17 July 1944: the largest stateside military disaster of the second world war took place when over five thousand tons of ammunition exploded (one-third the force of the atomic blast that destroyed Hiroshima) at Port Chicago, California. Three hundred twenty men died and three hundred ninety were injured. Of the casualties, over sixty percent were black seamenfifteen percent of all blacks killed during the war.
The Port Chicago Naval Magazine was constructed in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor, 7 December 1941. It was built around a shipyard that had been used in the previous war and was intended to load ammunition on ships heading into the Pacific. Built about thirty miles (48.3 km) from San Francisco, on the bay where the Sacramento River empties into the ocean, it had a premium position and good railroad lines for its task.
One of the myths often perpetuated by Hollywood is of the "diverse" unit in World War IIthe group being a microcosm of society. Certain stock characters show up over and over: the intellectual, the young naive guy, the hardened paternal veteran ("Sarge"), the big dumb guy, some ethnic type, and often a black man (or Latino). This, of course, is simply not the case. Up through the end of the second world war, units were segregated almost universally (though white officers usually commanded).
Going back to the Civil War (if not before, what little military experience there was), not only was segregation of units the "rule," but the sort of duty given them was set. Little combat duty was seen by many, instead getting the "bottom rung" sort of jobs. A description of the work commonly given blacks during the Civil War is largely accurate up through the second world war: "digging trenches, hauling logs and cannon, loading ammunition, [and] digging wells for white regiments" (Zinn). These were not only the least prestigious and the most undesirable jobsespecially for men who wanted to get into action to serve their countrythey often were the most dangerous jobs of non-combat duty. This was true of Port Chicago (and throughout the US Navy).
At the time, there were some 150,000 blacks enlisted in the Navy. None were allowed in battle, regardless of rank or training. The men who worked at Port Chicago, instead of fighting in the Pacific, were given the arduous and highly dangerous work of loading ammunition onto ships headed out to participate in the fighting the men were unable to take part in.
Besides being hard work, physically, the men were not prepared for the dangerous workthey were given no training on the handling of munitions, not even gloves. New men were set to work immediately with almost no instruction. It was not an uncommon occurrence for loads of bombs and other armaments to fall into the ocean, into the hold, or onto other ordnance. This was coupled with what is often found in manual labor sorts of workthe insistence on speed over the safety. In fact, the (white) officers in command over the units would make wagers on which group could load the most in the shortest amount of timeeven encouraging competition among the men. Despite the Navy's assurance that there were no detonators in the bombs, the US Coast Guard, which was responsible for safety measures, had "pulled out because of unsafe conditions" (www.cccoe.k12.ca.us).
It was the evening of 17 July and there were two ships at the dock. The SS Quinalt Victory was about to be loaded for its maiden voyage and the SS E.A. Bryan (on the other side of the platform) which had recently returned for its first trip and was being rearmed. The ships were being filled up with high explosives, incendiary bombs, depth charges, and miscellaneous ammunition. There were sixteen rail cars (also full of explosives) and three hundred twenty handlers, crewmen, and sailors, either on, in, or around the vessels.
At about 10:18 PM, the entire loading dock, men, weapons, ships, and all went up. There were reports that a "brilliant white flash shot into the air, accompanied by a loud, sharp report." There was a "column of smoke [billowing] from the pier, and the fire glowed orange and yellow. Flashing like fireworks, smaller explosions went off in the cloud as it rose" (both www.history.navy.mil). Moments after the initial explosion(s), a larger one went off as the explosives in the holds detonated. The seismic wave from the massive explosion was felt as far away as Boulder City, Nevada (at least 500 miles/800 km).
The E.A. Bryan (which was fully loaded at the time), most of the dock, the rail cars, and the men, were completely destroyedthe largest piece of the 7200 ton ship found later was the size of a suitcase. The other ship (partially loaded) was lifted into the air and turned around before being ripped apart by the blast, the "pieces" landing almost 500 feet away (over 150 m)the keel reportedly ended up farther out. A plane flying at 9000 feet (about 2.75 km) claimed to have seen "chunks of white hot metal 'as big as a house' flying past" (www.history.navy.mil). The smoke rose in a column two miles high (3.21 km). Pieces of hot metal and unexploded bombs fell from the sky as far as two miles away (there were about one hundred civilian injuriesno deathsfrom the town).
