Archived Story

Questions linger about alleged Camp Van Dorn incident

Published 12:00am Thursday, June 17, 2004

A sprawling Army base just south of Centreville where thousands of soldiers trained for combat in World War II, Camp Van Dorn will soon be the focus of the newly constructed Centreville Museum.

Volunteers have been busy collecting artifacts from veterans who were stationed at the base &045;&045; mostly from the men of two gallant divisions who suffered a combined total of 22,000 casualties in the fight to liberate Europe.

Centreville residents who recall the dramatic impact of suddenly sharing their small town with 40,000 soldiers have also donated items and memorabilia to the project. But in documenting this epic time when Americans sacrificed so much for freedom, museum organizers have also been confronted with the uglier history of racial segregation and violence in America and its military &045;&045; and even with haunting allegations of mass murder at Camp Van Dorn.

&uot;We just don’t have any way to verify it&uot;

In his 1998 book &uot;The Slaughter, An American Atrocity,&uot; McComb author Carroll Case claimed the Army in 1943 ordered the shooting of over 1,200 black soldiers from the black 364th Infantry Regiment in one night at Camp Van Dorn as a &uot;final solution&uot; to silence racial unrest within the unit.

He also claimed the Army altered and destroyed records to cover up the incident.

Case first reported the massacre allegations in a 1985 article in the McComb Enterprise-Journal. He said his interest was sparked by a conversation he had then with a former Camp Van Dorn military policeman who confessed his role in the killings.

Case said he and another reporter from the paper also interviewed two civilians who worked at the base, including one who claimed to have witnessed the alleged murders. The former MP and the two civilians have all since died.

After the newspaper article was published, Case said he received &uot;a barrage of unsolicited calls and letters from people confirming the atrocity.&uot;

Case said he continued his research over next 13 years, culminating in the publication of The Slaughter &045;&045; a 54-page overview of evidence and conclusions he portrays as truthful, followed by a 246-page, &uot;fact-based&uot; fictional novel titled &uot;The Evangeline File.&uot;

&uot;By putting it in a vehicle of fiction, it somehow makes it easier to face the truth,&uot; Case wrote.

The book ignited demands for an investigation from black leaders, including NAACP President Kweisi Mfume and U. S. Rep. Bennie G. Thompson.

In a 1998 letter to Thompson, the Army said it reviewed public records of the 364th held in the National Archives and found nothing to support Case’s claims.

The Army followed that letter with an inch-thick report in 1999, claiming it used payroll documents and personnel files to trace all but 20 of the 3,868 soldiers in the 364th through their service to discharge at the end of the war.

The Army said it also interviewed several veterans of the 364th who were at Camp Van Dorn throughout the unit’s stay there and denied any knowledge of a mass killing of black troops.

&uot;Records show that only four soldiers of the 364th died at Camp Van Dorn, and only one of them, a soldier shot by the local sheriff on May 30, 1943, died of violence at the hand of any sort of official,&uot; an Army news release stated.

Still, NAACP officials asked for an independent review by the U. S. Justice Department.

&uot;It’s not that we’re saying the Army lied,&uot; Mfume said after requesting the review. &uot;It’s just that we think the nation needs an independent assurance that this horrible thing didn’t happen.&uot;

An independent review was never conducted, however, and in 2001, Newsweek reported a former 364th Regimental Headquarters clerk said he was ordered to alter records from &uot;murdered&uot; to &uot;absent without leave&uot; for 34 soldiers from the regiment.

The orders reportedly came on four different occasions concerning four different groups of soldiers &045;&045; 20, 10, three and one, respectively.

In an interview with The History Channel, the same former clerk said his name appeared to have been forged on 364th documents dated in 1942, the year before he entered the service.

The massacre allegations were also the subject of a series of investigative reports aired by Jackson television station WJTV in 2001 and as recently as last February.

WJTV reported &uot;a source close to Camp Van Dorn&uot; said he learned from five MPs at the base that some black soldiers were shot by MPs along the railroad tracks that ran south from Centreville past the base.

But the Army still stands behind its 1999 report, according to Dov Schwartz, a civilian spokesman for the Army in Washington.

&uot;The Army conducted an exhaustive study that categorically showed nothing like this ever happened,&uot; Schwartz said.

In addition to interviewing veterans of the 364th who denied the shooting allegations, the Army also located death certificates for many members of the unit to prove they died after the war, Schwartz said.

The Army’s inability to resolve the fate of 20 soldiers in the unit could be explained in part by a 1973 fire at a military records repository in St. Louis, Mo., Schwartz said.

&uot;To say that we couldn’t find records on 20 &045;&045; it’s still an exhaustive study, considering we had 16 million people in the service during World War II,&uot; Schwartz said.

But the NAACP maintains its position an independent investigation by the Justice Department is warranted.

&uot;We’re not saying the Army is wrong. We just don’t have any way to verify it,&uot; NAACP National Headquarters spokesman John C. White said earlier this month.

Locally, members of the Amite County Chapter of the NAACP in April objected to legislation that would have re-named portions of two state highways through southwest Mississippi in honor of Camp Van Dorn and the two main infantry divisions who trained there &045;&045; the 99th &uot;Checkerboard&uot; and the 63rd &uot;Blood and Fire&uot; Divisions.

District 96 Rep. David Green sponsored the legislation based on a request from a member of the museum committee.

Green’s bill, House Bill 1023, was absorbed by House Bill 1215 &045;&045; a broader bill to rename several highways in the state. But the bill was later amended by District 38 Sen. Kelvin Butler to delete the legislation dealing with Camp Van Dorn.

