Lots of Mud, a Battleship, a Ferry, a T-shirt, High Tides, and a UFO.

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USS Wisconsin (BB-63)

What do a Battleship, 1950, mud, high tides, a Hudson River Ferry, a T-shirt, and a UFO all have in common?

To find out how they interconnect, let’s start with the Battleship USS MISSOURI (BB-63). In 1950, the ship was already famous for her participation in WWII, and because the surrender that ended the war was signed on her deck. MISSOURI was nicknamed the “Mighty Mo” by her crew, but she was also known as the “Big Mo” to the public and in news reports. She would soon live up to them both names when she managed to get into a mighty big mess.

It all began on January 17, 1950. MISSOURI left Norfolk Naval Base and headed towards the Atlantic Ocean to begin a routine training cruise to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Her Captain, William D. Brown, was new to the battleship, having just joined the crew in December. While he was an experienced naval officer, his previous commands had been submarines and destroyers and he had been on shore duty since the end of World War II. Although Captain Brown had taken MISSOURI on a few short trips off the coast of Virginia after he took command, he was essentially unfamiliar with the battleship and this would be his first time taking her out for a cruise.

The Navy had set up an acoustic range to capture the signature sounds made by ships and it was close to MISSOURI’s departure point. Captain Brown had been asked to take a previously unplanned trip through the range on his way out, and he was told that buoys had been set up to mark the area. This was important since the range was very close to shallow water.

Things started to go wrong pretty quickly. It turned out that some of the buoys had been removed and the navigational charts hadn’t been updated with that information. Not all the ship’s officers knew about the plan to take MISSOURI through the range, and some of them only heard about it just before the battleship headed in that direction. Another complication was that the range area was close to a fishing channel that was also marked with buoys.

Brown spotted what he thought was the marker for the right edge of the acoustic range and ordered the battleship to the left of the buoy. He ignored warnings by the navigator and the executive officer’s attempts to alert him, not realizing until much too late that he had made a mistake. Even though the tide was unusually high that day, MISSOURI was heading into the fishing channel and shallow water.

At 8:17 am, the “Mighty Mo” hit a sandbank in the Chesapeake Bay, about a mile and a half from Thimble Shoal Light and a mile off Old Point Comfort. The battleship, traveling at 12.5 knots, plowed 2,500 feet into the sandbar, bottoming out the ship and lifting her out of the water about seven feet above the waterline.
Now the ship was stuck just off the Army base at Fort Monroe, close to Thimble Shoals Lighthouse, the shipping channel, and within sight of the Naval Base.

Within a couple days, articles would start appearing in newspapers all across the country that “Mighty Mo” or “Big Mo” had grounded. These articles were quickly followed by reports of multiple failed attempts to free the battleship over the next two weeks. Bringing not only amusement to the onlookers and readers, but also quite a bit of humiliation to the Navy. Army personnel, finding the entire situation hilarious, discovered a new hobby. Partaking in the amenities of the Fort Monroe Officer’s Club while writing letters and composing telegrams containing suggestions on how to free the battleship. The public also got involved and sent suggestions too. The Navy was inundated with ideas, including one from a five-year-old boy in Indiana who told them they just needed to fix the bottom of the ship so she could float again.

After numerous failed attempts using a large number of tugboats, military vessels, small explosive charges, dredging, large cables, and other methods, MISSOURI was finally refloated on February 1, 1950, during another unusually high tide. Even after the ship was freed, the jokes continued. For most of 1950, anytime an accident involved a large amount of mud, the nickname “Mo” surfaced again. A situation was a “Big Mo,” like a plane that slid off an icy runway into the mud. A car that imitated the “Big Mo” or two boats that went aground in mud off New Jersey on the same day and the efforts to free them was named “Operation Big Mo”.

