For more on the Lee Street Riot, click here.
The Mystery of the 364th
Photos courtesy Termite Art Productions/History Channel
Some eyewitnesses say they saw a mass killing. The Army says nothing happened. Geoffrey F.X. O’Connell reveals the story behind an ongoing investigation into the fate of an all-black World War II regiment stationed at Camp Van Dorn, Miss.
Were a thousand African-American soldiers gunned down by the Army in a racially motivated shootout in Mississippi in 1943?
Were members of the controversial 364th (Negro) Infantry Regiment killed at Camp Van Dorn to silence their relentless – and sometimes violent – demands for equality in a segregated Army?
Were the bodies buried in a mass grave somewhere on the sprawling base or “stacked like cordwood” and shipped north on boxcars?
That’s a story that’s been whispered since World War II in and around Centreville, Miss. A Pentagon spokesman sums up its 1999 probe of the allegation: “Nothing egregious happened.” But that isn’t the end of it.
Historians and journalists – including this writer – in pursuit of this puzzling piece of American history are uncovering a nationwide trail of racial violence during World War II. Bloody clashes in the military brought with them an ever-escalating fear among whites and blacks that at least one such incident could spiral out of control.
Why are these stories only coming to light now, a half-century after they are said to have occurred? Several factors are responsible:
• After 50 years, millions of top-secret government documents from World War II were available to be declassified;
• Historians are incorporating oral accounts of ordinary citizens into their understanding of past events;
• Historians and journalists have come to accept that urban legends sometimes can be keys to society’s worst traumas. The white riot that leveled Tulsa’s black community in 1921 – with over 300 dead – was legend until just this year, when a state commission in the face of overwhelming evidence recommended reparation to victims’ families.
• World War II veterans at the ends of their lives are unburdening themselves of long-held secrets.
In February, New Orleans’ D-Day Museum – in cooperation with Tulane’s Amistad Research Center and The Eisenhower Center for American Studies at the University of New Orleans – hosted a first-ever national symposium on the African-American experience in World War II. Black vets celebrated their place in history, but also traded with historians stories of discrimination, protest and reprisal. Even keynote speaker Ossie Davis revealed a deadly racial incident he witnessed while stationed in Liberia. The symposium title, “Double Victory: Fighting on Two Fronts” alludes to a grassroots civil rights movement that called for “Victory at Home, Victory Abroad.” The movement had no leaders, but some of its adherents were so passionate that they burned or carved a “double V” on their chests.
“Troublemakers” in the controversial 364th Regiment had those “double Vs,” according to Army intelligence files.
The casualty count may be in dispute, but it is now clear that there were hundreds of bloody domestic firefights from Camp Benning, Ga., to Beaumont, Texas; from Ft. Dix, N.J., to Camp Shenango, Pa. Much of what we are learning about this racial violence is coming from documents that are part of a wartime domestic intelligence operation far more extensive and intrusive than what previously has been known. And much of what we don’t know about the period is the result of government press censorship – the proportions of which are not understood even today.
The late New Orleans journalist Ron Ridenhour was nine years into his research on alleged killings at Camp Van Dorn when he died of a heart attack in May 1998. The award-winning investigative reporter – perhaps best known as the soldier whose letters to Congress prompted investigation into the My Lai Massacre during the Vietnam War – had recorded interviews with dozens of white and black soldiers and base civilians about the alleged incident.
Some interviewees swore they witnessed a shootout, or events they think led to a shootout or its aftermath. Some say the casualties were many, others say just a few. Some testimony claims to be first-hand, some is hearsay.
Through the Freedom of Information Act, Ridenhour had tens of thousands of government documents released. At the time of his death, they added up to an intriguing but purely circumstantial case pointing to the deaths and disappearances of at least some members of the 364th. Ridenhour knew much more investigation was needed to discover what really happened.
Ridenhour’s has been the most thorough pursuit of the story so far, but others, like Mississippian Carroll Case before him, and documentary producer Greg DeHart after him, continue to raise questions about this incident and the cauldron of racial tension that was roiling in the early years of World War II. The latest installment in this ongoing controversy is DeHart’s upcoming History Channel documentary The Mystery of the 364th, scheduled to premiere 9 p.m. May 20. This hour-long program neither proves the allegations nor puts them to rest. It does, however, support the contention that there are serious issues here that deserve a robust public debate.
The path of this story to The History Channel began with former McComb, Miss., banker Carroll Case, who first heard the tale of wholesale killing of blacks at Camp Van Dorn from a former MP who said he was one of the shooters. Case pursued the story on his own for five years, then, in 1990, passed copies of his files to Ridenhour. Ridenhour was in the thick of his investigation when he died. Following Ridenhour’s death, Case penned his own book on the subject, a mix of fact and fiction called The Slaughter: An American Atrocity.
