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December 12, 2018

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>Briefing- The “Blackie” Affair

In January and February of 1924, the U.S. Navy carried out Fleet Problem IV in the Caribbean. After the problem, the fleet made port calls along the East Coast for nearly a month. Late in March the fleet returned to the Caribbean, where it engaged in a series of battle practices and tactical exercises off Culebra. In early April the fleet dissolved into its component parts, as the Scouting Fleet began steaming north, to return to its bases on the East Coast, and the Battle Fleet began its voyage back to the West Coast. There was nothing unusual in this. It was a routine movement, one with which American sailors of the interwar period were quite familiar. But in fact something unusual had already taken place, weeks earlier.

On March 4th the fleet had begun a nine day visit to New York, anchoring in the North River (as that part of the Hudson flowing past Manhattan is known to Gothamites). There were nightly liberty parties, as young sailors went ashore to taste the delights of the Big Apple at the height of the Jazz Age. Capt. Percy Olmstead’s battleship Arizona (BB-39), flagship of Rear Adm. William V. Pratt’s BatDiv 4, was anchored off West 103rd St. While on the town one night some of the ship’s sailors met a 19-year old hooker, a feisty, dark-eyed brunette named Madeline Blair, who went by the nickname “Blackie.” In the course of their ordinary business together, Blackie let slip that she had a hankering to go to Hollywood, in the hope of making it as a star, but couldn’t manage to scrape together enough money to make the trip. One thing led to another, and soon Blackie and her newfound friends had hatched an ingenious plan; they would smuggle her aboard the ship, so that she could get a free ride to California.

To accomplish this, Blackie cut her hair short, while the sailors supplied her with an appropriate uniform and pea coat. When all was in readiness, Blackie and her friends showed up at the pier one chilly evening, as the liberty boat was preparing to cast off. In the middle of a gaggle of seemingly drunken sailors, with her hat clamped well down on her head, the collar of her pea coat turned up, and waving a liberty card that her fellow conspirators thoughtfully provided, the young woman easily managed to board the battleship. Once aboard, Blackie’s friends provided a generator compartment for her “quarters,” while some of the ship’s cooks agreed to supply her with meals at $10 a day. Now in those days seaman’s pay in the fleet was only about $21 a month, so this was a tidy sum, but Blackie was soon doing a booming business, at rates that probably ran $3 a trick. As the ship reached warmer waters, she began to take occasional nocturnal strolls on deck, usually wearing jeans and a work shirt, and began attending the nightly movies when the ship was in port. This almost led to her undoing.

One night while Blackie was watching a movie from a searchlight platform, a young sailor sat down beside her, unaware of her identity. Craving a smoke, the young man took out a cigarette, but found he had no matches. As was common among sailors of the day, without asking, he casually reached over to check the breast pocket of the “sailor” sitting next to him, only to encounter . . . well, a breast. The startled young man fled, but decided to keep his mouth shut, so Blackie’s secret was safe.

Surprisingly, at least one of the ship’s crew tried to inform the officers that there was a woman aboard, but the notion seemed so absurd he was ignored. So Blackie continued to ply her trade, while the fleet engaged in gunnery exercises and tactical evolutions, and then proceeded through the Panama Canal. Dawn on April 12th found the fleet lying off Balboa, on the Pacific side of the Canal, finishing preparations for departing for the West Coast later that day. Blackie had taken her by-then regular nightly walk. Perhaps the predawn night air was particularly pleasant or perhaps she lost track of time, but whatever the cause, as the sun began rising, Blackie was still making her way back to her compartment. She paused briefly for a drink of water at a scuttlebutt. A chief radioman came by and waited his turn. As Blackie raised her head, the radioman looked into her eyes and realized at once that she was a woman. He promptly reported her presence to the officer of the deck.

Needless to say, the news caused quite a stir. A search was ordered, and Blackie was quickly apprehended. She refused to finger her cohorts, and further roiled the waters by claiming there were several other women hidden here and there about the ship, which led to yet another search, much more thorough, so that even Adm. Pratt’s quarters were investigated. No one was found. Meanwhile, preparations for departure continued, and, since the ship was imminently ready to sail, Blackie was turned over the local authorities.

As the fleet made its way northwards, Capt. Olmstead ordered a full investigation. The result was severe penalties for Arizona’s crew; 23 enlisted men were convicted by courts martial and sentenced to prison for as long as ten years. Moreover, convinced that the ship’s officers had been lax, Adm. Henry A. Wiley, Commander of the Battle Fleet’s Battleships, issued a letter of reprimand to every officer in the ship, from Captain Olmstead down to the greenest ensign. He did this despite a protest from Adm. Pratt, the division commander, who considered the penalties excessive. When Pratt became CNO in 1930, he ordered the derogatory material removed from the officers’ files (he couldn’t do anything for the enlisted men, as they had been convicted by a duly constituted court, and clearing them would have required a presidential pardon, hardly likely to be forthcoming from the straitlaced Herbert Hoover). Pratt’s gesture was good for the future of the Navy, as one of the officers in question was Ens. Arliegh Burke; it was the only negative entry ever made on his record.

And Blackie? Well, apparently the local authorities in Balboa didn’t know what to do with her, and she was soon set at liberty. Perhaps the Navy thought it had heard the last of her. But she had one last surprise in store for the fleet. In order to get home to New York, Blackie booked a first class passage on a Grace Line ship, and arranged for the bill to be sent to the Navy Department, which passed it back to Admiral Wiley!

As for Miss Blair, what happened to her after returning to New York is unknown. She seems, however, to have been a particularly bright young women. Even her name, “Madeline Blair,” seems likely to have been something of an in joke, adopted for professional reasons; Just a few years earlier Madeleine Blair – note the spelling – who as a young woman had been forced into prostitution and eventually becoming a highly respected Madam and champion of women’s rights, had produced a delightfully hard-headed “tell all” memoir, Madeleine: An Autobiography (New York and London: Harper & Brothers, 1919) which had created quite a stir. So perhaps so resourceful and witty a young woman as Madeline Blair seems to have been prospered in later life. And maybe she even made it to Hollywood

 

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