100 years ago: Allies WWI victory is marred by riots in Newport News
By Mark St. John Erickson
via the Newport News Daily Press web site
When World War I ended in triumph a century ago on Nov. 11, 1918, the nation's second-largest wartime port staged a jubilant downtown parade — with 50 Langley Field planes flying overhead and long columns of uniformed men marching down Washington Avenue.
But just hours after the cheering and flag-waving stopped, thousands of soldiers and sailors returned to ravage the commercial district of Newport News in a spectacular outbreak of vandalism, arson and looting spurred by pent-up anger over price gouging.
So wild was the two-hour-long orgy of revenge that it took a clever decoying tactic and 300 military policemen with fixed bayonets to quell the marauders.
But by then the downtown streets were strewn with broken and battered streetcars as well as burning delivery wagons — not to mention restaurants and storefronts smashed to bits and food, cash registers, cigars and confectionery goods pulled from shelves and hurled into heaps on the sidewalks, the Daily Press reported.
Three days later, about 1,000 soldiers enraged by the paper’s strident defense of the city gathered to heave bricks through its windows.
Only a squad of MPs firing rifles into the air prevented another riot.
“A lot of transient soldiers came through this town during the war — and few of them had very good things to say about Newport News,” says Virginia War Museum educator Chris Garcia, describing the often uneasy relations between the wartime boomtown and the nearly 800,000 men the Hampton Roads Port of Embarkation transported to and from Europe.
“It was a combustible mix waiting for a spark. And that spark came with the end of the war.”
Established on July 11, 1918, the HRPE encompassed the nation’s largest single embarkation camp at Camp Stuart, its principal depot for shipping horses and mules at Camp Hill and its primary aviation embarkation center at Camp Morrison — all in what today is Newport News.
Yet so quickly did the Army revise its plans in response to the changing war that even the giant scale of the HRPE and the magnitude of its effects grew far beyond expectations.
First to expand was the Camp Stuart hospital near Newport News Point, where mounting casualties from France pushed the original call for 200 beds to nearly 5,000.
Then there was the Army’s answer to the brutal artillery war overseas, which filled its school at Fort Monroe to overflowing before leading to an immense new training base at Fort Eustis — then the rapid expansion of the massive firing range there with the establishment of nearby Camp Wallace.
Throw in the tremendous growth at Newport News Shipbuilding — where the job rolls swelled from 7,600 to 12,512 — and an epic wartime building campaign that lured some 10,000 construction workers, and the small city of 26,246 not only nearly doubled in size but also began to stagger as it grappled with explosions in population and living costs.
So scarce was housing that rents skyrocketed — and when vacant properties vanished the shipyard erected burgeoning tent cities across from its gates, writes historian John V. Quarstein in “World War I on the Virginia Peninsula.”
The cost of food and goods erupted, too, raising prices on everything from tobacco, candy and restaurant meals to bootleg liquor.
“Newport News was a World War I boomtown — a giant armed camp filled with soldiers, sailors, shipbuilders and construction workers — and that made it like the Wild West,” Garcia says.
“People realized they could make a lot of money here because of the war — and they were making fortunes.”
Yet where the wages of unskilled construction workers were reported by newly arrived writer Thomas Wolfe to be as high as $12 a day, a newly drafted private’s pay remained steady at $30 a month, according to Army records.
That gulf led to constant complaints in the camps, where many soldiers felt even the city’s trolley car tickets were rigged against them.
“They (the shipyard workers) only pay 5 cents — and some of them make $85 a week,” wrote Missouri soldier Joe Harlin, whose letters home are now in the collection of The Mariners’ Museum.
“We pay 10 cents and get $7 a week.”
So cheated did Harlin feel that he once wrote home to say he’d walked rather than pay “the exorbitant fare.”
And he was far from alone in feeling he’d been wronged.
“There was pretty wide-spread resentment,” says Mariners’ archivist Bill Barker, co-curator of the museum’s exhibit, “Answering America’s Call: Newport News in World War I.”
“And that resentment spilled over.”
Escalating prices and war profiteering weren’t the only things soldiers saw in Newport News.
Rising up alongside them were such earnest expressions of welcome as the tireless “Donut Dollies” who met hundreds of thousands of troops at the trains and piers.
Then there were the families who shared their Sunday dinners as part of the “Take a Soldier Home” program.
“I never saw such a town and such people,” one doughboy wrote home.
“That’s the fifth invitation today and I can’t hold another bit.”
Newport News’ women led these efforts through such volunteer groups as the Red Cross, the Women’s Service League, the YWCA Hostess Houses and even the North End Girl’s Water Brigade, which served drinks to soldiers marching through their neighborhood to and from the piers, Quarstein writes.
And when a wounded doughboy returning from France asked if “there was any way they could get some honest-to-God ice cream,” the city responded by raising $6,234 — about $90,965 today — and serving more than 6,100 gallons to more than 83,000 soldiers.
That was the spirit behind the swift organization of the 2 p.m. victory parade after the unexpected end of the war came on Nov. 11.
