Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Waterfront as War Front

The Normandie burns at its New York pier, 1942
(U.S. Navy)

Seven years before the Sun's Mike Johnson went down to the docks, a reporter named Edmund Scott made some scary discoveries on the West Side that he might well have turned into his own waterfront crime series.

Two days after Pearl Harbor, Scott went over to the West Side piers to play saboteur. His assignment for the newspaper PM was to dress as a docker and test the vulnerability of the port’s wartime defenses. Scott outfitted himself accordingly; it in fact took him longer to break in his new work boots, dungarees, work shirt and cargo hook than it did to get himself into the longshore union and aboard a combatant ship. He next walked along the West Side waterfront to 48th Street and 12th Avenue, “There were 30 or 40 men with longshore hooks, in knots of five or six. I sidled up to one, tapped a short, swarthy chap on the shoulder, and asked him if he could tell me how to get into the union.” The man obliged and pointed up the street to the storefront office of ILA local 824, the so-called “pistol local.” Pretending to be an unemployed laborer from Connecticut, Scott was able to buy a cut-rate union book for $26. The delegate then gave Scott a button, plain white with a picture of an American flag, “Wear this on your cap when you shape.”

The button did its work next morning and he was picked from the crowd at the French Line pier to unload furniture from the Normandie, the second largest ship in the world, recently renamed the S.S. Lafayette for transport work. It now made an especially pregnable point in the port as it was being stripped of its glamorous furniture and special fittings to make a more Spartan troop ship.

For two days, Scott wandered the Normandie’s enormous decks and hallways as a hypothetical enemy agent, “lighting imaginary fires” and “planting imaginary bombs,” his imagination working far harder than his body while he fooled with barrels of excelsior and smoked wherever he liked. In early January 1942, Scott turned in his alarming story, showing how easily anyone could buy into the union and have his run of waterfront cargoes aboard a combatant vessel. But to his editor the completed article seemed shockingly close to being “a blueprint for sabotage.” PM held the piece while reporting Scott’s findings to the Maritime Commission’s chief of Anti-sabotage, who angrily dismissed them.

Then, on February 9th 1942, probably through a worker’s carelessness with an acetylene torch, the Normandie caught fire below decks and burned spectacularly at its pier; PM finally ran the Scott piece next day, as crowds reviewed the ship’s burned hulk, “NORMANDIE COULD HAVE BEEN SABOTAGED.” Although the frightening footage of the Normandie went right into Alfred Hitchcock’s 1942 film Saboteur (Norman Lloyd smirks with pride as his cab passes the ship’s listing wreckage), the story of the criminal waterfront was largely abandoned during the war.

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