The Port of Call Blog

The Tuskegee Airmen at HRPE

During the second world war, the Hampton Roads Port of Embarkation saw over a million people pass through its piers. Most of these were enlisted men, Some were women of the WAC or nurses. A few comedians, a few actors. Most of the people in these photographs are unknown outside of their own families and communities, shot only for visual documentation of everything that transpired at HRPE. Sometimes, there are unexpected (and sometimes mislabeled) gems in the mix. This past week, we found photographs of the 332nd Fighter Group, the Tuskegee Airmen, on their way to what appears to have been their first assignment overseas. Three of these men have their names provided, as well. We have reached out to Tuskegee University and the Tuskegee Airmen Inc. for help in identifying the many other men in these photographs.


Lt. Thomas G. Weaver and others wait to embark (the joys of modern image software — the original print of this was backwards. This has been reversed so words run the correct direction)

The United States military was still segregated during the war, and African Americans in the service were typically kept to labor and support roles. The Tuskegee Airmen were some of the very few exceptions, and were the first African Americans to fly for the U.S. Military. The exclusive and elite Tuskegee program began in 1941 at Tuskegee University in Alabama with the 99th Pursuit Squadron, and eventually expanded into other squadrons. Only the 99th and the 332nd ever saw combat, beginning in 1943 and 1944 respectively.


Coming in from the rain — Capt. Charles H. DeBow, Jr. and others

The images we have found of the Airmen (three so far) date from the 31st of December, 1943, and show the 332nd waiting for embarkation, on a cold, rainy night. Their faces show a variety of emotions from hope to apprehension, to boredom with waiting. In a month they would be in Italy, flying bomber escort missions and gaining respect as some of the best pilots in the Army Air Forces. Their skill and combat record is considered to be one of the factors that contributed to the desegregation of the military in 1948.


Lt. Arthur G. Price, Jr. and five others wait to embark

Picture this: Hampton Roads in WWII

In the summer of 1942 Newport News, Virginia, was once again called upon to play a major role for the United States as the armed forces prepared for another war in Europe. Just as they had done in the first World War, the railroads and ports would be used to transport massive numbers of soldiers and supplies abroad.  Collectively the Hampton Roads Port of Embarkation included warehouses and barracks in Warwick County, offices and piers in Newport News, a hospital in Phoebus, Fort Monroe, piers in Sewall’s Point, and the old Norfolk Army Base. Major W. Reginald Wheeler, in his two volume set about HRPE, The Road to Victory, writes that 1,687,000 men and women passed through the port before its decommission in 1945.


In the midst of all this hustle and bustle was the U.S. Army Signal Corps, hard at work documenting the daily life of soldiers and officers, their work loading cargo and embarking passengers, the many ships that came to port, and much more. Photographers like Sergeant Robert Olen, shown below with HRPE historian Major Wheeler, produced the more than 14,000 prints and negatives that we are currently working to catalog and make available to the public.



US Army Signal Corps Hampton Roads Port of Embarkation Photographs: L-11616


At The Mariners’ Museum archives are using a recent grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources to catalog the prints, digitize them, and find ways to make them available to the public. This might include exhibitions in the museum, in the library, or online. Satellite installations at partnering institutions are also a possibility. Because these comprise a “hidden collection” we don’t really know what we will find along the way! No one has looked at them all in a very long time. We’re excited to bring you updates on this project through the Port of Call blog, Facebook, Instagram, and via Twitter @MarinersMuseum.

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Library receives major grant!

After a long hiatus from this blog, the Library is back! We want to announce here to those who don’t already know that the Museum has received a $325,500 grant to catalog several of our negative collections in cold storage. This is big news, and we are so grateful to the Council of Library and Information Resources (CLIR) for funding our proposal.

CLIR logo

CLIR, the Coucil on Library and Information Resources

The three-year grant is part of an initiative CLIR developed with the Mellon Foundation to give museums and library funding to hide deeply hidden collections. The collections we proposed for cataloging are indeed very deeply hidden! They are collections of negatives, over 48,000 of them, that the Museum has accepted into its collections and that are now stored for their longevity’s sake in our Cold Storage unit. Some of the negatives are printed, but by far not all. In some cases, such as the Edward Hungerford Photographs, not even staff knew what these images looked like! Now we are making a concerted effort, not just to catalog, but also to digitize negatives that haven’t been examined for a very, very long time.

First negative digitized for the grant: Baden, Austria, 1928. Edward Hungerford Collection

First negative digitized for the grant: Baden, Austria, 1928. Edward Hungerford Collection

We want to invite you to follow this blog to find out week by week, as our three new project catalogers (Matt, Kit and Alison), explore and learn these collections and help us know better what we have. It’s going to be great fun for all of us!

