By George Morris
In 1943, with World War II in the middle of its fury, Louisiana’s National Guard had been called into active Army service.
As necessary as a militia can be in peacetime, the Guard’s absence was especially acute in a state whose ports and refineries were vital cogs in the homefront war machine.
So, when Gov. Sam Jones announced the formation of the Louisiana State Guard, a force to fill the National Guard’s mission in its absence, little recruiting needed to be done, even though the State Guard would serve without pay.
“It was still one of those times where you had all of the motivation,” said JoPaul Steiner, who joined. “You wanted to serve your country. You wanted to do anything you could.”
Little did they know at the time what that would mean.
For the more than 100 Baton Rougeans who joined other Louisianians as volunteers, their only noteworthy service would not be in quelling riots or protecting petrochemical industries from enemy attack. Rather, the State Guard would be used in one of the strangest political episodes in the history of a state notorious for them.
It was the invasion of Plaquemines Parish, a bloodless climax to a feud between a reform governor, a political strongman, two would-be sheriffs, a district court judge, the state Supreme Court — with several hundred citizen soldiers thrown right in the middle.
“It’s just strange looking back, because at that time it was very serious,” said Steiner. “But in retrospect it was Moe, Curly and Larry.”
There was no reason to believe it would be so initially. The State Guard volunteers were issued regulation Army uniforms; many received guns. The Baton Rouge companies trained every Monday night at the old Community Club on Ninth Street, and any member not in attendance without a suitable excuse was considered AWOL. Drills were held on the Old State Capitol grounds. For two weeks in the summer, they would train with regular Army personnel at military camps in central Louisiana.
Those who joined did so with the most patriotic of motives. Many had tried to join the armed forces, only to be turned down because of age or medical reasons. All the while, the nation’s focus was on the war effort.
“Rather than just sit home and do nothing, we felt like maybe this is what little we can do,” said Ray Cavell.
All the while, there was brewing a different kind of war than that for which they prepared – a political battle that caused no deaths, although it began with one.
When Plaquemines Parish Sheriff L.D. Dauterive died on June 1, 1943, Jones appointed Walter J. Blaize to fill Dauterive’s unexpired term, which had about a year to run. This, however, did not sit well with Plaquemines District Attorney Leander Perez.
Jones became governor in 1940 promising to reform state government of the machine politics abuses of Huey Long and his successors, O.K. Allen and Richard Leche. Perez, a Long ally whose rule over Louisiana’s southernmost parish was absolute, wanted none of Jones’ reforms and was his political enemy.
Instead, Perez placed Plaquemines coroner Ben Slater in the job,and Blaize was not allowed to take office at the courthouse in Pointe a la Hache — or even enter it. Armed deputies barricaded the courthouse after reports that State Guard units had been mobilized on June 8; the mobilization turned out to be a drill.
Jones took the issue to state courts, which ruled he had the legal right to appoint the sheriff, but Perez was able to delay a final state Supreme Court ruling until Oct. 5. Still, Slater refused to give up his office and the courthouse remained barricaded.
As tensions heightened, both sides seemed determined not to give in. Armed deputies were stopping cars entering Plaquemines Parish at Braithwaite and making occupants produce identification before allowing them to continue. The courthouse bristled with guns.
“They (the State Guard) will have to blow us off the map of Louisiana to get in here,” Joe Carpiello, one of the sheriff’s deputies, told reporters.
On Oct. 7, five State Guard units, including both Baton Rouge units, were ordered to Camp Pontchartrain in New Orleans. But guardsmen who hadn’t paid attention to the tug-of-war between Jones and Perez didn’t realize what was going on.
“We just thought we were going to a bivouac in New Orleans, but when we got down there, there was (the Guard unit from) Lake Charles and there was Hammond and New Orleans,” said Stanley Trigg. “It grew from this little company we had to all these companies.”
On Oct. 9, about 500 State Guardsmen in a convoy of 31 trucks and other military vehicles drove through New Orleans onto La. 39,heading south along the east bank of the Mississippi River. It was an impressive looking force, but looks were deceiving.
“I never had a weapon in my hand until — you talk about a farce — I went down to Plaquemines and they gave me a shotgun,” said Paul Jastram. “I’d never had a weapon in my hand the whole year. … I had somebody to load it for me. I thought that was the smart thing to do. I recall guns going off in the air. I think there were a lot of fellows who didn’t know what they were doing, either.”
That didn’t stop them, though. When they reached Braithwaite, three Plaquemines deputies tried to halt the convoy and serve copies of a state district court order restraining the troops from entering the parish. The deputies were arrested and the convoy moved on.
