One of the final touches to the restoration of PT-305 is a fresh coat of paint. But this isn’t just a fresh coat—it is the camouflage pattern applied to PT-305 in November 1944, called “Measure 32 modified.”
During World War II, US Navy ships were rarely painted gray. There were a large and diverse number of camouflage schemes for a number of tactical situations. Generally speaking, camouflage is not intended to make a ship disappear, but rather to make a vessel’s course, speed, and class difficult to determine. For large vessels, the Navy issued specifically designed camouflage patterns. For PT boats, official designs set a general standard but the camouflage patterns of individual boats were ultimately determined by squadron commanders.
“Measure 32 modified” was an experimental pattern intended specifically for making torpedo attacks. The “Thayer blue” on the forward part of the hull made the vessel more difficult to see from a distance at night when approaching a target head-on during the initial stages of a torpedo attack. The color transitions to a “deck blue” on the aft part of the boat to aid in the retreat from a torpedo attack.
Up close, darker blues are more difficult to see, making class and course more difficult to determine. “Deck blue” also reduces visible shadows from concentrated light sources, such as searchlights and star shells, making it more difficult to determine the boat’s location.
The blue painted on the deck was intended to reduce visibility of the vessel when viewed from aircraft.
In addition to the three shades of blue on the boat, PT-305 also carried aircraft recognition coloration. “Insignia yellow” was painted on the bow, “insignia red” across the stern, and a large red-and-yellow star was painted on top of the radar dome. This was intended to make PT boats in the Mediterranean easily identifiable to Allied aircraft.
More than a year of research using photographs and period documents went into determining the camouflage pattern applied to PT-305. The re-creation of the “Measure 32 modified” applied to PT-305 has restored her unique identity and highlights her combat history.
The film weaves its history around footage of a contemporary USO tour starring country singer and US Army veteran Craig Morgan, NFL player (and son of a US Army sergeant) Charles Tillman, Miss America 2016 Betty Cantrell, and others. Archival sequences tell the story of the USO’s famed Hollywood Canteen, which The National WWII Museum salutes in its entertainment venue BB’s Stage Door Canteen, and, of course, the decades of service to the USO by Bob Hope, subject of an array of upcoming projects at the Museum.
Here’s an edited email Q&A interview with filmmaker Peter Schnall:
Q: How was this project born? Was it the 75th anniversary of the USO that sparked the film? A piece of footage? A personal connection to a war or the USO?
A: Back in the fall of 2015, I had been reading a story about Bob Hope and his USO tours during the Vietnam War. The article mentioned that the USO would be celebrating its 75th anniversary the following year. My company, Partisan Pictures, reached out to the USO and asked if they would be interested in participating in a documentary program that not only looked back at their long and fascinating history, but also spoke to the changes and ongoing work they were providing to the men and women of the Armed Forces—both here at home and overseas.
Partisan Pictures has a long and successful working relationship with the US armed forces. Our shows about Air Force One, Marine One, and other Department of Defense projects have given me incredible access to our nation’s military and a chance to meet, film, and capture the work of the men and women who serve. I don’t come from a military family, so my time with the military has been quite an extraordinary journey. Actually, it’s been a real honor.
Partisan Pictures reached out immediately to PBS as the broadcaster for the one-hour USO program. We have produced many programs for PBS and more importantly PBS has a multiplatform initiative—Stories of Service—that unites powerful stories and conversations around one of our country’s most resilient communities: our military veterans.
Johnson & Johnson, a long time supporter of the USO, became the corporate sponsor for the PBS special.
When did the structure—editing the history around the contemporary tour—reveal itself? What are the strengths to that approach? What was it like following a modern USO tour?
From the very beginning, we knew that we wanted to journey with the USO on one of its present-day tours and have this become a key element and story thread throughout our show. Luckily for us, the USO was still in the planning stages for its annual Vice Chairman’s Tour. Once permission was granted from the Department of Defense, we began to design our story line with the idea that the present-day tour would be interwoven with the stories from the 75-year history of the USO. Using contemporary events and stories as a way to connect to the past is a very exciting way to bring history to life for today’s audience—particularly younger viewers.
Traveling with a USO tour and the vice chairman of the Chiefs of Staff around the globe in the belly of an Air Force C-17 transport plane is truly the only way to travel! Our tour stopped in seven countries in just eight days—including an afternoon stop in Baghdad. For the entertainers, it was a chance to bring a little bit of “home” to the troops stationed overseas and on the front lines of America’s current battlefields.
