Joe Stiles: Finding racism during war and then peace on Martha’s Vineyard

A veteran’s memories.

Joe Stiles, in 2002, when he was interviewed by Linsey Lee for the book More Vineyard Voices. –Photo by Linsey Lee with permission of the MV Museum

 Excerpted from an interview with Joe Stiles that appeared in Those Who Serve – Martha’s Vineyard and WWII by Linsey Lee and the Oral History Center of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. Joe Stiles was born in 1925 and died in 2006; Linsey Lee interviewed him in 2002. More oral histories and links to YouTube at mvmuseum.org.

My mother was a three-blue-star mother. She had three stars in her windows. In those days, however many boys you got in the service, that’s how many stars go in your window. All her boys were in.

I enjoyed school. I could have went a lot further, but [World War II] broke out. So as soon as I was old enough, I went down and enlisted in the Navy.

I took my training at the Naval Air Station at Quonset Point, Rhode Island. After my nine weeks was up, that’s when I got transferred here for a while. That’s how I came to the Vineyard.

I had never heard of Martha’s Vineyard. Matter of fact, I was at the Naval Air Base here for about two or three weeks and I got liberty. I walked up in Oak Bluffs and there’s two fellows sitting there. I asked them, “Where can I catch a bus to Boston?” They laughed at me, and one says, “I don’t know, but you’ll never catch a bus. You got to catch a boat. You’re on an island. Don’t you know that?” And I says, “No.” Because you know what happened? When I came here, there used to be the trains would come right down to Woods Hole at the time, and it was dark. We walked on a boat and didn’t realize that we were going to an Island. It was night, it was nice and calm evidently, too.

My group first arrived at the Air Base here in January, in the middle of the night. The group I came with, I was the only colored fellow. I was in the Quonset huts with the rest of the colored fellows; and the white soldiers was in barracks, nice warm barracks, showers and everything. In the mornings, to go wash up, take showers and things, we had to walk out of the Quonset huts and go across to the nearest barracks to shower.

See, the Navy was very prejudiced. The whole armed forces was very prejudiced in those days. They recognized us as a second-class force. The base here got so bad that we couldn’t eat at the same table as them when we’d go for chow; it got so bad because they had a lot of boys there that was racists.

Our job was serving the officers. Our rating was steward’s mates. We got the same pay as the white sailors did, but Secretary of the Navy Knox made it public that no Filipino and no black man would get further in his Navy than the kitchen. That’s the way it was.

Racism on the base was so bad that many of the colored fellows were scared to go on liberty at nights; they would only go during the day. There was only six of us who would stay on liberty; we’d come back when we got darn good and ready. Nobody was going to tell me when I got to come back. We had nerve. You had to. You had to be a fighter, too. That last liberty bus out of Oak Bluffs, you catch that bus, every night you know you’re going to have a fight – a fist fight – home, all the way back to the base.

So what we did, we made up our mind that we were going to have a little strategy. We’d all stick together and get on that bus the same time, go in the back of the bus and sit down. Out of about 45 men on the bus, there was six of us. The other sailors get on the bus drunk; they didn’t have the nerve to fight us until they were drunk. People like that are cowards.

Finally, they’d get up the nerve, and then they’d say, “Well, I guess it’s about time we throw some of these niggers out of here.” Just like that. So a couple of them would get up, walk back, say, “Don’t you think you’d better take a ride?” We didn’t say a word, just sat there. Then after a while some more started getting up, but not all, not all. Everybody wasn’t like that. So some more would get up, then they got a bunch coming. We never said a word. They inched themselves closer and closer. They were going to scare us first.

So we just let them shoot off their mouths and stuff like that. Finally they make a move. We didn’t say nothing, but we was ready; everybody was ready. So they come back. Our biggest guy, Jones, he was about six-four or five, and a good fighter. Jones, they’d come after him, he would grab one of them, and zoom! Throw him back to the rest of us! We were stacking them like cordwood; the guys would run right into a stone wall. We had to do it. The driver was glad to get that bus back to the base. The buses had a governor on them. The driver on that bus could only go, I think it’s 35 miles an hour. The motor would just cut out. That bus wouldn’t go no faster.

Eventually, an officer – Officer Spanogle – he just came off of Halsey’s flagship and he was a fighter pilot, he came and straightened the whole thing out. You know what he did? He shipped every one of them out of there. It was mostly the mechanics. So many accidents, he knew something was wrong. They wasn’t doing their job. They were going on liberty too much, and getting drunk, and not taking care of the planes they had. Planes were going down here like mad.