The controversial and oft-maligned book caught the attention of the NAACP. The organization was shocked by the magnitude of Case’s allegation that 1,200 African-American combat troops were killed by white soldiers in a single night of fighting in southwest Mississippi in the summer or fall of 1943.
Due to pressure from Mississippi Congressman Bennie Thompson and the NAACP, which issued its own draft report on the subject in June 1999, the Army says it “was forced to respond” to inquiries about the book’s allegations. It committed thousands of hours and hundreds of thousand of dollars on a report released Dec. 23, 1999. The Army’s conclusion: “All available material clearly supports the conclusion no incident such as that described in The Slaughter could have taken place.”
Brig. Gen Brown, Chief of Military History, concluded: “This work has been accomplished with a rigor that should readily stand public or academic scrutiny.”
William Leftwich III, deputy defense secretary for equal opportunity, spoke to the press more forcefully: “With what we have done, the DOD and the Army … have put a stake in the heart of this vicious, maniacal … rumor.”
The Army report did not kill this “rumor.” The allegations are not laid to rest because the report does not pass scrutiny. Critics – including this writer – say the report is riddled with factual errors, marred by gaps and suffers from internal contradictions and conflicts with other Army records.
Here are two examples of such conflicts. In the narrative section of the report, the Army says a bloody riot in Phoenix involving members of the 364th prior to their arrival at Camp Van Dorn was the result of the regiment’s commander, Col. Wickham, serving too much beer to the black soldiers. Other declassified Army records indicate that Wickham had been relieved of his command at the time of the incident and was under medical observation in California on the day in question.
And in the report’s appendix, which is said to be a complete accounting of the enlisted men in the 364th, Pvt. William Walker is listed as “separated from service” – off the payroll – May 15, 1943. But Walker, according to the report’s main narrative, was shot and killed in uniform near the Camp Van Dorn gates two weeks later, on May 30.
When this writer created a database from the Army “roster,” dozens of these kinds of discrepancies emerged. Still, the report’s failure to end the debate should not be taken as an indication that the allegations are true, only that the controversy continues.
Not Colin Powell’s army
The military in World War II was not “Colin Powell’s Army,” as some call the integrated armed forces that saw the rise of a black man to high rank and national prominence. The mystery of the 364th – and the racial crisis of which it is emblematic – needs to be examined in light of the prejudices of the day.
The military was completely segregated, thoroughly “Jim Crow.” The Marines did not accept blacks at all. The Navy accepted them only for menial jobs. The Army reluctantly bowed to pressure and inducted some blacks into segregated units led by a white officer corps. Most black regiments were service units. Those few designated for combat were typically under-trained, under-supplied and sent to dreadful stations where they were isolated and subject to insult and attack from hostile, white civilians.
This prejudiced conduct was justified by Army War College studies like the so-called “Bly report,” issued in 1925, in response to racial problems in World War I. In among pseudo-scientific claptrap on the smaller “cranial cavities” of Negroes is this sweeping assertion: “The Negro does not perform his share of civil duties in time of peace. He has no leaders in industrial or commercial life. He takes no part in government. Compared to the white man he is admittedly of inferior mentality. He is inherently weak in character.”
With this as a blueprint, it is no surprise that despite the threat of a new world war, the military establishment resisted black participation. Some cities experienced riots when blacks were turned away from induction centers.
Though historians argue over Franklin Roosevelt’s political motives, the president appears in his declassified papers as adamant about a 10 percent quota for blacks in the Army as he was about his threat to withhold defense contracts from companies discriminating against blacks. White workers in shipyards from Mobile, Ala., to Chester, Pa., rioted against the president’s directives. In 1943 in Detroit, at about the same time the first race riots are reported at Camp Van Dorn, white workers enraged by black participation in the burgeoning war industry rioted for three days. The final toll: 25 blacks and nine whites were killed, hundreds injured, millions of dollars in damage.
The violent birth of a regiment
The 367th (Negro) Infantry Regiment – the forerunner of the 364th – was a rare early entrant to the pre-war preparations, activated as a black combat unit in March 1941 at Camp Claiborne, in central Louisiana just outside Alexandria. In December of that year, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Beneath the veneer of a country united in its hatred of the enemy, racial turmoil simmered.
Just one month after Pearl Harbor, violence flared in Alexandria. In a pattern that would repeat itself a frightening number of times in the years to follow, a black soldier in town with a pass was accused of accosting a white woman. He was set upon by police. His buddies fought back. Military police responded. People were killed and wounded and property destroyed.
How many were killed and how much was destroyed is itself still a subject of investigation and debate. Even the Army report at the time characterized the situation as a police riot. But one local newspaper reporter then, and investigators now, say that the Army understated the severity of the so-called “Lee Street riot” and undercounted losses. This minimization, some charge, is also part of the oft-repeated pattern.
