Column: The Army’s African-American chemical divisions in Long Beach during WWII

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Courtesy historylink101.com

The USS Arizona burning after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941.

For decades Long Beach was known as a Navy town because of the proximity of Roosevelt Navy base, Navy housing, the Navy shipyard and Navy hospital. But it was a little known Army division that first arrived in the city that brought a sense of security to those working at Douglas Aircraft.

Fear was in the air following the Dec.7, 1941, Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor and the February 1942 Japanese attack on Southern California. On Feb. 23, 1942, a Japanese submarine fired shells into the Goleta oil field near Santa Barbara, and Navy Intelligence warned of an imminent attack on Los Angeles. A flood of reports of enemy planes followed a radar report of an unidentified target 120 miles west of Los Angeles. It didn’t take much to realize that Long Beach was a prime target.

The city had a Navy base (larger than the one at Pearl Harbor), several shipyards, the oil industry, an Army and Navy air base at the airport and the Douglas aircraft plant. Around 3:20am on the morning of Feb. 25, between 15 to 30 planes were reported near Douglas. The anti-aircraft firing continued for 15 minutes and was resumed again at 4:06am for five minutes. The public was terrified by what was deemed years later to have been a false alarm.

The Long Beach Douglas plant had been “officially” dedicated on Oct. 17, 1941. It was the first “black-out” factory of its kind in the United States. With its lack of windows, it was designed to smother exterior illumination and its black walls were intended to camouflage the plant at night both from the sky and the ground. To make the structure less visible by day, all roofs were flat-topped, offering no light-reflective surfaces, and were colored to match the area’s special paving and blend into the landscape. Glare-less and shadowless illumination was provided 24 hours a day by fluorescent lights and air controlled by an automatic air conditioning system. Below ground there were giant storage rooms for planes, equipment and power units as a protection against air raids. Farseeing engineers designed tunnels under adjacent highways for use as bomb shelters as well as a way for workers to pass to and from work. Decentralized construction spread the 11 units of the factory far enough apart to afford maximum protection against fire and possible shelling by the enemy. To speed the flow of materials into the factory, Union Pacific railroad built a special spur, running tracks right into various buildings.

Despite all these precautions to protect and hide the plant from enemy attack, an added “safeguard” was added in April 1942–– the Army’s 76th Chemical Division–– composed of 200 African American troops.

There were few African Americans in the Army in the peacetime period between the wars. Things changed shortly after a national draft was implemented in September 1940. President Roosevelt stepped in approving a policy to be followed during the war. African American strength in the Army was to be maintained on the ratio of blacks to the whites in the country, and African American units were to be established in each major branch of the service, combatant as well as noncombatant. The existing War Department policy of not intermingling white and black enlisted personnel was to be continued. African American Reserve officers eligible for active duty were to be assigned to black units and opportunity was to be given blacks to attend officer candidate schools. The aviation training of African Americans as pilots, mechanics and technical specialists was to be accelerated, and at arsenals and Army posts black civilians were to have equal opportunity with whites for employment.

In the summer of 1940 the War Department still had to work out many policy details on the employment of black troops. These included such items as the number of African American troops to be called for active duty, the question of whether to use black or white officers with colored units, and the problem of what to do about the prevailing practice of segregating white and black troops. But things moved quickly following America’s entry into the war in December 1941. The first African American Army detachment to be assigned to Long Beach came four months later–– the 76th Chemical Division.
In 1941 the Chemical Warfare Service (CWS) of the Army opened a training center in Maryland in which 800 white and 200 Black soldiers were educated about chemical weapons. The CWS trained about one hundred black officers at the Officer Candidate School. Upon graduation some of these officers were assigned to chemical units, others were transferred to the Transportation Corps and the Air Forces, and those who were surplus were placed temporarily in the officers’ pool at the Chemical Warfare Center.

From the spring of 1942 until the summer of 1943 seventy-five CWS troop units composed of blacks were activated at various installations throughout the country. One of these units was the 76th Chemical Smoke Generator Company assigned to Long Beach from April 8, 1942 to Oct. 22, 1943, and the 176th from Jan. 10, 1943 to Oct. 22, 1943. They were two of several African American Chemical Smoke Generator Companies deployed across the country (70th-77th; 81st-87th; 161st-167th; 170th-171st; 173-178th; 825th).

