The Harlem Riot of 1943 begins

Simmering racial tensions and economic frustrations boil over in New York City on the night of August 1, 1943, culminating in what is now known as the Harlem Riot of 1943. During an altercation in the lobby of the Braddock Hotel, a white police officer shoots a Black soldier, Robert Bandy, triggering a massive uprising.

Overwhelmingly white before the Great Migration, Harlem was 89 percent Black by the time the United States entered World War II. Despite the cultural innovations that accompanied these changes, known as the Harlem Renaissance, the neighborhood’s businesses remained mostly white-owned, and landlords and business owners continued to discriminate against Black residents. World War II brought not only conscription but also a higher cost of living, putting even more strain on a Black community whose economy was still controlled almost entirely by whites.

On the evening of August 1, a Black woman named Marjorie Polite checked into the Braddock, a historic hotel that had fallen into disrepair. Unsatisfied with her room, she asked for a refund at the front desk. The ensuing altercation led a white policeman, James Collins, to arrest her for disorderly conduct, during which time Bandy, a military policeman based in New Jersey, arrived to meet his visiting mother for dinner. The New York Police Department’s official report recorded that Bandy attacked Collins, but Bandy and his mother claimed that they merely tried to stop him from pushing Polite and prevented him from hitting her with his nightstick. Collins shot Bandy, who was taken to a hospital and treated for superficial wounds.

As a rumor spread that Collins had killed Bandy, crowds assembled near the Braddock and soon began to riot. They turned their rage on local white-owned businesses, leading Black business owners to hurriedly post signs announcing that their stores were Black-owned. Six Black residents were killed and nearly 500 were injured as the NYPD and, at the behest of Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, the Army moved into the streets of Harlem. La Guardia did his best to downplay the riot, but the unrest did draw the attention of the federal Office of Price Administration and of La Guardia’s government, which pressured local landlords to comply with price restrictions and stop gouging residents. The riot also affected Harlem residents like James Baldwin, Malcolm X (then Malcolm Little) and the poet Langston Hughes, whose poem “Beaumont to Detroit: 1943” ends with a reference to the sad irony of African Americans fighting for a country that did not see them as equals: “I ask you this question/ Cause I want to know/ How long I got to fight/ BOTH HITLER–AND JIM CROW.”

READ MORE: How the Police Shooting of a Black Soldier Triggered the 1943 Harlem Riots

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Operation Tidal Wave: U.S. forces attempt risky air raid on Axis oil refineries

Year
1943
Month Day
August 01

On August 1, 1943, 177 B-24 bombers take off from an Allied base in Libya, bound for the oil-producing city Ploiești, Romania, nicknamed “Hitler’s gas station.” The daring raid, known as Operation Tidal Wave, resulted in five men being awarded the Medal of Honor—three of them posthumously—but failed to strike the fatal blow its planners had intended.

Operation Tidal Wave began ominously, with an overloaded bomber crashing shortly after takeoff and another plunging into the Adriatic Sea. 167 of the original 177 bombers made it to Ploiești, whose oil fields and refineries provided the Germans with over 8.5 million tons of oil per year. Whereas most Allied bombing in World War II was carried out from a high altitude, the bombers that raided Ploiești flew exceptionally low in order to evade the Germans’ radar. The bombers lost the element of surprise, however, when one group veered off on the wrong direction, forcing the others to break radio silence in order to direct them back on course. This unplanned adjustment also led to the bombers approaching from the south, where the Nazis had concentrated their anti-aircraft batteries.

READ MORE: One of the Most Daring WWII Air Raids Targeted Hitler’s Critical ‘Gas Station’

The ensuing attack was dramatic, chaotic and costly. The Allies suffered heavy casualties, and smoke from the explosions caused by the first wave of bombers made visibility difficult for subsequent waves. Survivors reported debris like branches and barbed wire hitting and even ending up on the inside of their planes. Lt. Col. Addison Baker and Maj. John Jerstad were awarded the Medal of Honor for their (unsuccessful) attempt to fly higher and allow the crew to bail of our their badly damaged plane. Another pilot, Lt. Lloyd Herbert Hughes, also received a posthumous Medal of Honor for flying his critically-damaged B-24 into its target. Col. John Kane and Col. Leon Johnson, who each led bombing groups that reached their targets, were the only men who won the Medal of Honor and survived the raid.

