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Deadly rumors



In 1998, after reviewing the charges made in a book, The Slaughter: An American Tragedy, by fellow Mississippian Carroll Case, U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson and the NAACP called for an investigation of whether hundreds of black soldiers were massacred by their superiors at Camp Van Dorn in Mississippi in 1943. Their action sparked a 16-month probe by the Army involving the reconstruction of personnel records for over 4,000 soldiers stationed at the base. In December 1999, the Army concluded that the soldiers in question were killed in battle overseas, missing in action or AWOL.

The allegations, however, have not gone away. Case, a white banker who heard "hushed rumors" of the killings while growing up near the base, told The Washington Post that the Army's records "have been falsified." Meanwhile, the NAACP retrieved declassified government documents, interviewed local officials and reviewed sworn depositions from individuals corroborating Case's account--presenting it with a compelling and disturbing picture.

In May 1943, the 364th infantry division was transferred to Camp Van Dorn from Phoenix, Ariz. Their reputation preceded them: the Army said they'd been involved in a "race riot" at their previous base. Military documents and soldier letters from the period show that the situation was tense from the start. Heavy restrictions were placed on the soldiers' activities and movements by their white superiors, and white citizens in the neighboring town of Centreville were hostile. In the letters, soldiers complained of regular, unprovoked harassment and beatings by MPs and local law enforcement. On May 30, Private William Walker was shot dead by the county sheriff. According to fellow Private Irwin Wiley, two MPs stopped Walker in town for having a missing button on his shirt sleeve. One of them "proceeded to attack the soldier" but ended up "getting the worst of the battle." When the sheriff arrived, the MP told him to "shoot this nigger." He did, at point-blank range.

Confidential documents filed a week after the shooting by Major Gen. Virgil Peterson, an Army investigator, give a different account. The improperly uniformed Walker assaulted the MP, according to Peterson, and "was attempting the take his pistol when the county sheriff arrived on the scene." Walker "refused to halt when ordered to do so" and lunged at the sheriff, causing him to shoot.

Peterson also reported that the soldiers of the 364th were responsible for a rash of disturbances, including boisterous behavior, disobedience to their superiors and burglary of an ammunition dump. He went on about their "profane, disrespectful and threatening conduct," characterizing them as a "dangerous and thoroughly undisciplined unit" and the situation at the camp as "mutinous." Rather than reward the troublemakers by transferring them again, Peterson said, a "drastic and yet untried" approach should be taken to ensure that "all tendencies toward mutinous conduct are suppressed."

In 1985, a former MP named William Martzell told Case how, on a fall night in 1943, white troops and MPs surrounded the 364th's barracks, sealed off the area, and "opened fire on everything that moved. It was like shooting fish in a barrel." Martzell and other witnesses said the bodies were loaded into rail cars, taken to the edge of the camp and buried in trenches that were subsequently covered by a man-made lake and dam. At war's end, the camp was closed and reverted to private ownership, and the site of the alleged atrocity was cut off from public access.

Hundreds of soldiers were killed that night in May, Case concluded, and others died in incidents off the base throughout 1943. Army officials at first told NAACP representatives that black-white relations on the base were "harmonious," but when the Army issued its report in 1999, it acknowledged a number of off-base shootings and a race riot in the summer of '43, though with no reported deaths. The official records from the critical period July-to-November of that year are listed as "missing." Case's website is to see his evidence.

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