Story by Chief Warrant Officer 3 Janet Schmelzer, Texas State Guard
The Texas Defense Guard, created by the Texas Legislature in 1941 and renamed the Texas State Guard in 1943, was the state military unit responsible for protecting Texas, its people and property during World War II. With the National Guard federalized, the Texas Defense Guard was on the front line to respond to attacks by foreign enemies, domestic civil disturbances and natural and man-made disasters. Within a few months of its official existence, the Texas Defense Guard would face its first big test as a defense force.
In the Caribbean Sea near Cuba, a tropical disturbance started brewing on Sept. 15, 1941. As the storm moved into the Gulf of Mexico, weather conditions were conducive to a tropical depression forming. By Sept. 21, the storm had grown into a hurricane bearing down on the Texas Gulf Coast, headed for Port O’Connor or Matagorda. On Sept. 23, the storm made an unexpected turn, placing Freeport, Houston and surrounding areas in its path.
Preparing for the hurricane, local authorities along the Texas Gulf Coast began requesting the support of the Texas Defense Guard. On Sept. 23, the Guard activated 700 members, the first being from the 2nd, 7th, 22nd and 48th Marine battalions and the 2nd Squadron, Aviation Branch. Battalion and squadron commanders ordered their men to bring their personal sidearms while the Guard would provide Enfield rifles with fixed bayonets and shotguns. The Texas Adjutant General, Brig. Gen. John Watt Page, instructed all commanders that “their mission is to aid and support in every way possible civil authorities.”
When the hurricane made landfall, bringing rising tides, heavy rain and destructive winds up to 95 mph, Houston officials knew they did not have a sufficient number of policemen, firemen or city employees to patrol the city and protect property and people. On Sept. 23, the mayor and police chief assigned guard members from the 48th Battalion to patrol downtown on foot, ride along in Houston Police Department squad cars or observe from Houston Electric Company buses. Armed with rifles with bayonets and sidearms, they protected department stores from looters. At the coliseum, which was a shelter for evacuees, they cleared streets where sightseers caused traffic congestion by driving around staring at evacuees arriving on trucks. Keeping streets clear around the coliseum was especially urgent because National Guard convoys were bringing soldiers and airmen from airfields and armories threatened by the storm.
One sergeant-in-charge commended his men for their selfless service during the storm. “Not one of them flinched from their duty and were eager to step off the bus in water up to their knees to reach their stations of duty,” he said.
The 2nd Battalion patrolled downtown Houston, stood guard to protect people from stepping on downed high-tension wires and broken glass and helped fifty women and children seeking shelter at the Houston Light Guard Armory.
The 22nd Battalion braved wind, rain and flooding to make dramatic rescues near the Houston municipal airport. Two guard members drove fifty miles to rescue a woman trapped in her home. Notified that a family was stranded in a car two blocks from the airport, five guard members went into action. Combatting the 95 mph wind and tying themselves together, they pushed forward on foot. As they made their way down the road, they saw a man trying to hold on to a tree branch to keep from drowning in a flooded ditch. One guard member put the man on his shoulders and carried him back to the airport. The rest continued on, having to crawl as the force of the wind made walking impossible. They finally reached the family of nine men, women and children. They could not take all of them at once. The guard members made two trips during the rescue, carrying four children on their shoulders on the first rescue and on the second carrying two women and two elderly men while a younger man held on to the ropes of the guard members.
In another rescue near the airport, guard members received a message that a family was in grave danger as flood waters rushed into their home six blocks away. Guard members struggled down the road on foot in rain so heavy and wind so fierce that they could not see or breathe. This rescue team first stopped to rescue a boy and his grandfather who had suffered a heart attack. Putting the old man on his shoulders, one guard member with the boy holding on to his belt returned to the airport. Once there, the guard member administered first aid while waiting for the ambulance to arrive. The rest of the rescue team, wading through flooded prairies and roads in waist-high water, found the house and brought the family members to the airport. In all, the 22nd Battalion at the airport rescued 100 people between Sept. 23 and 24.
The 43rd and 9th battalions in Port Arthur mobilized to stop traffic at the seawall, maintain order in hotel lobbies and protect local schools filled with hundreds of evacuees. At the Gulfport Boiler and Welding Works guard members kept watch over the shipyards and assisted workers trying to save equipment and materials from flooding waters.
Although escaping the impact of the storm, Corpus Christi had requested the 28th Battalion to protect downtown and north beach businesses from looters. Guard members with Enfield rifles closed the Nueces Bay causeway and prevented traffic at the seawall and water gates.
Radio operators from the Texas Defense Guard maintained communications by radio throughout the storm. At Palacios, 1st Lt. J. C. Johnson of Houston, who served in the radio division, worked throughout the night of Sept. 23 and early morning of Sept. 24 and was one of only a few radios that continuously broadcast along the Texas coast.
On the morning of Sept. 24, the final mission of the Texas Defense Guard was to survey the coast and report back the damage. The 2nd Squadron, Aviation Branch, received the mission. Capt. N. E. Meador piloted the first plane to leave any Houston airport for the previous thirty hours. He flew over oil fields, several towns and airfields, such as Freeport and Ellington Field. He reported that fields and structures along the coast sustained significant damage and flooding, the road to Freeport was impassable and the town of Kemah was under water. The second pilot, Capt. W. H. Cocke, flew over Houston and the lowlands, Liberty, Galveston Bay and Galveston. The third pilot, Capt. Bernie Groce, checked out Kemah because the Red Cross had sent a message that people needed rescuing, but he found no one there. All pilots relayed reports of total devastation.
The Texas Defense Guard ended its mission on Sept. 24. In their first disaster response, guard members proved they were ready as a state defense force. They were proud, and their morale soared. They had earned the respect of the civilian authorities, local law enforcement and the public. “I cannot speak too highly of the work of everyone concerned. If the Texas Defense Guard had not mobilized and contributed their service, we would not have been able to handle the situation alone,” remarked Houston Chief of Police Ray Ashworth.
Texas Defense Guard members were men of selfless service, bravery and dedication to serving fellow Texans during the 1941 hurricane. Those qualities remain in the character and soul of every guard member who serves today in the Texas State Guard.