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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British navy sinks the German battleship Bismarck

Year
1941
Month Day
May 27

On May 27, 1941, the British navy sinks the German battleship Bismarck in the North Atlantic near France. The German death toll was more than 2,000.

On February 14, 1939, the 823-foot Bismarck was launched at Hamburg. Nazi leader Adolf Hitler hoped that the state-of-the-art battleship would herald the rebirth of the German surface battle fleet. However, after the outbreak of war, Britain closely guarded ocean routes from Germany to the Atlantic Ocean, and only U-boats moved freely through the war zone.

In May 1941, the order was given for the Bismarck to break out into the Atlantic. Once in the safety of the open ocean, the battleship would be almost impossible to track down, all the while wreaking havoc on Allied convoys to Britain. Learning of its movement, Britain sent almost the entire British Home Fleet in pursuit. On May 24, the British battle cruiser Hood and battleship Prince of Wales intercepted it near Iceland. In a ferocious battle, the Hood exploded and sank, and all but three of the 1,421 crewmen were killed. The Bismarck escaped, but because it was leaking fuel it fled for occupied France. 

On May 26, the ship was sighted and crippled by British aircraft, and on May 27 three British warships descended on the Bismarck, inflicting heavy damage. By mid-morning, the pride of the German navy had become a floating wreck with numerous fires aboard, unable to steer and with her guns almost useless because she was listing badly to port. Soon, the command went out to scuttle the ship, and the Bismarck quickly sank. Of a 2,221-man crew, only 115 survived.

READ MORE: The Pictures that Defined World War II 

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D-Day is called off and postponed until June


Year
1944
Month Day
January 31

June 6, 1944 is considered one of the most pivotal moments in modern history. Better known by its codename, D-Day, the Allied assault on five beaches in Nazi-occupied France was the result of over a year of planning and jockeying amongst various military and political leaders. On January 31, 1944, several key leaders agreed to postpone the invasion over concerns that there would not be enough ships available by May, finally setting the stage for the June invasion.

Soviet leader Joseph Stalin began urging British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to open a second front almost as soon as the Nazis invaded Russia in 1941. After the American entry into the war at the end of that year, the three nations agreed that such action was necessary but disagreed on how it should proceed. British leadership, for whom the slaughters and stalemates of World War I’s Western Front were still relatively recent memories, eventually prevailed upon the other Allies to first attack Italy, which Churchill called Europe’s “soft underbelly.” With plans to attack German-held North Africa and the Italian island of Sicily underway, the three leaders agreed in May of 1943 to assault the European mainland. In December of 1943, American General Dwight D. Eisenhower and British General Bernard Montgomery were presented with a detailed plan for the invasion, codenamed Operation Overlord.

READ MORE: D-Day’s Deadly Dress Rehearsal

Both generals argued for increasing the scope of Overlord from three divisions to five divisions supported by three airborne divisions. Eisenhower was eager to enact such a plan in May, but had concerns over the availability of landing craft. The Italian campaign, which provided the Allies with valuable experience in amphibious landings, was also taking up many of the boats that would be necessary for the Normandy invasion. By the 31st, all relevant commanders had come around to this way of thinking and signed off on an early-June invasion.

D-Day would be postponed once more, by a single day—high winds on June 4 forced Eisenhower to push the “great crusade” back one more day. Finally, on the morning of June 6, the long-awaited invasion of France began. By the time the sun set the Allies had established a foothold, the first step in a march that would lead them all the way to Berlin and the defeat of Nazi Germany.

READ MORE: D-Day: Facts About the 1944 WWII Invasion 

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Germany invades Yugoslavia and Greece

Year
1941
Month Day
April 06

The German air force launches Operation Castigo, the bombing of Belgrade, on April 6, 1941, as 24 divisions and 1,200 tanks drive into Greece.

The attack on Yugoslavia was swift and brutal, an act of terror resulting in the death of 17,000 civilians—the largest number of civilian casualties in a single day since the start of the war. Making the slaughter all the worse was that nearby towns and villages had emptied out into the capital city to celebrate Palm Sunday. All of Yugoslavia’s airfields were also bombed, destroying most of its 600 aircraft while still on the ground.

As part of a comprehensive Balkan offensive, German forces also bombed the Greek port city of Piraeus as army divisions swept south and west, en route to Salonica and the eventual occupation of Greece.

Also on this day: British General Alan Cunningham’s troops enter Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, formally expelling the Italian occupiers and setting the stage for the return of Ethiopia’s emperor, Haile Selassie.

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U.S. troops recapture Philippine island of Corregidor


Year
1945
Month Day
February 26

On February 26, an ammunition dump on the Philippine island of Corregidor is blown up by a remnant of the Japanese garrison, causing more American casualties on the eve of U.S. victory there.

In May 1942, Corregidor, a small rock island at the mouth of Manila Bay, remained one of the last Allied strongholds in the Philippines after the Japanese victory at Bataan. Constant artillery shelling and aerial bombardment attacks ate away at the American and Filipino defenders. 

