"Pot Luck" : Segregation in the US Military During WWII
February 26, 2019
by Wayne Miller
In 1942, as America mobilized for World War II, 24-year-old Wayne Miller joined the US Navy and was assigned to the Naval Aviation Photographic Unit, commanded by Edward Steichen. Over the next three years, Miller documented the Pacific War, from the lower decks of aircraft carriers to the skies above beach landings. He was one of the first photographers to visit Hiroshima after its destruction.
Though Miller’s unit was tasked with documenting Naval aviation for the purpose of recruiting new pilots, Steichen told him “I don't care what you do, Wayne, but bring back something that will please the brass a little bit, an aircraft carrier or somebody with all the braid; spend the rest of your time photographing the man.” With this guidance, he was able to dedicate his attention to the common sailors.
In late 1944 and 1945, Miller photographed the Naval Supply Depot on Guam, which had been seized from the Japanese during the Summer of 1944. A tremendous amount of supplies were staged here in order to allow US forces to continue their drive toward mainland Japan. An all-black unit was assigned to handle all the back-breaking tasks involved with this supply operation.
At this time the US military was still segregated. Despite having proven themselves in combat during previous American conflicts, most enlisted African-American men were assigned to support roles during this war; they served as cooks, stewards, drivers, and laborers. Jim Crow’s influence among political and military leadership perpetuated the falsehood that black men couldn’t perform well under fire.
Miller had prepared a “maquette”, a handmade book dummy, for the project which he titled “Pot Luck” in reference to the diverse origins of the sailors assigned to the depot. His introductory text was written in the voice of the men he photographed, expressing a sense of pride and purpose in their work while criticizing the system that prevented most black sailors from serving at sea or earning promotion (“rates”).
Perhaps due to the subject matter - or the fact that Japan surrendered a few weeks after Miller had finished the project - the Navy never distributed or published the images. It was in 2018 that his daughter found the original maquette.
After the war, Wayne Miller returned to his native Chicago. He won two consecutive Guggenheim Fellowships which enabled him to dedicate three years to a project about African-Americans living in the North, most notably in Chicago’s South Side.
Below is a transcription of Miller’s original text:
“3 August 45
‘Pot Luck’ is a good name for our outfit. We come from all over the United States and we are mixed together in a labor camp for the Naval Supply Depot on Guam. Yes, we do common labor. Some would say its common others might say it isn’t. For the Navy, we do any job that has to be done. When the officers figure out that they need so many men to load or unload a ship, that’s us. We put it on trucks and we take it off trucks. We put it on finger-lifts and finger and lift it all over the 1800 acres that comprise the Depot. Then we sort and stack it around the clock. There are records to keep and cargo to guard. Things to make and things to paint. That isn’t all we do. We handle all of the fuel oil and a good part of the gas that keeps those Army B-29’s flying. That runs into hundreds of thousands of steel drums. Why, man, we practically run the Navy and part of the Army.
We work long hours and welcome rest. We commend each other’s respect and the respect of those we meet. Some of us are leaders; some of us have to be led. We are average American citizens.
There are 1200 of us negroes living here at Naval Barracks Number One. It’s a good community too as war communities go. Our Quonset Huts are a big improvement over the tents we lived in when we landed a year ago. The food is like all Navy food; better than most of us are used to. We are said to be cleaner in our everyday habits than the average Navy outfit. We have all kinds of recreation. Baseball, volleyball, movies, and a sweet band. It’s the shore-based navy.
A Captain, an Exec. , a first Lieutenant, and all the rest. We have two colored and sixteen white officers. The Master at Arms keeps us in check and rarely in the Brig. Reveille, breakfast, sick-call, work, lunch, work, dinner, ice cream sometimes beer, movies, letters to write, and taps. All shipshape, Mate.
Gripe? Sure. But who doesn’t? Sometimes we have as much trouble understanding the white boys we work with as they do understanding us. Long hours? That’s O.K. They need us. There is only one gripe I feel is justified. We don’t have a chance to work at our rates. Some of us went to Service Schools in the States and received rates. We were then packed up and sent here where there is no complement for these same rates. We can’t advance. No chance for sea duty. There is too great a need for common labor.
The main thing is that we are doing a job. We are all learning a great deal about each other and think that because of this it will be a better country to live in after the war. Our ideas about the general makeup of things have changed considerably. We see new opportunities. We have new hopes.
Yes, a big job is being done.”
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