mum was the word with manufacturers who made a tidy profit from keeping their mouths shut and their sales force to the military going strong. After both world wars asbestos saw duty in Korea, Vietnam, and the Middle East, too. It still sees repercussive duty in countries with no previous asbestos regulations, where exported artillery and ship parts landed in recent decades for recycling.
After tours-of-duty called and were finished our men and women came home and went back to everyday jobs where they continued breathing asbestos; by now it was incorporated into construction, auto, and shipbuilding industries. Like a hair in a biscuit, asbestos was baked into every bite of the world’s culture.
Heroes who have stared death in the eye don’t calculate cancer at age 73 or 43—they wouldn’t want to dishonor themselves or their country griping about the dust on their bunk.
Still, every military veteran’s burial service is honored with the bugle or the bagpipes playing ‘Taps.’After so many brushes, a decorated lieutenant or gunnery sergeant doesn’t die this way, so unceremoniously? Tell that to the eldest surviving child who is handed Old Glory crisp, in the perfect triangle.