One of America’s darkest days of World War II was July 14, 1943. But this wasn’t because of what was happening in Europe, or on the other side of the Pacific. No, it was a terrible injustice that happened on American soil, right in Pennsylvania.
The official record is slim, but what we do know is that day a “race riot” (more accurately a massacre) occurred at the Shenango Personnel Replacement Depot, a military facility near Transfer in Mercer County, PA.
Located near major railroads that crossed Pennsylvania, the depot was a gathering place for soldiers heading to East Coast ports. Soldiers usually only stayed there very temporarily. By the time it closed a few years later over a million troops had stayed there.
As with all other military facilities during World War II, the Shenango Depot was segregated. I don’t know if it was worse here than other bases, but from witness accounts, it was really bad at Shenango. Not only were Black soldiers relegated to the corner of the depot and lacked most amenities available to white troops, but they were also subjected to abuse and scorn enough to make your blood boil.
All this came to a head that day in June, 1943. Official records, newspaper accounts, and personal testimony differ, but it seems that some sort of altercation occurred when Black soldiers tried to go into the white commissary on base. Later that day, military police fired on Black troops at another part of the depot. The official report said one Black soldier was killed and six wounded, though eye-witnesses said it was many more.
Official reports (if you can even call them that), seems to blame the Black soldiers for the entire thing, and said that they instigated the deadly violence by arming themselves with rifles after the commissary fight. A New York Times article published that month reported “an undetermined number of Negro soldiers forced their way into the supply building and began firing on the white troops.”
Here’s the story as told by the U.S. Army (when then-Congressman Tom Ridge asked the Army for the story, this is all they supplied): “an altercation between Negro and white soldiers in a post exchange expanded until it involved large numbers of troops in the exchange area. This first disturbance, brought under control by white and Negro military police, was followed by another when two new prisoners, picked up for a pass violation, spread news of the earlier fracas to men in the guardhouse. Negro prisoners broke out of the guardhouse and, joined by other soldiers, seized firearms and ammunition from supply rooms. Military police, again white and Negro, killed one and wounded five other soldiers in quelling the second disturbance.” (The Employment of Negro Troops, page 374)
However, the most detailed account of this event comes from Dempsey Travis, a soldier who was stationed at the Shenango Depot and was himself shot several times by military police. He recorded the story several times in articles and his autobiography, but I find the most compelling version comes from an oral history interview he did with Studs Terkel and later published in The Good War (1984). Take a few minutes to read his story to see how it squares with the other accounts:
The army was an experience unlike anything I’ve had in my life. I think of two armies, one Black, one white. I saw German prisoners free to move around the camp, unlike German prisoners restricted. The Germans walked right into the doggone places like any white American. We were wearin’ the same uniform, but we were excluded.
This was Camp Shenango, Pennsylvania, about thirty-five miles east of Youngstown, Ohio. When I arrived, I stepped into mud up to my knees. The troop train was Jim Crow. They had a car for Black soldiers and for whites. They went to their part and sent us to the ghetto. It seems the army always arranged to have Black soldiers back up against the woods someplace. Isolated. We were never near the main gate. If you went through camp as a visitor, you’d never know Black soldiers were there, unless they happened to be working on some menial detail.
They didn’t have a PX that Black soldiers could use. There was a white PX, but we could not use it. They set up a temporary situation in the barracks where a guy had some candy bars and a Coke. At the white PX, you could buy almost anything. We had nothin’. There was no Black servicemen’s club. No place for recreation. The only thing guys could do is shoot craps and play cards. If lucky, they might get a pass to Sharon, about fifteen miles away.
Although there were five theaters on the post, there were none that Black soldiers could use. After we’d been there a couple of weeks, they decided to put a makeshift theater right I the center of the Black area. You could get maybe a couple hundred guys in, so they had to run it in shifts. A friend named Kansas and I had decided we’d go to the theater that night. When we looked out, the line was do damn long, we know we’d never get in. So we made the second shift, Wuthering Heights was the picture.
