Merrill’s Marauders

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Hampton Roads Port of Embarkation Collection
Kneeling, left to right: Pvt. Frank L. Pruitt, Pvt. Patrick J. Muraco, Pfc. Angelo O. Pomotto. Standing, left to right: Pvt. Fred E. Nalley, Pfc. Joseph J. Colaci, Pvt. Samel J. Rayner.

Counted among the heroes of World War II are a few whose exploits became the stuff of legend, there you will find Merrill’s Marauders. Officially known as the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional), but best remembered by their catchy nickname given them by a war correspondent, the unit’s special mission was to unite with Chinese and British allies in Burma, east of India, in order to harass and disrupt the Japanese Army’s offensive.  The conditions in Burma were unbelievably harsh, not only were they out manned and outgunned by the Japanese, but they had to contend with exceptionally rugged terrain and tropical disease.

The six men pictured below were part of the 5307th and survived the brutal Burma Campaign. A Signal Corps photographer shot this photo as the men passed through Hampton Roads on their way home, December 26, 1944. The caption on the print labels them, “suicide outfit.”   Read more

Entertainment for the Troops

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Chocolate Soldier

As mentioned in the previous blog entries, the Hampton Roads Port of Embarkation (HRPE) was an extremely busy nexus of activity during World War II. It wasn’t all hard work, though. Camp Patrick Henry was an Army base at HRPE where troops stayed before leaving for overseas or as a stop on their way home. They also hosted concerts and programs to entertain those troops.

One such event occurred on January 10, 1943. Gray Gordon and his Tic-Toc Rhythm Orchestra came to the Camp and hosted a show that included music, comedy, magic, and dance acts of all kinds. The US Signal Corps photographers took full advantage of this and we are lucky enough to have a wonderful collection of this wide variety of performances.   Read more

The Tuskegee Airmen at HRPE

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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)

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.

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.   Read more

Picture this: Hampton Roads in WWII

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

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.   Read more