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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with George A. LeMaistre, April 29, 1985. Interview A-0358. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Poorly organized naval defense in New Orleans

LeMaistre, who spent time in naval intelligence, describes how poorly defended New Orleans was during World War II. Poor intelligence complemented poor defense: he learned about German activity from commercial tanker captains and about Japan from an issue of <cite>Fortune</cite> magazine. As they built a library of information, LeMaistre and his fellow sailors worked closely with the FBI, despite the self-aggrandizing influence of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with George A. LeMaistre, April 29, 1985. Interview A-0358. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

ALLEN J. GOING:
What kind of significant or insignificant experiences would the Navy—would you like to get on record?
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
[laugh] Some of the stories really don't bear repeating.
ALLEN J. GOING:
[laugh] At least not for the public record.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
Actually I was in New Orleans for about a year and two months in Naval Intelligence. And it was a right interesting experience. I don't know if I've told you or not, but the most dangerous work I did during the war was in New Orleans. I was in two or three invasions, but none of them was as difficult as the work down there. And most people really don't know yet the extent of the submarine warfare in the Gulf.
ALLEN J. GOING:
I remember you mentioning that once before.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
We started losing ships to a submarine which we thought was German—turned out to be Italian—in February of 1942, which was really about a month and a half after all of us had reported down there. The alarming state of the defenses of the United States was really shocking. I would never have believed if anybody had told me how poorly defended we were. Mexico could have invaded New Orleans. We had one 75 mm. gun at the Burrwood Section Base, which is 105 miles south of New Orleans on the river, where the river runs into the Gulf. And that gun was used to fire salutes and things like that. It was not used for defense. There wasn't another weapon between there and Algiers Section Base in New Orleans, and the number of boats that the Navy had was practically zero. The Army had many more boats than we did. They used them in rescues for Army aircraft, and that sort of thing. Of course, the Navy had the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, and they had a naval training station out on the Lake. [Pontchartrain]
ALLEN J. GOING:
But New Orleans was a major . . .
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
There was a Navy base out on the Lake where they trained, and the Algiers Navy base was a base where supply ships and things like that would come in and load up but there were not any armored vessels over there. Immediately when the war started they were extremely busy putting guns on merchant ships. But in the first six weeks I was down there we set up a system of travel control where our officers had to board every ship that came into the port of New Orleans, and interrogate the captain to find out where he had been. In fact, one of those early ships, I remember, was a Swedish vessel called the Temnaren. It had just come out of the Baltic after going up between Russia and Finland, taking on a load of timber, and they brought it down and discharged it some place in Holland or somewhere like that and then came around with another cargo for New Orleans, and came over here to load sugar or something of that sort. And we got more information about where various vessels were, where the Germans were basing their pocket battleships, and things like that, just from talking with those skippers who were not involved in the war at all.
ALLEN J. GOING:
Just observing.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
This man from Sweden remembered having seen the Scharnhorst and several others, but they were heading in to the place where they were based. That was material that we didn't have. Our intelligence was really pathetic.
ALLEN J. GOING:
I guess there had not been much intelligence operations developed prior to when we got into the war.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
The best information we had about the nation of Japan was an issue of Fortune magazine which was devoted to the country of Japan early in the year before the war started. That was about as much information as we had about it.
ALLEN J. GOING:
A stark contrast from the way it grew in the war years—well it expanded into the CIA and military intelligence. I guess there wasn't much there.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
It was a matter of taking a lot of time to get all that information together.
ALLEN J. GOING:
That's mainly what you all were doing.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
And then we would try to recruit some people. One of the first things we did was to take on a number of old FBI agents, who had either gotten out of the service or had transferred out of the bureau—something of that sort. People who really had something to give to the Navy. They were extremely helpful in setting up the interrogation and examination procedures. I would say that our relationship with the FBI was not always real good. The FBI would do anything in the world for you if they got all the credit.
ALLEN J. GOING:
They reflected J. Edgar Hoover.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
That's right. They were just an elongation of the shadow of J. Edgar Hoover, and that's the way he thought. One of the amusing things that happened was they caught a big gangster, Alvin Karpis, in New Orleans right at the beginning of the war, and Hoover flew down from Washington to make the arrest.
ALLEN J. GOING:
I remember that vaguely.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
They blocked off Jefferson Avenue, the big boulevard that goes out to the lake. Canal Boulevard, I guess it is, or Jefferson Boulevard—one of those—anyway, it was a fourlane with a median in the middle. They blocked it off for about three blocks. They had about 60 FBI agents. They had about 50 deputy sheriffs. They had policemen everywhere around there surrounding this apartment house where Karpis had been spotted. And he came walking out of the house—he must have been stupid, because anybody could see there was no traffic out there, he must have known something was wrong, because they turned every car off that was coming that way. Hoover jumps out of the car and calls him by name and tells him to freeze.
ALLEN J. GOING:
Did they have movie cameras?
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
Oh, they had everything. The newsreel was there and everything. But when they got him under arrest—he didn't resist or anything—they said put the cuffs on him, and out of 165 [laugh] officers, not a single pair of handcuffs was to be found. They had to tie Alvin Karpis's hands together with a necktie to take him to jail. But at any rate the FBI office in New Orleans and the Naval Intelligence worked very closely together. People who ran that office over there were extremely helpful.