So now on to April 1950, the ferryboat and a point on the Hudson River in New York. There, two cities are located across from each other on the river. Newburgh, located in Orange County, and just one and a half miles away,  Beacon in Dutchess County. Both cities are about 55 miles from the New York metropolitan area. The Newburgh-Beacon Ferry system provided transport between the two cities with three commuter ferries named ORANGE, DUTCHESS, and BEACON. Usually, two of the three boats were in service at the same time, each moored at the opposite side of the river and they passed each other in the middle during their runs. The first run of the day began around 7am and it took about 15 minutes to reach the other side of the river.   Read more

A World War II Camp Hill Mystery…

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S/Sgt. John B. Dyer, Jr., 34327356, Rockwood, Tenn., 3164th QM Company, Camp Hill, congratulates Mrs. Anna B. Palmer, Newport News, Va., who was just named the mother of Camp Hill, HRPE, Newport News, Va. (Archive #P0003/01-#E-13990)

Dearest Mariners’ Blog Readers, I need your help with something. A short while ago, I was perusing our collection as I often do, in search of an interesting February lecture topic. Each month, I meet with the docents (at present, this is done virtually), and give a short presentation on an object in our collection. And for February, I was on the hunt for something relating to World War II and Black History – I was hoping we maybe had an object belonging to Francis Wills or Harriet Ida Pickens. Alas, I had no such luck. But what I did happen upon is actually far more intriguing and exciting.

The initial object that caught my eye was the above photo that has the catalog title Anna Palmer, mother of Camp Hill. I instantly had many questions: Who was Anna Palmer? What is a Camp mother? And what is this Camp Hill? To my knowledge, Camp Hill was abandoned after World War I – could this be the same camp? Although, to be completely honest, I am far from an expert on the Hampton Roads Ports of Embarkation. As it turns out, this photo is one of over 600 in our collection that include some variation of “Camp Hill, HRPE”  in the inscription on the reverse – the Army Signal Corps was diligent in their accurate labeling of photos.

I’ll admit, I foolishly thought this would be an easy research task. It was only a little over a year ago that the exhibit Answering America’s Call: Newport News in WWI closed, and I assumed that there would be a wealth of information on Camp Hill as it operated during World War II. I was quite wrong. My initial searches in our library, online, and in the various research databases returned almost no information, and I was consistently rerouted to information on Camp Hill as it functioned in World War I.

Camp Hill, as part of the Hampton Roads Ports of Embarkation during both World Wars, was named after Confederate Lt. Gen. Ambrose P. Hill. For the first world war, construction began in 1917, and after two years of service, the camp was abandoned in 1919. Just like other ports of embarkation, the camp was used for housing and training of troops awaiting overseas transfer. Camp Hill specifically was one mile long, was comprised of 200 buildings, and held warehouses for war supplies, as well as corrals that could accommodate 20,000 animals. The camp could also hold 10,000 troops.

And yet, we have proof that Camp Hill was fully functional during World War II with this large set of photographs – with the very detailed labeling, we can see who was photographed, and what they are doing at the time of the photograph. But what we don’t have is context – how were the functions of this version of Camp Hill different from World War I? And why has this camp, which appears to be a “Separate but Equal” staging camp, effectively eliminated from history books and scholarship?

Only the tiniest bit of light has been shed with the 1946 book,  The Road to Victory: a History of Hampton Roads Ports of Embarkation during World War II by W. Reginald Wheeler, a 2-volume set we are lucky to have at the Museum. In the book, Camp Patrick Henry is given the most spotlight, with other mentions of Camps in Norfolk and Newport News, and Camp Hill is given the least amount of focus. In the first volume, the Camp is only mentioned 4 times, naming the 277th Quartermaster Battalion that was assigned for warehouse and pier training and that barracks were built for military police, labor battalions, and stevedore trainees. The second volume gives information on the morale services that were available to soldiers and their families.