As we walked out of the theater, there was a group of Black soldiers standing around in a big discussion. Some Black soldier’s eye had been kicked out for going into the PX to get a beer. The guys were talking: We’ve got to do something about it. Kansas and I just walked into this.
Within minutes, a caravan of six trucks loaded with white soldiers in battle-color fatigues, like they had in jungle warfare, looked like green leaves, camouflage, they drove up and surrounded the area. Cut the street off. The lights went out and they started firing. Firing, Firing, firing, just shooting into the goddamn crowd. Everybody started scrambling like hell. I must have run maybe five feet and fell, my friend Kansas beside me. I put my hand on my leg and I could feel something warm running down my pants.
Funny thing is I thought I’d be very religious at that point. Whereas, I was just filled with hate, I’d say, The rotten son-of-a-bitches. I just cursed. Meantime, shooting is still going on and men are screaming. Then shooting subsides. Then comes the Red Cross. The guys start walked through the crowd with flashlights. “This one is dead.” “This one is bad.” I don’t know how many died and how many were wounded.
When they got to me, they said, “He’ll live. He just seems to be shot in several places.” I was shot three times. Then they looked at my friend. They threw a flashlight on him. They said, “He’ll make it. N—–s don’t die when you shoot ‘em in the head.” This was a Red Cross worker.
They took us both to the ambulance. Two guys were sitting in front. The one says to the driver, “Why we doin’ this to our own soldiers?” Driver says, “Who ever told you n—–s were our soldiers? Where I come from”- I detected a southern accent- “we shoot n—–s like we shoot rabbits.” This stayed with me. This sound of these two men talking about two disabled Black soldiers. Shot not by the enemy but by Americans.
We finally arrived at the base hospital and they rolled me into the corridor. They rolled Kansas into a little room that was probably four, five feet from where I was. I could see him on his bed. The doctor looked at him, went through this raising-your-eyelid thing. Then he started pumping his legs up and down about six or seven times. He pulled the light out and closed the door. No one had to tell me Kansas was dead.
That night I was rolled into a ward with other soldiers. I recognized some of the guys who had been shot. Within forty feet of me were about twelve or fourteen of these guys.
There was a belief that I would never walk again. Doctors said, “You seem to be paralyzed.” Well, that certainly disturbed the hell out of me. There’s a guy next to me screamin’ and hollerin’. Somehow, this information never reached the newspapers.
The Red Cross evidently contacted my parents. I hadn’t been in the hospital forty-eight hours when I looked up and here comes my father. My father with a big cigar in his mouth, lookin’ proud. He’s a stockyard worker, but never been outside Chicago since comin’ from Georgia. He had a walk and a proudness and an importance that you just couldn’t believe. My mother, just the opposite. A very mild woman, but a smile that is so infectious it just brightens up the room. She saw me and her eyes just started blazing with tears and smiling… (Cries). Shit, when you go back and try to remember, that’s hard. I mean, that’s hard.
(Laughing and crying at the same time). Oh, God, I was so glad to see my parents. Overwhelming to be twenty-one years old and just totally out of it, thinking that I would never walk again. They told my parents that they would have to ship me out to the general hospital in Butler, Pennsylvania. Whatever operation was needed was not gonna take place here.
Before I shipped out, an unusual thing happened. The FBI or the CIA of G-2, I don’t know which, took a special interest in my case. They kept probing me at my bedside: Who did the shooting? As if I would know. How did it happen? Where were you? What were you doing prior to this happening? I told them I was in the theater and just walked out. The general hospital is about fifty or sixty miles from Shenango. Never will forget the rolling hills of Pennsylvania. Seemed like these doggone ambulances had no springs. Every damn bump all the way. Arriving there, they put me in private quarters. The army at the time was still very Jim Crow, even with sick people. I was isolated.
The same man showed up again, civilian clothes, Black pants, the whispering, the same series of questions. He assured me I’d be taken care of.
