In the beginning they were Frank Dalton and Hank McGee. Dalton grew up in Detroit, Michigan and McGee in Memphis,Tennessee. They could have been living on different planets, yet the gods of destiny saw to it that their lives intersected, meshed, and forged a path of adventure and excitement that some might call outrageous exploits, others perhaps a more measured unusual, or at most extraordinary. But it should be said that what we have come to know about them, mostly through the diary entries documented below, marks them as not much different from a few thousand other navy men unleashed in foreign lands with money in their pockets and thrill-seeking on their minds.
Except for Frank Dalton who came to be known as Mickey Michigan. When all the anchors are dropped, when all the watches have been stood, when all the bets have been called, Mickey Michigan stands alone as the luckiest deep-water sailor the U.S. Navy has ever known. And that makes Hank McGee from Tennessee, who Mickey called Sunshine, the second luckiest because of the bond he shared with Mickey. It was a bond nobody could have predicted would be formed between a black son of the south and a white dude from the north, but as sure as the ocean is deep these two came together as iron filings to a magnet the first time they met.
One thing is undisputed: the United States Navy was the vehicle that brought them together and made everything possible.
When I came in possession of their diaries, I found their tales so compelling that I took it as my job to share as best I can with you the reader, the story, dare I say the saga, of Mickey Michigan and Sunshine McGee which I have done in the novel TIN CAN DOWN.
I’m one of the Detroit Daltons, my name is Frank and I’m here to tell about some of the things that happened in this city during the war years; Things that happened to me and things that happened to the city. For me it was pretty much okay because I learned how to stay away from people and things that looked like trouble, plus I’m just plain lucky. Now that the war is over, things have calmed down some but there’s still a lot of hate going around.
Detroit has been all about automobiles for almost 50 years, ever since Henry Ford got some bright ideas and started a car factory.
Model T Ford – 1908. The “Tin Lizzie”
When the U.S. went to war in 1941 there was a crying need to build machines that the army and navy needed to fight the Japs and Krauts. Detroit knew how to build those babies so the city became “the arsenal of Democracy”. Thousands of people were needed to make things and put things together, I mean to say, hundreds of thousands. I got to be part of that. I worked on an assembly line in 1943 when I was only 14 years old. That’s where I learned about hate.
One day the shop foreman came through with some new workers which we needed badly because the line was moving faster than we could keep up with it. Some of those new workers were black which was okay with me as long as they could do the work. It was not okay with a lot of the white workers.
I heard a guy say, “I’d rather see Hitler and Hirohito win the war than work next to a nigger.” He wasn’t the only one, 25,000 white workers walked off the job rather than work with negroes. Think about that. The country had men getting killed at Guadalcanal, the Navy had lost four heavy cruisers and almost 2,000 sailors at the battle of Savo Island, and these white Detroit factory rats refused to work alongside fellow Americans.
Another guy was griping that some of those niggers coming up from the South were moving into white neighborhoods, and the next thing I knew people were getting killed when the blacks and whites pulled out guns and knives and started going after each other on Detroit streets. When those riots finally ended, 34 people had been killed and over 400 wounded. President Roosevelt had to send in the National Guard to stop it. The war had come to Detroit.
I wasn’t black but I was Irish Catholic which it turned out was almost as bad. The Detroit hate list in 1943 covered negroes, catholics, jews, and the New York Yankees. Baseball seemed to be the only thing people could agree on. Everybody loved the Tigers and everybody hated the Yankees.
Let me tell you what the Yankees did to the Tigers in 1944. It came down to the final four games of the season and things couldn’t have looked better for the Tigers. First of all we were in first place, a full game ahead of the second place St.Louis Browns. Second, we were at home against the worst team in the league, the Washington Senators, and finally, the Browns were at home facing the snotty, arrogant, it’s-our-birthright-to-win, Yankees. What the Yankees did to the Tigers was lose all four games to the Browns which seemed as likely to happen as the moon falling out of the sky or the Niagara Falls running backward. It wouldn’t have mattered if the Tigers swept the Senators, but they didn’t do that, they actually lost two games and the pennant on the last day of the season, which, I’m sorry to say was, more likely than not, my fault.
Here’s how it happened: Remember I told you I was lucky. The first sign of that was when I got picked out of a few hundred to be a bat boy for the 1944 Tigers. But it turned out I was more than a bat boy. About half way through the season the team began to look at me as a good luck charm. Lucky Frankie they called me and patted my head so some of the luck would rub off. That 1944 team had three all stars – Dizzy Trout, Hal Newhouser, and Rudy York, but to me the most important guys on that team were a couple of worn-out oldtimers, Boom Boom Beck, a right-handed pitcher, and Chief Hogsett, a goofy lefthander. Those two guys taught me how to pitch and how to play poker. They also filled my head with stories about what the world was like outside of Detroit.
Boom Boom and the Chief. What a pair. Detroit was the last stop on their professional baseball careers, so when the Tigers won that Saturday game, it meant the team would head into the final game of the regular schedule in a flat-footed tie with the St. Louis club, and it meant that Boom Boom and the Chief would probably suit up for the last time in a major league baseball uniform.
What I’m getting at here is that Boom Boom and the Chief wanted to show me the ropes about how to spend a night on the town and they figured this would be their last chance. After the first few drinks they poured down me I can only remember fuzzy images of boozy babes, jazzy trumpets, and Boom Boom Beck standing on a table singing at the top of his lungs, something about Aces in the hole. Chief Hogsett was out cold with his head on the table.
We didn’t make it back to the ballpark until the eighth inning and the Tigers, without me, their luck charm, were down 4-0. They whacked me for luck and managed a run in the ninth but it wasn’t enough. They lost 4-1. The pennant went to the St.Louis Browns for the first and only time in major league history. It was my fault.