Thronged with Boy Scouts, the girls of the city’s Patriotic League and the bagpipe-playing members of the local Scottish Black Watch as well as soldiers and sailors, the jubilant event was described by the paper as “the most joyous and most enthusiastic, most expressive and most significant civic, military and naval parade ever known on the lower Peninsula.”
But sometime during their triumphant march the soldiers and sailors were heckled as “tin soldiers,” Quarstein says.
“They were cheered, but they were jeered, too, and they felt the town didn’t honor them in the way they deserved,” he adds.
“So what was supposed to be a celebration turned into a riot.”
Fueled by resentment and illegal liquor, thousands of servicemen converged on the downtown business district that evening, when what began as revelry quickly became mayhem.
The city’s trolley cars were the first targets, with the mob forcing them to halt, driving their crews and passengers off, then breaking out the windows, the newspaper reported.
Soon they were joined in the street by commandeered cars as well as more than a dozen delivery wagons that the servicemen broke up and set on fire.
Storefront signs were torn down and piled on top of the blazing pyres, Harlin recalled in a letter.
Windows and doors were smashed as the men raided business after business believed to have cheated and gouged them.
Greek-owned restaurants suffered repeated attacks as the mob rushed in to pull cash registers, tableware and food from the shelves and hurl them onto the pavement.
The Jem cigar store sustained $1,000 in tobacco and other goods destroyed, while the contents of a candy store were “dumped wholesale into the street,” the paper reported.
Slot machines were taken from stores and upended, covering the street and sidewalk with coins as they burst open, Harlin wrote.
Two hours into the rampage, former city resident Maj. Percy Hamilton pushed past the overwhelmed police and MPs.
Though hurt by a thrown brick, he kept his cool, decoying about 1,500 marauders to the far side of the 28th Street bridge by convincing them of a fight taking place there between soldiers and civilians.
Confronting the crowd with “a firm appeal,” he slowed them long enough for 300 MPs to arrive with rifles and drawn bayonets, the newspaper reported.
By midnight peace had been restored.
“Pandemonium on Washington Avenue,” the Daily Press reported the following morning.
Newspapers around the country carried stories about the riot, too, often adjacent to round-ups of the victory celebrations.
“Thousands of soldiers and sailors took possession of the city,” the front page of the Boston Globe reported.
“Alleged unreasonable prices for food were said to have been responsible.”
By noon the following day, Harlin was writing home about the debacle.
“The merchants got just what was coming to them … but they got off too easy,” he wrote.
An officer of the 37th Heavy Artillery penned a similar letter to the paper after the parade.
“For months those in government service have stood for the outrageous prices your merchants have put upon goods needed by soldiers and sailors, uncomplaining we have suffered the untold disadvantages your wretched street car service affords … but we did not expect the universal discourtesy shown the Flag,” wrote A.C.M. Azoy Jr., noting the “slackers” who failed to remove their hats as the banners passed.
“Six thousand and more men and officers are going to always think of Newport News in its true light as a city of money grabbers whose patriotism is in direct ratio to what they get out of it, and whose national emblem is the dollar sign.”
Published in the Daily Press letters column under the head, “Insolent Criticism,” Azoy’s attack was condemned as “vicious and slanderous” by the paper, which acknowledged the city had been “overwhelmed” by the war but blamed the worn-out roads, inflated prices and housing shortage on both “the Government” and “the floating population” that had “flocked here … to grab every dollar they could lay their hands on while the flush times lasted.”
“We are a hospitable people and we are glad to have decent visitors,” it protested.
“But there comes a time when … forbearance … ceases to be a virtue. If that be a threat, make the best use of it.”
Two nights later the soldiers replied, with more than 1,000 gathering to hurl bricks through the paper’s front windows before being driven off by MPs firing rifles into the air.
That led to a front-page declaration the following morning in which the paper claimed its editorial had been “entirely misconstrued” — and that no attack on servicemen had been intended.
The soldiers and sailors fired back with a caustic poem vilifying everything from Greek restaurants and black shipyard workers to “bootleg whiskey and rotten beer.”
“For the rottenest hole, the wide world through, Newport News, we pin the crepe on you,” the authors wrote, signing themselves the “Army and Navy boys who suffered the Siege of Newport News during the World War.”
The sting of such widespread criticism may have played a role two months later in the Chamber of Commerce’s eagerness to build the city’s famous Victory Arch and as well as its redoubled efforts to greet returning soldiers with expressions of gratitude and welcome, Quarstein says.
That meant not only the ringing of church bells, the waving of flags and the cheers of schoolchildren every time a transport ship arrived but also such measures as helping the Red Cross canteen feed 422,253 military men freshly back from Europe.
“More soldiers came home through Newport News than left here for France — and leaders here recognized they had to do better,” Quarstein says.
“So when the soldiers started returning and marched through the Victory Arch that spring the whole atmosphere had changed,” Quarstein said. “Every soldier stepping off a ship got a doughnut. They were welcomed home as heroes.”