About 10 miles later at Promised Land, the convoy was stalled by trucks that were parked across the highway, with about two dozen armed men guarding the barricade. There, press accounts of the day reported three wild shots being fired as the guardsmen approached.
The guardsmen jumped out of their trucks and took cover along the road. Cavell said he and a friend, Gabe Levy, ended up alongside each other in a graveyard.
“Gabe said, ‘Thank God I’m in here. They’d never look for a Jew in a Catholic cemetery,'” Cavell said.
As it turned out, those three shots were the only ones fired by one side at the other. By the time the State Guard reached the barricade, it had been abandoned.
“Those country boys wouldn’t have missed us if they wanted to (kill someone),” Cavell said. “It was just a show of intimidation; that’s the way I interpreted it.”
“They were scared,” Trigg said.
“And we were more scareder,” Cavell interjected.
Once the trucks were moved off the road, the convoy proceeded unmolested until about a mile from Pointe a la Hache. The Perez supporters’ last line of defense was a pile of oyster shells soaked in combustible fluid. The pile stretched across the highway to swamps on both sides, and when the State Guard appeared, it was set ablaze.
The convoy, led by armored vehicles, plowed through the flaming shells.
“You’re young. You’re going to live forever,” said Trigg, who was driving a troop truck near the front of the convoy. “That’s the reason they have young soldiers, young pilots, young submarine people. You think you’re going to live forever, and I thought it was a thrill and you had a vehicle that would go, quote, anywhere. I remember shifting it into six-wheel drive and low transfer case, and at that speed — probably 6 to 8 mph was top speed — heck, that vehicle would climb this wall if it couldn’t go through it.”
“The adrenaline was flowing,” Steiner said. “We weren’t afraid of anything. We didn’t know what we’d do when we got there, but the adrenaline was flowing.”
The adrenaline seemed to be flowing out of Pointe a la Hache. As the State Guard neared the parish seat, the number of men guarding the courthouse began to dwindle. A rumor spread that it was the regular Army, not the State Guard, on the way.
The New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that Perez, dressed in hunting clothes, left the courthouse shortly before the State Guard arrived, taking the ferry across the river. Arms and records also were moved out.
One of the few left in the courthouse when the guardsmen arrived was Slater himself.
“When they went in and asked him to vacate his seat, he said, ‘I don’t intend to,'” Cavell said. “So, they went over and picked his chair up. He was sitting in the chair and they walked him out.”
Blaize immediately entered the courthouse accompanied by troops and was installed as sheriff. Martial law was declared, and that, for all intents and purposes, was that. The State Guard surrounded the courthouse, just in case Perez tried to make a comeback by force. He didn’t.
It didn’t take long for boredom to set in. Steiner said he found three cobweb-covered bottles of Scotch at a local store and bought them. Guardsmen, most of whom set up camp outside the courthouse, played cards and tried to pass the time in the small town.
“We took over the prison, and they had a prisoner who was supposed to be executed the next day or that week,” said Cavell, who was Gen. Porter’s clerk. “They were in a quandary as to what the hell to do with him. If I remember correctly, they said they’d just indefinitely postpone the execution and they would hold him there.”
“I think we offered to shoot him for them, because we had finished those three bottles of Scotch,” Steiner said.
The only gunfire would be target practice with 30-caliber machine guns. Targets were set up at the Mississippi River levee. The gunners’ accuracy wasn’t very good.
“No one even hit the levee,” Steiner said. “That’s bad. The levee’s pretty damn high, and if you can’t hit the levee with a machine gun…The safest place for anybody to stand was by the target.”
“It was just a group of greenhorns teaching greenhorns,” Trigg said.
In a couple of days, most of those greenhorns were headed back home, many of them sunburned and mosquito-bitten and still not quite sure what they’d been involved in. After a few weeks, only a token force remained to enforce the martial law, which was lifted on May 5, 1944, just two weeks before Blaize’s term as sheriff ended.
The incident would have little lasting impact. In Plaquemines Parish, Perez continued to dominate political life until his death in 1969. Jones would successfully institute many reforms, but he would not be re-elected.
As for the State Guard, it would never again be called to duty. The guardsmen would return to full-time civilian status with the National Guard’s return at war’s end, and their service would soon be forgotten by those not involved.
In fact, even on Cavell’s, Jastram’s, Steiner’s and Trigg’s discharge papers, where space is provided to list any “battles,engagements, skirmishes or expeditions,” the Plaquemines affair is not mentioned.
For those who were there, though, the memory remains.
“Of course, looking back it is funny,” Steiner said. “But then we were pretty serious.”