I found out later that my IQ was higher than anybody elses’ in the group that had been shot. They probably thought I was the ringleader. I had no idea I had a high IQ (Laughs.)They didn’t send anybody else out except me. They put a screen in front of my bed. Red Cross is passing out candy and when this person reached my door, I heard another person say, “Oh, don’t go in there. They got a coon in that room.” (Laughs.)
A doctor showed up, examines me, and says, “I think I can relieve you of this problem. It’s gonna take a series of operations. You may be able to walk, but never as you walked before. Probably a serious limp.”
That set of a set of circumstances that I’d never dealt with before. Mary, the woman who had been advised not to come into my room, a little white woman about four feet six, came in. She said, “What would like, candy a magazine, a book?” I said, “I’ll take ‘em all.” (Laughs.) We struck up a friendship. She said, “I notice nobody’s been in to see you. As soon as the doctor gives me permission, I’m gonna take you for a ride.”
My fever was running high as hell. Once it subsided, I went through X-rays and they determined how they’re gonna take out these bullets with the least amount of permanent injury. I had shrapnel across the back, right here through the thick- buttocks. It caught me as I was falling. This one, half an inch deep, wide as my small finger. If I weren’t falling, that one would’ve signed me off.
When they finally decided to operate, the two doctors couldn’t agree on the diagnosis. One was a Wasp and one was a Jewish fella. They argued in front of me. I was a nonperson. Finally, the Jewish guy won and the other resigned from the case. He took one bullet out, left one in. He said, “If we remove it, it’ll cause a new kind of problem.” Through some miracle, the operation was partially successful. I had to drag my leg, a bit, but I could feel the strength coming back.
On a thirty-day furlough, I returned to Chicago the fall of ’43. I visited some of the clubs, Rum Boogie, Club de Luxe, Club de Lisa. Oh God, it was wonderful. I was still limping, but I saw improvement.
My mother didn’t want me to go back. She started writing letters to congressmen, senators, even to President Roosevelt. She told them of my experience. But I went back.
I didn’t walk as well as I thought I should. But this new doctor said, “Goddamn it, boy, walk down that hill. We’re gonna send you back to Shenango.” I didn’t have any money, so Mary let me have five dollars.
When I got back to Shenango, I discovered something. They had built up a major service center for the Black servicemen. They had opened up the main theater and Blacks were permitted to go. (Laughs.) It appears that you had to kill some guys. There was never an inquiry, to my knowledge.
A fellow I met a couple of years alter told me he was at Shenango the night of the shooting. He spend the night under the bed. Later that night, the Black guys broke into the ammunition place and got armed. This thing was not really quelled for forty-eight to seventy-two hours. It didn’t die right that night. He said, “All I could hear is gunshot fire throughout the night.” The next day, his whole outfit was shipped out overseas.
They decided that what I needed improvement on was not my legs so much as my attitude. I should see a psychiatrist. Then they decided to talk about my career. Isn’t that a bitch? This guy said, “You can be any damn thing you wanna be. You got an IQ over 137.” I said, “What does that mean?” He said “It means you’re a candidate for OCS.” You can do this, you can do that, you can do the other. I wasn’t impressed. I was a musician.
They decided they were gonna make me a leader. (Laughs.) They put me in charge of a troop movement going to Camp Lee, Virginia. I thought I’d seen everything. We changed trains at Washington, D.C. I thought this being the capital of the country, I could go and get me a Coke. Ha ha. (Laughs.) The woman said, “Boy, you don’t drink no Cokes here. Go downstairs.” I said, “God, this is Washington, D.C.” (Laughs.) She looked at me like I was crazy. I guess I was. One the train to camp, we looked out the back of the car and saw the dome of the Capitol. I said, What the hell does that mean? It didn’t mean what I read in my civics book at DuSable High.