The Chemical Warfare Service entered World War II with rather ill-defined duties. As a consequence, responsibilities were delineated and missions took shape as new conditions arose. The tremendous development in air power between the World Wars produced a situation which made the concealment of ground targets, including Long Beach’s Douglas Aircraft plant, a prime necessity.

Although the use of small quantities of smoke in combat was an ancient military technique, its use to conceal extended areas was a 20th century innovation. The smoke had to be large enough to baffle enemy bombardiers; if it were too small it would merely pinpoint vital areas. Though seen as a major need in combat and industrial plant protection, the first adequate American smoke generator did not appear until 1942. It was the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7th 1941, which provided the impetus for rapid progress in the development of materiel and the organization of Army chemical units.

Early in 1942 the CWS adapted the commercial smudge pot to create the M1 stationary oil generator. Following the success of the M1, the CWS activated 34 chemical smoke-generator companies. On April 8, 1942, the first three units (the 75th, 76th, and 77th Companies) were formed and, before their training was completed, received the mission of concealing aircraft plants in California, including the Douglas Aircraft plant in Long Beach, the North American Aviation Plant in Inglewood and Fort Rosecrans on the tip of Point Loma in San Diego. By the end of May 1942, the War Department had authorized the activation of 11 more companies.

Each of these early smoke units included four officers, 196 enlisted men and 3,600 M1 stationary smoke generators. The M1s were capable of blanketing an area of about four square miles. Generators were employed in two or more concentric smoke lines which completely surrounded the vital area, allowing for wind from any direction. By the proper placement of additional generators and by use of an electrical ignition system, a substantial amount of smoke could be formed in about 10 minutes.

On Jan. 10, 1943, the 176th joined the 76th in Long Beach, bringing the CWS personnel to a total of 400. These new troops joined several thousand other African Americans who had been assigned to Camp Ross, located at the Port of Los Angeles in Wilmington, at Roosevelt Navy base on Terminal Island, the Los Alamitos Naval Air Station and the Army air base at the Municipal Airport. In June 1944, another 600 black servicemen would be assigned to the new Naval Weapons Depot in Seal Beach, with another 900 expected to follow.

Lasting impact

This influx of African-American workers, families and troops into the Long Beach area was sudden. In a survey taken by the US0 in May 1944 it was reported: “Tolerance and segregation of a once small Negro community among whites is turning into alarm, concern and fear of consequences resulting from the influx of new families and servicemen.” The increase in the African-American population had been dramatic, rising in number from 610 in the 1940 U.S. Census to an estimated 6,000 in 1944.

The survey also found that there was almost complete segregation in public housing projects and in buying or renting property in Long Beach. There were only two black churches, the Second Baptist and the Grant AME, and several other religious bodies refused to admit African Americans. Blacks could find rooms in only a few hotels, most located in the African American area of the city. A few theaters allowed African Americans on special occasions, but restaurants outside the black district refused to serve African Americans. Transportation was sporadic. If an operator of a bus or electric train saw a black person waiting they may or may not have stopped for them. Only in schools could one find an integrated student body (Source: Elmer L. Anderson Library, University of Minnesota, USO City Histories. Industrial. Long Beach (Negro) “Historical Summary of Extension Service.” Kautz Family YMCA Archives).

For decades to come, the growing number of African Americans who arrived during the war years and after would fight for equal rights. By 1963, there were only two “open” neighborhoods in Long Beach where the city’s 15,000 African Americans could rent or buy. One was a virtual ghetto, north of 10th Street and east of Atlantic. The other, south of Willow and west of the Flood Control Channel, was a mixed neighborhood brought about by the equal housing program of the Navy during its tenure in Long Beach.

The fight for equal rights continues. There will be more about this quest for equality and the African-American experience in Long Beach in my next book: The History of African Americans in Long Beach. For those of you interested in learning more about Long Beach during World War II, you will find much that may enlighten you in my book: Fighting Fear. Also, if you would like an update on the article I wrote in July 2019 (which appeared in the Tribune) about the first black Miss Universe, I’ve reproduced the article and updated my website blog after hearing from her family.

I have a question readers can perhaps help me with. I know the Chemical Division had a camp near Douglas Aircraft in the Lakewood area. Does anyone know where that site would be today? Also, I did not come across reports of smoke ever being used to shield the Douglas plant (even in a test situation), but perhaps I am wrong and someone reading this will correct my assumption. Thank you.