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
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
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
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.