‘Zoot Suit’ and History – Part 14

Image: Cover letter on the June 22, 1943, report on the Zoot Suit Riots. Credit: National Archives at Riverside.

To recap briefly, I have been digging into the historical basis of the movie “Zoot Suit,” which I saw this summer in the Last Remaining Seats series.  The Times ignored the 1943 Zoot Suit Riots for several days, in what must be one of the worst news decisions the editors ever made, so I was forced to dig  into the government records at the National Archives in Riverside for further information.

“Zoot Suit” and History, Part 1| Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12 | Part 13

I have been looking without success for documentation on a sailor named Joe Dacy Coleman, who was apparently the trigger for the Zoot Suit Riots.  The closest I have gotten so far is a reference in this report to J.D. Coleman, who was assaulted on June 2, 1943. I have more images to examine but I can’t say I’m optimistic that I’m going to find the account that appears in the 2003 book “Murder at the Sleepy Lagoon” by Eduardo Obregón Pagán, Pages 164-165.

Even so, this is powerful material, and I’m pleased to be able to share it with Daily Mirror readers:

As a consequence of the increasing number of unprovoked attacks on Navy personnel, and apparently because of the inability or failure of local authorities to give adequate police protection, a series of disorders began on 3 June 1943.

On that date, approximately 70 sailors congregated in the vicinity of Fourth and Main streets, Los Angeles. Some of the men were carrying weapons made by wrapping a piece of metal in their neckerchiefs; others carried hammock clews with the regulation ring in them; a few carried clubs and other miscellaneous weapons. The men were taken in charge by the Shore Patrol and were disarmed, after which they were marched to the Central Station of the Los Angeles Police Department.

Main and Winston, Los Angeles
Image: Winston and Main, Los Angeles, via Google’s Street View.

June 8, 1943, Zoot Suit Riots
Image: A crowd halts a streetcar on Main in search of zoot-suiters, published in the June 8, 1943, Los Angeles Times.

On the same evening, at Winston and Main streets, Los Angeles, sailors stopped and questioned persons who looked like “zoot-suiters.” “Task Forces” of 10 to 15 sailors marched into bars and cafes in the vicinity seeking out gangsters. It is reported that the discipline of these groups was very good and they executed their missions with precision and in an orderly manner…..

On the night of 7 June 1943, Navy Shore Patrol and Military Police toured Los Angeles in Jeeps and afoot. Cars and taxis full of soldiers and bluejackets [sailors–lrh] halted at theatres, cafes, penny arcades and dance halls and made searches for “zoot-suit” gangsters.

In the course of the evening, it is estimated that approximately 50 persons were “de-zooted.” It was reported that the disturbances occurring this date were inspired by unprovoked attacks on Daniel Lloyd CAIN, a sailor, and Robert EGAN, a Marine, as a result of which CAIN was hospitalized because of a possible skull fracture. During the evening, 24 civilians, 11 sailors and five soldiers were arrested on charges of disturbing the peace and unlawful assembly.

During the evenings of 5, 6 and 7 June 1943, it was reported that more than 100 “pachucos” or “zoot-suit” gangsters were arrested and jailed on vagrancy charges.

Large crowds of curious — both service personnel and civilians — drawn by the desire for excitement, congested the streets, and it is reported that service personnel, during the evening of 7 June 1943 marched along the streets shouting “We’ll destroy every zoot suit in Los Angeles County before this is over!”

It appears that the usual procedure upon encountering a “pachuco” or “zoot-suiter” was to administer a mauling to the gangster involved; strip him of his eccentric dress and destroy the articles by burning. It was reported on the morning of 8 June 1943, that Main Street, Los Angeles, was dotted with charred mounds of zoot suits stripped from “pachucos” and burned by servicemen…..

All available evidence points to the conclusion that the conditions which existed in Los Angeles and which the enlisted personnel sought to remedy by direct action were the results of a long neglected social, economic and police problem. As the record now stands, the problem remains essentially one for solution by the local officials.



About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in 1943, African Americans, Film, Hollywood, LAPD, Latinos, Theaters, World War II, Zoot Suit and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to ‘Zoot Suit’ and History – Part 14

  1. Mary Mallory says:

    So it was just “sporting action” by the troops to viciously beat people and strip them of their clothes, and didn’t require lock up? And of course the zoot-suiters were all gang members and their supporters were Communists or leftists. Racism and suspicion was very evidently inherent with the military.


  2. Sam Flowers says:

    I guess the military men got tired of being victims with no recourse from the police.


  3. Bill Shibley says:

    Since my father, who had been lead defense counsel in the Sleepy Lagoon Murder Case (People v. Zammora, 66.Cal.App.2d 166) was drafted almost immediately after the conclusion of the jury trial, he was unable to represent any of the poor folks who had been viciously attacked.


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