Ghosts of Mississippi

Were a thousand African-American soldiers gunned down by the Army in a racially motivated shoot-out in 1943?

Were members of the controversial 364th (Negro) Infantry Regiment killed at Mississippi’s 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. 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. There were hundreds of bloody domestic firefights from Camp Benning, Ga., to Beaumont, Texas; from Fort Dix, N.J., to Camp Shenango, Pa.

Much of what we are learning about this racial violence is coming from recently released documents that were part of a massive, and largely unknown, wartime domestic intelligence operation. And much of what we don’t know about the period is the result of government press censorship.

The ongoing controversy will be examined in an upcoming History Channel documentary, “The Mystery of the 364th,” scheduled to premiere on May 20. The hour-long program explores allegations that, upon first reading, seem ridiculous — especially the charge that 1,200 soldiers were killed in a single massacre at Camp Van Dorn, and that a subsequent cover-up has gone on for almost 60 years. But even one Army commentator believes aspects of history can be hidden for generations. “Although almost too preposterous to consider at first,” he wrote of the Camp Van Dorn massacre, “so too was the government’s involvement in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study.”

The facts of the 364th

The 364th was an all-black regiment of soldiers that had been stationed in Jim Crow-era Centreville, Miss. At that time, the Army had begun intensifying its efforts to recruit blacks, but was still racially segregated. The few black regiments designated for combat were typically undertrained, undersupplied and sent to stations where they were isolated and subject to insult and attack from hostile white civilians.

In May 1943, when the beleaguered 364th arrived in Centreville, the treatment it received was no exception. The men of the 364th, some of whom had already survived three previous race riots, came to Centreville announcing they were going to “clean up” the base and surrounding towns, and challenged Jim Crow laws at every turn.

White civilians, who 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. But on May 30, within days of the 364th’s arrival, the local sheriff killed one of its men, Pvt. William Walker, who had been scuffling with white MPs near the entrance to the base. Members of Walker’s company broke into base storerooms, stole rifles and headed for Centreville, swearing revenge.

What followed the 364th’s rally and cry is subject to conflicting reports. Allegations range from minor skirmishes and disciplinary action to wholesale slaughter. 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.”

There was chaos to be sure. The 364th’s morning reports, a kind of company-by-company daily attendance sheet, note dozens of soldiers as AWOL following the Walker shooting and its aftermath. Files in the National Archives trace some who made their way north, seeking from their local induction boards asylum from what they called a life-threatening situation.

Whatever happened, in December the remaining men of the 364th were relocated to a far-off camp in the Aleutian Islands. It was then that its personnel roster began to show signs of hemorrhage. Records show that between 800 and 1,000 of the 3,000 men left the 364th before the war’s end. In other words, from June 1943 until Japan’s surrender, about one soldier’s name per day disappeared from the 364th’s roster.

Pressured by Mississippi congressman Bennie Thompson and the NAACP — who feared a massacre had occurred at Centreville — the Army committed thousands of hours and hundreds of thousand of dollars to explain the massive losses. A report was finally issued on Dec. 23, 1999. “There is no documentary evidence whatsoever that any unusual or inexplicable loss of personnel occurred,” the report contends.

But inconsistencies in the Army’s report have diminished its credibility, leaving unanswered the same haunting questions that journalists have been investigating for years.

Not Colin Powell’s Army

Before arriving in Centreville, members of the 364th Regiment had already been involved in three race riots. In fact, the Army created the 364th to reorganize the 367th, a regiment of black soldiers that had been demoralized by the January 1942 “Lee Street Riot” in Alexandria, La., in which dozens were injured and, according to some reports, as many as 10 people were killed. After the newly created 364th had been relocated to Phoenix, Ariz., racially motivated fighting erupted twice, killing at least three people. Ironically, it was in response to the Phoenix riots that the government shuttled the 364th to Centreville.

The 1999 Army report acknowledges a state of strained race relations as the 364th — most of whom were from cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York — arrived in the deep South, coming by train to the isolated town of Centreville. “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,” the report states.

These fears, according to the late journalist Ron Ridenhour, were not unfounded. Ridenhour — perhaps best known as the soldier whose letters to Congress prompted investigation into the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War — spent nine years investigating the 364th’s fate. During his investigation, he uncovered declassified documents that confirmed a pattern of racial violence. “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.”

Letters in the National Archive and in NAACP files describing the events that ensued following the murder of Pvt. William Walker echo the information in Ridenhour’s files.

“We are catching hell here,” a member of the 364th wrote. “Two of our men have been kill [sic] and we have only been in this camp for six days. Something worse is going to happen soon.”

