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Into the Killing Dust
Part 1: Tradesmen flock to the shipyards

By BILL BURKE, The Virginian-Pilot, May 7, 2001

The news from abroad was mixed in January 1942 when Louis Whiddon and his wife, Wyolene, prepared to move north from Georgia. The Allies were routing Hitler's black-shirted Elite Guard, but Philippine and American soldiers, under attack from the Japanese, retreated to Manila.

A letter from Louis Whiddon's brother Jesse had inspired the move. Jesse had written Louis to tell him that the Virginia shipyard where Jesse worked was hiring tradesmen by the hundreds. Jesse enclosed a job application from the naval shipyard in Portsmouth.

This is a chance to quit your job as an inspector of earth-moving equipment and learn a lucrative trade, Jesse wrote his brother.

And with the drumbeat of war quickening, it was the patriotic thing to do.

So on Jan. 6, 1942, a month after the Japanese bombardment of Pearl Harbor, Louis Whiddon left Toccoa, Ga., and joined the migration of men and women to America's shipyards and the most massive shipbuilding effort in history. America was at war, and its one-ocean Navy was not up to the task. A five-ocean fleet would be needed.

Whiddon was 23, married for a year, his first child on the way, when he began his career as a pipe coverer at Norfolk Naval Shipyard, on the western shore of the Elizabeth River.

Two months later, in March 1942, 19-year-old David Durham left Reidsville, N.C., and joined Whiddon in the pipe-coverers' shop in the big Virginia shipyard.

There, they installed thermal insulation on the great gray vessels that carried American troops, planes, landing craft and munitions. Day after 10-hour day, one seven-day week after another, they cut pre-molded three-foot sections of insulation with saws, then placed them onto the vast networks of pipes that carried cold water and steam. They tore off old insulation so machinists and boilermakers could make repairs.

It was messy work. The saws created vast fogs of dust that filled the air in the prefabrication room of Shop 56, where Whiddon and Durham spent part of each workday, and in the engine rooms, boiler rooms and bowels of the ships, where they spent most of their time.

At day's end, Whiddon, Durham and their fellow workers would brush the dust from their clothes and their hair. ``You'd just knock it off your ears,'' Durham recalls.. They looked like they had trekked through a blizzard.

In truth, it was a blizzard of the mineral asbestos, the critical ingredient in the insulation they worked with.

An old worker once told Durham that asbestos can't hurt you, claiming (incorrectly) that it was the same thing as milk of magnesia. It contained 85 percent magnesium carbonate, 15 percent asbestos, he said. Then the old man popped some in his mouth and swallowed it.

The rolls of insulation and the molded sectional covering, the cloth and bags of dry asbestos-containing cement the men worked with bore no warning labels. Some products, with names like ``Calcilite'' and ``Superex Cement for Navy,'' had been manufactured to the sea service's precise specifications.

They had the Navy's seal of approval.

So Louis Whiddon, David Durham and their fellow insulators had no reason for concern. The haze of dust they toiled in was only a nuisance, and nothing more. Besides, there was work to be done. There was a war to win.