In Richmond- Camp Lee is nearby- we see German PWs riding streetcars in front, the Blacks in the back. It was the first time that I saw Black and white water fountains. In the theater at Camp Lee, I saw Black officers and Black enlisted men sitting in the back, behind a rope. In front were white officers and white enlisted men. The Black officers seemed to show such pride. They thought went through my mind: How can you be proud sitting behind a rope? They’re telling you, Boy, you’re nothing. We’re gonna rope you off.
Although there were many empty white barracks, we lived in tents. We used to sit in these damn tents in the hot sun waiting for some available space in the camp’s Black belt. It lasted some six or eight months.
The lying and dreaming that soldiers would do among themselves is unbelievable. I’d only finished high school, but these sophisticates from Philadelphia, from Baltimore, were talking about what colleges they’d been to. Black colleges. They were gonna do this, they were gonna do that. This si a training camp for quartermasters. These guys with college training were sent to cooking schools, digging schools, motor vehicle.
I was sent to the administrative school. This puts you in a position to become a master sergeant. I was there three days and yanked: “We have orders to ship you out in charge of another cadre to Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Maryland.” I said, “Why?” I liked this school. I was learning how to type. I’m going to become an elitist, you see. (Laughs.) I had decided I was gonna make something of myself as a good soldier.
At Aberdeen I’m assigned to all these guys doing KP duty, kitchen police, trash detail, truck detail, pickin’ up garbage. For three weeks, I’m layin’ around. I don’t really have an assignment. One day an officer sends for me: “Travis, I see you have a good record. What would you like to do?” What can I do? I’m a musician. He said, “We don’t have a band here. But your IQ indicates you can do much more than that.”
The next day, I see a Major Sloan, a tall, ted-faced, freckled, moon-shaped-faced, big-blue-eyed, ex-Texas Ranger. He said, “Can you type?” I said, “No, sir.” “Have you ever worked in an office?” “No, sir.” He reaches into the drawer and pulls out a typing book. He calls in a corporal and says, “You give Private Travis that desk behind you. He’s gonna learn how to type.” I never forgot Major Sloan. He recognized that as a piano player I used my fingers, and it wouldn’t take much for me to become a typist.
He kept at me for about a month. I got to fifty-five words a minute. He called me back: “Have you ever worked in a store?” “No, sir.” He said, “I want you to work in the post exchange as a clerk.” In about three months, he said, “We’re gonna make you assistant manager.” Within two months, I was the manager. This was a Black PX. But that was not enough for him. He decided he wants me to manage the white PX as well. This was early ’45, just before Roosevelt died. They were beginning to integrate the facilities. So I was the first guy to become manager of an integrated PX in the state of Maryland. I won first prize for the best-managed store in the Aberdeen Proving Grounds.
Sloan brought the post commander down to me, a general: “We’re gonna have the newspapers take pictures of you, ‘cause we’re very proud of what you’re doin’.” A couple of days later, he came back: “Travis, that picture will never appear in the paper. Those fellas can’t stand the idea of a black man being able to operate a post exchange in this manner.” The picture never appeared.
I found the most sympathetic white men in the army were actually southerners. I found this to be true in civilian life as well. The best breaks I’ve got as a businessman have come from guys out of Alabama and Georgia. If they decide they’re gonna go with you, they go all the damn way. And no forked tongues. (Laughs.)
What about your limp? I don’t notice any.
Bit by bit, it disappeared as my leg got stronger. I still have the bullet in my hop. No compensation. Of course not.
I was in from September, 9, 1942, to February 2, 1946. When I was about to get discharged, Major Sloan said, “Why don’t you stay? I want to send you to officer candidate school. You’d make a damn fine officer.” But I’d had enough. I said, “Let me out as early as you can, so I can at least go to school under the GI Bill.”
I took entrance exams at Roosevelt, at DePaul, at Northwestern. I got three letters back saying pretty much the same thing: Look, you dumb son of a bitch, don’t ever try to get into college, ‘cause you just ain’t got what it takes. Try usin’ your back. They never said, Try usin’ your head.
