The Commission’s archives are housed in the old Darlington County Jail. The top two floors are where we keep the majority of our files and artifacts, and every time I climb those steep steps, I start to feel like a kid on Christmas morning. I get so excited about what I might discover in those rows and rows of filing cabinets that my heart starts to beat faster and faster.
This morning, I unearthed a file on The Book and Toy Company. Boasting the sale of “all sort of toys, sporting goods, fancy goods and holiday goods,” this store opened in 1890 and was situated on the East side of the Public Square right here in Darlington. Later, in 1909, W.B. Oakes purchased the business and had his son, W.J. Oakes, manage the store.
Among pictures, receipts, old journals, and other items, I found this charming advertisement in the newspaper on December 12, 1911:
On Friday night Dec. 22, the Book & Toy Co., in accordance with their usual custom, will send up a large balloon with a small doll in it, and the finder upon presenting the doll at their store will be allowed to select free of charge, any doll in their stock.
The Book & Toy Co.
WJ Oakes, Mgr.
Rufus T. Bess was born on September 13, 1956, in Darlington, SC. After attending Butler High School in Hartsville, he played college football at South Carolina State University, and in 2004, he was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame for his outstanding accomplishments on the gridiron. Bess went on to play nine seasons in the NFL with the Buffalo Bills, Minnesota Vikings, and Oakland Raiders from 1979-1987. Bess also spent a season playing for the Chicago Bruisers in the Area League in 1988. After his NFL career, he coached football at North Community High School in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
When I consider how much you have done and suffered, and under what difficulties you have maintained your ground, I am at a loss which to admire most, your courage and fortitude or your address and management. Certain it is, no man has a better claim to the public thanks than you have. History affords no instance wherein an officer has kept possession of a country under so many disadvantages as you have. Surrounded on every side by superior forces, hunted from every quarter with veteran troops, you have found means to elude their attacks, and to keep alive the expiring hopes of an oppressed militia, when all succor seemed to be cut off. To fight the enemy bravely with the prospect of victory, is nothing; but to fight with intrepidity under the constant impression of defeat, and inspire irregular troops to do it, is a talent peculiar to yourself. Nothing will give me greater pleasure than to do justice to your merit, and I shall miss no opportunity of declaring to Congress, to the commander-in-chief of the American army, and to the world, the sense I have of your merit and your services.
April 18, 1942
At 8am aboard the USS Hornet, the Klaxon horns sounded, and Captain Marc Mitscher gave the order to Lt. Farrow and the other Doolittle Raiders: “Army pilots–man your planes. Army pilots–man your planes.” The mission wasn’t scheduled to launch for another eight hours, but a Japanese patrol vessel had been sighted just six miles ahead of the Hornet.
In a rush to board the Bat out of Hell, Lt. Farrow’s assigned B-25 medium bomber, Farrow and his co-pilot Lt. Robert Hite visited the commissary and loaded up on Baby Ruth candy bars. From Lt. Bill Farrow: Doolittle Raider by John Chandler Griffin: “Later, Bob Hite would remember that long after their emergency rations had been consumed, those Baby Ruths would become lifesavers for the hungry men of the Bat Out of Hell.”
At 9:15am, with gale-force winds and waves thirty feet high whipping against the USS Hornet, Lt. Farrow throttled the Bat Out of Hell forward into takeoff position. His objective: bomb the Mitisubishi Aircraft Factory in Nagoya, Japan. From Lt. Bill Farrow: Doolittle Raider: “Just before revving up his engines for takeoff, Farrow called over the interphone: “‘Okay, anybody wanna resign? Last chance!’” His comments were met with laughter. . .The flagman gave them the GO signal at 9:15am, and Bill Farrow yelled to his crewmen, “Everybody hold on. Here we go.”
At 2pm, after about five hours in the air, Lt. Farrow saw the white beaches of Japan dead ahead. The Bat Out of Hell was some three hundred miles away (or around ninety minutes of flying time) from Nagoya, the crew’s bombing site. At that point Lt. George Barr, the navigator, informed Lt. Farrow that they were about fifteen hundred miles (or eight to nine hours of flying time) from Chuchow Air Field in China, the friendly port where they would land after the mission was completed.
At around 3:30pm, Lt. Farrow and the crew of the Bat Out of Hell approached their target, and Cpl. Jacob DeShazer, the bombardier, released five five-hundred bombs on the Mitsubishi Aircraft Factory in Nagoya. The bombs hit their target.
