In this episode, we’ll learn about historical events that happened this week in history as they were depicted in Watchmen, Harriet and Midway.
Did you enjoy this episode? Help support the next one!
Disclaimer: Dan LeFebvre and/or Based on a True Story may earn commissions from qualifying purchases through our links on this page.
Note: This transcript is automatically generated. There will be mistakes, so please don’t use them for quotes. It is provided for reference use to find things better in the audio.
June 1, 1863. South Carolina.
According to some text on the screen we’re two years into the Civil War, and Cynthia Erivo’s character is giving a speech in front of a bunch of Black Union soldiers. She’s using the analogy of a snake biting you. While the doctor is there to help cut out the bite, the snake bites you in a new place. At some point, you realize the only way to stop the snake from biting you is to kill it.
We see more text on the screen letting us know this scene is at the Combahee River in South Carolina.
She continues, explaining that slavery is still alive just down the river. Our mission is to free those slaves. Then she asks the soldiers standing at attention, “You ready to kill the snake?”
Everyone answers in unison: “Yes!”
In the next shot, we see her singing a song as she and the rest of the Union soldiers float across the river on boats. On the other side is a line of trees just on the other side of an open field.
After a moment, we see a bunch of men, women, and children running out of the trees, across the field, and toward the soldiers in the boats. They reach the edge of the water and keep running, starting to swim toward the boats.
Right behind the escaping slaves are a bunch of white men carrying guns. They take aim. The camera focuses closely on Cynthia Erivo’s character again as she orders the Union soldiers to get ready to return fire. They aim their rifles and the sound of a gunshot echoes as the movie comes to a close.
This scene comes from the 2019 movie simply called Harriet about the life of Harriet Tubman. That’s Cynthia Erivo’s character. And the sequence at the end of the film depicts an event that happened this week in history when Harriet Tubman led Black Union soldiers in what we now know as the Combahee River Raid.
It didn’t really happen like we see in the movie, although I can understand their need to shorten the timeline of things since the raid could be an entire movie by itself.
At the beginning of this segment, I mentioned the date of June 1st. The movie doesn’t really explain this, but when we see Cynthia Erivo’s version of Harriet Tubman giving her motivational speech to the soldiers, talking about the slavery taking place just up the river, that happened on the night of June 1st, 1863.
Well, I don’t know if that exact speech from Tubman happened, but I’m saying that’s when it happened because it was the night of June 1st when three Union steamboats left Beaufort, South Carolina to travel up the Combahee River to where the Confederates had rice plantations.
The three ships were made up of two gunboats and a transport. On board the three ships were about 400 soldiers, most of them Black men of the 2nd South Carolina Volunteers as well as some from the 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery who would help provide artillery support from the ships.
In preparation for the mission, Harriet Tubman had gathered information that proved to be vital for successfully navigating without running into Confederate torpedoes they’d put in the river to keep Federal ships from approaching.
Tubman was, after all, a spy.
So, Tubman was there, of course, as well as the soldier leading the troops in the 2nd South Carolina Volunteers, an abolitionist named Colonel James Montgomery.
At about 3:00 AM, their ships made it to their destination about 25 miles, or 40 kilometers, from where they launched.
The first thing they did was to clear out a known Confederate position nearby. A group of soldiers disembarked near that only to find the rebels had already left. So, those soldiers met up with others who disembarked a few miles away to secure the position.
The ships moved further up the river near the plantation they knew was nearby. Then, it was time to execute the mission: Free slaves and “destroy rebel property.”
The movie was correct to show slaves running toward the river when they saw the boats and Union soldiers, although I couldn’t find anything in my research to suggest the white slave owners shot at them like we see happening in the movie. Actually, from everything I found it suggested they did the exact opposite—they ran in the other direction, away from the soldiers.
In the end, over 700 slaves were freed, thousands of dollars in Confederate property was destroyed and none of the Federal soldiers were lost.
If you want to see the event depicted on screen, check out the 2019 movie called Harriet and the Combahee River Raid starts at about an hour and 54 minutes into the movie. After you watch the movie, I had a chat with the historical consultant on the film, Dr. Kate Clifford Larson, back on episode #187 of Based on a True Story.
June 1, 1921. Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Hurried piano music plays in the background as a man on a white horse is being chased by a man on a black horse. This looks like an old Western film, but there’s no sound other than the piano music being played by someone in the theater.