For me and my small film crew of three, it was a rare opportunity to witness and capture some very extraordinary moments between the servicemen and servicewomen, many of whom are on their second or third tour of duty, and the entertainers with the USO.
One of the gently provocative things about the film is how it spotlights recent USO supporters of varying political backgrounds without judgment. It’s especially poignant given the sequence about the political divides of the Vietnam era. What is the difference between Vietnam and more recent, equally controversial, conflicts—at least as it pertains to USO-tour participation?
Since World War II, the history of the USO has been connected to the history of America’s wars. Wars are not a welcome thought. Wars mean the loss of thousands of young soldiers’ lives. We as a nation have sometimes opposed wars and other times supported them. But throughout its history the USO has always been there to serve the men and women in the armed forces regardless of politics. The Vietnam War was one of America’s most unpopular wars, and the soldiers who fought in that war were often not welcome when they returned home. The Vietnam War brought up a very difficult balance for the USO, Bob Hope, and the entertainers who traveled with him to Vietnam to perform for the troops. Many entertainers, including Bob Hope, were labeled as “hawks.” But as Bob Hope’s daughter Linda explained to us, her father understood the controversy and understood very clearly how he was now being perceived by many back at home. As Linda would explain, Hope, more than anything, wanted this awful war to end. So regardless of his own politics, Hope supported the troops despite the anger towards them back home. Hope felt for the troops in a way many Americans at the time did not understand, for he knew many were stuck in a war nobody really wanted to be fighting in.
Today, wars and conflicts are just as controversial and unpopular. But the attitude towards the volunteer soldiers fighting in these new wars has taken on a very different feeling among the American populace. Our film interviewed a wide range of politicians and entertainers—from former General Colin Powell to former President George W. Bush to comedian Jon Stewart. All with different political beliefs, all with very different takes on the nature of America’s present-day wars. Yet, all of them have one very important thing in common—an unequivocal support for the servicemen and servicewomen fighting and dying out in the battlefield.
The USO’s roots in World War II are of obvious interest here. The conversation in the film about the USO’s role as a bearer of American culture in that era was fascinating. We love that Harpo Marx and Bette Davis were part of the Arsenal of Democracy. Was there anything that surprised you about the early days of the organization—its formation and evolution?
Producing a historical program often comes with surprising or unknown stories that pop up during research. I knew of the extensive programs the USO and Hollywood’s movie stars had created together during World War II, but I had not known how the USO had stood by and supported the black troops who had been stationed in America’s “Jim Crow” South. These young African American men, about to go off and fight for their country, were treated as second-class citizens in the towns they were stationed—they could not shop or walk in towns or participate in the same activities as the white soldiers. So the USO set up centers just for them. The USO pushed politics and racist laws aside and put the troops first and foremost.
Was there a piece of footage or interview you consider a great “get” or rare find? A favorite sequence?
There were many powerful and emotional scenes we discovered during our viewing of the footage from Bob Hope’s tours—particularly the shows he did in Vietnam. One of my favorite scenes from this extraordinary collection of footage, which we present in our film, revolves around a performance by a very young Connie Stevens. In her interview with us, she describes how during one Christmas tour she began to sing Silent Night for the troops. Suddenly, hundreds of young soldiers began to sing with her. The cameras captured one of the most powerful and emotional scenes I have ever seen filmed in a real war setting. It is hard not to be overcome by the moment—watching these young soldiers sing this Christmas song, knowing full well that the next day they would out fighting in another skirmish—many of them never to return home.
Would there be USO tours today without Bob Hope’s legacy? The film honors him beautifully. He could really walk a fine line—irreverent sometimes, but it created instant empathy with the troops. Do you have a favorite piece of footage of Hope? Was there more great material you had to leave out?
I grew up watching the Bob Hope specials on TV with my family. Needless to say, I hadn’t seen these shows for many decades. What a treat it was to sit and watch and relive these very special and historical programs. What struck me now, more than when I was a young kid, was how Hope managed to bring humor into the theater of war. Even more interesting was Hope’s ability to use humor to speak out politically against the Vietnam War or to poke fun at the commanders and generals of the battalions he was entertaining. We watched hours and hours of Hope on tour. Unfortunately, we could only squeeze a few minutes into our program.
Note: USO—For the Troops will stream online starting November 8 at PBS.org.
John Rogers, a WWII veteran and Museum volunteer, passed away Sunday, October 29. He was 98.