At around 7pm, after almost thirteen hours of flying time, Lt. Barr spotted a lighthouse on the coast of China, and Lt. Farrow flew to 11,000 feet to avoid the mountains. It was dark and Lt. Farrow, unable to locate Chuchow Air Field, had to fly west to avoid the bad weather and being spotted by Japanese, who held territory in China.
April 19, 1942
At around midnight, after having unintentionally flown well past Chuchow Air Field, Lt. Farrow spotted city lights, but Lt. Barr informed the crew that the city down below was Nanchang, which was occupied by the Japanese Imperial Army. Not long after, the Bat Out of Hell’s engines began to sputter. Out of gas, Lt. Farrow and his crew parachuted out.
Early morning, Lt. Farrow and Cpl. Jacob DeShazer came across some Chinese villagers and offered them two-hundred dollars for a safe way to get to Chungking. The villagers took Lt. Farrow and Cpl. DeShazer to a hut and fed them. Not long after, officers with the Japanese Imperial Army arrived and took both men prisoner, but not before slaughtering the villagers who’d helped Lt. Farrow and Cpl. Deshazer.
April 20, 1942
Lt. Farrow and Cpl. DeShazer were driven to a military prison, where they were reunited with the rest of the crew from the Bat Out of Hell: Lt. George Barr, navigator; Cpl. Harold Spatz, engineer-gunner; Lt. Robert Hite, co-pilot. The Japanese Imperial Army, blatantly ignoring the Geneva Convention’s rules for prisoners of war, tortured and beat Lt. Farrow and his crew in various prisons for the next six months.
If you could travel back in time to 1988 and ask the nine-year old me what I knew about Communism, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you much. But I would’ve probably mentioned the word Communism in the same sentence with Bert the Turtle and those duck and cover drills I used to do with my fellow third graders at Old Richmond Elementary School. And, if pressed, I might’ve claimed that Communism had something to do with Russia, right, and wasn’t that where Mikhail Gorbachev lived? You know, the guy who spoke gibberish and had a port-wine birthmark on his head?
That I would have known next to nothing about Gorbachev, including how to properly pronounce his name, did not matter because every American—even baseball-obsessed, school-averse third graders—knew that Gorbachev, like all Communists, was bad. Communists: bad; Americans: good.
Cut to three decades later. Now, I know considerably more about Communism, all of which I would have learned secondhand by reading books.
But what I can’t tell you about is the fear and loathing of Communism.
And I certainly can’t tell you what it felt like to be afraid—viscerally, palpably, genuinely terrified—of the Soviet Union launching a nuclear attack on the United States. Because thirty years ago whenever good ole Bert the Turtle instructed me to “duck and cover,” I knelt down under my desk with a smirk on my face and a near-empty head, my only thought being whether Mom had packed a Kit-Kat bar in my lunch that day.
So last week I was rummaging through the filing cabinets in our cavernous records room when I noticed the unlabeled spine of a black three ring binder, the corner of which was poking up like a small rodent checking for a swooping hawk. Curious, I fished out the binder, no easy feat given the overburdened filing cabinet, and as I brought it closer for inspection, a copy of a Western Union telegram from 1962 fell out:
Sen. Strom Thurmond
We appreciate your good work
Keep on investigating and castigating
We want the subversives out
Darlington Operation Alert
The word subversives made me think of Communism and Russia, which made me think of ducking under my desk in Mrs. Redmond’s class back at Old Richmond Elementary. But Senator Strum Thurmond? That name made me think of my father whose voice I heard inside my head reminding me that Thurmond was a segregationist. Standing in two-thousand square feet of filing cabinets filled with history, I imagined that my old man—a diehard Liberal, a Vietnam Vet, a man I respect and admire—would’ve been so disgusted he might’ve thrown the telegram into the trashcan.
Me, I was just hungry for a story. The words “investigating” and “castigating” (I had to look that one up) danced through my head, and I, three ring binder in hand, hurried downstairs to my office to learn more about Darlington Operation Alert.
In addition to the Senator Thurmond telegram and some newspaper clippings, one of which stating that Darlington Operation Alert was “a group of local citizens dedicated to promoting good Americanism and fighting Communism,” I found the organization’s minutes, which were incomplete.
