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322: This Week: Sink the Bismark, Harriet, Watchmen

In this episode, we’ll learn about historical events that happened this week in history as they were depicted in these movies: Sink the Bismark, Harriet, and Watchmen.

Events from This Week in History

Birthdays from This Week in History

A Historical Movie Released This Week in History

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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.

May 27th, 1941. Atlantic Ocean.

Our first movie is in black and white. We’re looking through the two windows on the bridge of a military ship. Through the windows, four men in German Navy uniforms are visible. Two of the men are in the background while two of them are more prominent on the right side of the frame, looking at something off frame to the left. Based on their uniforms, it looks like the two the movie is focusing are officers.

The older of the two officers tells the other man, “Open fire, Captain!”

The other man is younger, but the dialogue suggests maybe he’s the captain. He seems to concur and gives the order to open fire, before putting binoculars up to his eyes.

The camera cuts to the ship’s massive guns as we see them start blasting away. That scene only lasts for a moment, though, until the camera cuts further away and we can see the whole ship. It’s a huge battleship, and her guns are firing away from the right side going toward the left side of the movie’s frame.

In the next shot, the movie shifts to a smaller ship. Her guns are from the left side facing the right, so I’m guessing this is who the battleship is shooting at. And sure enough, a moment later, we can see four huge pillars of water rising out of the ocean as the rounds splash around the smaller ship.

The camera cuts to another ship’s bridge. This must be the smaller ship because everyone inside is looking toward the right side of the camera frame. There are seven men we can see through the windows, all of them wearing British Navy uniforms.

One of them gives the order to open fire. A quick cut to another sailor on a phone, ordering, “Shoot!”

Then the camera cuts to this ship’s guns as they start blasting away to return fire. Two huge splashes in the water by the front of the larger battleship. Misses.

Another sailor from the German ship yells into a phone, “Fire!”

The larger battleship that we now know is German starts firing again.

The British sailor on the phone yells again, “Shoot!”

This time, we see three huge splashes of water by the German boat indicating misses. Then, a huge ball of flame hits near the front of the ship.

Looking through their binoculars, the British sailors see the fire. A hit!

They don’t stop. The British ship keeps shooting.

We see more splashes around the German battleship, but then another huge ball of flame grows from the back of the ship. On the German ship, now, we can see fire and smoke and things all scattered about. But the bridge with the captain is still intact. He’s looking out of his binoculars. And when the camera shifts to the British ship, we still see splashes of water suggesting the German ship is still shooting despite being on fire itself.

And the British ship isn’t giving up, either. It keeps firing. More splashes around the German ship, but this time, multiple new fires break out indicating even more hits on the German ship.

Now the movie cuts to a new camera angle on the German ship as some sailors are running around, no doubt trying to escape the billowing fire and smoke all around them. Another shot of the German ship as even more flames erupt. Now almost the whole ship is engulfed in flame. A heavy smoke fills the air, making it hard to see anything else.

It’s only when the camera cuts back to the British ship as it opens fire with yet another volley that we realize the British ship is still moving in the water…but the German ship is not. It’s stopped. Even more shells hit her, followed by even more explosions.

The true story behind this week’s event depicted in the movie Sink the Bismarck!

That description comes from the 1960 film called Sink the Bismarck! and just by telling you the name of the movie, I’m sure you can guess what it’s depicting.

But the way the movie shows this happening falls subject to being a low budget film from the 1960s trying to show something on a massive scale. The movie had a budget of about $1.3 million, or about $13 million in today’s dollars.

So probably the only thing realistic about the movie’s dramatization of it is the end result: The sinking of the massive German battleship named Bismarck. That happened this week in history on May 27th, 1941, in the Atlantic Ocean about 350 miles, or 560 kilometers, to the west of France.

While I didn’t mention this, the movie does show multiple British ships…I could see two on screen at any one time. But I didn’t mention that because one of the ships always seems to be in the background not really doing anything. The movie focuses on one British ship shooting at Bismarck.