10,000 Items Catalogued (Cont.)

Well, now that the Library has catalogued all these items pertaining to Monitor and Virginia, how do you the reader search for them? Let’s start out by talking about the Archives catalog at You can search here for anything that we as a museum care for. But if you want to search for these newly-catalogued Monitor and Virginia-related items, click on the “Archives” link. Once you’re there, I really recommend you read the Help. It can truly improve your searching.

Let’s say you’re interested in anything we catalogued about John Taylor Wood, who served aboard CSS Virginia. Now, I like the keyword search, but I like to limit the number of bad hits I get, so I will find a short and uncommon couple of words that go together and enclose them in quotes, like “Taylor Wood”. Select the Item Level, and hit the Search button.

John Taylor Wood search

Searching for John Taylor Wood in the Archives catalog

I got nine hits, all of them on our man John Taylor Wood. Now, on the left hand side of the screen, sometimes you’ll see an image, whether it be a photograph or a document or whatever, and sometimes you’ll see the little Adobe symbol. The Adobe Acrobat symbol tells you there’s a multi-page document there.

Search results

Search results

If you click in the Item Number, you’ll see a nice full record of the item.

Item record

Item Record for John Taylor Wood engraving, in MS0016, the John L. Worden Collection

If you want to copy the image from our catalog, feel free! If you want a better copy, or you want to come in and look at the item yourself, just give all the information from the catalog page to a staff member and we can bring it to you in no time!

Got a Maritime Research Question? Ask Us!

This past weekend, a reader who follows this blog wrote in a response to a blog post that was in itself a great research question.

I’m happy he asked it! We might very well have what he is looking for.

The best way to get your research question answered, however, is by dropping us an email or calling us. Get all of our contact information here. From there, our information specialist farms your question out to whichever library staff person is most familiar with the content.

It can take some time, and like everyplace else these days, we do charge a modest research fee. But you will get an answer and great, personal research help for your project.

The Mariners' Museum Library, circa 1944. We have come a long way since then!

The Mariners’ Museum Library, circa 1944. We have come a long way since then!

10,000 Items Catalogued (cont.)

Here is our final guest blog post, from Alex, who worked with us this past summer during the big drive to the finish line. Alex, yours is the last word:

Memo from Irwin Berent to John Newton, ca. 1980, MS0164, Irwin M. Berent Collection

Memo from Irwin Berent to John Newton, ca. 1980, MS0164, Irwin M. Berent Collection

Hello Readers! I am an intern at the Library this summer working on materials under the Battle of Hampton Roads Grant, mostly with materials from the Irwin Berent and Ernest Peterkin Collections. I have found the experience very worthwhile and it has been an intriguing glimpse into the world of Archival and Library Science. I wanted to share with you all one of the documents that I personally found to be the most compelling while I was cataloging.

This letter, from the Irwin Berent Collection, is actually written by Berent himself to John Newton. The letter is requesting the possibility of Berent being hired as an archivist if and when there is some type of Tidewater Monitor – Merrimack Museum, Library, and Archives created. Although Berent worked under Newton, they seemed to be good friends as they shared many interests, especially the Monitor and Merrimack. As such, the letter is written in a rather informal fashion and, if you take the time to read through it, some parts are quite funny. This letter gave me the most insight into the kind of young man that Berent was and therefore helped me to get to know him better. Since I was working through a lot of material created by him, documents like this one were priceless in that they helped me to better comprehend and analyze other materials by Berent.

I found this letter in particular very easy to relate to since I am a rising senior at CNU and will soon be seeking employment. Almost two-thirds of the letter is just Berent listing his achievements, somewhat awkwardly in my opinion. I often feel the same way when promoting myself for a position or internship. Although I know that self-promotion is healthy and necessary, it is reassuring that others, such as Berent, have taken the same plunge as I will and aren’t ashamed of listing their every achievement and ability to pursue their dreams and goals.

Thanks, Alex. All of us wish that you and your colleagues may pursue and achieve your dreams and goals, the way that Berent did. For those of you interested in how Irwin Berent has fared in the last 34 years, please have a look at his online bio. He has been a very busy man!

10,000 Items Catalogued (Cont.)

