The rest of the people in Canada never did hear about the zoot suit riots of 1944 in Montreal, but that was a vicious night, I’ll tell you.
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For most of my time, I was ashore in the food victualling depot [food supply storage] in Montreal, which was an interesting place because when I arrived in Montreal, I told I was for the food depot and they said, however, it is not open yet, but you’re to go over to Atwater Street to this building and you and a crew, and your job is to clean it up, ready to receive food. Well, when I got over to this building, the navy had rented what had been a repair depot for Mack trucks. So here it was an old truck garage which was full of grease and everything else; and we had to get busy and scrub this place down from top to bottom and it took us about a week of scrubbing to get the grease off the cement. And then the shipwrights [ship builders] came in and built up the partitions for the different storerooms where we stored sugar and flour. We had a big built-in refrigerator there and we had a butcher who butchered the meat right there.
We didn’t live in barracks, we lived out on lodge and comp [lodging and compensation: responsible for finding rental accommodations], ‘scrounge and lounge’ as we called it in those days, for which we got $65 a month to live out on the economy. Just below where we lived on Mountain Street was a place called the Navy House; and this was a large house that had been taken over by a bunch of women who called themselves friends of the navy and they set up a place where we could get breakfast and lunch in this place at very reasonable prices. And you would be able to buy a meal ticket there and get our breakfast and lunches and our evening meal, we’d have to go to a restaurant or something.
But this Navy House also used to provide entertainment. And certain days of the week, when we knew there was going to be lunch entertainment, we made sure we were there to take in the entertainment. And I remember one time, there was this large young Negro fellow came in there to play the piano for us. And he was a big fellow and he came in, and he used to play the piano for us and didn’t take much notice of this chap at the time. But it was Oscar Peterson. And he was just getting started in those days. He used to play around Montreal for about $10 a night and the gigs, but he used to come every Wednesday and noon hour, he’d play at the Navy House Canteen for us. And so I knew Oscar Peterson in his younger days.
Down the east end of Montreal, the navy had a big Manning Depot [naval service headquarters] there across on an island in the St. Lawrence River. And our personnel were getting roughed up by a bunch of east enders, civilians and zoot suiters [young men wearing oversized, highly stylized suits] in Montreal. And on one Saturday night in the summer of 1944, one of our petty officers and his wife was going back over the Jacques Cartier Bridge, back to the base, when they were roughed up by some of these zoot suiters. And when he got back, he reported this to the duty officer, who in turn reported it to the CO [commanding officer] and the CO had had enough of these zoot suiters. So he ordered all the personnel on the base to go out and clean up the streets of Montreal. And they started out in the east end and worked their way right up the main street of Montreal, and anybody in a zoot suit, the navy were stripping them of their zoot suits and everything else.
And there was quite a riot going on; and as I’m walking from the old lower part of Montreal up to my digs on Mountain Street, a policeman stopped me and he said, where have you come from? And he happened to be English-speaking police man and I said, oh, I’ve been out in Saint-Michel, why, what’s up? He said, well, you don’t know about the riots going on? I said, what riots? He said, well, your navy is cleaning up the streets of all zoot suiters. I said, oh my goodness.
Anyways, he said, you get on back to your quarters. And he said, don’t stop, go on. So I’m going up the street to my quarters and just as I arrived, a navy truck drew up and they called to me and called me aboard the truck and put an armband, navy police armband on me and give me a tin helmet and a pick axe; and out I was with a truckload of sailors on patrol, trying to, we were supposed to be shore patrol, trying to stop these fights. And the first place we got to where there was a bunch of zoot suiters, as I came down off the truck, I sort of slipped and I dropped my pick axe and one of these guys had picked up my pick up, one of these zoot suiters, and hit me over the head with it. Luckily, I was wearing a steel helmet, but it pushed it down over my ears, I couldn’t get it off for a few minutes. The next thing I know I heard this guy yelling away and screaming, the fellow behind me had whacked this civilian right across the mouth with his pick axe and sent him flying. And it turned out that this navy chap, he’d been a survivor off one of our ships that had been torpedoed. So he had no love for these zoot suiters at all. But that was a big riot in Montreal on a Saturday night in the summer of, it was in August, I think, of 1944. And do you know, that never got in the press anywhere.
And navy, all service personnel were banned from Montreal for a week. And the only reason we were allowed out was because we were working right there, but we went to work in the morning and then at night, we had to come back right to our quarters. We weren’t allowed to go out at night or anything else for nearly a week.
And those riots actually spread to the suburbs. At one place, they had a bunch of zoot suiters corralled in a bandstand and they were going to burn the bandstand down. This was how bad it was getting. And one of our navy chaps, standing waiting for a bus, was arrested by the Montreal police for no reason at all. They just arrested him. And we had a warrant officer in charge of the navy shore patrol in Montreal at the time, and somebody had reported this to him. So he went to the police station and he said, release that man and they weren’t going to release him. And they had no charge against, he hadn’t done anything, he was waiting to catch a bus. And it was the warrant office said, right, if that man isn’t appearing before me in five minutes, he says, I’m declaring martial law, which meant the Montreal police would be under the navy shore patrol. That was the last thing they wanted. So, boy, in less than five minutes, our man was released from jail and that was it. But that whole thing was all hushed up. The rest of the people in Canada never did hear about the zoot suit riots of 1944 in Montreal, but that was a vicious night, I’ll tell you.