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Were 1200 black soldiers massacred by white soldiers in Mississippi?

Camp Van Dorn was a U.S. Army Post located in Centreville, Mississippi and served as a training camp from 1942-1945. The 364th was an all-Black regiment of soldiers that had been stationed at Camp Van Dorn in Jim Crow-era Mississippi. According to the book, "The Slaughter: An American Atrocity," black soldiers were massacred in fall of 1943.

At that time, the Army had begun intensifying its efforts to recruit Blacks, as evidenced by the WWII propaganda film "The Negro Soldier" created in 1943 by the United States Army and released in 1944, but the Army was still racially segregated.  

The 364th arrived at Camp Van Dorn in two groups on May 26, and May 28, 1943, 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. On May 29, 1943, a Black soldier, Pvt. William Walker from the regiment was detained by a white military policeman and questioned, resulting in a fight. The county sheriff arrived, the private was shot and killed by the sheriff.

Shortly after, black soldiers stormed a supply room and took a number of rifles and planned to march on the town. A crowd gathered near the regimental exchange and a riot squad made up of Black military policemen fired into the crowd. Allegedly, only one soldier was wounded by this exchange and the soldiers returned to their barracks.

According to newspaper accounts, Centreville's mayor telegrammed the governor asking that the 364th be related to the North to avoid a serious race riot. Camp Van Dorn Commander R.E. Guthrie assured the local civilians that the disturbances had been controlled by military authorities. Another near-riot broke out in July 1943 at a service club dance on the base and the 99th was called to disperse a crowd of about 2,000. 

The Army high command in Washington, D.C., warned base and regimental commanders that they were to end racial violence or lose their jobs. The 364th's Morning Reports, a kind of company-by-company daily attendance sheet, note dozens of soldiers as AWOL following the Private Walker killing and its aftermath.

Killer's Confession

Carroll Case, a white Mississippi banker, artist, and writer born in 1939, heard "hushed rumors" of a mass killing of black troops during his childhood. In 1985, William Martzell, a maintenance man at the bank where Case was president confessed to Case about his participation in a massacre at Van Dorn. 

Martzell described a night in the fall of 1943 when he and other white troops and military police armed with machine guns surrounded the 364th's barracks. As quoted by Case, Martzell said, "We had the whole area sealed off–it was like shooting fish in a barrel. We opened fire on everything that moved, shot into the barracks, shot them out of trees, where some of them were climbing, trying to hide. . . ." 

Martzell explained the black soldiers were easily killed because the firing pins had been removed from all the black soldier's rifles. In 2001 the History Channel aired a documentary about the massacre titled, "Mystery of the 364th" shown below.

Case alleged the Army planned and executed the massacre of troops from the 364th and covered it up by informing next of kin the soldiers were killed in the line of duty and the bodies were not recoverable.

The book, pressure from a Mississippi congressman, Bennie Thompson, and the NAACP caused the Army to investigate the massacre allegations.

The Army spent more than 16 months trying to disprove allegations that 1,200 black soldiers were massacred during a racial disturbance at an Army camp in Mississippi during World War II. A final report was issued by the Army on Dec. 23, 1999, stating, "There is no documentary evidence whatsoever that any unusual or inexplicable loss of personnel occurred".

The Army based some of the conclusions in its 1999 report on records it kept classified. But the Army's report is riddled with dozens of factual errors, marred by gaps, and suffers from internal contradictions and conflicts with other Army records that diminish its credibility.

Army Clerk Claims of Forged and Changed Records

Malcolm LaPlace, a former 364th soldier, who told the makers of a documentary that his signature was forged on a key document, accused the Army of covering up the deaths of fellow soldiers by listing them as AWOL in regimental journals. LaPlace, who served as the regiment's clerk, said he is the one who made the changes at the request of the regiment commander, Col. John F. Goodman, who has since died.

"I worked with Col. Goodman for day after day, month after month. I sat at a desk right outside his office door," LaPlace stated. " I recall on four different occasions he had me revise journal entries. On one occasion he provided me with information for an entry that read 20 black soldiers had been found murdered. I typed it up and gave it to him. About an hour later he came back to me and he said, 'Sergeant, I have given you the wrong information.' What he gave me now read that 20 black soldiers were AWOL. Now how in hell do you go from murdered to absent without leave? That happened on three other occasions, when it was 10 [black soldiers murdered], and then about three, then one, all the same thing."

However, LaPlace says he never saw or heard about any mass shootings at Camp Van Dorn. 

In December 1943, the remaining men of the 364th were relocated to a camp in the Aleutian Islands, off the coast of Alaska. It was then that their personnel roster began to show signs of loss. Nearly 1,000 enlisted men — a third of the regiment — disappeared from the Aleutians with no explanation. 

Analysis

Just ten years before the Camp Dorn Massacre, Gen. Smedley Butler called war a racket. U.S. officials would not have wanted anything to hamper support for the war.

More than 60 million people were killed during World War II, including 419,400 U.S. Military deaths. Generals were sending tens of thousands of men to their deaths during single battles. The government certainly would not have jeopardized an entire war effort during WWII, to tell the truth about a massacre of rebellious black soldiers, that some white officials may have considered unpatriotic.

President Nixon's Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger said, “Military men are just dumb, stupid animals to be used as pawns in foreign policy.” Kissinger certainly wasn't the first U.S. official to believe that soldiers are pawns. When men at the highest levels of government feel this way, it's easy to understand how racist officers would have felt black soldiers were expendable. 

During World War II, when a family received word that their loved one was killed in the line of duty, missing in action or taken prisoner, they would have taken the information at face value and not questioned the truthfulness.

Unfortunately, the truth may never be known about what actually happened at Camp Dorn, but even rumors are often based on facts. I can't imagine a person near the end of his life lying about participating in a mass murder. What would he have to gain? 

The Army, on the other hand, has its reputation on the line and may be worried about the potential liability to the soldiers' families.


Part of the Court.rchp.com 2017 Black History Month Series

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