By R. McCann #119 Retired
(this story was written on April 29, 1984 and is unedited from its original writing)
The riot started at the Alhambra Bar located on the northwest corner of 13th street and Washington.
Phoenix was a bustling, growing town with a population of 50,000 to 55,000. Military personnel frequented the city from nearby bases. The bases were Luke Field, Williams Field, Falcon Field and the prisoner of war camp at Papago Park. Violations of civil law and military violations were basically controlled by the Military Police, with the assistance of the Phoenix Police. Arrested military personnel w3ere placed in the city jail pending transfer to the Luke Field detention facility. Trails were held in a military court.
Cities having an influx of military personnel experienced a rise in the following crimes: gambling, liquor law violations, drug sales, prostitution and robberies. Prostitution was the cause of the Thanksgiving Day riot.
The prisoner of war camp at Papago Park for interned German submarine personnel was controlled by a cavalry unit commanded by white officers with black enlisted men. The officers were intimidated by their subordinates and lost all control of the unit. The Military Police selected from within their own ranks controlled all the vices and illegal activities in the city.
The situation became uncontrollable so the command in Washington, D.C., assigned a regular Military Police unit, stationing them at the Fairgrounds. This unit was commanded by white officers and black enlisted men. The Fairgrounds Police were no better than the Papago Park Police, so crimes still ran rampant. Friction between the two units was near the explosion point when the violence occurred at the Alhambra Bar on Thanksgiving night, 1944.
At approximately 11:00 p.m., a Fairgrounds military policeman shot a Papago Park soldier over the affections of a prostitute and a real brawl erupted. A Master Sergeant from Papago Park ordered all his men to the Papago arsenal, at which time he issued weapons and ammunition. They all returned to town and a young shooting war began.
The late Phoenix Police Chief Don Steward, along with Military Provost Marshall, First Lieutenant and his Second Lieutenant, were pinned down by machine gun fire at 15th Street and Jefferson. The Second Lieutenant was shot and killed. The Police Chief and First Lieutenant were unable to move for several hours. Veteran reporter Gene McLaine, then a curious cub police reporter, arrived at 16th street and Washington. The sole was shot off one of his shoes, and he was seen running east with his coattails standing straight out. He later said, “I stopped at Martin’s gas station at 18th street and Van Buren”.
Officer Leon Thompson was walking his beat at 16th Street and Washington and walked down to 16th Street and Jefferson where he was pinned down in the middle of the street by machine gun fire. (He later retired and became a state legislator.) He had to lie there and play dead for four hours. The only police department injury was the late George Haines, who had a little toe shot off.
There were no news releases on how many lives were lost, but the grapevine report placed the figure at 19. This included civilians killed in their homes and on the streets.
Between 11:00 p.m. Thanksgiving night and 2:00 p.m. the next afternoon over 200 soldiers were booked into the city jail.
There were still armed military personnel AWOL from Papago Park, so the four top corners of the City Hall were staffed by 30 caliber water-cooled machine gun crews. Half-track vehicles with 50 caliber machine guns patrolled the downtown area along with gun crews manning 30 caliber machine guns patrolling in Jeeps. This show of fire power lasted about a week until all military prisoners were transferred out of the city jail.
The military people involved were tried in military court and sent to federal prisons.
The Alhambra Bar has had its share of violent crimes and murders and about any other unlawful act committed on its premises. Just before the bar was closed and the building torn down in 1983, Ray’s Café at the back of the building had a fatal shooting.
This brick from the bar could tell a lot of wild stories and solve a lot of crimes, and also tell stories of some good wild, fun times. The Thanksgiving Riot of 1944 was the Alhambra’s height of unlawfulness.
This story is as true to fact as I can remember after happening 40 years ago this coming Thanksgiving. I was walking a downtown beat and was picked up by the downtown paddy wagon and assigned to the city jail. Another officer and myself searched all 200 people arrested during the next 15 hours. It was quite a night!