Staging a spectacle at Cheesefoot Head

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Pike took this photograph on Monday evening, as we walked by Cheesefoot Head. This natural ampitheatre is being prepared to welcome tens of thousands of people to the Boomtown Festival 2016, which starts tomorrow. And if we had walked the same way in April 1944 we probably would have witnessed a similar scene, for Joe Louis “The Brown Bomber”, heavyweight champion of the world, was fighting an exhibition bout to entertain the GIs here. Tens of thousands of American servicemen were trucked into watch, and one lucky boy from Cheriton named Jim Butler got to go along with them.

Jim Butler remembered that kids were everywhere in the American camps around Alresford, scrounging food, watching open-air film shows and learning how to play baseball. He must have jumped at his chance to see the big fight. Sgt. Joe Louis and his boxing troupe were touring the British Isles from March to June 1944, helping soldiers develop their boxing skills, refereeing countless boxing contests between the troops and fighting exhibition bouts. The records of exactly where Joe Louis fought, and when, are sketchy. The most likely items in his 1944 exhibition list are:

  • Apr 19 – [fought] George Nicholson [in] “A Western town”, Eng Exh
  • Apr 22 – [fought] George Nicholson [in] A Southwest town”, Eng Exh 2 — Freddie Mills referee’

No wonder these records are ambiguous – if the enemy had got wind of these huge gatherings of soldiers there would have been hell to pay. By taking the risk and allowing these mass gatherings to go ahead, General Eisenhower made the soldiers aware of the sheer scale of the operation that lay ahead, as well as entertaining them.

Life Magazine announced that the tour was “also a quiet parable in racial good will, for hard-working Joe makes a good impression and hundreds of white soldiers, officers and men, are proud to shake his hand”. In fact, the armed forces of the United States were segregated throughout World War II. Joe Louis recalled that black American soldiers couldn’t “sleep in the same barracks as the white guys or go to the movies or hardly get in officer’s training.” Initially, the army planned to segregate boxing exhibitions by having the Joe Louis troupe fight before only one race at a time or else having the black troops sit at the rear. “Hell, whites and blacks were all fighting the same war” Joe Louis wrote, “why couldn’t their morale be lifted at the same theatre?” He refused to go along with segregated exhibitions and won the argument: young Jim Butler would have sat on the sloping grass banks at Cheesefoot Head as part of a racially integrated audience. As Joe Louis put it, they had a “common enemy – Nazi Germany. All those guys there could relate to that.”

Iris Crowfoot

 

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