Although the Allies estimated that the raid had reduced Ploiești’s capacity by 40 percent, the damage was quickly repaired and within months the refineries had outstripped their previous capacity. The region continued to serve as “Hitler’s gas station” until the Soviet Union captured it in August of 1944. 310 airmen died, 108 were captured and another 78 were interned in neighboring Turkey. 88 of the original 177 B-24s returned, most of them seriously damaged. Despite setting the record for most Medals of Honor awarded to airmen in a single mission, Operation Tidal wave was never repeated—the Allies never again attempted a low-altitude assault against German air defenses.

READ MORE: Meet the Night Witches, the Daring Female Pilots Who Bombed Nazis By Night

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Zoot Suit Riots begin in Los Angeles

On June 3, 1943, a group of U.S. sailors marches through downtown Los Angeles, carrying clubs and other makeshift weapons and attacking anyone wearing a “zoot suit”—the baggy wool pants, oversized coats and porkpie hats favored by many young men of color at the time.

Over the next week, the so-called Zoot Suit Riots spread throughout the city, including the largely Mexican-American neighborhood of East Los Angeles and the largely black neighborhood of Watts. The riots marked the culmination of simmering racial tensions in Los Angeles, set against the backdrop of World War II

After originating in Harlem jazz clubs in the 1930s, the zoot suit style had become popular with young men in black and Latino communities across the country. In Los Angeles, which had a large Mexican-American population, many more conservative citizens (including both older Mexican Americans and whites) objected to the young zoot-suiters who called themselves “pachucos,” associating them not only with cultural rebellion but also with criminality and gangsterism.

These negative views only increased during World War II, when the rationing of wool in early 1942 led the manufacturing of zoot suits to be banned and the wearing of them to be seen as unpatriotic. The Los Angeles news media in particular devoted itself to portraying pachucos as dangerous, especially after the so-called Sleepy Lagoon Murder of August 1942. In thatnotorious case, hundreds of Mexican-American youths were rounded up and 22 of them tried and convicted in the murder of another young Mexican-American man, Jose Diaz—a decision that was later overturned, and viewed as a major miscarriage of justice.

READ MORE: What Were the Zoot Suit Riots? 

On May 30, 1943, a verbal confrontation between a group of U.S. sailors and a group of zoot-suiters ended in the beating of one of the sailors. In retaliation, about 50 sailors left the local U.S. Navy Reserve Armory on the evening of June 3, armed with makeshift weapons and targeting zoot-suiters (even those as young as 12 or 13 years old). On the second night of rioting, the sailors headed into the city’s Mexican-American communities, barging into cafes, bars and theaters to seek out and attack their victims.

Military personnel and civilians joined in the violence, some traveling to Los Angeles from elsewhere to take part. While news reports portrayed such rioters as heroes fighting against a supposed Mexican crime wave, many of their attacks were clearly racist in nature, targeting Latinos, African Americans and other minorities even when they weren’t wearing zoot suits. Meanwhile, police arrested hundreds of young Mexican Americans—many of whom had been attacked themselves—compared with comparatively few sailors or civilians involved in the rioting.

The Zoot Suit Riots finally died down after June 8, when military officials banned all military personnel from Los Angeles and called on military police to patrol the city. The L.A. City Council subsequently passed a resolution prohibiting the wearing of zoot suits on city streets.

No one was killed during the Zoot Suit Riots, though many people were injured. In the aftermath, Governor Earl Warren tasked an independent citizens’ committee with investigating the riots and determining their cause. Though several factors were involved, the committee concluded that racism was the central cause, exacerbated by inflammatory, biased media coverage and an uneven response by the Los Angeles Police Department. 

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Future President Ronald Reagan serves in film unit


Year
1943
Month Day
January 27

On January 27, 1943, future President Ronald Reagan, an Army Air Corps first lieutenant during World War II, is on an active-duty assignment with the Army’s First Motion Picture Unit.

Technically, Reagan was a unit public relations officer, however Warner Brothers Studios and the American Army Air Corps had tapped him the previous year to star in a motion picture called Air Force. To allow filming to go forward, Reagan was transferred from his cavalry unit to the Air Corps’ motion-picture unit in early January 1943.