Ah, that’s why there’s no noise, we can see some intertitles. That’s the dialogue and narrative text that was included in silent movies. The intertitle says, “Dontcha know who this is? Bass Reeves! The Black Marshal of Oklahoma!”
As the film continues to play, we can start to see that we’re watching this along with a little boy in a mostly empty movie theater.
The sound of wailing sirens can be heard outside.
There’s an explosion. The boy screams for his mother, who hugs him tight as the door opens on the other end of the room. Light pours into the dark theater as a man with a rifle enters. Behind him, gunshots can be heard from outside.
“It’s time to go,” he says as he hands her the gun and carries the boy.
Outside, we can see a scene of pure chaos. This is where the show tells us we’re in Tulsa in the year 1921.
Thick, black smoke is gushing out of the windows of buildings on either side of the street. We can see fire in some of the buildings, too. In the street, people are running this way and that. Some are lying in the street, motionless.
A bi-plane flies overhead and we can see a muzzle blast from a gun, shot by whoever is flying the plane. Below, a man is hit by the bullet and falls to the ground.
The family of three that we saw in the theater a moment ago, duck and weave from the gunshots as they try to make their way to safety—the father still clutching his son close.
Not all the violence is coming from the skies, either. The camera movements are fast, so it’s hard to see too many details about the people in the street, but one detail is obvious. The people being shot are Black. The attackers are white. We can see this in particular with a quick shot of four white men by a truck. Three of them are wearing white robes. The only one not in a robe is holding a gun that’s forcing three Black men with their hands in the air pressed up against the truck.
Other scenes show the brutal violence by what mostly seem to be white men—I didn’t notice any women, at least—against the Black men and women in the streets. There’s a building with the name “Williams Florist” and we can see a Black man who is on fire stumbling out of the burning building.
The camera follows the family from the theater as they try to find safety. They make it to what looks like a car shop where some others are getting into a truck to try and escape. But there’s not enough room for everyone, so the two parents decide to hide their son in the back of a truck.
This depiction seems like something from a war movie, but it comes from the 2019 superhero series on HBO called Watchmen.
The family we see the series follow aren’t real people. I don’t think they’re supposed to be, either. After all, the parents are cast as “The Mother” and “The Father.”
So, while the specifics of what we’re seeing might be dramatized, sadly, this is an event that really did happen this week in history: The Tulsa Race Massacre.
And there is a lot more to the true story that we don’t see in the series.
To be honest, even to this day, we still don’t know all the details because a lot of what happened was covered up and simply not talked about until recently—a commission from Oklahoma released an official report on February 28th, 2001. With that caveat in mind, and because this is an event that has been covered up a lot in history, let’s take a little deeper dive than we might normally do on BOATS This Week to get a better understanding of what happened.
The Watchmen series doesn’t mention a specific day, it just says the year, but at the beginning of this segment I mentioned the date of June 1st. It was a couple days before, on the morning of Monday, May 30th, 1921, that a 19-year-old Black shoe shiner named Dick Rowland entered an elevator of the Drexel Building in Tulsa. Back then there were elevator operators, and on this one it happened to be a white 17-year-old named Sarah Page.
Stories about what happened next vary. A clerk in the nearby store thought it was sexual assault. Others thought perhaps it was a lover’s quarrel. The official report from 2001 that I mentioned earlier says, “the most likely explanation is that when Rowland entered the elevator that day, he tripped and accidentally stepped on Page’s foot. And when she screamed, he fled.”
We’ll probably never know exactly what happened, but when she screamed and he ran away, the police were called.
Interestingly, some sources said that when the police did show up, Sarah Page refused to press charges against Dick Rowland, who denied doing anything wrong. Rowland was taken into custody while an investigation began by the sheriff.
The next day, on May 31st, the Tulsa Tribune, a local newspaper, was published with an article on the front page that said Rowland tried to rape Page. I won’t read the whole article here because, quite honestly, there is some blatantly racist terminology that I don’t want to repeat. Since it is historically important, though, I’ll share a link to it in the Based on a True Story Discord community if you want to see it.
To paraphrase briefly, the headline of the article was calling people to take action against Rowland for, “attacking girl in an elevator.”
