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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Flashback to the American Legion Memorial Museum

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U.S. Army Signal Corps, Hampton Roads Port of Embarkation Collection

Before the Virginia War Museum became Newport News city property the collection began its life in 1923 as the American Legion Memorial Museum. With a collection that focuses on personal artifacts from every era of American history the War Museum has a lot to offer! Today they are located next to Huntington Park and are open each day, 9-5, except Sundays when they open at 12. Go pay them a visit and see their impressive collection of war propaganda posters.

We were delighted to find a staged PR-shoot set in the old American Legion Memorial Museum in the Hampton Roads Port of Embarkation Collection housed in The Mariners’ Museum archives. As was common of many World War II PR efforts, a pair of photogenic WACs were drafted to model the collection. Through the eyes of Pvt. Doris Gregory and Cpl. Mary Braswell these photos allow us to explore some pieces from the War Museum’s collection as it existed in the 1940s. Of particular interest were a few relics from the current war in Europe and the Pacific.

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Entertainments at Sea

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F-6396 -- Phonograph kit, detail.
F-6396 — Phonograph kit, detail.

What do you do when you’re on a weeks-long trip, wedged into the hold of a Liberty ship? The inevitable boredom was apparently enough of a concern that the US Army made up crates of amusements for soldiers embarking for overseas service. Some of them make perfect sense, like small, portable musical instruments, or a collection of books. One wonders, however, where is there enough space to have a baseball game without losing the ball? Here is a selection of some of the more interesting sets pictured, with descriptions in the captions.

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Puerto Ricans and Hampton Roads

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U.S. Army Signal Corps. Hampton Roads Port of Embarkation Collection, L-13256.

Today there are more than 4 million Puerto Ricans living in the United States, making them one of the largest distinct ethnic groups in the U.S. and the second largest subgroup of Hispanics. While the Puerto Rican population in America is largely concentrated in New York City and Florida, Hampton Roads is home to one of the most substantial populations of Puerto Ricans in the south. This is to be expected as our community’s strong ties to the military brings in people from all over their world and Puerto Ricans have served proudly in the U.S. armed forces since at least World War I.

The Hampton Roads Port of Embarkation Collection gives us an important reminder that not all of our Puerto Rican neighbors are recent arrivals. Indeed many have been in Hampton Roads for generations. For example, in a series of seventeen photographs the U.S. Army Signal Corps documented servicemen returning to the mainland after being stationed in Puerto Rico. When the S.S. Fairfax docked in Newport News, March 29, 1945, it was also carrying their Puerto Rican wives and children.

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