The One-Shot Race Riot Footnotes to the Good War

July 05, 1995|By GWINN OWENS

Today the U.S. armed forces are so completely integrated that it is difficult to realize that throughout World War II they were as segregated as a bus station in Alabama.

Moreover, the Navy, with its British-derived tradition of officers as gentlemen, consigned black men to duties as servitors. While the rest of us could aspire to such interesting petty-officer rates as quartermasters, signalmen, gunner's mates or radio technicians, black sailors, with rare exceptions, were mess cooks or stewards, and their principal task was to wait upon the officers.

Our seaplane base, on Lombrum Point by Seeadler Harbor in the Admiralty Islands, was no exception. We lived in about 20 Quonset huts in rows between the harborside and the dense jungle. Two of these huts were black-only, one of them directly facing my own barracks.

On the surface, relations were cordial; blacks seemed to accept their lot (What other choice did they have?), but there was little interracial socializing.

Nevertheless, our paths did cross, and acquaintances, if not friendships, developed. I was particularly fond of one soft-spoken, eloquently decent mess cook named Carey. He seemed to be one of those who had reached a mental modus vivendi in his unhappy situation. But interracial hostility was always under the surface. And it was Carey who was a key player in an ugly, frightening incident.

In the early summer of 1945 the war, which had once been very close to our island, has moved northward, with the focus now on the expected invasion of Japan.

We are still dispatching seaplanes up to the war zones, and I daily patrol the landing area in my boat, but other than the endless yearning for home -- a place that for some of us is now years in the past -- life is benign and boring.

One day I am conscious of some angry voices outside the screen door of my barracks. I have no idea what has caused the altercation, but it grows angrier. Stepping to the door, I see Culver, a master-at-arms (the ''MA's'' are a sort of police force on the base) arguing with one of the black sailors.

''You heard me. Get over the MA shack.'' (The equivalent of a police station.)

''I don't give a damn what you said, ain't goin'.''

''I'm telling you . . .''

A polarized crowd begins to gather, white sailors behind the MA, black sailors behind his target.

''That's an order. You march, or I'll take you in.''

The black man answers with an obscenity. Culver takes his .45 out of his holster. ''Now get moving.''

The crowd gets larger, perhaps 50 whites, facing 25 blacks. The black sailor is defiant.

''You a big strong man, got a gun.''

Culver raises the gun in his direction, without speaking.

''You got a gun, use it. You ain't no man if you don't use your gun.''

Competing taunts arise from the crowd. Now the MA points the gun directly at the sailor.

My God, I shudder, he's going to kill that man right before my eyes. Now the facing black and white forces are mutually rigid with anger. Neither of the confronting pair blinks. There seems to be no escape from a mortal denouement. An awful silence closes in.

Then: ''Pow!''

A gun goes off. It is not the MA's .45, but from somewhere nearby.

Bravado ends when bullets start flying. In utter panic, everyone -- including me -- runs, and we do not stop until we get to the water's edge, which is as far as we can go. Whatever their predilection for violence, no one wants to get shot. The MA ran, too, so did the alleged offender. The tension is broken, the incident is over.

What happened? Only afterward do we learn the story. Inside the black sailors' barracks, one of the men was so enraged that he grabbed his carbine in readiness for an impending race riot. My friend Carey, an apostle of reason, snatched it away from him. In the scuffle, the rifle was fired -- harmlessly through the roof of the barracks.

Accidentally or not, Carey had turned belligerent bigots of both races into timid souls fleeing for their lives. He should have gotten a medal. I'm sure he didn't.

Gwinn Owens is a retired Evening Sun editorial writer.

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