I was so goddamn depressed, I did what my father did. I went to work at the stockyards. As a laborer, as a Georgia mule. At noontime, all the guys would gather around me as I told stories. The foreman, a big Irishman, came up to me: I’m gonna fire you. Know why? You’re too smart to be out here. You can do better than this. You should be doin’ income tax or something.
So I started working out income tax problems for relatives and friends. I didn’t know anything about income tax, but if you can count, you can figure out a form. In the meantime, an old teacher met me on the street and said, :Why don’t you try Englewood Evening Junior College? You don’t have to take an entrance exam.” I enrolled in Accounting 101 and Sociology 101. It restored my confidence. I enrolled at Wilson Junior College and I ended up in remedial everything: reading, writing. I was stupid enough to enroll in American Literature 117. I remember turning in my first paper to Silas Marner. The teacher was furious. He thought it was a joke. It was that bad. It was my crazy stubbornness that persuaded him not to kick me out. One day, it just came to me, the whole meaning, the whole concept.
No person who learned to read normally at the normal age can understand this experience. To learn to read as a man twenty-seven years old! Its just like somebody lifted a veil off your eyes (Laughs and cries.) I went to Roosevelt and finished two years in one. That’s the story of me and the GI Bill. It paid my tuition and that made the difference. If anything positive came out of the war, that was it.
My mother was glad I was alive. My father was always kind of laid-back and important. He was not an emotional man. All the emotion was on my mother’s side. And on my side. (Laughs.) He didn’t appreciate how much I loved him until I started getting these promotions in the army. I would send him a box of cigars and he would talk of “my boy, the sergeant.” While I was still in the army, he died. On my emergency furlough, I saw him that last day at County Hospital. His last words were, “Boy, you’re the man of the house now. You gotta take care of your mother.” My mother’s eighty-six now and I’m still taking care of her.
Those four years in the army are the turning point in my life. I learned something about men. I learned something about racism. I learned something about values. I learned something about myself. I don’t think I’d have that experience any other place of the time. Under no other circumstances would I have seen so many men in one setting, where I could evaluate them and myself. Imagine Major Sloan! Would you believe he insisted I study the Bretton Woods Reports and explain it to the troops? I, who could hardly read. See the boy run. The cat jumped the fence. How can I ever forget this experience and this man?
I see World War Two as having been a step on the first rung of the ladder. But I wouldn’t wish it on anybody else.
After reading this, I think you’ll agree that there’s more to this story than what’s in the official accounts. Unless additional evidence is brought to light, what really happened at the Shenango Depot may remain shrouded in darkness, only lit by Travis’ lone testimony.
Still, its clear that the Army took this violence seriously and took some steps to prevent further racial tension in the depot. Almost immediately, all the Black troops stationed at the depot were sent overseas. Camp Commanders said Black personnel would receive more privileges and end discrimination in the depot. Joe Louis was even sent there to compete in an exhibition boxing match a few months after to boost morale. And the facility’s name was even changed to “Camp Reynolds,” after the Civil War general John Reynolds killed at the Battle of Gettysburg.
However, Black soldiers stationed at Camp Reynolds said nothing meaningful changed. In March 1944, nine months after the massacre, Private Bert Babero wrote : “You might readily understand my aversion when I discovered that as far north as Penn. segregation and discrimination is practised [sic] in the army camps. I sometimes wish I could be indifferent but I can’t. Right is right and I realize there’s no such thing as half way right. Although in comparison with conditions at camp Barkley, these here are much more favorable but why are we segregated? Why aren’t we allowed to attend but one theater out of four on the post and why can’t we use any post exchanges of our choice? I tried to answer these questions but I’m on the ebb of becoming neurotic. I didn’t start this war but I didn’t hesitate to come when I believed I was needed…My attitude now is greatly changed. I’m indifferent toward the whole affair.”
Its also unclear if and how the Army compensated servicemen who were wounded or killed in the violence. What really happened seems to be swept under the rug, and that lack of transparency is both disappointing and makes me assume that there’s a whole lot more to the story of the Shenango Depot…