At any rate, the 367th was broken up in March 1942. The official records of what happened are sketchy, contradictory and somewhat confusing. But so far, most researchers agree that the regiment’s First Battalion – about 1,000 enlisted men – received orders for overseas deployment. The remaining two battalions were re-designated the 364th (Negro) Infantry Regiment. It took in a batch of new recruits – mostly from Northern cities like Chicago, New York and Philadelphia – and were ordered to Arizona in June 1942.
By the fall, the full regiment was bivouacked at Papago Park in Phoenix. Letters from soldiers there and official Army investigations deplored the plight of the 364th both on base and in the hostile community surrounding it. A “John Doe” letter addressed to Pennsylvania Sen. Joseph Guffey summed up the situation: “If there is no change here, all of us from Pennsylvania have decided to go AWOL rather than be murdered in uniforms of the United States Army. Your delay, sir, can be the cause of a disgraceful consequence.”
Things were bad all over. A November 1942 memo to the Secretary of War from Truman Gibson, Civilian Aide to the Secretary, detailed “violent and abusive treatment of Negro military personnel by civilian public authorities in the South.” It listed incidents in Alexandria, La., Columbia, S.C., Norfolk, Va., Mobile and Montgomery, Ala., Beaumont, Texas and Little Rock, Ark. The memo concluded: “This continuing wave of violence may lead to rioting at any time and certainly it is raising havoc with the spirit of Negro soldiers, many of whom have reached the stage that they would rather fight their domestic enemies than the foreign foe.”
On Nov. 13, racially motivated fighting broke out involving the 364th at Papago Park. But it was nothing compared to what happened two weeks later on Thanksgiving night in downtown Phoenix.
The ‘Phoenix massacre’
Just as with the “Lee Street riot,” the details and body count of the “Phoenix Massacre” continue to be argued. A reporter for the Arizona Republic who covered the massacre told Ridenhour (himself a Phoenix native) that his access to the riot scene was restricted and that he always believed the body count was much higher than official reports.
In yet another aspect of a soon-to-be-repeated pattern, an initial altercation escalated when members of the 364th returned to camp, armed themselves and returned to Phoenix. All that is known for sure is that the firefight lasted all night over the predominantly black section of that desert town. Soldiers, police and civilians were killed and wounded. Court martials followed. The Congressional delegation urged the 364th be sent packing. The army agreed. But where?
Studies at the war’s onset warned that domestic racial problems posed a threat to troop mobilization and arms production and could lead to propaganda disasters. Agents for the Japanese, for example, were already promising Southern blacks – their “brothers in color” – freedom from white oppression, even economic rewards. Each report of racial violence that leaked out made its way to German and Japanese broadcasts to American soldiers overseas. A mid-war intelligence-led opinion survey suggested that 10 percent of the black population thought they would be better off under Japanese rule.
One study was adamant in its findings about the deployment of black troops: “… as little movement as possible be made into areas where racial relations are different from their home environment,” concluded “The Negro Problem in the Army,” circulated by Maj. Gen. Geo. Strong June 17, 1942.
This advice was not heeded when the most rebellious black combat unit the U.S. had ever seen was sent to the nation’s epicenter of racial hate and violence.
Letters claim killings
The 1999 Army report acknowledges a state of strained race relations as the 364th arrived by train in Centreville, Miss.: “To a majority it was a trip into a virtually unknown and foreign land where a man of color often had to fear for his life.” These fears, according to files Ridenhour had declassified, were not generic.
“Before the 364th came in, there were several unsolved murders of Negro soldiers. Their bodies were found in the field,” according to Cpl. Wilbur T. Jackson of the 512th Quartermaster Regiment, another segregated black unit. “All the white farmers and civilians are armed at all times and seem to want a pitched battle with Negro soldiers.”
In a memo forwarded to Truman Gibson, Acting Civilian Aide to the Secretary of War, Jackson continued: “Men have been constantly molested and beaten by white MPs.” Jackson said he was willing to testify anywhere, anytime about what he has seen, concluding his memo: “I’d rather die for something I really did than to be shot down because some officer doesn’t like the way I walk, or the look on my face.”
Violent racial clashes began at Camp Van Dorn and in nearby towns within 24 hours of the arrival of the 364th. Though there is much debate about details, the record reflects some consensus truths:
• Soldiers of the 364th claimed they were going to “clean up” the base and surrounding towns, challenging Jim Crow laws at every turn;
• White civilians were heavily armed, braced for a violent clash;
• The Army high command in Washington warned base and regimental commanders that they were to end racial violence or lose their jobs;
• On May 30, within days of the arrival of the 364th, Pvt. William Walker, while scuffling with white MPs near the entrance to the base, was killed by the local sheriff;
• Members of Walker’s company, joined by others, broke into base storerooms, stole rifles and headed for Centreville, swearing revenge.
The largest newspaper in the region, The McComb Daily Enterprise, reported: “Many wild rumors floated about … rumors of men being killed by the scores and of women being molested. All efforts to run these rumors down did nothing more than emphasize the chaotic way the public has of reacting to emotional disturbances.”