In another example of how the story was covered up, some said there was an article in the paper with the headline, “To Lynch Tonight,” calling for the lynching of Rowland. Although, that was apparently ripped out of the paper before it was scanned into microfilm for posterity and thereby lost to time.
Within an hour of the paper’s 3:00 PM publish time, hundreds of white people were starting to gather outside the courthouse where Rowland was being held. They went into the courthouse at 8:20 PM and demanded Rowland be released into their custody. Law enforcement refused to do that, though.
At about 9:00 PM, a group of 25 Black men came to the courthouse and offered to help protect Rowland. They, too, were refused by law enforcement who insisted that Rowland was safe in their custody. So, the Black men went back to the nearby Tulsa district known as Greenwood.
At the time, Greenwood was one of the United States’ most prominent concentrations of Black-owned businesses, earning it the nickname “Black Wall Street.” It also was home to pretty much the entire Black population in Tulsa.
Seeing the armed Black men arrive at the courthouse enraged the white mob gathered out front, which had grown to over a thousand at this point. As far as we know, the mob wasn’t armed at the time, but when they saw the group of armed Black men that I mentioned a moment ago, many in the mob went home to get their guns or, in one instance, tried breaking into the nearby National Guard Armory to steal their guns. That didn’t work as the National Guardsmen inside threatened to shoot the group trying to break in.
That didn’t make them any happier, of course.
Meanwhile, back at the courthouse, the white mob continued to grow and was reaching 2,000 men, women, and even children at this point. The sheriff tried to convince them to break up. They didn’t listen. So, he disabled the courthouse elevators and moved Rowland to a cell at the top floor, positioning his six deputies around Rowland armed with rifles and shotguns.
News of what was happening reached Greenwood and fearing the white mob would storm the courthouse to lynch Rowland, at about 10:00 PM, another group of armed Black men made their way to the courthouse. They asked the sheriff if they could help protect Rowland, but again the sheriff refused the aid.
All hell broke loose at about 10:30 PM. As the armed Black men were going back home after the sheriff refused their help, one of the white men in the mob tried to disarm one of the Black men—the report says the Black man he tried to disarm was a World War I veteran. There was a struggle followed by a shot.
That’s how it started.
Once a shot had been fired, the white mob opened fire. Maybe law enforcement did, too, we don’t really know. The Black men fired back. A few seconds later, more than 20 people had been killed or wounded—both white and Black.
Since there were only about 75 or so Black men who had shown up to the courthouse to begin with, they knew they were vastly outnumbered by thousands in the white mob. Now that violence had broken out, they didn’t stick around. They retreated back home, and the white mob followed.
Gunfire continued and then, for some reason, about 500 of the white mob were sworn in as “Special Deputies” by the police. The official report quotes one of the members of the white mob who was sworn in by the police saying he was told to, “Get a gun, and get a…” n-word.
They seemed to do as they were told, breaking into local stores to steal guns and ammo. Some eyewitnesses reported that the police themselves broke into some stores and started handing out guns to the mob.
In the Watchmen series, we do see the silent film at a theater and while we don’t really see the name of the theater in the series, there was one in the true story as well. Sadly, it involved an unarmed Black man who was chased into the Royal Theater downtown, where he was murdered on the stage there.
At about midnight, technically June 1st now, the amount of violence was still rising. Gunfire was erupting along train tracks just outside the Greenwood district.
Fires started to pop up around 1:00 AM and when the fire department arrived, the mob scared them off at gunpoint. That left the Black-owned business and homes to burn. About this time, the National Guard was mobilized, and they started to form a line just outside Greenwood. They also started arresting Black people they saw, handing them over to police custody.
Guardsmen and police were deployed all over the city as reports came in. Some were sent to a white neighborhood where reports of an attack popped up. Others were dispatched to the water and power plant to guard those. Others still were sent to a nearby railroad station where they heard reports that a train filled with armed Black people from nearby towns were coming in. That last report turned out to be false, but it shows how law enforcement was trying to react to reports all over the city as the situation deteriorated minute-by-minute.
In Oklahoma City, the capital of the state, word of what was happening in Tulsa resulted in the governor authorizing about a hundred more National Guard soldiers to be sent from OKC to Tulsa.
Back in Tulsa, word spread further, and more rioters joined in the chaos. The official report published in 2001 says that as the sun rose on June 1st, there may have been as many as 10,000 white rioters. Black defenders tried to keep them from advancing, but there were simply too many.