This week we bade farewell to John Rogers, a WWII veteran and beloved volunteer here at the Museum. John and his wife, Tee, were a familiar sight in the Museum’s US Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center, where they could often be found sitting together near the Sherman tank as John chatted with visitors about his experiences as a tank commander during World War II.
It was not far from this very spot that, many years ago, John prepared for his WWII service, training as a tank commander in Louisiana. He then deployed to Europe, where he fought through German forces and Norman hedgerows toward the Battle of the Bulge. He encountered battles, sniper attacks, friendly fire losses, and a staggering range of human emotion, from the exuberance of French citizens cheering the arrival of American tanks to the devastating discovery of emaciated prisoners too weak to celebrate their long-awaited liberation from concentration camps. Later, John would recall the strong conviction he felt in the face of these scenes: that the Allied cause had been just; the fight had been worthy. Despite the violence of battle he had witnessed, “I knew then that we were right in what we had done,” said John in the oral history he recorded at the Museum, now featured in the exhibit Road to Berlin and in the Museum’s online Digital Collections. There, John’s voice will live on to touch those who couldn’t meet him in person, continuing to educate and inspire.
Our deepest condolences go out to Tee and the rest of John’s family. We are so grateful to have had John as part of ours.
The Museum’s Knit Your Bit program—for which 10,000 volunteer knitters and crocheters across the country have produced 50,000 scarves for veterans’ centers, hospitals and service organizations—celebrates its 10th anniversary with a knit-in from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. Saturday, September 17, in US Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center.
For navigation help finding the knit-in, look for the Sherman tank wrapped in a giant scarf.
“On the Home Front during World War II, knitting served as one way Americans could support the war effort—thousands picked up their needles to knit socks and sweaters to keep American soldiers warm,” said Lauren Handley, the Museum’s assistant director for public programs, who founded the program in 2006. “We’re thrilled to celebrate this grassroots program, which allows us to connect directly with veterans and show our appreciation of their service to our country.”
The connection with veterans is one of the program’s appeals for Elizabeth Done, a New Orleans-based stalwart of the Knit Your Bit program. In addition to the live knitting action and giant-scarf-wrapped tank, the September 17 knit-in will also feature local students distributing program-produced scarves to veterans. Local Veterans Affairs representatives will also be on-site and available for questions.
“The veteran handouts are my favorite,” Done said. “You get the ones who get really emotional.”
Shirley Sentgerath of Fennville, Michigan, has contributed an estimated 700 pieces to the program.
“I try to figure between six to eight a month,” Sentgerath said. “I’m a knit-wit, and I’m tired of doing things for grandkids who are teenagers now.”
In addition to her passion for knitting, Sentgerath’s motivation for her heroic Knit Your Bit efforts is rooted in many family ties to the military. Her husband, John, is a Korean War-era veteran of the US Navy. The Sentgeraths have been Museum members since 2010, and visit annually while wintering on Alabama’s Gulf Coast.
“There are a lot of things in the Museum that are absolutely outstanding,” John Sentgerath said.
Including Knit Your Bit, now rolling toward its second decade.
Students from Mooresville Middle School, the first classroom to finish the project last year. They are showcasing the prizes they won for all of their efforts.
With schools back in session, we say welcome to a second year of the Museum’s service learning project, Get in the Scrap! Inspired by the scrapping efforts of students during WWII, Get in the Scrap! encourages today’s students to become environmental stewards with fun classroom activities that earn them points and prizes. Participants in our first year had successful experiences in their classroom, and many students finished their activities in May with a greater interest in both recycling and WWII Home Front history. Kids on the Home Front led by example and have inspired young girls and boys today to realize that they, too, can have an impact on their schools and communities.
Curious on how it works?
Join us for our launch webinar on Thursday, September 22 at 12 pm central time: Your students will discover how kids helped win WWII by scrapping common household items to be converted into war materials. Learn firsthand from teachers and students how the project works in their classrooms. If you sign up for the launch webinar, your class will be able to start their Get in the Scrap! project with 5 bonus points. This’ll have your students one step closer to receiving their first prize!
Registrants will receive details on how to sign up for the project and curriculum materials. Space is limited—sign up today!
Is that the Brady Bunch? No, just students from Lincoln Middle School pledging to make a difference in their school and community!
If you’re a returning classroom, we have three new activities and brand new prizes that’ll have your students wanting to do more to rack up their points. Our new activities are a game of Jeopardy, the creation of a Memory Jar to track progress and daily happenings during your class’ time with the project, and a Water Bottle Bank that is a build-up to the Water Bottle 100 Challenge. It will have your students’ brains churning about how a plastic water bottle can serve more than 1 use. Each of these new Get in the Scrap! activities incorporates key themes including teamwork, writing, and creativity.