Although still managing to sink many Japanese barges as they approached the northern shores of the island, the Allied troops could not hold the invader off any longer. Gen. Jonathan Wainwright, commander of the U.S. armed forces in the Philippines, offered to surrender Corregidor to Japanese Gen. Masaharu Homma, but Homma wanted the complete, unconditional capitulation of all American forces throughout the Philippines. Wainwright had little choice given the odds against him and the poor physical condition of his troops—he had already lost 800 men. He surrendered at midnight. All 11,500 surviving Allied troops were evacuated to a prison stockade in Manila.

But the Americans returned to the Philippines in full strength in October 1944, beginning with the recapture of Leyte, the Philippines’ central island. It took 67 days to subdue, with the loss of more than 55,000 Japanese soldiers during the two months of battle, and approximately another 25,000 mopping up pockets of resistance in early 1945. The U.S. forces lost about 3,500.

Following the American victory of Leyte was the return of Gen. Douglas MacArthur and the struggle for Luzon and the race for Manila, the Philippine capital. One week into the Allied battle for Luzon, U.S. airborne troops parachuted onto Corregidor to take out the Japanese garrison there, which was believed to be 1,000 strong, but was actually closer to 5,000. Fierce fighting resulted in the deaths of most of the Japanese soldiers, with the survivors left huddling in the Malinta Tunnel for safety. 

Ironically, the tunnel, 1,400 feet long and dug deep in the heart of Corregidor, had served as MacArthur’s headquarters and a U.S. supply depot before the American defeat there. MacArthur feared the Japanese soldiers could sit there for months. The garrison had no such intention, though, and ignited a nearby ammunition dump—an act of defiance, and possibly of mass suicide. 

Most of the Japanese were killed in the explosion, along with 52 Americans. Those Japanese who survived the blast were forced out into the open and decimated by the Americans. Corregidor was officially in American hands by early March.

READ MORE: Douglas MacArthur – General, WWII & Korean War

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The U-505, a submarine from Hitler’s deadly fleet, is captured

Year
1944
Month Day
June 04

One of Adolf Hitler’s deadly submarines, the U-505, is seized as it makes its way home after patrolling the Gold Coast of Africa on June 4, 1944. The German submarine was the first enemy warship captured on the high seas by the U.S. Navy since the War of 1812.

If ever there was a submarine laden with bad luck it was Germany’s U-505.

Despite sinking eight Allied ships early in the war, the German WW II U-boat suffered repeated damages while on a number of patrols and was further marred by the suicide of its second commanding officer while on board.

Spotted during a sonar sweep 150 miles from the coast of Rio De Oro, Africa by a “hunter-killer” task group commanded by U.S. Navy Capt. Daniel V. Gallery that included the USS Chatelain, USS Guadalcanal, USS Flaherty, USS Jenks, USS Pillsbury and USS Pope, the submarine had been being tracked by Allied intelligence via radio waves.

After the surrendered German survivors were picked up from the U-boat (all but one lived), Lt. (junior grade) Albert L. David led a group of nine men down the hatch of the U-505, salvaging the U-boat and recovering invaluable code books and papers that were used by Allied forces to help in code-breaking.

David was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions. The 58 captured Germans, deemed prisoners of war, were sent to a POW camp in Ruston, Louisiana, while the U-505 was towed 2,500 nautical miles to Bermuda.

The top-secret capture of the submarine was not made public until after Germany’s May 7, 1945 surrender, and the U-505 was eventually part of a military fundraising tour. On September 25, 1954, the submarine was named a war memorial and, in 1989, it received National Historic Landmark designation. 

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Americans hold a Nazi rally in Madison Square Garden

Year
1939
Month Day
February 20
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Six and a half months before Adolf Hitler invaded Poland, New York City’s Madison Square Garden hosted a rally to celebrate the rise of Nazism in Germany. Inside, more than 20,000 attendees raised Nazi salutes toward a 30-foot-tall portrait of George Washington flanked by swastikas. Outside, police and some 100,000 protestors gathered. 

The organization behind the February 20, 1939 event—advertised on the arena’s marquee as a “Pro American Rally”—was the German American Bund (“Bund” is German for “federation”). The anti-semitic organization held Nazi summer camps for youth and their families during the 1930s. The Bund’s youth members were present that night, as were the Ordnungsdienst, or OD, the group’s vigilante police force who dressed in the style of Hitler’s SS officers.

Banners at the rally had messages like “Stop Jewish Domination of Christian Americans” and “Wake Up America. Smash Jewish Communism.” When the Bund’s national leader, Fritz Kuhn, gave his closing speech, he referred to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt as “Rosenfield,” and Manhattan District Attorney Thomas Dewey as “Thomas Jewey.”

