With the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, West Virginia and the nation again went to war. Hit by a bomb and seven torpedoes, the Mountain State’s flagship, USS West Virginia, was among those sunk during the attack.
West Virginia reported the fifth-highest percentage of servicemen during the war, with 218,665 West Virginians, including 66,716 volunteers, serving in the armed forces. Of the 11,000 African-Americans representing the state, 600 came from West Virginia State College (now University). A total of 5,830 West Virginians were killed in World War II.
Mountaineers distinguished themselves throughout the war. Eleven Medals of Honor went to West Virginians for service in World War II. Hershel Woodrow ‘‘Woody’’ Williams earned the Medal of Honor at Iwo Jima. Silencing one Japanese gun after another, Corporal Williams was directly instrumental in neutralizing one of the best-defended strongholds on the island. In 2005, the Marion County native was West Virginia’s last surviving Medal of Honor recipient from World War II.
George ‘‘Spanky’’ Roberts, a graduate of West Virginia State College’s Civilian Pilot Program, became the first African-American cadet in the Army Air Corps. The Marion County native commanded the 99th and 332nd Pursuit Squadrons.
Charles ‘‘Chuck’’ Yeager became an ace in a single day by shooting down five German planes. The Lincoln County native flew 64 missions and shot down 13 enemy aircraft. A post-war test pilot, Yeager became the first person to break the sound barrier.
Felix Stump commanded the aircraft carriers Enterprise and Lexington. The Wood County native received the Silver Star, two Navy Crosses, the Army’s Distinguished Service Medal, and several other awards for exceptionally meritorious service. Admiral Stump later received the Navy’s Distinguished Service Medal as commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet.
Randolph County native Richard Sutherland served as chief of staff to Gen. Douglas MacArthur. It was Lieutenant General Sutherland who received the Japanese surrender of the Philippines.
Two thousand West Virginia women entered military service during the war. In the navy, Hardy County native Winifred Love commanded the first contingent of WAVES to serve overseas. Dolores Dowling, of Cabell County, was among the first American nurses to land in Sicily after D-Day. Dowling was also a member of the first Mobile Army Surgical Hospital unit. Florence Aby Blanchfield, superintendent of the Army Nurse Corps from 1943 to 1947, oversaw the growth from 1,000 to 57,000 nurses. A World War I veteran, the Jefferson County native became the first woman commissioned as a lieutenant colonel in the regular army. Colonel Blanchfield received the Distinguished Service Medal in 1945.
While a captive of the Japanese in Manila, Ruby Bradley, an army Nurse Corps administrator in the Philippines, earned the title ‘‘Angel in Fatigues.’’ After assisting in more than 230 major operations and the delivery of 13 American babies, Bradley received two Bronze Stars. The Roane County native later received numerous medals, ribbons, and citations as a combat nurse in the Korean Conflict. Colonel Bradley is the state’s most decorated female veteran.
Of 12 West Virginians applying to fly as Women Airforce Service Pilots, nine graduated. Katherine Thompson, of Pocahontas County, became the state’s first WASP. Flying new and unproven aircraft within the continental United States and Canada freed male pilots for combat missions in Europe. As engineering test pilots, women often flew repaired planes that had previously crashed. These pilots trained ground crews, conducted flight instruction, performed top secret missions, and towed antiaircraft targets amid live gunfire. Frances Fortune Grimes of Monongalia County gave her life for her country, crashing en route to deliver an airplane to its point of debarkation overseas.
Mary Lee Settle of Kanawha County, who later won the National Book Award as a novelist, wrote articles for the Office of War Information in England. Anna Norman Oates, meanwhile, cheered the Allies on to victory through poems, comic verse, and letters to soldiers. Known as ‘‘Mother Oates,’’ the Monongalia County native reached thousands of readers and radio listeners during the war. Buckhannon native Jean Lee Latham learned to repair radio equipment for the Signal Corps. The award-winning author found herself writing directions, lectures, and course material for the inspection of radio gear.
The 201st Infantry of the West Virginia Army National Guard provided security for the Aleutian Islands during much of the war, while the 150th Infantry Regiment defended Panama, Peru, Ecuador, Guatemala, and the Galapagos Islands. Replacing National Guardsmen on active duty, state guard units protected airplanes, fought forest fires, and assisted during natural disasters on the home front.
While the army readied soldiers for northern Italy’s terrain in Grant and Tucker counties, the navy groomed officers at West Virginia University and other schools around the state. The Greenbrier resort served as a detention center for German, Italian, and Japanese diplomats early in the war and, under the name of Ashford General Hospital, later treated 20,000 soldiers and veterans. General Eisenhower was among those treated there.
As well as rationing gasoline, sugar and butter, West Virginians on the home front joined the Civil Defense Corps and grew their own food. The West Virginia Farm Women’s Club sold $288,997 in war bonds and collected $15,464 for the Red Cross. Children pitched in by collecting old tires, scrap metal, and other scarce materials for the war effort. Fayette County Boy Scouts, for instance, salvaged as much as 12 tons of paper in 90 days.
Mountaineers supplied more than 600 million tons of coal to fuel the war. Built in the Kanawha Valley, the world’s largest synthetic rubber plant plant helped America to replace Japan as its primary supplier. The valley also housed the world’s largest producer of steel used for battleships, tanks, and other military equipment. The U.S. Naval Ordnance Plant in Kanawha County supplied gun barrels for ships and tanks, while West Virginians built patrol boats and other ocean-going vessels on the Mason County shores of the Ohio River.
Re-floated and completely rebuilt, USS West Virginia returned to action in 1944. Providing considerable gun support in the Pacific, the ‘‘Wee Vee’’ earned five battle stars. After leading American battleships into Tokyo Bay on August 31, 1945, USS West Virginia was present for the formal surrender of Japan.
This Article was written by Russ Barbour
Last Revised on November 19, 2010
Ambler, Charles H. & Festus P. Summers. West Virginia: The Mountain State. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1958.
Yeager, Chuck & Leo Janos. Yeager: An Autobiography. New York: Bantam Books, 1985.
Conley, Phil & William T. Doherty. West Virginia History. Charleston: Education Foundation, 1974.
Cite This Article
Barbour, Russ "World War II." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 19 November 2010. Web. 24 May 2015.