Michael LaPointe’s monthly column, Dice Roll, focuses on the art of the gamble, one famous gambler at a time.
Earl Warren watched the raid through binoculars. Stationed at a Santa Monica beach club, the Attorney General of California—and future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court—saw the fleet he’d assembled pushing out into the bay. It was August 1, 1939, a day Warren had planned in greatest secrecy. He hadn’t even told the two hundred and fifty officers now skipping over the waves about their mission until minutes before it began. He’d likely been fantasizing about his triumph for a long time, ever since the airplanes wrote those diabolical letters in the sky: R-E-X.
It seemed it would be easy. Officers boarded the first ship, the Texas, whose crew surrendered at once. Warren’s men took axes to its equipment, smashing craps tables and roulette wheels, and dumping slot machines into the bay. Soon, word arrived that simultaneous raids on the ships off Long Beach—the Tango and Mt. Baker—had gone just as smoothly.
That left the crown jewel of the gambling fleet—the Rex. But Warren should’ve known that this one would be different. When officers tried boarding the ship, a steel door slammed across the gangway. Fire hoses gushed from the upper decks, driving off the invaders.
Sound travels far over water, and from the shore Warren might’ve heard a man cry out, “I won’t give up my ship!”
It was Tony Cornero, “commodore of the gambling fleet” and bane of Warren’s existence. He’d just initiated an eight-day standoff that would come to be known as the Battle of Santa Monica Bay.