Researching and cataloging books and manuscripts for Maritime List 196 has got me buried in the Past… back with John Paul Jones as he shoots Lt. Grubb one more time for trying to strike colors on the gallant Bon Homme Richard; or on a seemingly endless whaling voyage through the Bering Strait, gamming with the rest of the fleet, keeping a nervous eye on the ice; or occupying Tampico during the Mexican War under a milquetoast Commander Connor; or sailing for California in 1850, hoping to strike it rich.
When I come up for air at cocktail hour each day, I hardly know where I am. Then I look around and see Afghanistan, Pakistan, Israel & Palestine, the housing market, the unemployment rate, the Tea Party, and those damned New York Yankees, and I want to jump back down that rabbit hole as fast as I can. I suppose that’s one of the attractions of a job like mine – it offers relief from the ugly realities that surround us. Now that I think of it, you probably read and collect for much the same reasons. Escape, diversion, a different perspective.
But any serious student of the past knows that it, too, can be a challenging landscape, full of unexpected, and sometimes unpleasant surprises. Such is the case with three manuscript items I cataloged yesterday.
The first one was a marvelously informative journal kept by an enlisted man on a destroyer in the 1920s. Wesley Herington was a Storekeeper aboard the USS Hale during her goodwill cruise to Europe and the Med., and he stayed with her when she returned to the States. He was a good story teller and I realized, as soon as I began reading his journal, that I had struck paydirt. Here was a bona fide look at Navy life as seen through the eyes of an enlisted man! But as I read on, I began to develop a dislike for Herington. He was a mean-spirited grind and a cheapskate – at one point he “got rid of” a girl he thought was costing him too much money. Worst of all, he was a racist, with a prejudiced streak far beyond the norm even for those days. The last lines of his journal astonished me: “We keep our bedding & bags in the storeroom we work in because the S-Division of which we are part, has no compartment except the one the “M.Atts” use. Who wants to stow bags among a bunch of spicks and niggers? Or sleep around them without a gas mask!” The journal, for all the information it imparted, left a distinctly unpleasant aftertaste.
The second was a scrapbook documenting the naval career of Lois “Tommy” Thompson, a vivacious, competent WAVE who qualified for Yeoman Second Class in just two years. It’s a wonderful collection of photos, souvenirs, and even her rating badge, tracking her domestic and professional life. But the final entry in the book brings her happy years to a screeching halt.
Finally, here’s how I wrote up the description of the third item:
“Manuscript. PAPERS BELONGING TO ADM. YATES STERLING PERTAINING TO HAWAII, 1931. Approximately 300 typescript pages. Sterling was an outspoken and controversial Navy man who served throughout the first half of the 20th century. His last public appearance was in 1944, when he tried to emerge from retirement at age 72 to fight in WW II. Toward the end of his career Admiral Sterling served as President of the Naval Examining Board at Pearl Harbor. In this capacity he had to deal with the muck that the American presence inevitably stirred up. This thick file runs from the end of 1931 to late 1932 and covers in harrowing detail the rape of an American Navy wife by Hawaiian thugs. This is followed by Sterling’s lengthy analysis of the crime and its aftermath, in the course of which he notes that their defense lawyer was paid thousands of dollars by unknown anti-American sources. The incident is serious enough to be reviewed by the Secretary of the Navy, who decrees “The present problem is Territorial in scope.” More documentation follows, including a review of dozens more “sex cases.” A racial basis for the crimes is revealed. When the defendants for the rape were taken to the police station, crowds gathered, and there was “some little fear that violence might be attempted.” This opened Official eyes and a long list of “Newspaper Clippings Concerning Local Conditions in Honolulu” was compiled. On January 8, 1932 one of the rapists was shot by two navy men, possibly with the help of territorial police, and the fuse to the powder keg was lit... This account reads like a novel, as events unfold of their own volition and Navy officials struggle to understand and control them. Sterling's report closes with citations of more unfavorable newspaper articles between April and June 1932. Bound in manila folder marked Confidential”
Troubling accounts, all three of them, yet each one fascinating in the particularity of its darkness. The past has a texture all its own.