Nearly every World War II history buff knows the story of the racial segregation faced by black soldiers and sailors. The U.S. Armed Forces were not racially integrated, resulting in many all black units and regiments. Integration wouldn’t happen until Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981 in 1948. Their work responsibilities were also limited to support roles in logistics, janitorial, and food services. Many did not see combat action with the exception of a few armored units such as ‘Patton’s Panthers’. As Black History Month continues, many historians have re-investigated covered-up stories of racial violence and intolerance in the WWII era. Even as the nation fought to preserve democratic nations, the denial of civil and equal rights in the black community became a sticking point in the ‘Double V Campaign.’ Volunteer service by blacks skyrocketed during WWII; they had served in nearly every U.S. conflict since the American Revolution and did so to prove their worthiness of citizenship and freedom. Resistance from some senior white officers and institutional racism within service branches led to unequal access to facilities in military posts, bases, and airfields in the United States. The story was different in Europe. The British and French welcomed them with open arms and couldn’t reconcile with the segregationist policies placed on black servicemen. They were all there to defeat the Axis powers; that alone should make them all equals.
In the 1980s, maintenance workers in Bamber Bridge, England carrying out remodeling work found what appeared to be bullet holes. They weren’t recent and stories emerged from some of the locals who lived in the area during the war. It was the Battle of Bamber Bridge. The Axis never invaded the main British Isles, but what transpired in the small village over forty years ago?
In 1943, the tide of war was beginning to change for the Allies. German forces were expelled from North Africa and Italy was the next target. U.S. troops arrived in England and began establishing bases of operation and prepared for the coming invasion of France. During this preparatory phase, soldiers, sailors, and airmen conducted training drills, firearms proficiency, and classroom instruction. Not all took part in this endeavor though. Black servicemen were primarily assigned to logistical roles in quartermaster companies, food service, and mechanical work. Coinciding with these was the unequal treatment and denial of access to specific facilities in base and when servicemen were on leave. Local villagers and townspeople in England welcomed black servicemen and were befuddled by the ‘Jim Crow’ atmosphere practiced by their white comrades. Black servicemen, who were routinely discriminated against in the U.S. enjoyed a new degree of freedom in Europe where no racial codes or institutional racism against blacks were practiced by locals. Despite that, their white counterparts and superior officers brought many of the Jim Crow attitudes with them. Military police designated certain businesses and services for blacks only and did not allow them to integrate with white servicemen in town. Differing opinions on race between soldiers and civilians though produced deadly results.
On the evening of June 24, 1943, black servicemen from the 1511th Quartermaster Truck Company arrived at Ye Olde Hob Inn, a pub near the edge of town. The 1511th was assigned to the 8th Air Force that operated multiple airfields in England and their primary duties consisted of making deliveries between posts. That evening, a small group of truck drivers on leave went to the pub for drinks and socializing. As the evening progressed, two white military policemen from the 234th Military Policy Company passed by the pub and spotted the group. They immediately barged in and pointed at Private Eugene Nunn. They noted he was wearing the M1941 field jacket and not his Class A uniform. Army regulation at the time stated that a soldier has to wear their Class A’s while on leave in a public place. They also charged him with going AWOL (absent without leave), but they all had their passes with them. Many of the pub tenants defended the them saying they weren’t causing any trouble and were in fact behaving civilly towards everyone. A black staff sergeant diffused the situation, but while the MPs departed, beer bottles were thrown at them (they did not see the suspect who threw the bottles). They called back to their superior officers who ordered them to bring in those who were ‘resisting arrest’. Shots were fired between the 1511th and the MPs which turned the incident deadly; Private William Crossland was shot in the back and died shortly thereafter.
Local villagers were left in shock. A racially charged incident like this leaving one person dead was frightening to them and they did not know what to expect next. Some black servicemen safely returned to the nearby airfield and when news spread of what happened at Ye Old Hob Inn, others began arming themselves with pistols and rifles. Their commanding officer, Major George Heris and Lieutenant Edwin Jones (the regiment’s only black officer) persuaded the men that they would seek justice from the white MPs for Crossland’s death. Around midnight, a small group of MPs arrived in jeeps and an armored vehicle with the intent to ‘put down a mutiny’ as described by a British police constable. A four hour firefight broke out between the 1511th and the MPs, leaving seven injured, but no additional fatalities.
A court-martial convicted thirty-two black servicemen guilty of mutiny and were dishonorably discharged. Some white officers wanted to cover up the violence quickly to prevent any drop in morale before the invasion of Europe, but others were not so quick to cast off this racist event. General Ira Eaker, commander of the 8th Air Force, squarely put the blame on the racist behavior of white MPs and their inexperienced, racist superiors. General Eaker conducted a thorough purge of 8th Air Force units, expelling any documented offenders of racist acts and integrated MP patrols. Despite his best efforts, news of the Bamber Bridge Riot was heavily censored both in England and the United States. Just a few days before, race riots in Detroit left dozens dead and wounded following months of socio-economic tension between whites and blacks. News of race riots in the U.S. overshadowed an incident like Bamber Bridge and memory of the fiery exchange faded with time.
Popular historical interest in the Bamber Bridge riot resurfaced when that maintenance worker found those bullet holes. Since then, scholars and historians have researched the history of racial antagonisms in the U.S. Armed Forces during World War II. While President Truman’s executive order integrated the military, racist behavior by whites towards blacks was and still remains a unresolved problem between all the service branches.