In the Watchmen series, we see a building on fire with the name “Williams Florist” on the outside and the Williams family really was a prominent family in the Greenwood district. John Williams defended against the invaders for a while before he, along with many others, was forced to flee.
Something else we see in the Watchmen series are airplanes flying overhead. That really happened, although we don’t know the specifics of exactly how many or what planes they were. The official report suggests they were most likely privately-owned planes and not military craft. It also says there may have been as many as six airplanes that flew overhead, shooting people below and dropping explosives.
At about 5:30 AM, there was some hard fighting between about 50 National Guard soldiers and a defensive line of Black men. As the Black defenders were pushed back by the overwhelming numbers, the white rioters would break into homes and businesses to steal anything of value and either shoot anyone who resisted or anyone who had a gun, and the unarmed who didn’t resist were forced onto the streets where they’d be rounded up by others in the mob.
The police and National Guard weren’t helping because they weren’t arresting or disarming the white rioters, but instead they were arresting the Black citizens who were trying to defend their homes and businesses.
After sunup, the dark smoke from fires rising into the skies above Tulsa were obvious to people for miles around. Even those who hadn’t heard the news knew something was going on. As 9:00 AM neared, some businesses that would normally have been open were closed so their white owners could join in the riot.
Not all of them, though. In fact, there were some reports of white citizens in Tulsa helping protect their Black neighbors. Some who lived nearby the violence would hide families in their own homes. Others outside town welcomed strangers fleeing the danger.
At about 9:15 AM, the train from OKC arrived with 109 armed State Troops. They didn’t go to Greenwood at first, but instead went to the courthouse.
An eyewitness reported that between 10:15 AM and 10:30 AM, some police officers arrived at the homes of some of the most prominent Black families in town. They didn’t protect them, though. They set them on fire.
Martial law was declared at 11:30 AM and at this point many of the white rioters were going home—probably just because they were tired. Many of them had been awake for over 24 hours at this point. The last skirmish took place at about 12:30 PM and soon after that the State Troops started disarming the remaining white rioters and expelling them from the district. Throughout the rest of the day, more troops arrived and, at 8:00 PM on June 1st, the announcement was made that order was officially restored.
The damage had been done.
We simply don’t know the full extent of how many people were murdered or displaced due to their homes or businesses being destroyed. There have been estimates, though, and according to the official report from the 2001 commission, those numbers range from 150 to 300 people killed and over 800 left injured.
And here’s a quick quote from the report about property damage:
“The Red Cross reported that 1,256 houses were burned, 215 houses were looted but not burned, and the total number of buildings not burned but looted and robbed were 314. The Tulsa Real Estate Exchange estimated $1.5 million worth of damages and one-third of that in the Black business district. The Exchange claimed personal property loss at $750,000. Between June 14, 1921, and June 6, 1922, $1.8 million of claims were filed against the city of Tulsa and disallowed.”
To put those in current numbers, the $1.5 million in damages in 1921 is worth about the same as about $25.3 million today.
$750,000 in personal property loss claimed is about the same as $12.6 million today, and the $1.8 million worth of claims against the city of Tulsa that were disallowed are about the same as $30 million in today’s dollars.
If you want to see the event as it was depicted in the Watchmen series, check out the opening of the very first episode.
Oh! As a little peek behind the mic, I went to take photos of the Greenwood District as it is today along the railroad tracks. That’ll go into the Based on a True Story Discord community where I like to post relevant photos, articles and things like that on the anniversary of the event. So, I’ll drop that in there on June 1st.
If you’re not in there yet, you can join at basedonatruestorypodcast.com/discord
June 4, 1942. Midway Island.
The sunrise over the water is beautiful. In the foreground, we can see the silhouette of a lookout station manned by two men. The sound of a trumpet playing “To the Colors” can be heard as an American flag is raised.
One of the lookouts raises his binoculars to see American planes taking off from the airstrip on the island. He says the radar must’ve picked up something because they’ve scrambled all the squadrons.
The scene cuts to a film director who is directing a cameraman. He instructs the flag to be lowered so they can get the shot again.
Now, we see a bunch of men in military uniforms are eating breakfast. There’s a somber sense in the air as many of the men aren’t even touching their plates. Ed Skrein’s character speaks up, telling the men at the table he’s not going to sugarcoat things. Today, we’re going to be big underdogs. But then he goes on to give a bit of a pep talk, saying he’s seen what each one of you can do. We can fly with anyone. We’re ready for this.