And this is where I need your help as I and our archivist continue on this project and look through army archives and newspaper records. We want to fill the gap in historical research that has left this story untold. So readers, if you are, or have a family member or friend who served in WWII and was staged at Camp Hill, please share your story with us! I encourage you to look through our photos and see if you recognize anyone – (https://catalogs.marinersmuseum.org/search?search_catalog=Archives&query=camp%20hill). Luckily, the U.S. Army Signal Corps has already done a lot of the work by providing the names of each person pictured. In my searching, I found the above photo which has Capt. F.D. Pollard – and I believe this gentleman is Frederick Douglas “Fritz” Pollard Jr. who won bronze in the 100m hurdles at the 1936 Olympics. You might just have the same luck – and we could definitely use your help!



Hampton Roads During WWII: USO Clubs

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Dance floor at Service Club C. Naval Ammunition Depot Band played for the benefit of Enlisted men & their ladies to gave a round of applause to Lt. Burgess for his efforts in making the evening a success. (archive number P0003/01-#J-9176)

While the most recognizable way for individuals to serve their country at times of war is through the service branches, there have historically been many other ways in which people served their country abroad and at home. For example, the United Service Organizations, better known as USO, a nonprofit-charitable organization which provides leisure facilities and shows to United States Armed Forces was founded by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in 1941, to “unite several service associations into one organization to lift the morale of [the] military and nourish support on the home front” (USO.com/about).

In fact, during World War II, there were estimated to be about 3,000 USO clubs worldwide, and Hampton Roads Port of Embarkation was no exception. USO clubs helped soldiers feel at home and gave them the opportunity to step away from the job and the realities of war. They provided leisure, like dances, ping pong tables, and other games; entertainment, sometimes local bands or even Hollywood celebrities would make an appearance (!); and they often had a snack bar, too, selling sandwiches, smokes and soda (but not liquor!) to service people.

During WWII the US military was, unfortunately, still a segregated institution. This included not only the US service branches, but their various volunteer and women’s groups (some of which we’ve already written about) like the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), Army Nurse Corps (ANC), Women’s Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service (WAVES), and Semper Paratus Always Read (SPARS); USO clubs were no exception.  Many Black, Indigenous, and People of Color served and supported the war effort despite these discriminatory regulations, though. But that did not mean their work was not hard, or in many cases even unsupported. This also meant that African American service-people and civilians had to work to open an African American USO Club at HRPE.

“African American women found themselves not only providing all unpaid labor for the USO Colored Division staff but also finding money to provide facilities for the soldiers. However frustrating it was, helping with the USO provided a real center of power by enabling black women to provide important infrastructure for housing and entertaining millions of troops. Because the USO and Red Cross considered black troop morale an after thought in their recreation programs, women raised money to start troop centers in their own cities” (Shockley, 42-43).

USO clubs also provided a valuable way for women to help the war effort.  They were often run and coordinated by civilian women local to the area, in the roles of Senior or Junior Hostesses. Senior Hostesses were married women over 35, usually with some standing in the local community. They organized and coordinated social events and dances, as well as the food supply for the snack bar. All in all they made sure every event ran smoothly and served as the backbone of USO Clubs. Senior Hostesses also served as chaperones for Junior Hostesses. 

Junior Hostesses were single young women who volunteered to entertain soldiers and host social events. They were chosen under very stringent qualifications. A Detroit reporter wrote “We learned in our visit to the servicemen’s center that the young women known as junior hostesses are only selected after careful and painstaking appraisal … they undergo a training which consists of lectures on personality, appearance, topics to be discussed and those to be avoided…” (Shockley, 43). They had to follow a strict set of rules as a part of the USO. Junior Hostesses were not allowed to date servicemen that they met at USO clubs, and they were not allowed to drink on the job. They were also required to take a yearly class on charm, etiquette, and the duties of USO Hostesses.

A Junior Hostess also had a bit of a uniform to follow-no slacks allowed! In the image below, you can see the Junior Hostess to the right is in a USO Hostess Uniform, styled after women’s military uniforms of the time. Wearing the uniform was not a requirement; however, as shown below by Hostesses to the left, who are dressed in their nicest “civilian clothes”.