Housed in the old Hal Roach studios, the First Motion Picture Unit (FMPU) produced military training, morale and propaganda films to aid the war effort. FMPU released Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series and a documentary of the bomber Memphis Belle, the crew of which completed a standard-setting 35 bombing missions in Europe. The films were screened on domestic training grounds and in troop camps overseas as well as in U.S. movie theaters.

Air Force, which was later renamed Beyond the Line of Duty, conveyed the true story of the heroic feats of aviator Shorty Wheliss and his crew and featured narration by Lt. Ronald Reagan. The documentary, intended to promote investment in war bonds, won an Academy Award in 1943 for best short subject. Reagan went on to narrate or star in three more shorts for FMPU including For God and Country,Cadet Classification, and the The Rear Gunner. Reagan also appeared as Johnny Jones in the 1943 full-length musical film This is the Army.

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U.S. Olympian Louis Zamperini’s plane goes down in the Pacific

Year
1943
Month Day
May 27

On May 27, 1943, a B-24 carrying U.S. airman and former Olympic runner Louis Zamperini crashes into the Pacific Ocean. After surviving the crash, Zamperini floated on a raft in shark-infested waters for more than a month before being picked up by the Japanese and spending the next two years in a series of brutal prison camps. His story of survival was featured in the 2010 best-selling book Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand.

Born in 1917 to Italian immigrants, Zamperini grew up in Torrance, California, where he was frequently in trouble with the law. As a teen, he channeled his energy into athletics and became a champion distance runner. At age 19, Zamperini competed for the United States at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany. He ran the 5,000-meter race and finished in eighth place; however, his fast final lap caught the attention of Adolf Hitler, who later asked to shake Zamperini’s hand. After the Olympics, he was a record-setting standout on the University of Southern California’s track team.

In the fall of 1941, Zamperini enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps and was eventually stationed in Hawaii. In May 1943, he was serving as the bombardier on a B-24 that was searching for a missing plane when his own aircraft developed mechanical problems and went down in the Pacific. Of the 11 people onboard, only the 26-year-old Zamperini, along with the pilot and the tail gunner survived the initial crash. The three men stayed alive in their small raft by drinking rainwater and eating the occasional seabirds and fish they were able to catch, all while facing strafing from Japanese bombers and the ever-present threat of shark attacks. After a month at sea, Francis McNamara, the tail gunner, perished. On their 47th day in the raft, Zamperini and fellow survivor Russell Allen Phillips, having drifted some 2,000 miles since the crash, were picked up by Japanese sailors.

For more than two years, the two men were held in a series of prison camps, where they were repeatedly beaten and starved. As an ex-Olympian, Zamperini was considered a propaganda tool by the Japanese and saved from execution; at the same time, however, he was singled out for particularly vicious forms of torture. The defiant American managed to survive and was released after the war ended in 1945.

Back home in California, Zamperini drank heavily and was haunted by his experiences in captivity. Then, after being inspired by evangelist Billy Graham to convert to Christianity in 1949, Zamperini went on to become an inspirational speaker, forgive his captors and publish an autobiography, Devil at my Heels. A wider audience learned about his life with the publication of Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, author of the 2001 best-seller Seabiscuit: An American Legend, about the Depression-era champion racehorse.

Zamperini died in July 2014, in Los Angeles. He was 97. 

READ MORE: 8 Things You May Not Know About Louis Zamperini

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PT-109 sinks; Lieutenant Kennedy is instrumental in saving crew

Year
1943
Month Day
August 01

On August 1, 1943, a Japanese destroyer rams an American PT (patrol torpedo) boat, No. 109, slicing it in two. The destruction is so massive other American PT boats in the area assume the crew is dead. Two crewmen were, in fact, killed, but 11 survived, including Lt. John F. Kennedy.

Japanese aircraft had been on a PT boat hunt in the Solomon Islands, bombing the PT base at Rendova Island. It was essential to the Japanese that several of their destroyers make it to the southern tip of Kolombangara Island to get war supplies to forces there. But the torpedo capacity of the American PTs was a potential threat. Despite the base bombing at Rendova, PTs set out to intercept those Japanese destroyers. In the midst of battle, Japan’s Amaqiri hit PT-109, leaving 11 crewmen floundering in the Pacific.

