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'Wee-Vee' vets visit WV

Lawrence Pierce
Anthony Reiter of Saint Paul, Minn., points out his battle station on the USS West Virginia to his son, Joe, on Friday in the West Virginia Culture Center. Veterans of the historic battleship, affectionately nicknamed the "Wee-Vee," are in the Mountain State this weekend.
Lawrence Pierce Mike Variot photographs his father, Joe, pointing to himself in a 1945 photograph of the West Virginia and her crew.
Lawrence Pierce First lady Joanne Tomblin and Secretary of State Natalie Tennant join USS West Virginia crewmen in a group photo in the Culture Center lobby.
Lawrence Pierce A photo in a State Archives exhibit shows the crew of the USS West Virginia in a group portrait taken in October 1945 in San Diego. The battleship named in honor of the Mountain State is moored in the background.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Using a magnifying glass, Joseph Variot methodically scanned the faces of more than 2,000 crewmembers lined up in columns in front of the battleship USS West Virginia in a photo portrait taken in San Diego Harbor one month after World War II came to an end.

"There I am," he said, after a few moments, and pointed to the head and shoulders of a youthful sailor as his son, Mike, squinted at the photo, smiled and nodded in agreement.

"I remember when they took this picture," said Variot. "It was Navy Day in San Diego, 1945. When we left Japan, we had a bunch of guys who were POW camp survivors -- a lot of guys from Australia, and some Brits, Hollanders and Americans, with us. When they first got on board, the skipper didn't know what to feed them, so he said to make them a batch of mutton stew. They all ended up getting sick from eating too much, too fast."

Perhaps the youngest surviving member of the World War II battleship's crew, Joseph Variot, 83, is one of 11 USS West Virginia veterans in Charleston to take part in what could be their last official reunion.

On Friday, members of the ship's crew and their families visited the Culture Center and State Archives Library to pore over photographs of, and artifacts from, the historic battleship. First lady Joanne Tomblin and Secretary of State Natalie Tennant greeted them as they arrived.

There were photos of the battleship in smoldering ruins after Japan's Dec. 7, 1941, surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, during which the "Wee-Vee," as it was known to its crew, was struck by seven aircraft-borne torpedoes and two bombs, killing 104 crewmen. There also were photos of the battleship as it was being raised from the Pearl Harbor muck, then repaired and refitted and sent into action at Leyte, Surigao Strait, Iwo Jima and Okinawa, where it was struck by a kamikaze suicide plane.

Another photo showed the USS West Virginia forming the backdrop as Gen. Douglas MacArthur accepted surrender documents from Japanese military leaders during ceremonies in Tokyo Bay aboard the battleship USS Missouri.

"Admiral [Chester] Nimitz sent our ship to the surrender ceremony because she was at Pearl, and [Japanese radio propagandist] Tokyo Rose had said the West Virginia would never sail again," Variot said. "As it turned out, we were the first major [Allied] ship to enter Tokyo Bay."

Variot joined the U.S. Navy at age 15, using the birth certificate of a friend who had no interest in enlisting, and joined the crew of the West Virginia in 1944 at age 16, under the name Carl Wayne Newton. The Wee-Vee was in the process of being restored and refitted when he was assigned to the ship. "It was a real rust bucket when I came aboard," he said.

After seeing action in the Battle of Surigao Strait during the campaign to recapture the Philippines, Variot decided to come clean about his age and identity. A taste of combat made him become aware of his own mortality and he wanted his parents to be able to claim his insurance benefits and personal effects if something happened to him. With the help of a chaplain, he was able to keep his rank and position on the battleship under his real name.

On April 1, 1945, during the invasion of the Japanese island of Okinawa, the West Virginia was providing artillery support for shore-bound Marines when a kamikaze aircraft struck the vessel. A bomb from the suicide plane penetrated to the second deck but failed to detonate.

"They rolled the bomb onto a stretcher and carried it up to the deck, where it was disarmed and cast overboard," Variot said.

Although four Wee-Vee sailors were killed and seven others were wounded, the bomb's failure to explode likely saved hundreds of lives.

Among those killed was a telephone operator on an anti-aircraft battery -- a battle station recently vacated by reunion attendee Herbert Crask of Arizona.

"Right after Iwo Jima, I fouled up my knees and had to go to the hospital," he said. "I was in Oakland when the kamikaze hit. If I hadn't gone to the hospital, I'd be dead."

For George Gackle, a storekeeper who worked in the ship's pay office and served as an ammunition passer for one of the battlewagon's 12 5-inch gun in times of combat, life on the West Virginia "was like living in a big city.

"I came from a North Dakota town of 750, and there were 2,000 or so people aboard the West Virginia," he said. "There was one barbershop in my hometown, and four or five on the ship."

Variot said there were about 1,100 people on the mailing list when he took over as head of the battleship's reunion organization 15 years ago. Because of the crew's advancing age, there are now about 400 on the list, with about a dozen crewmen attending reunions in recent years.

While a decision was made to hold what was believed to be a final reunion in the ship's namesake state, there is now talk about continuing the annual reunion tradition. A vote on the matter will be taken Saturday.

On Sunday, the Wee-Vee veterans will travel to Beckley, where they will tour the USS West Virginia exhibit, which includes a 20-foot-long, 1:32-scale model of the battleship at the Raleigh County Veterans Museum. While in Beckley, they'll also attend a dinner in their honor.

USS West Virginia artifacts on display in the Culture Center included a crewman's cap, a 16-inch gun cover, an incline meter, a bell from the ship's motor launch and a metal plate listing safety orders for the ship's 16-inch magazine.

The ship was decommissioned in 1947 and scrapped in 1961.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.


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