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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Alexander M. Rivera, November 30, 2001. Interview C-0297. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Recruitment and work as a naval intelligence officer during WWII

Rivera describes his work in naval intelligence during World War II. He describes how he was recruited for the job under the guise of arrest and how he helped to keep surveillance of sailors stationed in Norfolk, Virginia. His comments are revealing of one way in which African Americans participated in the war effort beyond the typical discriminatory positions they held in the military at that time. At the same time, the way in which he describes his recruitment is also illustrative of discriminatory practices in the military at that time.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Alexander M. Rivera, November 30, 2001. Interview C-0297. 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

In the war I was in naval intelligence. I was at Norfolk, worked out of Norfolk. This was '45-46.
KIERAN TAYLOR:
Okay so this was after. So shortly after you graduated then you went into Naval intelligence.
ALEXANDER RIVERA:
The war was on. I went, shortly after I left here Dr. Shepard and I were always fussing and fighting about something. I fell out with him about something. I don't know what it was. It may be inconsequential but - . The Norfolk Journal Guide newspaper heard that we were having difficulty. So they offered me a job. So I was in Norfolk. This was during the war 19 - see I graduated in '41. Early I went to work for The Journal Guide newspaper in Norfolk. It wasn't any time before the Navy interviewed me for a job with Naval Intelligence. So I worked with them until the war was over.
KIERAN TAYLOR:
What kind of work did you do for Naval intelligence? Was it journalism?
ALEXANDER RIVERA:
No. Intelligence. See I had a, I was a commander class. It was captain, captain class, but I was arrested one day and carried to the police station. In the back of the police station were these Navy officers. As soon as I walked in one of them says, shook his head and said, 'No, no, no. He won't do. He won't do.' I said, 'Now just a minute.' I said, 'This is - I've been arrested here and brought up by the police department. Now you said I won't do. I won't do for what. Was is this about?' So they explained to me that they were looking for a nondescript Negro that they wanted for Naval intelligence. To stay out of it, because I had already passed - . I was ready to go into the service, and I knew it was just a matter of days before I would go into most anything. So I said Naval intelligence. You're talking about these clothes I've got on. I said, 'They're not tattooed on. These come off. All this comes off.' I said, 'I can be nondescript in ten minutes.' The guy says, 'Sit down there. Let's talk about this.' So we sat down and started talking and he found out that aside from being a reporter I had two years of law. I had taken two years of law in Washington at night while I was working. I was going to Terrell Law School. It's a night law school there. The reason I went was not to be a lawyer because they were the poorest, black lawyers are the poorest people on earth. I was going, I was taking the law to understand court reporting. So I would go in court and all of sudden somebody will say something in Latin and everybody would ( ). I needed to take some law. So I took two years of law. So then they found out this, when told me, let's sit down and let's chat. They said, 'Oh yeah. You've finished school. You have law. You're not a lawyer, but you've gone to law school. Captain Gray spoke up. He said, 'Well I'm not going to say yes or no today. I'm going to think about it a little bit.' He said, 'But I'll call you.' I said sure. I was rooming with a woman, in a rooming house there. She said to me, she says, 'Now what have you done? What's the police say?' I said, 'Not a thing.' But I couldn't tell her. I said, 'Not a thing. I haven't done a thing.' She said, 'You must have because the police came by and locked you up.' I said, 'Do you see I'm not locked up.' She was there with her. She lived with daughters. I was the only man in the house. So she said, 'Now I'm here by myself. If you're doing something, you let me know now.' I said, 'No Miss Hudson. I'm not doing anything at all.' So I said, 'It was all a mistake. All a mistake.' She said, 'Well okay.' I said - they came by looking for me and asked her if they knew me. So she looked at them she said, 'I don't know if I do or not. I don't know if I do.' She said, 'You know my daughters take care of all my business.' She looks at him hemming and hawing. She was saying that her mind wasn't but so good. She was giving all kinds of reasons not to know me, give me a chance to move out. So then I went to work for the, in the Office of Naval Intelligence.
KIERAN TAYLOR:
But that's how they recruited is they went around and arrested people, took them in and did an interrogation.
ALEXANDER RIVERA:
Well you see, across from the police office, police department there was a theatre, right across the street a theatre. The girl who took up tickets saw everybody who went in the police department. She saw them take me into the police department. By the time I got out of the police department it was all over town that I'd been arrested because she sat up there with a phone and she can call everybody in town and tell them I was arrested. I wasn't supposed to tell anybody. They had some others in the Army, the G2. Their secret service was called G2. We were just called Naval intelligence. But we weren't supposed to know each other, but we got a chance to know most of each other.
KIERAN TAYLOR:
Did you ship out?
ALEXANDER RIVERA:
No, I stayed in Norfolk.
KIERAN TAYLOR:
You stayed in Norfolk.
ALEXANDER RIVERA:
We went as far as Richmond, Virginia. I worked in Virginia.
KIERAN TAYLOR:
What kind of work were you doing with intelligence?
ALEXANDER RIVERA:
Trying to find out if anybody was talking or saying anything. I got a job with a night club photographing sailors with the girls sitting all on their laps. They had the expression loose lips sink ships. I was finding out where they had a house of prostitution. I worked several houses of prostitution, several houses. It was our job to find out if they were any, if these sailors were talking because they didn't know how much the girls would tell about ship movement.
KIERAN TAYLOR:
Sure. Did you ever find any kind of incidents of spying or at least any incidents of sailors who were loose with the tongues -
ALEXANDER RIVERA:
Well, we were, we were like that but no specifics. We would get a general way they were talking too much. You see at the night club they were drinking whiskey. A girl sitting in your lap and they would say most anything. But most places were being watched and I didn't have any -