Make sure to share your students’ progress with the Museum via the hashtag #getinthescrap and your class could be featured as the Get in the Scrap! Classroom of the Month, which will be highlighted in the monthly e-newsletter and this blog!
Keep track of all things Get in the Scrap! by following the hashtag #getinthescrap on Instagram and Twitter. Also, sign up for the Museum’s monthly e-newsletter “Calling All Teachers!” for the latest Get in the Scrap! news and project updates. We’re looking forward to year two and to see how your student scrappers will enthusiastically complete the project!
Post by Camille Weber, Education Intern and Chrissy Gregg, Virtual Classroom Coordinator
Image courtesy of Harry S. Truman Presidential Library, “Photo Number 98-2437,” Photographer Unknown.
To commemorate Victory Over Japan Day 2016, Jay Mehta of Overland Park, Kansas, a 10th grader at the Pembroke Hill School in Kansas City, Missouri, composed this guest blog detailing his experiences after traveling to The National WWII Museum in December 2015 and hearing the oral history of Lieutenant Commander James Starnes, who was officer of the deck aboard the USS Missouri on September 2, 1945, when the Japanese Instrument of Surrender was signed to officially bring WWII to a close. Jay later continued on his journey, traveling with family to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, to visit “The Mighty Mo” herself.
“Beaches and Battleships,” by Jay Mehta
History shapes our lives. This saying often refers to the decisions and battles of times past that are still affecting the world today. However, over the course of the past year I have come to understand another facet of this saying: that understanding history not only informs our decisions, but also inspires us to experience new things.
Last summer, at the National History Day competition in College Park, Maryland, I was one of 51 students (representing the 50 states and the District of Columbia) to receive the Salute to Courage Award from The National WWII Museum in New Orleans. In December, we each represented our state at the opening of the Museum’s new Richard C. Adkerson & Freeport McMoRan Foundation Road to Tokyo: Pacific Theater Galleries. As a part of the award, each of us was privileged to study the life of one veteran or servicemember from our home state. When I received the name James Starnes and began watching his oral history, I was immediately befuddled. I represented the state of Missouri. James Starnes was born and raised in Decatur, Georgia. It was not until the end of his fascinating chronicle that I understood why a student from Missouri had been chosen to study him: James Starnes was the officer of the deck and navigator of the USS Missouri, the ship on which the Japanese formally surrendered to the Allied forces, thereby ending World War II.
The research drew me in rapidly. I began to watch footage of the historic event to try to spot a young Starnes or some aspect of the scene he described in his oral history. I also emailed the archivist at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri, to see if the museum had any artifacts relating to the surrender, which happened during Missouri native Harry S. Truman’s presidency. Most interesting, however, were the facts I uncovered about the USS Missouri itself.
I began to wonder why the USS Missouri had been chosen for the surrender. This was soon answered when I discovered that it was Margaret Truman—the daughter of the then junior senator from Missouri—who had actually christened the battleship by smashing the ceremonial bottle of bubbly on its hull. According to Starnes, on that day Truman promised his daughter that “the ‘Mighty Mo’ will steam into Tokyo Harbor someday, with guns a-blazing, and the war will be over.” It made perfect sense, then, that four years later, when he was president and was choosing a location to mark the end of one of the bloodiest conflicts in history, he chose the ship named for his home state and christened by his only child.
I also began to listen to Mr. Starnes’s words more carefully. He mentioned that as officer of the deck his duty was to give the Japanese delegation the official permission to board the ship. He spoke of positioning eight men, each over six feet tall, at the Japanese entry point to project an aura of dominance.
He spoke of the infamous wartime incident aboard the Missouri when a young Japanese kamikaze pilot, en route to collide with the ship, was shot down. His plane left a dent on the side of the ship, but there were no American casualties. However, recognizing their shared roles as pawns in a larger, international game, the crew of the USS Missouri decided to honor the pilot with a navy funeral. Realizing they had no Japanese flags on hand, the crew stayed up all night sewing a red sun.
I read about how General Douglas MacArthur dropped a pen nib cover during the Instrument of Surrender signing ceremony—which took place on what would from that day forward be known as the Surrender Deck—but was not willing to bend down and pick it up, as it would seem like bowing to the enemy.
