A memento, an emblem, a reminder

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Newport News Daily News, 7 May 1944.  The Mariners' Museum.
Newport News Daily News, 7 May 1944. The Mariners’ Museum.

An object is not always an object. Sometimes it can be a symbol or a reminder of lessons learned, sometimes it is a testament to recovery.

Some years ago, The Mariners’ Museum had the worst kind of archivist, lifting items from the collection and selling them on E-bay. To this day, no one is entirely certain what was lost. Records from before his tenure here were often incomplete and idiosyncratic, a fact he used and exploited to his advantage. The mess he left behind, both metaphorically and physically, is something we still deal with. No one is sure how he worked, or why some of these items were chosen and then left cluttering up his office. Were they things he had meant to sell and hadn’t yet gotten to, or was the massive pile of disorganized items meant to disguise the quantity that had gone missing?

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Photographs of the Photographers

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Sergeant Joseph Shere photographing three Navy photographers
Sergeant Joseph Shere photographing three Navy photographers

As we work through the HRPE collection, we see many images of the same subject matter – ships, stacks of crates, military vehicles, etc. – so it is always a pleasant surprise when we come across photos of something different. I recently cataloged a few photographs that show a little behind-the-scenes view of the photographers themselves.

While our collection of HRPE photos were taken by the Army Signal Corps photographers, the Navy had their own dedicated photographers. The first image shows Sergeant Joseph Shere of the Army photographing a Navy crew while Captain William R. Wheeler, the Port Historian, takes notes.

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The Smoking Snakes

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The Brazilian Expeditionary Force was an Allied force fighting in the Mediterranean during World War II and the only ground troops sent into the war from a South American country. The BEF had some notable victories in Italy in 1944 and 1945, but was generally late entering the war. At the beginning of the war Brazil tried to maintain neutrality, but as the war progressed trade with the United States became more important than trade with Germany and Brazil slowly came over to the Allies. The Brazilian Navy began to help the US Navy to keep shipping lanes open in the Atlantic and Germany retaliated by torpedoing Brazilian merchant vessels, killing hundreds.

The Brazilian government did not want war and the Brazilian people protested against it. It seemed highly unlikely that the Brazilian Army would ever send ground troops to fight in the European campaign. A popular saying in Brazil at the time was “the snake will smoke” before the BEF will go fight. This is something like our idiom in English, “when pigs fly,” meaning its not going to happen. The soldiers of the BEF adopted this phrase, calling themselves Cobras Fumantes, the Smoking Snakes. This bit of folk wisdom is captured in their divisional insignia.

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German POWs: Boys, Old Men, and Volkssturm

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Liberty ship Joseph Warren in quarantine at Newport News with 300 German POWs on board
Liberty ship Joseph Warren in quarantine at Newport News with 300 German POWs on board

During World War II, hundreds of prisoners of war from both Germany and Italy passed through Hampton Roads. Many of them stayed in prison camps on the Peninsula or in Norfolk while others were shipped to prisons all across the country. Eventually some were given jobs as laborers such as working in saw mills or repairing railroad track. The Army Signal Corps documented these prisoners as they arrived and were processed. From this we get a sense of how the POWs were treated and what their daily lives were like.

Late in the war something interesting happens: the demographic of German POWs entering Hampton Roads changes. We see fewer men of fighting age and a increase in the number of men in their 40s and teenagers. The Americans noticed this and interpreted it as a sign that the quality of Germany’s fighting force was in decline. It was a sign the war was drawing to a close.

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Go for Broke!!

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Army Signal Corps, HRPE
Soldiers of the 442nd look out from the deck of their ship at embarkation

“Go for Broke!” was the motto of the legendary 442nd Infantry Regiment. This regiment was predominantly composed of Japanese Americans, many of whom were born in Hawaii. They fought with great heroism in Italy, southern France, and Germany. This famous unit passed through the Hampton Roads Port of Embarkation April 21, 1944. We recently found these images in The Mariners’ Museum library as documented in the photo gallery below.

The 442nd is renowned for being the most decorated unit for its size and length of service in the history of American warfare. Kathryn Shenkle, a historian at Arlington National Cemetery, notes, “Members of this unit earned over 18,000 individual decorations including 9,486 Purple Hearts, and 5,200 Bronze Stars. The Combat Team earned five Presidential Citations in 20 days of Rhineland fighting, the only military unit ever to claim that achievement.” After the war a few men went on to achieve great personal success like U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye.

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