READ MORE: The Navy Disaster That Earned JFK Two Medals for Heroism

After five hours of clinging to debris from the decimated PT boat, the crew made it to a coral island. Kennedy decided to swim out to sea again, hoping to flag down a passing American boat. None came. Kennedy began to swim back to shore, but strong currents, and his chronic back condition, made his return difficult. Upon reaching the island again, he fell ill. After he recovered, the PT-109 crew swam to a larger island, what they believed was Nauru Island, but was in fact Cross Island. They met up with two natives from the island, who agreed to take a message south. Kennedy carved the distress message into a coconut shell: “Nauru Is. Native knows posit. He can pilot. 11 alive need small boat.”

The message reached Lieutenant Arthur Evans, who was watching the coast of Gomu Island, located next to an island occupied by the Japanese. Kennedy and his crew were paddled to Gomu. A PT boat then took them back to Rendova. Kennedy was ultimately awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, for gallantry in action.

PT-109, a film dramatizing this story, starring Cliff Robertson as Kennedy, opened in 1963.

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General George S. Patton wins race to Messina

Year
1943
Month Day
August 17

U.S. General George S. Patton and his 7th Army arrive in Messina several hours before British Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery and his 8th Army, winning the unofficial “Race to Messina” and completing the Allied conquest of Sicily.

Born in San Gabriel, California, in 1885, Patton’s family had a long history of military service. After studying at West Point, he served as a tank officer in World War I, and these experiences, along with his extensive military study, led him to become an advocate of the crucial importance of the tank in future warfare. After the American entrance into World War II, Patton was placed in command of an important U.S. tank division and played a key role in the Allied invasion of French North Africa in 1942. In 1943, Patton led the U.S. 7th Army in its assault on Sicily and won fame for out-commanding Montgomery during their pincer movement against Messina.

Although Patton was one of the ablest American commanders in World War II, he was also one of the most controversial. He presented himself as a modern-day cavalryman, designed his own uniform, and was known to make eccentric claims of his direct descent from great military leaders of the past through reincarnation. During the Sicilian campaign, Patton generated considerable controversy when he accused a hospitalized U.S. soldier suffering from battle fatigue of cowardice and then personally struck him across the face. The famously profane general was forced to issue a public apology and was reprimanded by General Dwight Eisenhower.

However, when it was time for the invasion of Western Europe, Eisenhower could find no general as formidable as Patton, and the general was again granted an important military post. In 1944, Patton commanded the U.S. 3rd Army in the invasion of France, and in December of that year his expertise in military movement and tank warfare helped crush the German counteroffensive in the Ardennes.

During one of his many successful campaigns, General Patton was said to have declared, “Compared to war, all other forms of human endeavor shrink to insignificance.” On December 21, 1945, he died in a hospital in Germany from injuries sustained in an automobile accident near Mannheim.

READ MORE: 10 Things You May Not Know About George Patton 

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Largest tank battle in history ends

Year
1943
Month Day
July 13

The Battle of Kursk, involving some 6,000 tanks, two million men, and 5,000 aircraft, ends with the German offensive repulsed by the Soviets at heavy cost.

In early July, Germany and the USSR concentrated their forces near the city of Kursk in western Russia, site of a 150-mile-wide Soviet pocket that jutted 100 miles into the German lines. The German attack began on July 5, and 38 divisions, nearly half of which were armored, began moving from the south and the north. However, the Soviets had better tanks and air support than in previous battles, and in bitter fighting Soviet antitank artillery destroyed as much as 40 percent of the German armor, which included their new Mark VI Tiger tanks. After six days of warfare concentrated near Prokhorovka, south of Kursk, the German Field Marshal Gunther von Kluge called off the offensive, and by July 23 the Soviets had forced the Germans back to their original positions.

In the beginning of August, the Soviets began a major offensive around the Kursk salient, and within a few weeks the Germans were in retreat all along the eastern front.

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Warsaw Ghetto uprising ends

Year
1943
Month Day
May 16

In Poland, the Warsaw Ghetto uprising comes to an end as Nazi soldiers gain control of Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto, blowing up the last remaining synagogue and beginning the mass deportation of the ghetto’s remaining dwellers to the Treblinka extermination camp.