“There have been about 20 or 25 Negros [sic] hurt and kild [sic],” another white soldier wrote. “They [sic] have been 5 or ten shot right through the head ... and we are going to give them hell when they come around us.”

Whatever happened that June in Centreville was of grave concern to the Army. “The Negro situation is fast approaching a critical stage,” states one declassified memo. After the riots occurred, the Army responded harshly. An Army Inspector General report prepared after Private Walker’s shooting describes the Army’s reaction: “[Gen. McNair] is of the opinion that the best solution is to confine the organization to the limits of its regimental area and deprive it of all privileges until such time as it will disclose its real troublemakers.”

Another Army Inspector General report concludes: “In light of the recent riotous conduct of the 364th Infantry, vigorous and prompt corrective action was necessary in order to place this regiment in such a disciplinary state that it would not again resort to mutinous conduct and to protect the lives of the citizens of Centreville and other innocent persons.”

Ridenhour interviewed black vets who remember that punishment. In effect, they were subject to house arrest in a cordoned-off area within the base. White vets Ridenhour spoke to patrolled the perimeter in Jeeps and half-tracks mounted with .50-caliber machine guns. More letters intercepted by military intelligence and other Ridenhour interviews make reference to sporadic gunfire exchanges across the cordon line.

In September 1943, Col. Lathe Row of the Army Inspector General’s Office studied the situation and concluded, “The presence of the 364th Infantry constitutes a threat to the normal peaceful conditions at Camp Van Dorn ... [and] should be transferred at an early date ... for overseas duty.”

According to most 364th regimental documents, those troops not transferred to other units left Camp Van Dorn by train Dec. 26, 1943. After waiting a month or so at Fort Lawton, near Seattle, Wash., they embarked on three ships for the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska.

Where did they go?

After investigating Army payroll records and handwritten notations in the regimental journal, Ridenhour estimated that nearly 1,000 enlisted men — a third of the regiment — disappeared from the Aleutians with no explanation. In fact, official records from the period raise more questions that they answer. Among the suspicious factors:

· Military personnel records crucial to the incident, along with millions of others, were destroyed in a fire in 1973.

· National Archives intelligence files released to Ridenhour were incomplete and heavily edited.

· The Army based some of the conclusions in its 1999 report on records it kept classified.

· The 364th’s regimental journal shows no entries from the day the 364th arrives in Mississippi until Nov. 4, 1943 — almost the entire period in question.

· The regimental journal’s pages, starting in 1942, are signed by a Sgt. Malcolm LaPlace, whose service record proves he was not even in the service in 1942.

The 1999 Army report executive summary says, “There is no documentary evidence whatsoever that any unusual or inexplicable loss of personnel occurred.” Attached to the report is an appendix that indicates hundreds of soldiers (almost one-fourth, it appears, of the regiment’s authorized strength in the period) were transferred out of the troubled 364th to other segregated units prior to shipping out to the Aleutians. Further, the Army said it has accounted for all but 20 of the nearly 4,000 black enlisted men who served in the 364th during some period of time from April through December 1943.

But the Army’s report is riddled with dozens of factual errors, is marred by gaps and suffers from internal contradictions and conflicts with other Army records that diminish its credibility.

Notably, in the report’s appendix — the document purporting to give a complete account of the enlisted men in the 364th — Pvt. William Walker is listed as “separated from service” — off the payroll — as of May 15, 1943. But Walker, according to the report’s own main narrative, was shot and killed in uniform near the Camp Van Dorn gates two weeks later, on May 30.

As part of the upcoming History Channel film, documentarian Greg DeHart questioned Army officials about these discrepancies. The Army penned a memo defending itself, saying that faulty record keeping in the 1940s, miscommunication about transfer orders and poorly copied records can account for the apparent conflicts.

Perhaps further research will show the worst violence at Camp Van Dorn and other bases occurred at the hands of civilians, not Army personnel. Or perhaps “troublemakers” were disappeared into a maze of secret courts martial, open-ended “disciplinary” internments and dishonorable discharges.

But even if the Army’s records do give a complete accounting of the whereabouts of all but 20 of the men in 364th, the records would not be the men themselves. When the Army sought to interview living members of the 364th, they turned up only 116 by the time the report was issued.

Until more witnesses to the events of 1943 step forward to speak, this dark corner of American history is unlikely to be further illuminated.

Geoffrey F.X. O’Connell’s research is supported by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism. He is preparing the book Losing Private Walker on the mystery of the 364th Infantry Regiment.

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