The majority of our collection about the Hampton Roads Port of Embarkation consists of still photography produced by the Army Signal Corps. However there are some moving pictures as well, including some shots made by the US Navy on June 3, 1943. A copy of the 35mm film is housed at The Mariners’ Museum and another copy belongs to the National Archives and Records Administration who has digitized the movies and uploaded them to a public online database. Much to our delight a retired librarian with the screen name WWIIPublicDomain has been going through the database and putting some of it on YouTube where it can be more easily found by the general public.
Hampton Roads Port of Embarkation sent and received millions of men and millions more tonnes of cargo, most of it bound to the Mediterranean Theater of Operations. These short clips document the 45th Infantry Division embarking from Newport News destined for the invasion of Sicily, code name Operation Husky.
In the above clip a train arrives at the Camp Patrick Henry railhead, this would have been somewhere in the vicinity of the Bland Blvd overpass. About 01:00 in and the men are loading their duffles into military trucks, then at about 01:45 they can be seen marching from the railhead to Camp Patrick Henry which was in the vicinity of the Newport News/ Williamsburg Airport. Next they unload their bags from the trucks and find their barracks. Newport News was an important staging area for fighting men prior to their embarkation, it was up to the newly established Transportation Corps, headquartered at Ft. Eustis, to manage the logistics.
The next segment in the video begins around 02:35 and shows the staging of military vehicles to be shipped abroad. We see men at work moving cargo by hand at 02:55. The majority of this kind of work was done by African Americans, some were military personnel and others civilian. Truman’s desegregation of the military was still five years away. One of the most notable ways in which the Army was segregated was in who did which jobs, generally there were fewer African American fighting men and more laborers.
At 03:20 into the video we see ships at the pier in downtown Newport News, these include transports like the Charles Carroll pictured above, and Liberty ships which held cargo as well as men. Much the cargo you see at 05:15 is probably ammunition and is being moved by hand from trucks to the pier and into the hold of a ship by netting suspended from a boom. World War II was still in the age of stevedores, the modern practice of containerization had not yet dawned.
The final segment of the first video begins around 06:15 and shows a train arriving at the pier. Prior to this the men must have marched from Camp Patrick Henry to the railhead and then taken the trains, run by Chesapeake & Ohio railway, to downtown Newport News. These trains came right onto the pier. We see the men filing past the check desk where Transportation Corps personnel collect each man’s name and compare it to a check list. This was before the days of digital information, all of this work was done by hand using paper and pencil.
The volunteers of the American Red Cross can be seen at work around 07:44, we’ll get another view of them in the second video below. This embarkation occurred in the late spring so the men are probably being served grape juice, in the colder months they would receives coffee. In some photos we see them with bottles of milk and donuts.
The second video clip picks up where the first one left off with more men going up the gangplank. Early on you can see the train on the pier and beyond that the James River beach. Note how the women of the Red Cross canteen have to hustle to serve as many men as possible. Typically the canteen workers are older women from Newport News, they may be the wives of Transportation Corps officers or the mothers of local fighting men. Often we see younger women in the ARC going abroad to serve as nurses aids or in other capacities.
The ship embarks around 02:05 making her way from the pier with the help of a tug. Men look out from the railing as the ship pulls away. By 03:20 the ship is well into the James River, still with tugs. It seems quite distant at 03:57 as she makes her way to the Chesapeake and then across the Atlantic to war.