&uot;I was getting a lot of calls from my constituents. I could have turned a deaf ear to it, and it would have been law,&uot; said Butler, who also favors an independent review of the Army’s report.

&uot;All I’m saying is, let’s be sure before we do this.&uot;

But Green, who was instrumental in securing a $375,000 grant from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History for the museum project, said he still favors the renaming of the highways.

&uot;I deal in facts, and those allegations have never been proven. I still support the bill,&uot; Green said.

Unrest at Van Dorn

The Army, like much of America and especially the South, was strictly segregated during World War II. Black soldiers were largely restricted to service and support units, and the few separate combat units were mostly commanded by white officers.

The paradox of asking black soldiers to serve in a war to protect freedoms and equalities they didn’t enjoy themselves soon led to unrest, as black troops clashed with MPs and civilian authorities in riots and disturbances at several bases across the country.

At Camp Claiborne near Alexandria, La., 13 black soldiers were court martialed for rioting and mutiny. Three of those soldiers were given life sentences, and one was sentenced to death, according to an article in the Oct. 6, 1944, editions of the Centreville Jeffersonian.

Soldiers from the 364th were also involved in violent incidents, including a deadly riot in Phoenix, Ariz. on Thanksgiving night in 1942. Approximately 100 men from the regiment were involved in a shooting incident with a detachment of black MPs that left three dead and 12 wounded. Sixteen &uot;ringleaders&uot; from the 364th were court-martialed and sentenced to 50-year terms, according to Army records.

Six months later the 364th was transferred to Camp Van Dorn, the last contingent of troops arriving on May 28, 1943. Trouble started the next day when 74 soldiers from the unit marched through Centreville in formation, using indecent language, according to a report from the Army’s Inspector General Virgil L. Peterson.

Peterson’s report, dated June 8, 1943 and reprinted in Case’s book, said the group was arrested by the &uot;civil police, consisting of the town marshal and a number of deputized civilians armed with shotguns.&uot;

The report also documented the death of Private William Walker, a soldier from the 364th who was shot and killed by the county sheriff near the base on May 30, 1943.

The report said Walker argued about his uniform and pass with an MP.

Walker then assaulted the MP and was trying to take his pistol when the county sheriff arrived, the report stated. Walker was shot when he refused orders to stop and lunged at the sheriff, according to the report.

But soldiers from the 364th felt the shooting was unjustified, and problems erupted at the base when several hundred soldiers from the unit gathered at the Regimental Exchange. A detachment of colored MPs was forced to fire into the crowd, wounding one soldier, Peterson said.

Civilian fear of an impending race riot was reported in area newspapers in the following days.

&uot;Tension among the population of Centreville and that of sections adjacent to the Army Camp Van Dorn was reported at high pitch early Sunday and Monday in anticipation of race trouble with Negro soldiers recently brought to the camp,&uot; the Gloster Record reported in its June 4, 1943 editions.

The article said Centreville’s mayor telegrammed the governor asking that the 364th be relocated to the north to avoid &uot;serious race riots.&uot;

In a June 5, 1943 article in the Woodville Republican, Camp Van Dorn Commander R. E. Guthrie sought to reassure local civilians.

&uot;The disturbances that have occurred have been controlled by the military authorities and the situation is being carefully watched. It is especially desirable that the people in the vicinity of the camp give no credence to the very exaggerated rumors which seem to be current,&uot; Guthrie said.

The Woodville Republican also reported an investigator from the War Department had met with local law enforcement authorities at the base, but Guthrie refused to answer questions concerning the meeting.

Meanwhile, members of the 364th were involved in one other disturbance of near-riot proportions in July 1943, according to Case’s book. In that incident, a battalion from the 99th was called to disperse a crowd of about 2,000 at a service club dance on the base.

Case alleged the Army planned and executed the massacre of troops from the 364th sometime in the fall of 1943. He claimed the Army covered up the alleged killings by informing next of kin the soldiers were killed in the line of duty and the bodies were not recoverable.

On Dec. 26, 1943, the 364th was transferred to the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska, according to Army reports.

&uot;Right, wrong or indifferent&uot;

Privately, some members of the Centreville Museum Committee have said they are unsure if they should devote an exhibit to the slaughter allegations because the accusations has never been proven. But one member of the committee, retired Army Lt. Col. James Causey of Liberty, said he hopes the museum will address the undisputed incidents involving the 364th that so greatly affected Centreville and the surrounding area during the 1940s.

&uot;Right, wrong or indifferent, the past is part of history. What went on at Camp Van Dorn is indicative of what was occurring at bases around the nation. You can’t change history,&uot; Causey said.

A 99th Division veteran of World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, Causey initiated the request to rename the highways. &uot;The embers of racial discord at Camp Van Dorn have been smoldering all the years since the 1940s. They will continue to be fanned by memories of those who desire to recall that era. But there is a higher calling of duty, honor and country to which those infantry soldiers, all of them, responded,&uot; Causey said.

Causey pointed out the sheer attrition of troops during World War II led to the integration of the military &045;&045; beginning with the 99th Infantry Division &045;&045; on the front lines of Europe in 1945.

&uot;They (black soldiers) were desperately needed during those dark days. They showed the world they could fight &045;&045; and fight well,&uot; Causey said. &uot;Now is the time, and the Camp Van Dorn environs is the place where the connecting highways should be named to honor all persons affiliated with the camp and especially those who fought with valor and honor. To do less is unacceptable,&uot; he said.