Today marks the 75th anniversary of the tragic Morro Castle ship fire of September 8, 1934 off the coast of New Jersey. The significant rescue role of the state's black soldiers in the disaster's aftermath is often overlooked.
In 1930 there were no African-Americans in the New Jersey National Guard, and the segregated US Army did not have plans to create 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, and a law authorizing the "organization and equipment of a battalion of Negro infantry" was passed in April, 1930. That unit, the 1st Separate Battalion, New Jersey State Militia, eventually raised companies in Newark, Camden, Trenton and Atlantic City.
Companies A and B were at Sea Girt for their annual field training on September 8, 1934, when the Morro Castle, 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 tragedy took the lives of 137 passengers and crew members.
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. Moore boarded a Guard plane in the observer seat and flew out over the burning ship, dropping smoke bombs and waving flags to indicate survivors to rescue boats.
Before he soared aloft over the surf, the governor ordered the black militiamen to the beach to bolster local rescue efforts. The soldiers of Companies A and B braved almost hurricane conditions, rescuing survivors and recovering bodies drifting to shore. Some of the men, morticians in civilian life, established an improvised morgue in the National Guard camp, which soon held seventy-eight bodies. 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."
— NATIONAL GUARD MILITIA MUSEUM OF NEW JERSEY