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The First Separate Battalion to the Rescue

Editor’s note: On September 8, 1934, one of the worst maritime disasters in Monmouth County history occurred when the S.S. Morro Castle, a luxury passenger liner, caught fire during a raging storm that turned the ship into an inferno.  Award-winning historian Joseph G. Bilby, author of more than 400 articles and 22 books on New Jersey history, military history, the Civil War, and Monmouth County, relates this compelling chapter in the Morro Castle saga about how assistance on shore came from an unexpected source, and became a part of our Black History.  You can read the full story of the Morro Castle here, or click here to see more of Mr. Bilby’s great work on Monmouth Timeline.

By Joseph G. Bilby, ©2022

In 1930 there were no African–Americans in the New Jersey National Guard, and the segregated U. S. Army did not have plans to authorize a black unit in the state.  Prominent New Jersey African-American citizens, most notably William D. Nabors of Orange, petitioned their state legislators to create a state funded organization. In response, Assemblyman Frank S. Hargraves introduced a bill, and on April 16, 1930, both houses of the New Jersey legislature passed Chapter 149, Laws of 1930, authorizing the “organization and equipment of a battalion of Negro infantry” at state expense. On July 14, 1931, committees were established to organize the first companies of what came to be called the First Separate Battalion, New Jersey State Militia. Companies were raised in Newark, Atlantic City and Camden.

Officers of the First Separate Battalion, New Jersey State Militia. Image credit: Joseph G. Bilby
Members of the First Separate Battalion at the Camp Moore rifle range. The soldier in the forefront is carrying the U.S. Army standard-issue Springfield M1903 bolt-action rifle. Image credit: Joseph G. Bilby.

Companies A and B were at Sea Girt for their annual field training on September 8, 1934, when the Morro Castle, a cruise ship returning to New York from Havana,caught fire offshore. As its control systems burned, the ship anchored two miles off Sea Girt in turbulent seas and desperate passengers and crew members tried to launch lifeboats and jumped overboard in efforts to save themselves from the flames.  The disaster would prove to be the finest hour for many New Jersey shore residents, including Governor A. Harry Moore, who was ending the season at his official summer residence in the National Guard camp.  The governor boarded a Guard plane in the observer seat and flew out over the burning ship, dropping flares and smoke bombs and waving flags to guide rescue boats to survivors.

One of the few lifeboats from the Morro Castle that was successfully able to bring survivors to shore. Image credit: Joseph G. Bilby.

Before he soared aloft over the surf, Moore ordered the African American militia to the beach to bolster local rescue efforts. The men of Companies A and B braved almost hurricane conditions, rescuing survivors and recovering bodies drifting to shore.  Some of the officers, morticians in civilian life, established an improvised morgue in the National Guard camp, which soon held seventy-eight bodies.

The camp restaurant and exchange at Camp Moore in Sea Girt were used as a temporary morgue.  That building was eventually torn down. Image credit: Joseph G. Bilby.

Anxious relatives who appeared at Sea Girt to identify the dead were guided by the black soldiers, with nurses on hand for support.  A reporter noted that when one man was overcome by grief on finding his younger brother among the dead “a Negro militiaman…left his post to comfort him, and to guide him to a secluded place where he might have an undisturbed rendezvous with grief.” The men of Companies A and B were subsequently cited by Governor Moore and the State Legislature for their “courage, courtesy, and sympathetic handling of a very gruesome duty” and the city commissioners of Atlantic City presented Company B with a bronze plaque “in recognition of its heroic and devoted services to the community, state and nation.”

Governor Moore with the First Lady and the officers of the First Separate Battalion in front of the governor’s summer residence in Sea Girt, known as the “Little White House.”  Date of image unknown.  Image credit: Joseph G. Bilby>

About the Author:

Joseph G. Bilby received his BA and MA degrees in history from Seton Hall University and served as lieutenant in the First Infantry Division in Vietnam in 1966-67.  He is assistant curator of the New Jersey National Guard Militia Museum in Sea Girt, a columnist for the Civil War News and New Jersey Sportsmen News, and a freelance writer, historian and historical consultant.  He is the author, editor or co-author of more than four hundred articles and twenty-two books on New Jersey, the Civil War, and firearms history.  Mr. Bilby has received the Jane Clayton Award for contributions to Monmouth County, New Jersey history; an award of merit from the New Jersey Historical Commission for his contributions to the state’s military history; and the New Jersey Meritorious Service Medal from the state’s Division of Military and Veterans Affairs.  In 2018, he was awarded the Richard J. Hughes Prize by the New Jersey Historical Commission for his lifelong contributions to New Jersey history.

Source:  Tragedy Watched by Shore Throngs. (1934). The New York Times, September 9, 1934, P. 25.

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