Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Navy and Norfolk Come to Blows Over Illegal Drinking, 1931

The battleship USS Mississippi (BB-40) arrived at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in 1931 for a two-year modernization overhaul. As the ship would be laid up for an extended period of time, sailors had a bit more liberty time than normally allowed. 

USS Mississippi at Norfolk Naval Shipyard, 1933
Thus it came to the attention of Captain Henry Brinser, Mississippi's commanding officer, that an unusual number of the battleship's sailors were being arrested by the City of Norfolk police for patronizing illegal speakeasies. Even worse, Brinser was informed that the speakeasies had been aggressively marketing to his sailors with advertising cards. Noticing that the Norfolk police were more interested in arresting sailors than in shutting down the illegal drinking establishments, Brinser went public with the problem. Completely ignoring his own chain-of-command, Brinser informed the local papers about the situation. 

He stated he had previously been "warned about conditions existing in Norfolk adversely affecting the service of the Norfolk personnel." He also stated that within six hours of Mississippi docking in Hampton Roads, the ship's company knew where to go drinking. He further accused the Norfolk police of targeting sailors for entrapment. Though Brinser did not check with senior leadership before making such serious charges, Rear Admiral Guy Burrage, the Navy's senior shore officer for Hampton Roads, essentially agreed with the captain. He noted that the Navy, and not local police, had to shut down speakeasies located near
Walke Truxtun, city manger
 of Norfolk in 1931 and
great-grandson of
Commodore Thomas Truxtun
Naval facilities. It had been local Navy policy since 1918 that no drinking estasblishment be allowed within five miles of a Hampton Roads naval facility.

Henry Brinser, commanding
officer of Mississippi in 1931
Burrage and Brinser's accusations were serious charges that threatened the important relationship between the City of Norfolk and the region's largest employer. Since the building of the naval base in 1918, Norfolk attempted to foster the relationship more closely by placing men with Navy backgrounds in high leadership positions. A case-in-point was Walke Truxtun, the city manager at this time. He was a World War I veteran of the Navy and came from a family of senior Naval officers. His father was William Truxtun, one time commandant of the Norfolk Navy Yard and veteran of the Civil War, and his great-grandfather was the legendary Commodore Thomas Truxtun.

Acting shocked and outraged by the accusations, Truxtun demanded to know from both Burrage and Brinser where they got such information. Promising a full investigation into police corruption, he noted that "only 35 sailors" were currently in Norfolk jails for Volstead Act violations. This promise was not good enough for the Navy. Burrage threatened to declare much of Norfolk "out of bounds" for sailors.

Congressman Menalcus
Lankford (R-VA)
The controversy reached the desks of senior Naval leadership in Washington. Rear Admiral John Halligan, assistant chief of naval operations, stated to reporters that there was no need for Washington to get involved and that the Department had full confidence in Burrage to do as he saw fit. Seeing that the Navy's higher-ups were not going to intervene, Congressman Menalcus Lankford (R-VA) arrived from Washington to meditate. Norfolk represented a large portion of Lankford's district and he no doubt saw local economical repercussions of a rift with the Navy.

Lankford's intervention succeeded in cooling down tempers. Truxtun agreed to investigate the alleged police corruption and end the harassment of sailors. He also agreed to a Navy demand that if Norfolk police arrested any sailor on a misdemeanor charge, they would turn the sailor over to the Navy for trial through Navy justice.

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