The Manville Corp., acting to force the United States to share the risk of billions of dollars of lawsuits for asbestos disease, yesterday filed suit against the government, claiming thousands of World War II shipyard workers were knowingly exposed to dangerously high levels of asbestos dust.

Calling the $1 million Court of Claims suit "the tip of the iceberg," Manville lawyers promised that more cases would follow. But company officials indicated a willingness to settle if the government would agree to take responsibility for all cases involving shipyard workers--about half of the 20,000 asbestos disease lawsuits pending against Manville.

"The government knew what was going on in the shipyards. The Navy permitted gross overexposure to asbestos fibers. The Navy misused asbestos fibers in its shipyards. They knew it and they didn't tell anyone," Manville attorney Dennis H. Markusson said in a press conference.

Manville cited a confidential 1941 memo, written by the Navy chief of preventive medicine to the service's surgeon general, warning, "We are having a considerable amount of work done in asbestos and from my observations I am certain that we are not protecting the men as we should."

The Justice Department responded with an unusually strongly-worded statement by Assistant Attorney General J. Paul McGrath, who accused Manville of "withholding vital information about the risks associated with asbestos" in the interests of increasing its profits and then trying to shift "corporate responsibility to the taxpayers."

"The government was probably just as misled by Manville in the 1930s and the 1940s as the workers were," added Steve Wodka, a former union official now director of health affairs research for Frederick M. Baron & Associates, a law firm representing asbestos disease victims in suits against Manville.

The Manville suit against the government in many respects mirrors charges that asbestos victims have leveled in their cases against the company: that Manville knew the health hazzards of asbestos, but withheld the information from workers and the public.

Asbestos fibers are responsible for a number of crippling lung diseases, including an emphasyma-like ailment called asbestosis and mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer that appears many years after exposure.

But it was used extensively aboard ships because of its fire retardant properties, which were especially important in wartime.

Yesterday's Court of Claims suit marks another strange turn in Manville's fight to get out from under the pending asbestos suits and an estimated 32,000 future ones.

Manville attorney Markusson told the press conference the pending suits seek $40 billion in damages, though the company previously stated its liability based on past judgements at $2 billion for pending and future suits.

Though the company is prospering, Manville last August filed for bankruptcy to find a way other than law suits to settle the claims against it while remaining solvent.

Manville also has lobbied hard for legislation that would make the governmnent a partner in paying claims of asbestos victims, many of whom worked in shipyards during the World War II build up of America's Navy and merchant marine.

In yesterday's suit, Manville charges the government with breaches of direct and implied contracts during World War II when it was required to supply asbestos to government-controled and government-owed shipyards.

Manville seeks to collect about $1 million in settlements and legal fees paid out to 50 World War II shipyard workers who sued on the basis of asbestos-related ailments.

"In its World War II shipbuilding program, the government failed to adhere to the (recommended U.S. Public Health Service safety) standard, thus causing shipyard workers to be exposed to excessive concentrations of asbestos," charged Manville, which filed the suit under the name Johns Mansville Corp., its asbestos subsidiary.

"Moreover," the suit continued, "the government kept knowledge of these excessive exposures confidential. . . . These workers or their representatives have sued Johns Manville and others to recover damages allegedly incurred as a result of asbestos-related disease, although those damages were in fact caused by acts of the United States, and not Johns Manville."