‘Zoot Suit’ and History — Part 5

June 1, 1943, comics

Cartoon: A troubling moment in “Mary Worth’s Family,” June 1, 1943. Credit: Los Angeles Times

June 1, 1943: It is impossible to accurately determine, so long after the fact, why a May 31, 1943, brawl between zoot-suiters and sailors wasn’t covered in The Times. But that’s only one mystery. The more immediate question is: who was Joe Dacy Coleman?

To recap: I decided to take a look at the historical background of the Zoot Suit Riots after seeing “Zoot Suit” in the Los Angeles Conservancy’s Last Remaining Seats series.

In Part 1, we saw that The Times initially treated the zoot suit as a youthful fad, but the attitude changed once zoot suits were outlawed by the War Production Board to conserve fabric.

In Part 2, Times columnist Timothy Turner provided some more sympathetic insight (zoot-suiters aren’t all criminals and delinquents) that was a surprising counterpoint to the mainstream opinion.

In Part 3, we looked at the events leading up to the Zoot Suit Riots of June 1943.

In Part 4, we found a “zoot zuit orgy” and other news accounts in The Times in early June 1943, until we hit a wall with Joe Dacy Coleman, which is where we pick up now.

The name “Joe Dacy Coleman” has perfect search engine DNA. If you plug it into Google you will find any number of references to Coleman and the Zoot Suit Riots, all of them phrased something like:

On May 31st, 1943, a group of sailors on leave confronted a gang of zoot suiters; one sailor, Joe Dacy Coleman, was badly injured. In response, fifty sailors gathered and headed out to downtown and East Los Angeles, which was the center of the Mexican community. Once there, they attacked all the men they found wearing zoot suits, often ripping off the suits and burning them in the streets [citation needed]. They also raped pachuca women in the process [citation needed].

This example happens to be from the Fedora Lounge, quoting Wikipedia, but similar language is everywhere.

But wait! When we go to Wikipedia, we find that the article has been edited to delete the reference to sailors raping pachucas. At least at 4:56 p.m. on July 22, 2011, although that could change at any moment – which is one of the many reasons that nobody who is serious about research uses Wikipedia except as an amusement.

Here’s the Wikipedia article as it was on  July 22, 2011–notice that the date of the brawl is now incorrect, even more proof that Wikipedia cannot be trusted:

Two conflicts between Mexicans and military personnel had a great effect on the start of the riots. The first occurred on May 30, 1943 four days before the start of the riots. The altercation involved a dozen sailors and soldiers including Seaman Second Class Joe Dacy Coleman. The group was walking down Main Street when they spotted a group of young women on the opposite side of the street. With the exception of Coleman and another soldier, the group crossed the street to approach the women. Coleman continued on, walking past a small group of young men in zoot suits. As he walked by, Coleman saw one of the young men raise his arm in a “threatening” manner, so he turned around and grabbed it. It was then that something or someone struck the sailor in the back of the head at which point he fell to the ground unconscious, breaking his jaw in two places. On the opposite side of the street, young men attacked the servicemen out of nowhere. In the midst of this battle, the service men managed to fight their way to Coleman and drag him to safety. It was as a result of this altercation, according to Eduardo Pagan, that the white servicemen believed that they were the only group capable of restoring order and white male dominance.

Oddly enough, there isn’t a word in The Times about Joe Dacy Coleman, “patient zero” in the Zoot Suit Riots.

In a perfect world, I would make a trip to the Los Angeles Public Library and delve through the microfilm of the Los Angeles Examiner, Herald-Express and the Daily News, in search of Coleman.

But we don’t live in a perfect world and that will have to be a project for someone else.

What we do have is this mention of Joe Coleman from the Miami News, June 5, 1943:

June 5, 1943, Miami News

And this from the Montreal Gazette, June 7, 1943. Notice that in the AP version, Coleman was stabbed, not beaten.

June 7, 1943, Montreal Gazette
The detailed account repeated in Wikipedia and elsewhere comes from the 2003 book “Murder at the Sleepy Lagoon” by Eduardo Obregón Pagán, Pages 164-165:

An act of retaliation on Monday night, 31 May 1943, would allow the LAPD the opportunity to put into practice its philosophy of riot control learned in Venice. Although the ensuing riot in Los Angeles was, in the words of Patricia Adler, “a brief episode in a long conflict,” the attack on a group of military men that Monday night was the spark that ultimately touched off an explosion of rage [61] Around 8:00 P.M. a dozen sailors and soldiers strolled down Main Street, and among them was Seaman Second Class Joe Dacy Coleman. Near Chinatown the military men spotted a group of young women on the opposite sidewalk, and most of the men — with the exception of Coleman and a soldier-crossed the street to talk to the women [62] Coleman continued ahead, and as he passed a small grouping of zoot-suited boys, he saw, out of the corner of his eye, one of the boys raising his arm in a manner that looked threatening. The sailor quickly spun around and seized the young man’s arm. Something struck Coleman on the head from behind, and he fell to the ground unconscious, breaking his jaw in two places.

Whether the young civilian acted in a threatening manner or not, Coleman clearly made the first aggressive contact in seizing the young man by the arm, and the other civilian boys responded in kind. On the other side of the street young civilian men pounced on the servicemen from all directions, seemingly out of nowhere, swinging rocks and bottles and fists and feet with fury. In the midst of this fusillade the military men managed to fight their way over to where Coleman lay and drag him off to safety. [63] The triumph of the civilian youths would be short-lived, however, for it would ultimately provide the sailors at the armory with all the justification they would need to take the law into their own hands.

And in the end notes, we find that No. 63 is what Pagán refers to as the Litten Report.

After a little detective work, we discover that this is: Lt. Glen A. Litten, USNR, to the commanding officer, “Attack on Naval Personnel by ‘Zoot-Suiters’ – Report on,” 10 June 1943, Records of the 11th Naval District, P8-5 “Zoot Suit Gangs,” 1943, 3/4.

Which is in the National Archives at Laguna Niguel and according to Google, doesn’t appear to be quoted anywhere except Pagán’s book.

This is the kind of research we admire at the L.A. Daily Mirror! In fact we like it so much we want to see the report for ourselves. Road trip to Laguna Niguel? Carving out the time for that could be problematic. But we’ve never been and really ought to go.

To be continued…

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in 1943, Books and Authors, Fashion, LAPD, Latinos, Libraries, World War II, Zoot Suit and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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