These stories filled my mind while writing my oral-history project. After it was submitted, and only a week before the Road to Tokyo grand opening, I received an email from the Museum that I had been selected as the student speaker for the VIP gala the night before the grand opening. Writing that speech in the next few days allowed me a chance to reflect on what I had learned throughout the process. However, what best gave me a sense of the importance of studying and exploring history was the experience of actually delivering the speech in front of more than 600 people. I was floored to see the knowing looks on the faces of veterans throughout the audience as I spoke naively of battleships and campaigns. I was warmed to see their smiles as I read a poem that was included in the oral history I had researched. I was especially surprised when, after leaving the stage and heaving a sigh of relief, I ran into a gentleman who turned out to be the chief historian at the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument (a National Park at Pearl Harbor). The next morning, I carried the Missouri state flag into the grand opening along with my fellow students with a new sense of its historical weight. On the flight home, I discussed with my mother how incredible it would be to actually see the USS Missouri at its resting place in Pearl Harbor someday. My experience at the Museum was over, but my journey aboard the USS Missouri had only just begun.
Fast-forward a month or two. My family was planning a spring break trip to Maui, Hawaii, and my parents told me we were planning a day trip to Pearl Harbor to see the USS Missouri and the USS Arizona. I was ecstatic. On top of being a WWII nerd, I could not wait to stand aboard the ship I had spent months researching. Finally, March arrived, and my family and I flew west toward beaches and battleships.
When we arrived at the Missouri, I was immediately struck by its size and majesty. Even by today’s standards, the Iowa-class battleship—the last of its kind—is considered a leviathan. I began to recognize many historical odds and ends I had encountered in my research. After a guided tour, I began to explore on my own. I went to the navigation room in the high decks of the ship and sat in what would have been James Starnes’s seat. I found the Japanese entry point where the tall men had stood (marked by two poles which stand closer together than the rest). I saw the dent made by the kamikaze pilot (which, after countless paint jobs and modernizations, still has not been removed). I even saw the place where General MacArthur signed the Instrument of Surrender and where the pen nib cover was later found. However, the most incredible moment aboard the Missouri for me was standing on the highest deck open for tourists, where one can see the USS Arizona Memorial, which I would visit in the coming hours. The green outline of the sunken Arizona can be seen directly off the bow of the Missouri. Some nearby guide was telling a tourist that the ships, one above and one below water, were positioned in this way so that the Missouri could watch over the fallen servicemembers still on board the USS Arizona.
This visual summed up my entire experience learning about the war in the Pacific. In one body of water off the coast of Hawaii, in one day, a person can visit a ship that witnessed the beginning of World War II in the Pacific theater and the ship that witnessed its end. To have stood atop both of those ships and to have captured a glimpse of war and its consequences continues to inform my decisions today. My oral-history project and my trip to The National WWII Museum served as the impetus for visiting Pearl Harbor. However, my experience at Pearl Harbor was also, in turn, deeply enriched by my oral-history project and my trip to the Museum.
When I left Pearl Harbor, I remember scribbling down a note to myself. While writing this blog entry, I found it and pulled it out. To me, it sums up how I felt immediately after leaving the park and what thoughts were rushing through my mind about the war in the Pacific. The note reads as follows: “The fire of World War II was ignited by blood and smothered by a signature.”
Many friends of The National WWII Museum have reached out to ask if we have suffered any of the catastrophic flooding occurring elsewhere in Louisiana. We’re happy to report that we have not. The Museum is safe and open to visitors.
Unfortunately, many of our fellow Louisiana residents have been less fortunate. If, like us, you are looking for ways to help, this NOLA.com post lists donation and contact information for many relief agencies doing vital work in the state right now.
As the disaster has unfolded, the Museum’s curators and archivists have been fielding queries about how to save precious photos, books, and documents damaged by floodwater. Museum staffers—who deal with fragile WWII-era artifacts every day, working to preserve every piece for future generations—have been able to offer some valuable insights on salvaging these fragile treasures.
Below, assembled by our archivists, are links to several sites with tips and advice used by professional archivists, records managers, and librarians that can offer helpful guidance for personal collections as well.
Much of the advice can be summed up this way: Separate the damaged items, place them on a flat surface on top of something absorbent, and circulate the air.
The US Wereth Memorial in Wereth, Belgium. Belgian civilian Hermann Langer was only 11 years old when he met and helped shelter the 11 men of the 333rd Field Artillery Battalion before their capture and murder. In 2004, Langer established a nonprofit and erected this monument remembering them. In May 2015, Museum staff and volunteers traveled to the memorial to pay their respects to the Wereth 11.
