Civil Rights & Delta Blues


From "Uncivil Rites: Where Rebels Roost"
by Susan Klopfer and Barry Klopfer
Publication Date: July 2004
copyright 2004 susan klopfer, all rights reserved
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The Secret of Camp Van Dorn
"It was determined that, in view of the
recent riotous conduct of the 364th Infantry, vigorous and prompt corrective 
action was necessary in order to place this regiment in such a disciplinary 
state that it would not again resort to mutinous conduct."
--excerpted from declassified military document--

The 364th Regiment originated in Louisiana as the 367th. Trouble began for the black soldiers there, after three of their men were accused of raping a white woman. Thurgood Marshall was involved as an NAACP attorney trying to help, but the 367th was changed to the 364th and shipped to Phoenix.

Carroll Case, a reporter from Mississippi, documents the alleged 1943 mass murder of over 1000 African-American soldiers in the 364th Regiment in 'The Salughter.' WT "Rusty" Denman, the book's publisher, offered these comments:

RD: Their facilities there were just terrible. The Army was going to house them in a horse stable, but then they put them in tents. And the Army then told them they would build them some new facilities and so forth. The government then let them watch the new barracks being built and right before construction was finished, the Army shipped the 364th out again, this time to Mississippi.
KW: But how did the situation degenerate to the point of murder in 
RD: Here's what happened. William Walker, a black soldier on the base, got into a ruckus with a white MP. Walker, who was black, got the best of it, and they quit fighting. But that's when the MP issued an order: "Sheriff, shoot this N-word." And he did.
KW: Where is this documented?
RD: In the Army's own document. However, the Army's report on the incident was totally bogus. They list William Walker as AWOL and separated from the service on
May 15, 1943, when, in fact, he was shot by the sheriff on May the 30th.
 KW: It's just so hard to imagine the
US Army sanctioning genocide of so many of its own soldiers.
RD: You had the two Mississippi US Senators, Theodore Bilbo and James Eastland, screaming their heads off at the War Department to get the 364th out of their state. They had received a telegram from the Mayor of the town where the base was located, saying that unless this specific regiment was moved out immediately, there were going to be race riots. And on July 3rd there was a big riot followed by an edict that there would be a blackout, total censorship of any incidents of racial unrest. (from an interview with the publisher of The Slaughter, Kam Williams,


An unbelievable story was circulating, in fact, about an army camp located in the southwestern tip of Mississippi, outside of the Delta, near McComb (close to New Orleans). But it took nearly forty years for the story to become public, and only after Carroll Case, a former bank president in nearby Centreville, heard an amazing story from an employee, Bill Martzell (now deceased) and then wrote a book.


Marzell, an old veteran, confessed to his boss he had witnessed a race crime in the fall of 1943, one of  unprecedented proportions in American history if it was true. The alleged victims were over one thousand black soldiers stationed at Camp Van Dorn. On May 31, 1943, Corporal Anthony J. Smirely, Jr., of the 364th Infantry stationed at Camp Van Dorn, Mississippi sent a desperate letter to the editor of the Philadelphia Tribune asking for his help. He told Washington Rhodes several anecdotes, including one about a soldier of his regiment shot and killed by a white MP, and another story of a fellow soldier and friend who returned from an over-night pass, beaten about the head by white MPs.


'Mr. Rhodes, I beg of you to please, from my heart, please do something for the fellows and myself who are among the unfortunate to be in this State of blood ' Negro blood ' that is constantly flowing in the streets.' Corporal Anthony J. Smirely, Jr., Co. H, 364th Infantry, Camp Van Dorn, Mississippi.'[i]


Reared in south Mississippi, Case had grown up to rumors of a mass killing of black soldiers on a nearby Army base during World War II and dismissed the stories as folklore. But in the early 1980s, Martzell who served in World War II as a Military Police officer stationed at Camp Van Dorn, told Case a story that prompted him into spending 13 years of research. Martzell insisted that soldiers from the 364th Infantry were slaughtered, not by white racists 'but by the Army itself.'[ii]  


The 364th, all black, hit the base in the summer of 1943. Two months before they shipped out to Mississippi, there had been racial problems in Phoenix, Arizona and several MPs were killed. More MPs were put on duty at Camp Van Dorn, anticipating trouble when the group arrived in Mississippi ' and there was.  Several disturbances occurred on base, and then problems moved into the small town of Centreville, a completely segregated community.


Local blacks, like Smirely, were still not allowed to walk on sidewalks but when the 364th came into town, most soldiers from Northern states, they walked wherever they chose to, and the local sheriff 'had to kill one of them to get their attention.' After several more incidents, including a riot in the white service club, Martzell told Case that one night in the late fall of 1943, MPs on orders armed themselves with 45 caliber machine guns, waited until dark, and opened fire. The area around the black camp, located near the Engineering division close to the railroad, was sealed. The entire 364th , by then disarmed, was ordered to move into the open area where they were all killed.[iii]


Case, once a newspaper reporter in Vicksburg and Jackson, asked a fellow journalist to help research the story. In the end, he confirmed many pieces of the amazing story, using the Freedom of Information Act to collect private and confidential records. When a first story was published, he experienced death threats and burglaries at his home and office, serious enough that Case moved to Jackson to become head of the Mississippi Arts Commission. Still working on his research, Case met journalist Ronald Lee Ridenhour, who helped expose the My Lai massacre in Vietnam.


Ridenhour, who later died in 1998 of a heart attack,  and a Maryland historian helped Case locate many classified papers from military archives, including signed letters and affidavits from 'desperate black soldiers,' members of the 364th, that are included in his book, 'The Slaughter.' The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund had collected these letters during a later investigation. Missing records and reports from June 8 to December 1943 could reveal a story not yet told.[iv]

[i] Carroll Case, 'The Slaughter: An American Atrocity,' FBC, Inc., 1998, introduction

[ii] Case, Ibid. introduction

[iii] Ibid., p. 6.

[iv] Ibid., p. 35.