All of these rules were vital in protecting these young women and retaining the respectability of the USO program. Even while recognizing that these women provided a significant morale boost, “there was no getting around the fact that having eighteen- to twenty year-old unmarried women provide entertainment made tenants of ‘respectability’ questionable” (Shockley, 42). And in a day and age where women were particularly critiqued for their femininity and sexualization (both too much or too little), these trainings, rules, and the chaperone program became integral to the hostess program. 

While Senior and Junior Hostesses mainly worked at USO clubs to sell snacks, attend dances, play cards, and help entertain soldiers, they came up with other creative ways to support the war effort, too. At some clubs, Junior Hostesses would set up button sewing or uniform mending stations. At other clubs, hostesses helped soldiers write and organize their letters home. Creativity was also implemented in dance admission by “charging” scraps for scrap drives or collecting cigarettes to send overseas. 

Senior and Junior Hostess worked together to help entertain service people and bring some levity to their lives during a serious time. By providing a place of community and joy, USO Hostesses helped keep service-members connected to family, home, and country during service.

At The Mariners’ Museum, we are lucky to have a fair number of HRPE images that show both Black USO personnel and involved service members. This may be in large part because Hampton Roads had several USO Clubs including an African American Service Club. Since Black, Indigenous, and People of Color’s contributions are, frankly, under-represented in our HRPE photo collection, we are excited to share this story illustrated purely by images of these men and women.

To all the USO staff, volunteers, and contributors – thank you.









Hampton Roads during WWII: Army Nurse Corps

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Major Walter C. Stebbins stands with the 81st Field Hospital Unit during debarkation. To his right is Captain Eileen E. Donnelly Chief Nurse of the 81st Field Hospital Unit since its activation.

The United States Army Nurse Corps (ANC) was formally established by the US Congress in 1901. Women served as nurses in previous wars, but it wasn’t until 1901 that they were officially on Army Payroll. The ANC did not see large numbers of active duty nurses until World War I, when 20,000 registered Nurses joined. Numbers dropped after the end of WWI, and in 1941 there were fewer than 1,000 Nurses in the ANC. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor numbers quickly grew; six months later there were over 12,000 on duty Nurses. Over the course of World War II, over 59,000 nurses served in the ANC, many serving abroad in North Africa, England, Burma and the Southwest Pacific

While many of the enrollees had nursing experience, few had military experience. A four week training course was instituted for ANC Nurses which taught Army organization; military customs and courtesies; field sanitation; defense against air, chemical, and mechanized attack; personnel administration; military requisitions and correspondence, and property responsibility. Nurses worked in all areas of the army-they went wherever the wounded were, and during WWII they worked close to the front lines. Nurses served under fire in field hospitals and evacuation hospitals, on hospital trains and hospital ships, and as flight nurses on medical transport planes. 

The need for nurses in all theaters of operations meant that Nurses were going through ports of embarkation, like Hampton Roads Port of Embarkation (HRPE). Just like other service men and women, the Nurses would receive army housing until the day of embarkation. At HRPE they also would be treated to the luxuries of home, like holiday celebrations, dances, and coffee and doughnuts before being sent abroad, where access to these was limited. 

You can see from these pictures that the Nurses had very similar uniforms to the Women’s Army Corps and to the male soldiers in the Army. Field Uniforms were especially similar across the board, and made with function in mind. Often the red cross arm badge was the only thing distinguishing a Nurse from a Soldier. 

The need for more hands during the war meant more opportunities and roles available to women than in years past. At the beginning of WWII, nurses held a ‘relative rank’ to male soldiers in the Army. Nurses entered the ANC with a relative rank of second lieutenant. The majority of nurses remained at this rank, though some were promoted to first lieutenant or captain. The highest rank held by an ANC was colonel. While nurses received some benefits of the relative rank, like access to officers clubs and salutes, they did not receive equal pay for rank. However, in 1944, the Army granted its nurses officers’ commissions and full retirement privileges, dependent allowances, and equal pay. 