In 1949, the US Senate investigated judicial proceedings resulting from atrocities during the Battle of the Bulge, listing 12 locations where American prisoners of war and Belgian civilians were allegedly murdered by German troops. The location where 11 African American soldiers of the 333rd Field Artillery Battalion were killed by the German SS after their surrender in Wereth, Belgium was omitted from the report of a Senate subcommittee.
Over the past 70 years, the event known as the Wereth Massacre has been a largely forgotten tragedy from the final phase of World War II. Today, momentum is growing in Congress to give proper recognition to the 11 men who died serving their country. The National WWII Museum, led by President and CEO Gordon H. “Nick” Mueller, urges citizens, museums, and other institutions to back the current effort – reflected in House Resolution 141 – to revise the 1949 Senate report and officially recognize the service and ultimate sacrifice of these 11 men.
The 1949 Senate report surveyed a range of atrocities committed in several locations in Belgium beginning on Dec. 16, 1944, and ending nearly a month later.
The atrocities, which included the killing of approximately 350 American prisoners of war ( after their surrender) and 100 Belgian civilians, were “committed by the organization known as Combat Group Peiper, which was essentially the first SS Panzer Regiment commanded by Col. Joachim Peiper,” the report concluded. “On the eastern front, one of the battalions of the Combat Group Peiper … earned the nickname of Blow Torch Battalion after burning two villages and killing all the inhabitants thereof.”
In a letter to West Virginia Congressman David B. McKinley, sponsor of H.R. 141, Mueller said, “Until recent years, many relatives of these murdered soldiers were left to believe that their loved ones simply died in combat. Records show there was evidence of torture and disfigurement among the deceased soldiers, and some observers believe the radial ideology of Nazi SS soldiers could have influenced their brutal treatment of these artillery unit members.”
We will never forget the service of the Americans lost in this episode: Curtis Adams of South Carolina, Willliam Pritchett and George Davis Jr. of Alabama, Nathaniel Moss and George Motten of Texas, Due Turner of Arkansas, James Stewart of West Virginia, Robert Green of Georgia, and three Mississippians, Mager Bradley, Thomas Forte, and James Leatherwood.
The Top-Secret Assignment that Brought New Orleans’s Most Famous Boat Builder Inside the Manhattan Project
The National WWII Museum has been researching Higgins Industries’ involvement in this top secret work and wants to hear from anyone who worked on this assembly line, or who may have information on the atomic bomb-related work at the Michoud plant in New Orleans. Please email research assistant Kali Martin at The National WWII Museum if you have any information on the atomic line at Higgins Industries.
“Orleanians, from Youths to Grandmothers, Help Build Atom Bombs,” The Times-Picayune New Orleans States , August 12, 1945. Courtesy of Jerry Strahan.
The Atomic Age Quietly Comes to New Orleans
Catherine Dolles (pictured with her face and arms covered with dust from the production process) served as the “lead woman in inspection” on a production line at Higgins Industries’ Michoud plant during the final year of World War II. Mrs. Dolles, along with thousands of other employees, worked on parts that, unknown to them, were destined for the Manhattan Project—the top-secret drive to build an atomic bomb. “Orleanians, from Youths to Grandmothers, Help Build Atom Bombs,” The Times-Picayune New Orleans States, August 12, 1945. Courtesy of Jerry Strahan.
In August 1944 Higgins Industries, under the direction of Andrew Higgins, was dealt a costly blow when a contract for C-46 cargo planes was canceled. This represented a huge loss for Higgins Industries and the city, as the sprawling Michoud plant in eastern New Orleans had been completed specifically to build these cargo planes. The contract cancellation made headlines across the country and caught the attention of the Tennessee Eastman Corporation, which operated the electromagnetic separation plant “Y-12” at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The Y-12 plant was responsible for producing uranium to be used in atomic bombs. By the end of the month, Higgins Industries had a contract to make carbon components for Manhattan Project production work.
That fall, roughly 2,500 workers were selected from existing lines at Higgins Industries’ various plants to work on a new line. The workers had to swear an oath of secrecy about the work they would be doing—although as far as they knew, they were making radar and radio parts. Andrew Higgins’s son Frank was put in charge of the operation at the Michoud plant, with a mandate for absolute secrecy: “Our right hand couldn’t know what the left hand was doing,” according to Higgins. Despite the need for secrecy, few security measures were put into place. No armed guards roamed the premises, lest their presence tip off the workers that their work was more than they had been told.