Here, readers, is another post from Allie, a student volunteer whose work helped us this past summer. Allie, the floor is yours:

Page 1 of Letter from Fran DuCoin to E.W. Peterkin, MS390, Series 6.1

Letter from Fran DuCoin to E.W. Peterkin, MS390, Series 6.1

Page 2 of DuCoin letter

Page 2 of DuCoin letter

Hello readers, this summer I spent the months of June and July interning at the Mariner’s Museum Library in Newport News and working on the Battle of Hampton Roads Grant. As a history major, I am looking into various career possibilities and working with archives is one of those options. I worked with a great many fascinating items over the summer but my favorite piece by far was a simple letter written from a man named Francis DuCoin to the main collector of the documents I was dealing with, Ernest Peterkin. The letter was the one piece that really struck me because I think that it captures the real purpose and importance of having an online catalog of the materials in the archives.

Francis DuCoin was a man living in Jensen Beach, Florida in 1984 and who had a passion for the U.S.S. Monitor. He wrote to Peterkin often, passing along information he had gathered through studying the ship and asking Peterkin for any news or material he had gathered himself. In the letter I have chosen DuCoin writes that it has been a year since they last wrote to one another and that he has had no real news on the Monitor apart from a small newspaper article and a segment on nightline. He asks if Peterkin ever published any of the books he was working on and for the results of an expedition to the ship’s site. DuCoin goes on with detailed questions about the expedition and asks for measurements of the ship in order to build a model.

The reason this letter was my favorite piece to work with was because it really shows why having an online catalog is so important for people like Francis DuCoin who live far away and do not have the ability to come view documents in person. This gives real meaning to the work I spent doing throughout the summer. By cataloging and helping in the effort to digitize the numerous records available in these collections, the Library is expanding the number of people who will be able to view the documents and people like Francis DuCoin will have all the information at their fingertips. Most of all, the document shows how different access to information has become over the thirty years since DuCoin wrote this letter.

What Allie didn’t know is that Fran DuCoin was, and is, a great friend of the Monitor and continues to come and help with the work nearly every summer.

10,000 Items Catalogued (Cont.)

So how, you might ask, does a small Library and even smaller Photographic Services staff undertake and complete the digitization and cataloguing of 10,000 items in the space of 12 months? We may have declared victory, but victory belongs as well to a veritable army of interns and volunteers we found when the crisis was upon us. Twenty-two young men and women from around the Commonwealth came to our aid when we most needed them. They gave us anywhere between 12 and 162 hours apiece of their service. Considering how detail-oriented and repetitive the work can be, even 12 hours is grueling.They added not only much-needed labor but also a great spirit of camaraderie and good humor to the place. We are so grateful to them! And we hope they learned something about archival and library science in the mix.

I have asked a few of these volunteers to write in and tell us which piece they remembered most and why. What you will see are their own words. Here, then, is what Ashley wrote:

Sailing Orders

“CSS Virginia Orders for Observers of Battle of Hampton Roads Reenactment” from MS0164, Irwin M. Berent Collection.

The “Sailing Orders” was the first item I catalogued…ever. I’ve done some basic data entry before but nothing as precise as cataloguing. This was my first real taste of the precision it takes to make these records. Until I started working on this record I didn’t realize that everything we were working on would eventually be put online for everyone to see. I still wasn’t completely sure how to do everything and I was pretty nervous about making mistakes. Then I thought about it and remembered every record goes through numerous checks before the librarians declare them “complete.” After that I dove right in and started creating my first record.

The first part of making records, at least when you’re new like I was, is creating stub files. Stub files are incomplete records that don’t have the description or the “aboutness” tags. So after I created the stub file for this item and the other items in the box I had to go back and create the full records. One thing I realized after going back was how much easier records are when you have more information. I had no context for the “sailing orders” or Richard Curtiss and didn’t know a whole lot about the Battle between the Monitor and the Merrimack. When I went back to make the full record I realized the “sailing orders” were for a historical reenactment of the Battle of Hampton Roads that occurred during the 125th Anniversary Commemoration Celebration. Suddenly everything made sense and came together.

As a native of Hampton Roads, I was born and raised in Chesapeake before I went to college; I grew up learning about the Civil War and the “Battle of the Ironclads.” We even have a tunnel we call the Monitor-Merrimack. It was great learning about the people involved in the battle and seeing what they had to say. I also became really familiar with fans and researchers of the Battle. Irwin Berent spent a decade researching the battle and its participants and helped to organize a “reunion” for the descendants of the participants that included speeches and a historical reenactment. I feel like I’ve accomplished so much this summer and I’m super excited that something I created will be used for years to come. And to make the icing on the cake even sweeter, I’m taking a Civil War class this semester and I feel like I could teach the class period that covers the Battle of Hampton Roads!

10,000 Items Catalogued (Cont.)

