Submitted by Chris Kern
CENTERTOWN, Ky. — Fireman Third Class Welborn Lee Ashby was born Oct. 19, 1917, in Centertown, Kentucky. The second of six children to parents Otis and Inez Ashby. Welborn was nicknamed “Tiddly” as a child because of his fondness for playing Tiddlywinks with his friends. He, along with his two sisters and three brothers, worked on the family farm. Welborn graduated from Centertown High School in 1936 and enlisted in the Navy Sept. 24, 1940. On Nov. 15, 1940, he boarded the Battleship USS West Virginia bound for Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
In February 1942, the Ashby family received a telegram from the Navy saying they were “unable to locate” their son. A short time later a second telegram informed the family the Navy had “declared Welborn to have lost his life in service of his country as of December 7, 1941”. Welborn was the first World War II casualty of Ohio County, Kentucky.
Although Welborn’s remains were recovered during salvage operations, he could not be individually identified at the time. He was interred and memorialized on the Courts of the Missing at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.
In March 2011 his sister, Martha (Ashby) Christian, who has since passed, and Martha’s son Mark Christian, provided DNA samples to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. DPAA scientists used laboratory and forensic anthropological analyses to identify Ashby’s remains. In October 2019 DPAA officially announced positive identification of Welborn’s remains to the family.
The USS West Virginia, aka the “Wee Vee,” was a Maryland Class Battleship of 624 feet in length, weighing 31,800 tons. During the attack, the USS West Virginia was moored just forward of the USS Arizona and berthed next to the USS Tennessee. As the outboard ship, the West Virginia was hit with five torpedoes on its port side and two armor-piercing bombs.
While the extensive damage to the hull caused the battleship to sink, quick counter-flooding efforts by the crew saved the ship from capsizing so that it settled on an even keel in the mud of the harbor bottom. The West Virginia carried a crew of 1,454 officers and men, 106 of whom died during the attack.
On May 17, 1942, the West Virginia was re-floated, and temporary repairs were made to ready the vessel for a cruise to Puget Sound for modernization and more extensive repairs. The USS West Virginia returned to war service Sept. 14, 1944, and was present in Tokyo Bay Sept. 2, 1945, for the signing of the formal Japanese surrender documents.
Welborn’s ultimate sacrifice to his country was recognized in several ways. The Navy awarded him the Purple Heart and in Ohio County, the Kentucky Transportation department designated the portion of KY 69, running through Centertown, the “F3c Welborn Lee Ashby Memorial Highway.” Also, the Centertown American Legion has been renamed to the “Welborn Lee Ashby American Legion”. In addition, Kentucky Governor Keen Johnson awarded Welborn a posthumous commission as a “Kentucky Colonel.”
The family’s original plans to bury Welborn next to his parents in Centertown in 2020 were postponed due to the COVID pandemic and will now be taking place Memorial Day, May 31, 2021. The funeral service at Bevil Brothers Funeral Home in Beaver Dam, Kentucky.
The viewing begins at 10 a.m. with the funeral service beginning at 1 p.m. The burial service will be at the Centertown Cemetery.
The Navy is providing full military honors. Volunteer members from Smoke on Aviation of Louisville will honor Welborn with a “Missing Man Fly-Over” at the conclusion of the sounding of Taps.
To view Ashby’s personnel profile POW/MIA accounting Service Member Profile, click here.