And that might be an indication of the low budget in the film, because in the true story there were a lot more British ships than that. There was an aircraft carrier, two battleships, 8 destroyers, a battlecruiser, two heavy cruisers, and a light cruiser. The Germans had Bismark and one heavy cruiser.

Although to be fair, four of the British ships and the German heavy cruiser didn’t participate in Bismarck’s final battle.

While I didn’t mention this because it’s not this week in history, the movie did show some fighting against Bismark earlier too. And it is true that the battle against Bismarck wasn’t just on a single day. And it wasn’t just with ships. Airplanes were involved, too.

So, let’s break down the true story.

And let’s start by getting a better sense for why sinking Bismarck was a big deal during World War II.

At 821 feet, she was almost as long as Titanic, which was 882 feet.

That’s about 269 meters for Titanic and 250 meters for Bismarck.

So, she was huge. In fact, she was the largest ship in the German Navy and as such was the pride of the German Navy. And while I’m the only one making the comparison to Titanic here, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that many people back then thought Bismarck was unsinkable, too. A big part of that was because almost half of her 50,900 tons was in her armor plating.

She also had 62 guns with eight of them measuring 15-inches in diameter, or about 38 centimeters. Simply put, Bismarck finally gave the German Navy something that could rival anything in the British Navy. That’s saying something as most would agree the British Navy was unquestionably much stronger than the German Navy in World War II.

Work on Bismarck started in 1936 before World War II officially began, but while Hitler was starting to build up his forces in anticipation of what was to come. She was commissioned in late 1940, with her first raiding mission starting in May of 1941.

Almost immediately, the British sent ships to try and stop Bismarck. They met at what we now know as the Battle of the Denmark Strait when Bismarck destroyed one of the most famous British battlecruisers from World War I: HMS Hood.

That happened on May 24th, 1941.

But, something else happened during that battle. Bismarck herself sustained damage from one of the other British ships alongside Hood, HMS Prince of Wales.

Prince of Wales managed to hit Bismarck three times, causing enough damage to end Bismarck’s first offensive mission. But the British didn’t stop. With Bismarck heading back to France for repairs—remember, in early May the Battle of France had started and the Nazis were taking over France. So, Bismarck was going back for repairs.

And this is where it’s important to keep in mind how many other British ships were involved, because the next major damage to Bismarck was sustained by torpedo bombers from the British carrier HMS Ark Royal. It was these torpedo bombers that rendered Bismarck unable to move as one of them hit her steering.

That happened on May 26th, 1941.

Then, on May 27th, the event from the movie segment I described.

Bismarck was already heavily crippled, so it didn’t take long for two British battleships and two heavy cruisers to lay into her and finish her off. Technically, it was the Germans who decided to scuttle the ship instead of letting the British capture her. Although most historians agree at that point it was only a matter of time before Bismarck sank due to the damage she received.

Of the 2,201 sailors on Bismarck, 2,091 of them died.

And so it was that in an ironic twist of fate, the massive battleship that many considered unsinkable did not survive her maiden voyage just as Titanic didn’t survive hers. As another trivia fact to tie the two ships together, the man who found the wreck of Titanic in 1985, Robert Ballard, was also the man who discovered the wreck of Bismarck in 1989.

If you want to watch the movie’s portrayal of the event, check out the 1960 film called Sink the Bismarck! We started our segment today at about an hour and 27 minutes into the movie.


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 of the river there’s an open field, and then a line of trees.

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.

The true story behind this week’s event depicted in the movie Harriet

That is how the 2019 movie simply called Harriet shows an event from this week in history. That’s when Harriet Tubman, who is played by Cynthia Erivo in the movie, 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, 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.

The true story behind this week’s event depicted in the TV show Watchmen

That depiction seems like something from a war movie, but it comes from the 2019 superhero series on HBO called Watchmen. The event it’s showing is what we know as the Tulsa Race Massacre, which happened this week in history over the night of May 31st into June 1st, 1921. That’s why I used the date of June 1st, since the show depicts it already happening during the day.

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. And because the series shows it already happening, there’s a lot more to the true story.

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.

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. And if you want to learn more about the true story, check out some of the resources at the Greenwood Cultural Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, at



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