In my last post, I said that the Library had just completed a massive cataloguing project of items related to the U.S. Steam Battery Monitor and the C.S. Ironclad Virginia. These items came from 59 different archival and research collections. Among them are extremely rare photographs collected by an early Monitor “groupie” in the 1880s by the name of Frank Pierce, letters from sailors aboard Monitor and from witnesses to the Battle of Hampton Roads, both Union and Confederate, unique plans and drawings of Monitor, and receipts from vendors for materials used in her construction. There are also research notes of people who did important historical work on the two ironclads and genealogical work on their officers and crew. Here, then, is an annotated summary of some of the collections we have catalogued. Enjoy!

Virginia's ram

Virginia‘s ram

  • MS0006, Elwin Eldredge Collection on John H. Morrison – Research notes on the development of armored vessels, including great manuscript sketches of Virginia‘s bow.

  • MS0008, William de Rohan Papers – Admiral Dahlgren’s wayward brother whose concept drawings of turreted warships were part of the Zeitgeist that created Monitor.
  • MS0010, George S. Geer Family Papers – Wonderful letters to his wife Martha from Monitor, written from the enlisted man’s point of view.
  • MS0013, Isaac Newton Jr. Family Papers – Ranging collection of materials from the son of the founder of New York City’s Citizen’s Line of steamers, who became first engineer on Monitor.
  • MS0014, William Monegan Letters – Letters from this soldier of the 10th New York Volunteers who witnessed the Battle of Hampton Roads and other battles of the Peninsular Campaign.
  • MS0016, John L. Worden Collection – Document collection and stunning photograph album of the officers and crew of both Monitor and Virginia, put together by Frank Pierce.
William De Rohan ironclad design

William De Rohan ironclad design

  • MS0080, Samuel Gilbert Webber Letters and Sketch – Letters home to his sweetheart from the surgeon on the steamer Rhode Island, the ship that towed Monitor on its last voyage.

  • MS0334, Arthur B. Upshur Transcript of a John Cary Letter – Transcription of a letter from officer John B. Cary, probably of the 32nd Virginia Infantry, to his sister with details of the Battle of Hampton Roads from the Confederate viewpoint.
  • MS0335, Battery Associates Records on Monitor Design and Construction – Receipts for materials and payments kept by John Griswold, treasurer of the group of investors that, with John Ericsson, built the Monitor.
  • MS0363, Jacob Nicklis Family Letters – Small collection of letters to his father from a crewman who died on Monitor.
  • MS0376, Thomas F. Rowland Collection – Original plans and an original contract from the man whose company, Continental Works, built Monitor.
  • MS0385, Willie Anne Wright Photographs – Modern pinhole photography, some of which is abstract, of the Museum’s Monitor evocation and of re-enactors on her deck.
  • MS0555, Collection of Battle of Hampton Roads Ships Plans – Plans of Monitor, Merrimack and Virginia, including 3 original John Luke Porter plans of Virginia.
Martha Geer

Martha Geer

Thomas Fitch Rowland

Thomas Fitch Rowland

Monitor's deck, past/present, by Willie Anne Wright

Monitor‘s deck, past/present, by Willie Anne Wright

Monitor's Propeller

Monitor‘s Propeller

Concept drawing of what will become Virginia by J. L. Porter

Concept drawing of what will become Virginia by J. L. Porter

10,000 Items Catalogued

Almost exactly one year ago today, staff member Aya Eto brought to your attention a project we had then just begun in earnest, a project to catalog 10,000 items relating to the construction, service, destruction, legacy, and research on the U.S. Steam Battery Monitor and the C.S. Ironclad Virginia. You can read what she wrote here and see a few of Jacob Nicklis’s letter’s home to his father. Nicklis died in the foundering of Monitor off Cape Hatteras in 1862.


IMLS logo

You might recall from Aya’s post that this project was funded in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The IMLS, as it is called in the biz, has funded a several Mariners’ Museum initiatives in the past and we have been very fortunate to have their continued support for this one. According to the terms of the grant, then, we are to photograph and catalog 10,000 items for our own catalog, and send as many of those to WorldCat as are worthy of going up. I’ll talk more about WorldCat in a subsequent blog entry.

Well folks, the unofficial news this morning, almost 1 year to the day after Aya wrote that blog entry, is that we have finished! There is some normal clean-up to do, records to review and correct, items that are waiting to upload to WorldCat, that sort of thing, but we are declaring VICTORY! The photography is complete, the catalog records have been created and the photos attached.

You’ll hear a good bit about how we did what we did and what it all means for you, maritime lovers and Civil War history buffs, in the coming days and weeks. We’ll have some guest blog entries from volunteers and staff members who helped us along the way. We’ll give you a list of the collections we catalog, and some tips for searching our catalog for them. And we’d love to hear from you, once you’ve seen the results, and see what you think.