In the immediate area, the explosion left a crater 66 feet deep, 300 feet wide, and 700 feet long (20.1 m, 91.4 m, 182.8 m). The barracks were severely damaged and knocked off their foundations. Men, not close enough to be killed (or close but lucky), were injured by flying metal, wood, glass, and other debris, as well as suffered burns. Some damage occurred as far away as San Francisco.
Despite sending emergency crews into action right away, none of those loading the ships survived. Of the three hundred twenty men who died, two hundred two were black. Of the three hundred ninety injured, two hundred thirty-three were black.
There has never been a definitive "cause" for the explosion, even though the Navy organized a Naval Court of Inquiry to find out what happened, how, and why. Many experts on munitions were interviewed, along with base personnel, and survivors. But only five black seamen were interviewed (the people who were actually doing the loading of ships). The "wagering" came up during the proceedings but was dismissed as "healthy competition." Having ruled out sabotage and other external factors (or the questionable "safety" conditions), the blamenot "officially," but it might as well have beenwas placed on the seamen who had been loading the ships (dead men who couldn't disagree). The black men.
Usually in such situations, the Navy will allow thirty day "survivor's leave" to let men recover and visit their families. The officers received one but not one of the black sailors did. Even the hospitalized men received no leave. At first, they were reassigned to other barracks and jobs. The stigma of blame attached to them and the trauma of the accident made it difficult for the men. But they thought it would mean permanent reassignment of dutymaybe even a chance to participate in real combat.
Unfortunately, they were mistaken. On 9 August (just over three weeks after the tragedy), about three hundred men were ordered to return to loading ammunition.
Three hundred twenty-eight men were told they had to begin work loading ammunition again (at a different pier, of course). The men refused, noting that no new safety precautions had been taken or training givenin other words, the exact same conditions would be involved that had resulted in the earlier accident (to be fair, the men were now issued gloves). According to one man, "to go back to work under the same conditions, with no improvements, no changes, the same group of officerswe thought there was a better alternative" (www.cccoe.k12.ca.us). The Navy saw it differently.
After interviewing each man about whether they would return, two hundred fifty-eight men were arrested and held for three days on a barge moored to the pier. The admiral informed the men that it was considered "mutinous" action. Since mutiny can carry a penalty of death during wartime, he impressed the seriousness of the charge (or threat, depending on one's point of view): "the hazards of facing a firing squad are far greater than the hazards of handling ammunition" (www.cccoe.k12.ca.us). Forty-four still refused to return to work. Another six subsequently didn't show up. Fifty men were to be tried for mutiny (the most at one time ever). Those who returned were given bad conduct discharges and docked three months wages.
According to the Articles of War (Article 7), "Any officer or soldier who shall begin, excite, cause, or join in, any mutiny or sedition, in any troop or company in the service of the United States, or in any party, post, detachment, or guard, shall suffer death, or such other punishment as by a court-martial shall be inflicted." (The articles do not provide a definition of either "mutiny" or "sedition.")
In September, the trial began. They stood before seven (white) officers, one as judge, the rest as jury. The prosecutor charged that the men were cowards and traitors. The defense was inadequate and underargued, relying on the "gray distinction between individual insubordination and organized mutiny and the outright fear of the men to handle explosives" (portchicagomutiny.com). It was brought up that the men were worked like slave labor, in wagered-on competition, under unsafe conditions. It made no difference. After thirty-two days of trial and eighty minutes of deliberation (as one person noted, less than two minutes per person), the verdict was announced: a felony charge of organized mutiny.
The men were given prison sentences between eight and fifteen years of hard labor (the majority getting twelve). All were given dishonorable discharges. The only "positive" thing was that they weren't deemed guilty enough to "suffer death."
