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.
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.
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.
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.