The “vile, dirty and dangerous” work, as Andrew Higgins described it in a press conference, was complicated and changeable: Once the lines were up and running, workers produced parts that met the high standards required. But just after the carbon order was placed with Higgins Industries, another order came in for metal spare parts. Lines had to be added and adjusted to meet the shifting needs of the Tennessee Eastman Corporation.
Working on this these lines were mothers, grandmothers, fathers, and veterans. Nearly all of them had family members in uniform. Some drove 100 miles each day to take their place on the line. Some came on crutches due to physical disabilities. Ten hours a day, six days a week, they took their places on the line. On the carbon line, workers were mostly shielded by protective clothing, but their hands and faces would be blackened by dust by the time they left the plant.
The difficult and dirty work continued over the next year, including Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day. The demand for parts was continuously increasing. If any of workers questioned the work, they kept their doubts quiet. In the year of production before an atomic bomb was dropped, there were no reported intelligence leaks at Higgins.
“The potentialities of it intrigue the mind of man.”
The nose of the Enola Gay, probably on a Tinian airfield in 1945. Gift of David Lawrence, from the collection of The National World War II Museum
As the workday came to a close on August 5, 1945, across the world three B-29 planes made their way to the skies over mainland Japan. There it was early morning of August 6, and the world was on the brink of a new era. Americans awoke on August 6 to news of the destruction of Hiroshima, Japan, by a single bomb that was more destructive than anything seen before. With the release of the first atomic bomb, nicknamed “Little Boy,” dropped from the B-29 Enola Gay, the world had entered the atomic age.
That night Andrew Higgins spoke at a press conference in Chicago. He revealed that the manufacturing process his employees had believed to be routine was in fact work for the Manhattan Project. Although he couldn’t divulge any details about what they had been doing, Higgins was able to make it known that the work at Michoud had helped to build the most powerful weapons in the world. Higgins remarked about the atomic bomb, “The potentialities of it intrigue the mind of man.” He applauded the hard work of the men and women on this most secretive line, calling them “heroes and heroines.”
Unraveling the Mystery
The Alpha II track at the Y-12 facility. Image from Manhattan District History, Manhattan Project, US Army Corps of Engineers, Book V: Electromagnetic Project, Volume 6 – Operation.
Much of the documentation surrounding the uranium bomb Little Boy was destroyed after the war when it was determined to be less effective than the plutonium bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan. There is little documentation available on Higgins’s involvement with the Manhattan Project. What is known has come from documentation from the National Archives, Andrew Jackson Higgins and the Boats that Won World War II by Jerry Strahan, and newspaper articles published in 1945 by The Times-Picayune in New Orleans. From this, we know that workers on that dirty, carbon dust–coated line were making parts for the Alpha and Beta tracks at the Y-12 facility in Oak Ridge.
The Alpha and Beta tracks were the large calutrons in which uranium 235 (U235), used in the Little Boy bomb, was separated from uranium 238. Through an electromagnetic process, U235 could be isolated and captured. The captured U235 was then carried by a single person to New Mexico via train. Although we know that the parts made at Higgins went into the process, we have not found confirmation of how they were used. The metal spares made also went to the Alpha and Beta tracks, but their exact nature remains a mystery.
The research to understand the exact contributions of Higgins Industries to the Manhattan Project is ongoing. As part of this research the Museum is looking for former Higgins workers who worked on the atomic line. Do you know someone who worked on the atomic line at Higgins? If you worked on the line, or know someone who did, please email research assistant Kali Martin at The National WWII Museum.
Catherine Dolles served as the “lead woman in inspection” on a production line at Higgins Industries’ Michoud plant during the final year of World War II. Mrs. Dolles, along with thousands of other employees, worked on parts that, unknown to them, were destined for the Manhattan Project—the top-secret drive to build an atomic bomb. “Orleanians, from Youths to Grandmothers, Help Build Atom Bombs,” The Times-Picayune New Orleans States, August 12, 1945. Courtesy of Jerry Strahan.
“Orleanians, from Youths to Grandmothers, Help Build Atom Bombs,” The Times-Picayune New Orleans States, August 12, 1945. Courtesy of Jerry Strahan.
Bertha Sheridan worked on the atomic line despite being partially paralyzed. “Orleanians, from Youths to Grandmothers, Help Build Atom Bombs,” The Times-Picayune New Orleans States, August 12, 1945. Courtesy of Jerry Strahan.
Ethel Bright, mother of three sons in the Army Air Forces and grandmother to two, worked on the atomic line at Higgins. “Orleanians, from Youths to Grandmothers, Help Build Atom Bombs,” The Times-Picayune New Orleans States, August 12, 1945. Courtesy of Jerry Strahan.
