By Sarah Brennan
Senator Robert C. Byrd was more than a politician from West Virginia. He, and his wife Erma represented West Virginia on the national stage. Their support was frequently symbolic and always brought positive attention to their home state. One such example occurred during the 1980s, when Senator Byrd persuaded the United States Navy to name a nuclear submarine in honor of the state.
Correspondence in the Byrd Collection at the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies shows the Senator’s desire to have a nuclear powered submarine named the West Virginia as early as May 1987, the same year that a planned relocation of the United States Coast Guard National Operations Computer Center to Martinsburg was to take place at his request. Byrd appealed to U.S. Naval Secretary James Webb, asking him to consider that the previous ship named after West Virginia saw action at Pearl Harbor and Tokyo Bay during World War II. That ship was decommissioned in 1959, and to Byrd, the patriotism of West Virginians warranted the naming of a new one.
According to Secretary Webb, Byrd’s pride in West Virginia was “justifiable.” Webb assured Byrd that he would give his recommendation consideration. In December 1987, the secretary officially assigned the submarine the name U.S.S. West Virginia. Shortly thereafter, Senator Byrd received a letter from West Virginian Bert Goodwin, of the Navy League of the United States, thanking him on behalf of all residents of the state for his support. Byrd referenced this support in a letter thanking Secretary Webb for his decision, noting that “West Virginians are a very proud and patriotic citizenry.”
Although support was high prior to the West Virginia’s official naming, an article from the Beckley Register-Heraldindicates that statewide interest had waned by late 1989. The state of West Virginia was obliged to establish libraries on the submarine and at its home port and fund scholarships for the boat’s crew. According to Bert Goodwin, the state needed to raise $60,000 for these projects. However, lack of public knowledge about the state’s commitments rendered the initial fundraising efforts unsuccessful. Thanks in part to West Virginia University, which raised awareness and funds for the project by making it the theme of its September, 1989 home game against the University of South Carolina, enough money was raised to fulfill the state’s obligations to the Navy, including paying for the christening ceremony scheduled for October 14, 1989 in Groton, Connecticut.
Included in the correspondence regarding the U.S.S. West Virginia are detailed records of the role that Erma Byrd, Senator Byrd’s wife, played in the ship’s christening. In January 1989, Mrs. Byrd was named the submarine’s sponsor by Secretary Webb’s successor, William L. Ball, III. A letter to Mrs. Byrd from James E. Turner, Jr. of General Dynamics, the company that built the West Virginia, gave Mrs. Byrd an overview of her duties as ship sponsor. Chief among these was the symbolic role that she would play in being the first person to bless the ship and call it by its name. According to Turner, this was “one of the most important events in its life.”
The Navy’s itinerary describes the West Virginia’s christening as a civic and religious duty, and it establishes Mrs. Byrd’s role as representing all Americans while giving the ship its name. The document reminded her that, as the “warship sails the sea defending the rights of man that are inextricably intertwined with freedom of the sea, part of you sails in her.” Mrs. Byrd took this responsibility to heart, and in her speech at the christening ceremony, she thanked the Navy for “richly honoring” her with the title of ship sponsor.
The program for the events of October 14, 1989 describes Mrs. Byrd’s public image as that of a “domestic helpmate;” however, the duties that she performed on behalf of the state of West Virginia show her as much more than that. At the submarine’s commissioning ceremony one year after the christening, Mrs. Byrd was once again present to give a speech and honor Captain James R. Harvey and his crew. Prior to the commissioning of the submarine, Mrs. Byrd was named West Virginia Daughter of the Year, partly because of her responsibilities in sponsoring the U.S.S. West Virginia.
Senator Byrd’s duties reached beyond politics. He and Erma were public ambassadors for the state of West Virginia. The events surrounding the naming and christening of the U.S.S. West Virginia reveal a few of the many ways the couple brought positive attention to the state.
Byrd, Erma. “Remarks for U.S.S. West Virginia Christening.” Speech, Groton, Connecticut, October 14, 1989.
Byrd, Robert C. Robert C. Byrd: Child of the Appalachian Coalfields. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2005, 452-3, 501-3.
Byrd, Robert C. Robert C. Byrd to James H. Webb, Jr., Washington, DC, May 26, 1987.
Goodwin, Bert. Bert Goodwin to Robert C. Byrd, Ripley, WV, December 18, 1987.
Turner, James E. James E. Turner, Jr. to Mrs. Robert C. Byrd, Groton, Connecticut, August 16, 1989.
“USS West Virginia ‘Proof of Commitment to Navy’,” Wheeling News-Register, October 15, 1989.
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