Erik Brun, a Cal Poly history graduate and military veteran, presented a lecture, slideshow and walking tour this past Friday, discussing a Black artillery regiment that resided in San Luis Obispo during World War II.
The 54th Coast Artillery Regiment was deployed to the Central Coast in early 1942 to protect vital coastal oil terminals in Morro Bay and Port San Luis.
The presentation, titled “They Faced the Rising Sun: The 54th Coast Artillery Regiment on the Central Coast in WWII,” explored the local history of San Luis Obispo at the time of the regiment’s presence and examined what life may have looked like for the Black soldiers.
Their arrival almost tripled the African American population in San Luis Obispo County, according to a San Luis Obispo County History Center press release, which drastically changed the demographics of the town until their departure in July, 1944.
The presentation started with Brun assuming the role of Colonel Ladd of the 54th Regiment and discussing their training and eventual deployment to the Central Coast.
Photos of the soldiers were shared and details of their orders to protect the coastal oil terminals were laid out as if it were happening in real-time.
Afterward, San Luis Obispo History Center board member Leola Macmillian answered questions about how the lives of these Black soldiers may have unfolded in segregated San Luis Obispo.
“1942, 1943, 1944, these were years where segregation still existed,” Macmillian said. “The lives of these soldiers were absolutely described by racial dynamics.”
Macmillian continued to discuss the difficulties that were likely involved in simple living activities such as visiting the grocery store or barbershops.
Soldiers of the 54th Regiment even held protests against their treatment in the town, which were subdued by police with tear gas. Many soldiers present were arrested and sent back to the military base.
Once the presentation was concluded, Brun led the group, of nearly 15 various locals, on a tour around Downtown San Luis Obispo, viewing buildings that had been significant to the regiment.
Some of these buildings included the current headquarters for the City Utility Department on Morro St. and the now demolished site of the Safeway store on Higuera St., which is now a parking lot.
Though most of these sites are now gone, or remodeled beyond recognition of what they once were, they used to be key locations for the Black soldiers of the 54th Regiment, according to Brun.
The second floor of what used to be Safeway became the second location of the Black United Service Organization (USO).
The USO is a charitable corporation that provides members of the U.S Military with an environment to enjoy live entertainment, comedy, music, social gatherings and other forms of distraction and relaxation.
This was an important outlet for these soldiers and provided them with an environment in which they felt welcome, a hidden escape in a town where they were poorly treated, according to Macmillian.
The event was hosted through collaboration between the History Center of San Luis Obispo County and the South County Historical Society.