Shortly after the German occupation of Poland began, the Nazis forced the city’s Jewish citizens into a “ghetto” surrounded by barbed wire and armed SS guards. The Warsaw Ghetto had an area of only 840 acres but soon held almost 500,000 Jews in deplorable conditions. Disease and starvation killed thousands every month, and beginning in July 1942, 6,000 Jews a day were transferred to the Treblinka concentration camp. Although the Nazis assured the remaining Jews that their relatives and friends were being sent to work camps, word soon reached the ghetto that deportation to the camp meant extermination. An underground resistance group was established in the ghetto–the Jewish Combat Organization (ZOB)–and limited arms were acquired at great cost.

On January 18, 1943, when the Nazis entered the ghetto to prepare a group for transfer, a ZOB unit ambushed them. Fighting lasted for several days, and a number of Germans soldiers were killed before they withdrew. On April 19, Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler announced that the ghetto was to be cleared out in honor of Hitler’s birthday the following day, and more than 1,000 SS soldiers entered the confines with tanks and heavy artillery. Although many of the ghetto’s remaining 60,000 Jewish dwellers attempted to hide themselves in secret bunkers, more than 1,000 ZOB members met the Germans with gunfire and homemade bombs. Suffering moderate casualties, the Germans initially withdrew but soon returned, and on April 24 they launched an all-out attack against the Warsaw Jews. Thousands were slaughtered as the Germans systematically moved down the ghetto, blowing up buildings one by one. The ZOB took to the sewers to continue the fight, but on May 8 their command bunker fell to the Germans, and their resistant leaders committed suicide. By May 16, the ghetto was firmly under Nazi control, and mass deportation of the last Warsaw Jews to Treblinka began.

During the uprising, some 300 hundred German soldiers were killed to the thousands of Warsaw Jews who perished. Virtually all the former ghetto residents who survived to reach Treblinka were dead by the end of the war.

READ MORE: How the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Inspired Rebellion in a Nazi Death Camp

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Warsaw Ghetto Uprising begins

Year
1943
Month Day
April 19

In Warsaw, Poland, Nazi forces attempting to clear out the city’s Jewish ghetto are met by gunfire from Jewish resistance fighters, and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising begins.

Shortly after the German occupation of Poland began, the Nazis forced the city’s Jewish citizens into a “ghetto” surrounded by barbwire and armed SS guards. The Warsaw ghetto occupied an area of less than two square miles but soon held almost 500,000 Jews in deplorable conditions. Disease and starvation killed thousands every month, and beginning in July 1942, 6,000 Jews per day were transferred to the Treblinka concentration camp. Although the Nazis assured the remaining Jews that their relatives and friends were being sent to work camps, word soon reached the ghetto that deportation to the camp meant extermination. An underground resistance group was established in the ghetto—the Jewish Combat Organization (ZOB)—and limited arms were acquired at great cost.

On January 18, 1943, when the Nazis entered the ghetto to prepare a group for transfer, a ZOB unit ambushed them. Fighting lasted for several days, and a number of Germans soldiers were killed before they withdrew. On April 19, Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler announced that the ghetto was to be emptied of its residents in honor of Hitler’s birthday the following day, and more than 1,000 S.S. soldiers entered the confines with tanks and heavy artillery. Although many of the ghetto’s remaining 60,000 Jewish dwellers attempted to hide themselves in secret bunkers, more than 1,000 ZOB members met the Germans with gunfire and homemade bombs. Suffering moderate casualties, the Germans initially withdrew but soon returned, and on April 24 launched an all-out attack against the Warsaw Jews.

Thousands were slaughtered as the Germans systematically progressed down the ghettos, blowing up the buildings one by one. The ZOB took to the sewers to continue the fight, but on May 8 their command bunker fell to the Germans and their resistant leaders committed suicide. By May 16, the ghetto was firmly under Nazi control, and mass deportation of the last Warsaw Jews to Treblinka began. During the uprising, some 300 German soldiers were killed, and thousands of Warsaw Jews were massacred. Virtually all those who survived the Uprising to reach Treblinka were dead by the end of the war.

READ MORE: This Secret Archive Documented Life in the Warsaw Ghetto 

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