By Jonathan Mason-June 24th, 2023.
During the Second World War Bamber Bridge, a village near Preston in Lancashire, England hosted American servicemen from the 1511th Quartermaster Truck regiment, part of the Part of the Eighth Air Force.
The events that took place at Bamber Bridge in a battle between black soldiers and white US Military Police on the night of June 24th-25th, 1943 that led to the death of a black soldier shot by the military police contributed to permanent changs in race relations in the US army.
Their base, Air Force Station 569 (nicknamed “Adam Hall”), was on Mounsey Road, part of which still exists now as home to 2376 (Bamber Bridge) Squadron of the Royal Air Force cadets.
The 1511th Quartermaster Truck was a logistics unit, and its duty was to deliver materiel o other Eighth Air Forces bases in Lancashire.The 234th US Military Police Company were also in the town, on its north side.
The US Armed Forces were still racially segregated at the time and the soldiers of 1511 Quartermaster Truck were almost entirely black, and all but one of the officers were white, as were the Military Police.
Military commanders tended to treat the service units as “dumping grounds” for less competent officers, and the leadership in the unit was poor. Racial tensions were exacerbated by the race riots in Detroit earlier that week, which had led to 34 deaths, including 25 black casualties.
According to famous author Anthony Burgess, the people of Bamber Bridge supported the black troops, and when US commanders demanded a colour bar in the town, all three pubs in the town reportedly posted “Black Troops Only” signs, meaning that white soldiers could not enter the pubs.
On the evening of 24 June 1943, some soldiers from the 1511th Quartermaster Truck Regiment were drinking with the English townsfolk in Ye Olde Hob Inn. Details of how the incident developed differ between sources.
Two MPs, Corporal Roy A. Windsor and Private First Class Ralph F. Ridgeway, responded to a report of trouble at a local pub. The MPs had standing orders to arrest soldiers who were out of camp without a pass, were disorderly, or were not in proper uniform.
On entering the pub, they encountered one soldier, Private Eugene Nunn who was dressed in a field jacket rather than the required class A uniform, and asked him to step outside. An argument ensued, with local people and British servicewomen of the Auxiliary Service siding with Nunn.
One British soldier challenged the MPs by saying, “Why do you want to arrest them? They’re not doing anything or bothering anybody.”
Staff Sergeant William Byrd, who was black, defused the situation but, as the MPs left, a beer was thrown at their jeep. After the MPs picked up two reinforcements, they spoke to Captain Julius F. Hirst and Lieutenant Gerald C. Windsor, who told the MPs to do their duty and to arrest the black soldiers.
A group of MPs intercepted the soldiers on Station Road as they returned to their base at Mounsey Road. As a fight broke out, the MPs opened fire, and one bullet struck Private William Crossland of the 1511th in the back and killed him.
Some of the injured black soldiers returned to their base, but the killing caused panic as rumours began to spread that the MPs were out to shoot black soldiers. Although the colonel was absent, acting CO Major George C. Heris did his best to calm the situation.
Lieutenant Edwin D. Jones, the unit’s only black officer, managed to persuade the soldiers that Heris would be able to round up the MPs and see that justice was done.
However, at midnight, several jeeps full of MPs arrived at the camp, including one improvised armored car armed with a large machine gun.
That prompted black soldiers to arm themselves with weapons. Around two thirds of the rifles were taken, and a large group left the base in pursuit of the MPs. British police officers reported that the MPs set up a roadblock and ambushed the soldiers.
The black soldiers warned the townsfolk to stay inside when a firefight broke out between them and the MPs, which resulted in seven wounded. The fighting stopped around 04:00 the next morning with an officer, three black soldiers, and one MP having been shot and two other MPs beaten. Eventually, the soldiers returned to the base, and by the afternoon, all but four rifles had been recovered.
By one later account, the violence left one man dead and seven people (five soldiers and two MPs) injured. Although a court martial convicted 32 black soldiers of mutiny and related crimes, poor leadership and racist attitudes among the MPs were blamed as the cause.
Two trials were conducted. In August, four of the black soldiers involved in the initial brawl were sentenced to hard labour, one to two and a half years and the others to three, and all to dishonourable discharges, with one of those convictions being overturned on review.
The second trial involved 35 defendants. It concluded on 18 September with seven acquittals and 28 convictions. Sentences for those convicted ranged from three months to 15 years, with seven sentences of 12 years or more.
Reviews resulted in the release of one man and reductions in all other sentences. Fifteen of the men returned to duty in June 1944 and six other sentences were further reduced. The defendant with the longest sentence returned to duty after serving 13 months.
Furthermore, the Battle of Bamber Bridge had repercussions beyond the immediate incident.
It sparked discussions and debates about racial integration and equality within the U.S. military, leading to subsequent changes in policies and practices. This event serves as a historical marker in the ongoing struggle for civil rights and equality within the United States.
A local memorial to the battle was placed in 2022.
Sources: Wikipedia, AP News, BBC.