In March 1924, the battleship Arizona (BB-39), the flagship of Admiral William Pratt’s BatDiv 4 commanded by Captain Percy Olmstead, anchored in New York City for a nine-day visit to the Big Apple. During the interwar years, this was a quite common occurrence. What followed next, however, was far from routine as enlisted members of the crew snuck a hooker on the ship. The prostitute remained a stowaway for several weeks. She wasn’t caught until the Arizona’s passage through the Panama Canal at Balboa, after a voyage of about 2,500 miles. 

USS Arizona waits to clear one of the locks of the Panama Canal in 1921. (Library of Congress)

But the Roaring ’20s were no different than any other era when young men went to sea. And many of the younger sailors visited ladies of the night while in New York. Quite a few visited and made the acquaintance of a young lady who went by the name of Madeline Blair, real name Adelaide Andrews, who also went by the street name of “Blackie.”

Blair was a striking brunette with dark eyes. She told the sailors that she wanted to go to California where she hoped to hit the big screen in Hollywood. But alas, the young lady didn’t have the cash to get there. 

Precious Cargo

The ship’s motto was “At ‘Em Arizona!” expressing an aggressive, can-do spirit of dash and daring. So of course, the young enlisted sailors came up with a plan. They’d sneak Blackie on board when they sailed from New York since the ship would be sailing to California. 

USS Arizona’s deck gang conducting a “Field Day” cleaning forward of gun turrets #1 and #2, in the late 1920s. (National Park Service)

The sailors cut her hair short and fixed her up with a sailor’s uniform. And with the peacoat pulled up around her ears, she snuck on one of the final launches that carried sailors to their ships. After sneaking in through the battlewagon’s large 14-inch gun turrets, Blackie made her way down to the bowels of the ship in the engineering department. There, the sailors found an empty small space near a generator compartment where she nestled in for the long voyage. 

USS Arizona’s “Black Gang” or Engineering Department in 1928. They were so-called because the crew would become black from coal powder in the bunkers of early steam-driven vessels. (University of Arizona Special Collections)

Soon, many of the ship’s enlisted crewmembers knew about the stowaway prostitute. The Arizona’s cooks offered to feed her for the tidy sum of $10 per day. This was no small amount when one remembers that sailors made only $21 a month back in 1924. Getting caught pilfering food was a major offense in the navy (it still is). So the cooks demanded a premium price to take a chance with a court-martial if caught.

One would think that Blackie would soon be starving. Yet, she was an attractive hooker and the only woman on a ship with over 1,300 sailors. And charging a reported three dollars a trick, she soon had an abundance of food including chocolates, fruit, and other assorted foodstuffs. 

The Stowaway Prostitute Is Nearly Exposed by a Breast-Grabbing Sailor

(National Park Service)

As the battleship steamed farther south and the weather turned hot, many of the crew were allowed to sleep on deck. While Blackie had to stay hidden during the day, the crew began sneaking her up on deck in the dark. They even got so bold as to allow her to watch a film with the crew. Then disaster nearly struck. 

Blackie was sitting next to another sailor when he pulled out a cigarette and realized he didn’t have a match. So he reached across to Blackie’s left breast pocket since this is where all sailors carried matches. At the time, it was acceptable behavior to reach in another sailor’s shirt. So, this young sailor reached into Blackie’s pocket only to grab a handful of a woman’s boob. He had a shocked look on his face as he left, but didn’t report the incident. 

The Act’s Up

USS Arizona fires a 12 gun broadside of her 14″ inch naval rifles during gunnery practice in the 1920s. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Rumors swirling around the ship of a woman being on board. Nevertheless, the senior officers pooh-poohed the notion as ridiculous. Blackie continued to service the crew and then the ship had gunnery practice before traversing the Panama Canal. On April 12, the ship was in Balboa preparing to cross the canal on their voyage to California. Blackie remained on deck too long and the sun was coming up. She stopped at a “scuttlebutt,” or water-fountain, when a sailor locked eyes with her. The sailor immediately recognized her as a woman and alerted the officer of the deck. 

A search was immediately ordered and Blackie was quickly found. However, she refused to finger her accomplices and she was immediately put ashore in Balboa. But the ship’s commander had just begun. He court-martialed 23 members of the enlisted crew and some of the men got prison sentences as long as 10 years. 

Adm. Henry A. Wiley, Commander of the Battle Fleet’s Battleships, issued a letter of reprimand to every officer in the ship, including the future Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Arleigh Burke. He did this despite a protest from Admiral Pratt, the division commander, who considered the penalties excessive. Pratt removed the reprimands from all of the officers’ records in 1930 once he became the CNO. 

As for Blackie the stowaway prostitute, well, she managed alright. She was put on a ship bound for New York. She made the passage in a first-class cabin and had the bill sent to the U.S. Navy. After returning to New York, no one knows what happened to her. Perhaps she made it to California… or maybe entered politics?

A generation of sailors later, the USS Arizona would be sunk at the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

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