History of the U.S. Navy battleship USS West Virginia (BB-48) including information about asbestos exposure for workers.
The USS West Virginia (BB-48), nicknamed Wee Vee, was ordered for the U.S. Navy on December 5, 1916. Her keel was laid down at Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company on April 12, 1920. She was launched on November 17, 1921 and commissioned on December 1, 1923 under the command of Captain Thomas J. Senn.
USS West Virginia had some technical difficulties early on in her career that led her to run aground on June 16, 1924. After being repaired, she became the flagship for the Commander Battleships Division Battle Fleet on October 30. She took part in many training exercises and competitions, including the annual fleet problems. She won a number of awards for firing and battle efficiency.
The USS West Virginia was moored at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked on December 7, 1941. She was hit by several torpedoes, at least one of which may have come from a midget submarine. She was also hit by two bombs, neither of which detonated. One of them did wreck one of her float planes, however, and the battleship suffered damage from the resulting gasoline fire as well as an oil fire that was started by the USS Arizona.
The quick thinking and bravery of USS West Virginia’s officers and crew prevented the ship from sinking. Lieutenant Claude V. Ricketts was credited with the damage control techniques that saved the ship, and he later had a ship named after him. Captain Mervyn S. Bennion was struck by a bomb fragment to the abdomen, but he continued to be involved in the ship’s defense until the moment he died. He received a posthumous Medal of Honor. A cook named Doris Miller helped carry Captain Bennion to safety before taking up a place at an antiaircraft gun, even though he had no experience. He was the first African-American to receive the Navy Cross.
The battleship was abandoned, and she sank to the harbor bottom. She was refloated on May 17, 1942 and dry docked on June 9. As repair work began, 66 bodies were found that had been trapped when the ship sank. Three of them had been trapped in a storeroom compartment and survived on emergency rations until December 23, based on a calendar that was found with them.
Repair work was too extensive for the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard, so she headed to Puget Sound Navy Yard for a complete rebuilding. Once modernized, she looked completely different, and now resembled the USS Tennessee and USS California.
USS West Virginia did not rejoin the Pacific war effort until October 5, 1944, when she became flagship for Rear Admiral Theodore Ruddock, Commander Battleship Division 4. She took part in the invasion of the Philippines later that month. She was involved in the Battle of Leyte Gulf on October 23, where she helped to destroy the Japanese battleship Yamashiro. At the end of the month, she headed to Espiritu Santo for repairs at the floating dry dock.
At the end of November, the USS West Virginia returned to patrols in Leyte Gulf. In December, she moved on to the Palau Islands, covering the troop landings on Mindoro. She was in the Sulu Sea when the Japanese attacked the escort carrier USS Ommaney Bay on January 4, 1945. She helped take on survivors when the ship had to be abandoned then headed to the South China Sea the following day and bombarded San Fernando Point. While other ships in her battle group were damaged by kamikazes, the USS West Virginia survived unscathed.
On January 6, USS West Virginia picked up some more survivors when the minesweeper USS Hovey was sunk by a Japanese torpedo. The battleship bombarded San Fabian before transferring the survivors of the other two ships on January 9. She went on to support operations in Lingayen Gulf, San Fabian, Rosario, and Santo Tomas before heading back to Leyte Gulf on February 10.
The USS West Virginia provided fire support for the Battle of Iwo Jima, destroying a number of shore targets. She remained there until March, when she headed for Ulithi to prepare for the invasion of Okinawa. The battleship took part in the pre-invasion bombardment of Okinawa then remained to support the troop landings.
On April 1, USS West Virginia was hit by a kamikaze. Four men were killed and seven others were injured. The dead were buried at sea, and the battleship continued to provide fire support until April 20. She then headed back to Ulithi, but had to return to Okinawa due to damage to the USS Colorado. She finally made it to Ulithi on April 28.
USS West Virginia returned to Okinawa in May. She lost her spotting plane on June 16, and the attempt to rescue her aircrew was not successful. She headed to Leyte at the end of June. In July, with a first draft of replacements, she carried out training exercises in the Philippines for the rest of the month.
The USS West Virginia returned to Okinawa on August 6, the same day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. The war ended the following week on August 15, and the battleship sailed to Tokyo Bay to participate in the occupation of Japan. She later helped bring American troops home as part of Operation Magic Carpet.
USS West Virginia was decommissioned on January 9, 1947 and struck from the Naval Vessel Register on March 1, 1959. She was sold for scrap on August 24, 1959. The battleship earned five battle stars for her service in World War II.
Like all other ships of its time, the USS West Virginia was built using a number of asbestos-containing materials. This toxic substance was prized for its resistance to fire, heat, water, and corrosion, so it could be found in virtually all areas of the ship. Anyone who worked in or around the battleship was put at risk of developing asbestos-related illnesses like mesothelioma, throat cancer, stomach cancer, colon cancer, rectal cancer, lung cancer, and asbestosis.
USS West Virginia workers should monitor their health carefully, and consult a doctor if they experience any symptoms associated with mesothelioma. Anyone who worked on or around the USS West Virginia, and is diagnosed with mesothelioma, should also consider contacting a lawyer to discuss their legal rights.