The nose of the Enola Gay, probably on a Tinian airfield in 1945. Gift of David Lawrence, from the collection of The National WWII Museum.
The Alpha II track at the Y-12 facility. Image from Manhattan District History, Manhattan Project, US Army Corps of Engineers, Book V: Electromagnetic Project, Volume 6 – Operation.
Dr. Brown with the P-51 Mustang replica painted in the likeness of the plane he flew during the war at The National WWII Museum in 2013. Today a restored P-51 Mustang hangs there as a tribute to his service.
Roscoe C. Brown Jr., PhD, a decorated member of the pioneering African American Tuskegee Airmen in World War II and later an educator, died July 2, 2016, at age 94.
Dr. Brown was a “great friend of the Museum,” said Gordon H. “Nick” Mueller, PhD, president and CEO, recalling him as a repeated “distinguished and honored speaker” who participated in the opening ceremonies for the pavilion that now houses the tribute P-51.
“Roscoe Brown led a full and important life—a life of meaning,” Dr. Mueller said. “We all remember him as a leader, a man of courage, an educator, and an inspiration to all who knew him. He was a role model to African Americans throughout his life, and will continue to be.”
A Washington, DC, native, Dr. Brown attended Springfield College in Springfield, Massachusetts, departing the day after his graduation for training at Keesler Field in Biloxi, Mississippi. From there, he moved on to Tuskegee, Alabama, for further training at the Tuskegee Institute and Tuskegee Army Air Base.
In total, Dr. Brown flew 68 combat missions, a combination of strafing runs and escort missions for heavy bombers and P-38 reconnaissance flights. He downed a German jet near Berlin during an escort mission on March 24, 1945.
“As we got over the outskirts of Berlin, I first saw these streaks, which I knew were jets. . . . And they were coming up to attack the bombers,” Dr. Brown said in his Museum oral history, recorded in 2012. Brown executed a “reverse peel” to maneuver into engagement with one of the jets.
“He didn’t see me,” Dr. Brown said. “And then I turned into his blind spot, put on my electronic gun sight, and brrrrp—boom! There he was.
“The bomber-escort missions required a lot of discipline. They were longer missions in the main, and you knew you were doing good. . . . Escort missions gave us our reputation. We got the reputation of being so-called ‘Red Tailed Angels,’ because of the fact that we stayed close to the bombers.”
The success the Tuskegee Airmen achieved in battle became a symbol of bravery and skill, helping refute notions that African Americans were inferior performers in the military, especially in roles requiring advanced training. As the Airmen became well-known for their stellar flying record and distinctive aircraft, they were able to begin breaking racial barriers abroad and eventually at home.
“Many of the bomber pilots . . . remembered the Red Tails,” Dr. Brown said in his oral history. “[They said,] ‘We saw the Red Tail P-51s and they were our saviors.’ . . . Many of them did not know—most of them did not know—that we were African American.”
In April 2016, a restored P-51D Mustang painted in the likeness of the “Red Tail” fighter Dr. Brown flew in the war joined The National WWII Museum’s fleet of warbirds in US Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center.
Dr. Brown earned the Distinguished Flying Cross during World War II. In 2007, Brown and five other airmen accepted the Congressional Gold Medal on behalf of the Tuskegee Airmen. He earned a doctorate in education after the war and served as a professor at New York University, then served as president of Bronx Community College for 17 years. He later joined The City University of New York Graduate Center as director of the Center for Urban Education Policy.
The Museum’s P-51, restored by San Diego’s Flyboys Aeroworks and dedicated at a ceremony in April 2016, bears the unmistakable Tuskegee Airmen “Red Tail.” The Mustang also carries the nicknames “Bunnie” and “Miss Kentucky State” to mirror Dr. Brown’s wartime aircraft. “Bunnie” was Dr. Brown’s daughter’s name; “Miss Kentucky State” was a crew chief’s salute to an admired homecoming queen back home.
“I am deeply saddened to hear of his passing,” said Tommy Lofton, the Museum historian and curator who conducted Dr. Brown’s oral history. “I was honored to have the opportunity to conduct an interview with him in 2012 for the Museum and spent the better part of that day enamored by his wartime experiences. I will always remember him and I feel that he is one of my personal heroes of the war.”
The National WWII Museum tells the story of the American Experience in the war that changed the world - why it was fought, how it was won, and what it means today - so that all generations will understand the price of freedom and be inspired by what they learn.