The fight continues
Future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall (then a counsel for the NAACP) was allowed to observe the trial. In his words, "the court-martial proceedings were one of the worst frame-ups we have come across" (www.cccoe.k12.ca.us). He had been brought in after pressure from such areas as the black press (which was generally unfavorable or indifferent to the war), the NAACP, and other organizations.
The following year, Marshall took on the case on behalf of the NAACP. He had the help of several groups and support from the press, yet was unable to overturn the convictions. On the other hand, pressure had gotten high enough up, that small changes did occur. Black pilots of the US Army Air Corps, stationed in Tuskegee, Alabama, were the first black airmen to see combat.
Shortly after the war ended, President Harry S. Truman had the men released from prison with time served. They spent some time in the South Pacific, following release, in what was termed a " probationary period," after which they were officially released. But they were still burdened with a felony on their records and had all veteran's benefits withheld.
In 1948, Truman had the armed forces desegregated. Even the Navy acknowledges that the Port Chicago incident was instrumental in those changes. The bitter side is that it required the deaths of two hundred two men and injuries of another two hundred thirty-three to start the processnot to mention the trauma and anguish of the survivors and subsequent suffering of those who stood up to the unsafe order and were court-martialed, imprisoned, and stripped of benefits.
Marshall continued trying to get the convictions overturned but was unable to manage it. In 1992, Congress passed a bill for the creation of a Port Chicago Monument, largely through the continued efforts of Congressman George Miller (Democrat, California). In May 1999, he had a legal firm draft an appeal for the pardon of one of the few remaining members of the "mutineers." It was presented to President Bill Clinton, who that December officially pardoned Freddie Meeks for the conviction forty-five years earlier (one conviction was overturned in 1994 on "medical grounds"it was Miller's efforts that got the Navy to review the case in the first place). Marshall, who died in 1993, would have been proud
(To understand just how this shame haunted the men, consider Jack Crittenden, another of the convicted men. He spent his life afraid people would find out his secret. He told people he'd served in the army. His own wife and children didn't know for years of his involvement in the "incident" and that he had been "judged" and branded, essentially, a traitor.)
In July 2001 (just before the anniversary date) Miller sent a letter to President George W. Bush, requesting for the rest to be pardoned
based on the substantial evidence about the case developed in conjunction with the Meeks appeal, to use your presidential power to issue pardons or other appropriate Executive clemency to the remaining 48 sailors who should never have been tried for or convicted of mutiny in the first place.
Such an action would help bring closure to the many members of the families of men who have passed away and to many moreincluding the relatives and descendants of those who perished at Port Chicagowho have come to see the elderly sailors' burden as an important cause....
Even more importantly, it would establish for the historical record the inappropriateness of the prosecutions themselves for such an extreme and unsubstantiated charge as mutiny. For these men to carry the stigma of such a conviction, given the historical facts of the Port Chicago case, is a disgrace and can only be corrected by your action as President.
As all those who have reviewed the case now recognize, racism was a pervasive and humiliating feature of life at Port Chicago. Black sailors were not only exclusively assigned to the loading of munitions subject to the orders of white officers, but were housed, fed and drilled separately; they were not even permitted to use the same restroom facilities. Black sailors were given no training in the handling of the munitions, were not given any equipment (such as gloves), were misinformed about the nature of the hazards of the weapons, and were denied compassionate leave provided to white officers after the explosion that killed 320 of their fellow Navy men.
There has been no decision made, as of this writing.
One final thing to note. Recalling the (lack of) safety precautions and danger of the handling of ammunition at Port Chicago, consider this: Port Chicago was where the two atomic bombs that were dropped on Japan were shipped from.
(Sources: portchicagomutiny.com/history/history.html, www.cccoe.k12.ca.us/pc/welcom.htm, www.history.navy.mil/faqs/faq80-1.htm, text of Miller's press release from www.house.gov/georgemiller/rel71301.html, Zinn quote from A People's History of the United States 1980, 1999: twentieth anniversary edition)