As then as it is now, it’s important to be thankful for all the work nurses to to keep us healthy and safe. If you know a nurse, tell them “Thank you” today!







Hampton Roads during WWII: the WACs

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The Women’s Army Corps (WAC) was formed in 1942; originally it was the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), but it was converted to active duty status in 1943. This made WACs unique to other women’s military groups, because it was the first time, and the only group, that integrated women into the United States Military. Around 150,000 women volunteered to serve in the WAC during World War II. Women were not allowed to fulfill ‘active combat’ roles in the military, but that still left over 250 support roles in the army to step into, from stenographer to map maker, photographer to truck driver, mechanic to switchboard operator. All of these positions were vital to the war effort. Many of the women who joined the WAC had a relative or sweetheart already serving, and hoped to bring their loved ones home sooner by aiding in the war effort. 

Most of these women served on the homefront, taking over office and other non-combat jobs so that men were able to go overseas to fight. These women were stationed in every type of state-side Army installation, working with the Army Service Forces, Ground Forces, the Army Air Forces, and in Army Hospitals.

WACs arrived at the Hampton Roads Port Of Embarkation (HRPE) on April 10, 1943 and worked at the port until the beginning of 1946, when they were either discharged or transferred (Library of Virginia; Daily Press; 03 February 1946). “Their work was so outstanding that more Wacs were requisitioned and three complete companies of Wacs are working there now” (The Times Dispatch, 25 March 1944).

The WACs working at the HRPE fulfilled many roles. Many organized the shipment of soldiers, nurses, and supplies to go overseas. They organized arrivals and departures, travel housing, and more. Several worked as secretaries or stenographers in army offices. Others worked as mechanics, testing and maintaining vehicles to be shipped overseas. In one newspaper article, encouraging women to join the WAC at HRPE, stated: “Women are urgently needed now to fill vital war jobs in Hampton Roads. Some of the jobs which are open to Wacs in the Transportation Corps are as follows: clerks typists, filing clerks, interpreters of languages, dispatchers – transportation cars and vessels – X-ray and dental technicians.” (The Times Dispatch, 25 March 1944).

The WACs weren’t all work, though, the port boasted a women’s softball, tennis, and basketball team, the women were given time to ride horses, visit the beaches, see the local sites (including The Mariners’ Museum, Colonial Williamsburg, and the Virginia War Museum), participate in dances and socials, and more! 

Some WACs, stationed at HRPE and elsewhere, departed from the port when they were stationed abroad, too. In fact, nearly 1.5 million men and women were processed in and out of the port during the war (in the month of November 1945, the port debarked 127,000 people, and over 152,000 tons of cargo!) (Daily Press, 17 June 2017; Daily Press, 7 December 1945) . The first battalion of WACs in the European Theater of Operations (ETO) arrived in London in July 1943. These WACs served a variety of occupations, but there was an especially high demand for switchboard operators and typists. As the war progressed, more WACs were sent abroad to support the war effort, stationed later in France, Italy, Germany and many other locations on the continent. Some members of First WAC company, HRPE, were also sent to the Pacific Theater, specifically to New Guinea (Daily Press, 5 February 1945). 


Embarking through HRPE, WACs would be housed and organized until they were ready to ship out, just like any other military personnel. The WACs would be given important information on where they were headed and what to expect when they arrived. They would also be served some ‘last comforts of home’ by Red Cross volunteers at HRPE, like evening dances, hot dogs, coffee and donuts. 

We are especially lucky, at The Mariners’ Museum and Park, to house more than 1,200 photographs showing WACs working in, and traveling through HRPE. These include propaganda photos, training photos, lifestyle photos, event and parade photos, and working photos. It’s an amazing resource!