After I’d given these documents what could generously be called a cursory glance, I formed a granite-hard opinion on the types of people who would want to spend their free time promoting “good Americanism.” As is my habit, I’d formed an image to accompany the group, too: a dimly-lit backroom, where white men in short sleeves and neckties bandied words like pinko and red and agitator about while smoking Chesterfields and pounding their fists on tables.
But then a voice inside my head said to take a second look at the material in the three ring binder. “Only this time,” the voice instructed me, “valet park the High Horse.”
And so, yellow highlighter in hand, I read the minutes.
On Thursday, August 31, 1961, the initial meeting was nothing more than a group of “extremely enthusiastic. . .leaders” gathering to discuss the possibility of starting an Operation Alert Program in Darlington. These leaders, fronted by Marion Anderson of the Cultural and Educational Committee of the Chamber of Commerce, wanted to determine the “purpose” of their club. Pretty standard. I did, however, take note that Annalee B. Wilcox, the Acting-Secretary, made mention of J. Edgar Hoover’s book on Communism entitled Masters of Deceit.
On September 21, the group declared its “. . .plans for education of Darlington.” Under the heading of “Suggested Projects,” I read the following entries, obviously aimed at children: “Educational material in St. John’s libraries”; “programs at churches on Sunday afternoon.”
On November 30, one of the sub-committees summarized a campaign to write “. . .Letters to magazines protesting subversive material.” This gave me pause. Were they messing with freedom of speech, I thought. Is that what they meant by “good Americanism?”
Gripping my highlighter a little too tightly, I read on.
On December 28, the group announced that “comic books on Communism” were “being purchased” for “our young folks.”
On January 25, 1962, acting on a suggestion by one the members, a telegram was sent to Senator Strom Thurmond proclaiming, “We want the subversives out.” During the same meeting, Mr. Max Harrison launched a campaign to sale American flags to as many businesses in Darlington as possible.
On February 6, 1962, Operation Alert sent a letter to the Superintendent of Schools asking for permission to distribute an “Information Survey” for parents of children at St. John’s Elementary and Pate Elementary Schools. Then, on March 24, a report on the results of the “Information Survey” was given: “536 parents wish to see ‘Operation Abolition’. . .Many interesting comments. . .school authorities were most cooperative.” I found a copy of the survey and read it carefully. There were twelve questions total, most of them asking if one had or had not seen anti-Communist films like Operation Abolition, if one had or had not read Decline of the American Republic. Question number eleven: Do you own an American flag?
The minutes for the April 26th meeting were incomplete. The last lines, written in Annalee B. Wilcox’s slanting cursive, read as follows: “The film ‘Operation Abolition’ was shown. The Reverend Cecil Cave introduced the film.” The minutes of this meeting took up a quarter of a page, yet I read them repeatedly, while butterflies fluttered in my stomach and questions swarmed my brain. Such as: Is the group in turmoil?
According to our records here at the Commission, the last meeting of Darlington Operation Alert took place on May 24, 1962. At that meeting, the Board of Directors decided to meet “and decide where to go from here. . .since so few were present.” A suggestion was made that the group “serve cokes or ice-cream free to attract crowds to our meetings,” and toward the bottom of the page, Mr. Anderson decided to “call an election to replace Mr. Gay who resigned as president.” I knew that low attendance and replacing presidents were not good signs; the group was dying.
But when I turned the page and discovered that there were no more minutes for the Darlington Operation Alert, my mood darkened, and I couldn’t figure out why. This group, whose views I disagree with, had apparently dissolved, and yet I was sad. The only question was, why? Why did I, a staunch proponent of freedom of speech even for “subversives,” care that this group disappeared some fifty-five years ago? Why?
I wrote that last paragraph four days ago. For four days, I’ve been reading over the minutes for Darlington Operation Alert, trying to figure out why I cared that the group had disbanded. Here’s what I came up with: a majority of the group’s efforts were centered on education. Distributing anti-Communist literature and showing anti-Communist films seemed to be the group’s primary focus. However, it goes deeper than that. This group was attempting to safeguard a cherished way of life; this group was trying to protect its citizens from the dreaded Hammer and Sickle; this group was, like the Communists they were fighting, looking to win the hearts and minds of all Americans, especially children. Being a father myself, I can respect that because I, too, want my son to live in a safe and peaceful world.
Bottom line, for me, the reason why groups like Darlington Operation Alert are worth remembering is not for their failures or successes; they’re worth remembering because they existed, and, whether you agree or disagree with their beliefs, they actually stood for something. What could be more American than that?