“We, with American ideals, demand that our government shall be returned to the American people who founded it,” declared Kuhn, a naturalized American who lost his citizenship during World War II. “If you ask what we are actively fighting for under our charter: First, a socially just, white, Gentile-ruled United States. Second, Gentile-controlled labor unions, free from Jewish Moscow-directed domination.”

Kuhn’s speech was interrupted by a Jewish-American man named Isadore Greenbaum who charged the stage in protest. Police and the vigilante force quickly tackled him, and proceeded to beat him up on stage. The crowd cheered as they threw him off stage, pulling his pants down in the process. Police charged Greenbaum with disorderly conduct and gave him a $25 fine, about $450 in 2019 dollars.

At the time the rally took place, Hitler was completing his sixth concentration camp; and protesters—many of them Jewish Americans—called attention to the fact that what was happening in Germany could happen in the U.S. “Don’t wait for the concentration camps—Act now!” proclaimed fliers advertising the protest. Outside the rally, people carried signs with messages like “Smash Anti-Semitism” and “Give me a gas mask, I can’t stand the smell of Nazis.”

In some cases, police responded to the protesters with violent attacks. In one instance, a protester escaped a mounted police officer who’d grabbed him by punching his horse in the face. As the rally broke up that night, some protesters were able to slip by police and punch departing Nazis in the face.

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Japan invades Hong Kong


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Year
1941
Month Day
December 18

Japanese troops land in Hong Kong on December 18, 1941, and slaughter ensues.

A week of air raids over Hong Kong, a British crown colony, was followed up on December 17 with a visit paid by Japanese envoys to Sir Mark Young, the British governor of Hong Kong. The envoys’ message was simple: The British garrison there should simply surrender to the Japanese—resistance was futile. The envoys were sent home with the following retort: “The governor and commander in chief of Hong Kong declines absolutely to enter into negotiations for the surrender of Hong Kong…”

The first wave of Japanese troops landed in Hong Kong with artillery fire for cover and the following order from their commander: “Take no prisoners.” Upon overrunning a volunteer antiaircraft battery, the Japanese invaders roped together the captured soldiers and proceeded to bayonet them to death. Even those who offered no resistance, such as the Royal Medical Corps, were led up a hill and killed.

The Japanese quickly took control of key reservoirs, threatening the British and Chinese inhabitants with a slow death by thirst. The Brits finally surrendered control of Hong Kong on Christmas Day.

The War Powers Act was passed by Congress on the same day, authorizing the president to initiate and terminate defense contracts, reconfigure government agencies for wartime priorities, and regulate the freezing of foreign assets. It also permitted him to censor all communications coming in and leaving the country.

FDR appointed the executive news director of the Associated Press, Byron Price, as director of censorship. Although invested with the awesome power to restrict and withhold news, Price took no extreme measures, allowing news outlets and radio stations to self-censor, which they did. Most top secret information, including the construction of the atom bomb, remained just that.

The most extreme use of the censorship law seems to have been the restriction of the free flow of “girlie” magazines to servicemen—including Esquire, which the Post Office considered obscene for its occasional saucy cartoons and pinups. Esquire took the Post Office to court, and after three years the Supreme Court ultimately sided with the magazine.

READ MORE: How Hong Kong Came Under ‘One Country, Two Systems’ Rule

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Germany declares war on the United States


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Year
1941
Month Day
December 11

Adolf Hitler declares war on the United States, bringing America, which had been neutral, into the European conflict.

The bombing of Pearl Harbor surprised even Germany. Although Hitler had made an oral agreement with his Axis partner Japan that Germany would join a war against the United States, he was uncertain as to how the war would be engaged. Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor answered that question. On December 8, Japanese Ambassador Oshima went to German Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop to nail the Germans down on a formal declaration of war against America. Von Ribbentrop stalled for time; he knew that Germany was under no obligation to do this under the terms of the Tripartite Pact, which promised help if Japan was attacked, but not if Japan was the aggressor. Von Ribbentrop feared that the addition of another antagonist, the United States, would overwhelm the German war effort.

But Hitler thought otherwise. He was convinced that the United States would soon beat him to the punch and declare war on Germany. The U.S. Navy was already attacking German U-boats, and Hitler despised Roosevelt for his repeated verbal attacks against his Nazi ideology. He also believed that Japan was much stronger than it was, that once it had defeated the United States, it would turn and help Germany defeat Russia. So at 3:30 p.m. (Berlin time) on December 11, the German charge d’affaires in Washington handed American Secretary of State Cordell Hull a copy of the declaration of war.

That very same day, Hitler addressed the Reichstag to defend the declaration. The failure of the New Deal, argued Hitler, was the real cause of the war, as President Roosevelt, supported by plutocrats and Jews, attempted to cover up for the collapse of his economic agenda. “First he incites war, then falsifies the causes, then odiously wraps himself in a cloak of Christian hypocrisy and slowly but surely leads mankind to war,” declared Hitler-and the Reichstag leaped to their feet in thunderous applause.

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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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