We had one pilot – I can’t understand it – they made a bet that one fellow wouldn’t fly through the hangar. So what they did, they had all the motor pool in there working to move everything out of the way, and that fool flew through the hangar. He got shipped out. They were playing, and this was a war going on!

Even the pilots, some of them was rotten, too. They wouldn’t talk to you like they were talking to a man. They’d call us boys. “Hey, boy! Give me that, give me this!” I said, “I’m not going to let anything actually bother me, and I’m not going to get discouraged.”

I didn’t expect it would be that way in the service. Racism was sometimes bad on the base, but it was not anywhere else on the Island; the Island people were great. That’s why I came here to live, because Island people always treated us beautiful. I said, “This is the place I’m going to live in civilian life.”

One time a whole bunch of white sailors from the base jumped us in Oak Bluffs, just like a riot. It started in the Windsor Hall – now it’s the Lampost. The same old six of us was all in there having some beer, sitting at the table. This group came in and this guy walked up to me, I’m sitting there, and he says, “I want this chair.” I says, “You do?” He says, “I said I want this chair, boy!” and he shoved me. I said, “Well, I guess you can have it.” I got up, picked up the chair, and the whole chair fell apart on his head. I give him the chair, all right. I gave it to him the best way I could.

Oh, man, it broke out then! What a fight that was! The front pane of glass in the Windsor Hall, that was out. The only man could break up that fight was the chaplain from the base. Boy, he was a great little guy.

You know who ended up overnight in the brig? The brig was full of us. Not one white boy. They only had one brig, and they weren’t going to put a white boy in there with us!

After that, I shipped out on a destroyer patrolling the East Coast. I got aboard ship as fast as I could, because I got tired of going on liberty and fighting my way back.

Aboard ship is altogether different, because it’s up to the captain, and you cannot run a ship with a crew where anybody fights like that; every man has to depend on the other man during any time of battle. There was no feeling of racism aboard ship. We ate together down in the chow hall; there were never prejudices there, never, never. We played poker together; we did everything together aboard ship.

My destroyer helped take care of the East Coast, from Vermont down to Lakehurst, New Jersey and across to the English Channel. We were escorting merchant ships and protecting them against German submarines. Our home port was Newport.

One time my ship came up to the Vineyard. They had a kind of submarine scare around the Vineyard. We anchored right off the Menemsha and Gay Head area. Our three destroyers boxed the submarine in between Noman’s and Gay Head. And then after three days we were told to pull out. We didn’t know why – they would never tell us anything – but later we found out that the captain of the submarine defected from the German Navy.

After the War, I was on the same destroyer, and we went with Admiral Byrd’s expedition to the South Pole, Operation Deep Freeze. That was the 1946–47 expedition. I was selected out of 9,000 men to go there with him.

You asked about the USO’s back on the Vineyard? Well, the USO in Vineyard Haven was very small, but the most active USO was in Oak Bluffs. That was in the area of da Rosa’s, on the left-hand side going down. The Oak Bluffs people is the first people I started meeting.

On liberty another thing we’d do; we’d go to the beach, have beach parties and things. We used to go over to Chappaquiddick to a beach party. It was two sisters over on Chappy that had property over there. Their name was Jeffers. Sally and her sister. That’s where we used to go quite a lot. To their cookouts and stuff like that and, boy, that used to be some eating, some good eating there. I’m telling you.

I remember the dances they used to have at the Cape Verdean Hall when I was stationed on the Island during the War. We never missed one of those. All the sailors used to go. We never had to pay to go in; just walk in and start dancing and enjoying yourself. People would come from New Bedford. Jimmy Lomberg and his orchestra used to come over here; they’d play all Cape Verdean music. Their dances are like a reel. You don’t get in the middle of the floor and just drag around. You’d be dancing like mad, but you’d be going in a circle so nobody would be bumping into each other.

When I was going to dances, I started going with my wife, Mary. Her family was Cape Verdean. When we married and I moved into the Cape Verdean neighborhood in Vineyard Haven, I made some good friends. In those days, if you had a project like putting a roof on your house, fixing something, we’d all help each other. You need shingling, we’d do it. You need plumbing, we had a plumber. We had plumbers, we had carpenters, we had somebody could do everything. Nobody charged anybody. If you had a project, I don’t care how big it was, we did it together. We’d be at that fellow’s house every Sunday, every day off, and in the summertime in the evenings. You could work after supper, you’d go down and you started banging nails or whatever we had to do.