In the next shot, countless planes are flying in the clouds. The camera follows along with them as they bank to the right. We see text on the screen saying it’s 6:40 AM and this is the Japanese Carrier Air Group.
Back on the ground, the two men in the watch tower yell down below, “They’re coming!”
A soldier tells the film director that there are incoming aircraft; you need to get to the bunker! He looks up to see the sky dotted with the dark outlines of airplanes. They’re getting closer.
“Holy s***!” he yells, and everyone seems to jump into action. Except, he doesn’t go into the bunker, he climbs on the roof to get a good shot of the incoming aircraft.
Anti-aircraft guns start going off as the first bullets from the airplanes start kicking up dirt and sand on the ground. We can hear the sounds of bombs dropping and explosions as we see balls of fire and smoke filling the air.
This is just the start of how the 2019 movie simply called Midway depicts an event that started this week in history: The Battle of Midway.
Although the part of the movie I described in this segment started on June 4th, most consider the Battle of Midway going from June 3rd to June 6th because it was at 9:04 AM on June 3rd when an American recon plane spotted and then was shot at by the Japanese invasion fleet about 500 miles, or 800 kilometers, away from Midway.
That’s why we can see the pilots in the movie eating breakfast and talking about the upcoming fight as if they know it’s coming—because they did know it was coming.
The Japanese launched their attack against Midway in the early morning hours of June 4th, but another American recon plane saw them coming so Midway was able to launch all their planes before the Japanese got there.
Oh, and the dialog we see with the pilots talking about how they’re underdogs? The specific dialogue is made up for the movie, of course, but the basic idea was true. Even with their planes launched, the Japanese planes still outnumbered the Americans 4-to-1. On top of that, most historians agree that the Japanese Zeroes were superior to the American Wildcats.
But not all the planes from Midway tried to stop them. Many of them went to where the Japanese fleet was. That attack didn’t go too well, though. Meanwhile, back on Midway, things weren’t going well there either as the Japanese started bombing the islands at about 6:30 AM. The first wave was successful, but the Japanese determined a second would be needed to soften Midway’s defenses before they could land troops to capture it.
The Japanese thought perhaps they’d encounter the American Navy, but they didn’t seem to be anywhere in sight so, at 7:15 AM, Admiral Nagumo ordered their planes change the torpedoes to bombs for another attack on Midway. A few minutes later, at 7:28 AM, a Japanese recon plane saw the American fleet. They didn’t report how many American ships they saw, but Nagumo made the decision to stop changing torpedoes to bombs so those with torpedoes could be used against the American ships.
As fate would have it, about this time, there were American planes that showed up in the skies over a Japanese fleet with carriers that happened to have a bunch of bombs and torpedoes on its decks.
They didn’t end up hitting anything, and many of the American planes were lost, but they did pull the focus of the Japanese fleet as they defended against the attacks.
That time was important because the Japanese planes that were off attacking Midway were about to return. They were low on fuel, meaning Admiral Nagumo had a decision to make: Launch the planes on his decks as the returning planes dropped into the ocean due to lack of fuel, or clear the decks so the planes could land.
He chose the latter, something that slowed the Japanese attack yet again.
And again, more American planes arrived to attack the Japanese fleet.
And yet again, the American planes did practically no damage.
Then, everything changed.
When I talked to the distinguished naval historian Craig Symonds about this, he called it the five minutes that changed the course of the war. From 10:25 AM to 10:30 AM on June 4th, dive bombers from USS Enterprise scored hits on multiple ships in the Japanese fleet, including the flagship carrier Akagi.
From there on out, things turned the American’s way.
If you want to watch the event in history, the text on screen saying it’s June 4th, 1942 starts at about an hour and 18 minutes into the 2019 movie simply called Midway.
While we only covered the start of the battle today, there is a lot more to the day’s events—and even more to the whole story. So, if you want to dig into that, check out my chat with Craig Symonds about the movie back on episode #158.
Oh, and the movie showing someone there filming the attack? The movie was right about that, too. Four-time Oscar award-winning director John Ford happened to be there. He made a documentary about the attack that I’ll throw a link to in the Based on a True Story Discord community.