Joel Walker, educational specialist for the National Archives at Atlanta, explains some of the items in the archives upcoming exhibit on the Southern homefront during World War II. The exhibit opens Tuesday. (Staff Photo: Curt Yeomans)
MORROW — J.H. Tucker was standing on a dock on the St. Johns River in Jacksonville, Fla., on May 25, 1943, when he noticed something out of the ordinary.
It was just after noon and Tucker, captain of a dredge working on the river, had his attention captured by a curious object floating in the water. It was a bottle. It could have seemed like a piece of garbage someone carelessly tossed into the river.
Tucker leaned over, fished the bottle out of the water and that’s when he found something startling.
A message. In a bottle.
As Tucker read the note, he realized it was a distress message.
“Ship went down Jan. 7 - 43, (Japanese) sub hit us at 6:15 p.m.,” the note stated.
It was signed by “Frank kmolen.” Tucker immediately called up the Federal Bureau of Investigation to report what he’d found, according to a confidential report typed up May 27, 1943 by Sixth Naval Command officials. A note on the side of the report reveals a another mystery.
The name of the note’s purported author is underlined and a handwritten notification on the side of the report reads “Files negative 5/28/43.”
Seventy years later, National Archives at Atlanta Educational Specialist Joel Walker said there are still questions about the note that remain unanswered.
“It could have been a hoax because it doesn’t make sense,” said Walker. “What would the Japanese be doing in the Atlantic? Then again, the ocean does have strange currents so I guess anything is possible.”
The note and the report are part of a new exhibit the archives will open to the public Tuesday, titled “We’ll Back Our Boys: Southern Homefront During World War II.” The exhibit, which will remain open until Nov. 1, features items found only in the National Archives at Atlanta’s holdings.
“These are just a sample of what we have,” said Walker. “We calculate or estimate that we have 7,500 cubic feet of World War II homefront records. Every so often, you’ll find an oddball one like a map of Normandy, or in the Sixth Naval District out of Charleston, we have a report on the two-man subs that were found at Pearl Harbor after Dec. 7, 1941.”
World War II-related records are believed to account for 5 percent of the National Archives of Atlanta’s holdings, and they tell interesting and surprising tales about the South during the war.
Among the holdings are several posters from the era. One such poster shows a black man and a white man working side by side at a munitions plant in Alabama at a time when segregation was commonplace in the South.
Walker said it reveals more about the region than people tend to think when they look at that time period.
“It could have been staged, but even if it was staged, it shows someone was consciously thinking about it,” he said.
The exhibit ties into a symposium the archives will hold Sept. 21 on the topic. Scholars from a lost list of Southern universities, including Emory, Georgia State, Georgia Southern, Kennesaw State, Clayton State, Clemson, South Carolina, Florida State, Mississippi State and Auburn, are expected to attend.
The symposium builds off the success another World War II-era symposium the archives held last year on secret testing done at Oak Ridge, Tenn. Future symposiums are expected to look at atomic testing in the South, the Cold War and World War I.
“This has been a year-long initiative of digging into our records, resulting in the symposium and the exhibit that goes along with it,” said Walker.
To register for the symposium, call Walker at 770-968-2530 or log onto www.archives.gov/atlanta/wwii-symposium. The archives is at 5780 Jonesboro Road in Morrow.