Jul 30

Racism, Mutiny, and Exoneration-The Port Chicago Disaster

Tuesday, July 30, 2019 11:53 AM

By

Loading ordnance aboard ship, Port Chicago Naval Magazine, circa 1943/44
(U.S. Navy/National Park Service)

The date is 17 July 1944. It’s nearing half past 10 PM, and the 24-hour cycle of munitions and cargo loading at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine, California is in full swing. Two merchant ships, the SS Quinault Victory and the SS E.A. Bryan, sit at the pier. The SS Quinault Victory is empty, the SS E.A. Bryan holds over 4,000 tons of ammunition, and sixteen railcars sitting on the pier contain 429 tons of ammunition. Hundreds of cargo handlers, munitions handlers, crewmen, and officers swarm the area, working tirelessly to load the two vessels with explosives, bombs, depth charges, and ammunition bound for the Pacific Theater. The vast majority of the men handling the munitions at the pier are African American, and their commanding officers are exclusively white. For all intents and purposes, it is a normal night for the men doing their part to serve their country. But by the next day, 17 July 1944 would forever be known as the day of the largest home front disaster during World War II.

At 10:18 p.m., the men working at Port Chicago are interrupted by the sound of splintering wood and a deafening explosion. Little pops and cracks ring out as smaller bits of ammunition are ignited, and a menacing column of black smoke rises into the sky. Seconds after the initial blast, almost all of contents in the SS E.A. Bryan are detonated in a single, earthshaking explosion. The pier, the two vessels, and the various structures surrounding the pier are decimated in an instant. Buildings all around the Port Chicago area shake, their windows shattering, and their occupants flung to the ground by the sheer force of the blast. Servicemen resting in the barracks or working at the base nearby are showered in dust, glass, and rouge pieces of smoldering metal plummeting back towards the earth. The blast is so powerful that it is felt in parts of Nevada, and it causes damage 48 miles away in San Francisco. Seismographs at the nearby University of California, Berkley later showed the explosion to be as powerful as a 3.4 earthquake on the Richter Scale. Of the 320 men on duty at the pier that night, not a single one escaped alive.

Damage to the nearby barracks, taken on 18 July 1944, one day following the explosion.
(U.S. Navy/National Park Service)

Not long after the devastating explosion ripped through Port Chicago, military personnel and civilians alike rushed to where the pier once stood to control the fires. All over the area, the injured were triaged and whisked away to hospitals by emergency crews and members of the public eager to do their part. When the fires were at last controlled, it fell upon the uninjured sailors to pick up the pieces. The corpses and body parts of their brothers in arms littered the surrounding land and water. Many of the men killed in the blast were so badly damaged that only 51 of the 320 dead were positively identified. Of those killed, 202 were African American, accounting for 15% of all African American naval casualties during the Second World War. An additional 390 individuals, military and civilian, were injured by the blast.

A view of Pier 1 on 18 July 1944, one day after the explosion.
(U.S. Navy/National Park Service)

By the end of August, most of the men present at Port Chicago that day were relocated. While some were shipped out of the area for duty elsewhere, the men of Divisions Two, Four and Eight were sent to the nearby Mare Island Naval Yard. Understandably, many of them were shaken to the core by what happened, particularly those who were near to the pier and/or involved in the cleanup efforts. Many of the white officers present during the disaster requested and were granted a 30-day “survivor’s leave”, allowing them time to rest and recover from the carnage they witnessed on the night of 17 July. However not a single African American sailor, even the ones who sustained injuries in the explosion and ensuing cleanup efforts, were allowed time off to deal with the trauma.

On 8 August 1944, the men of the aforementioned Divisions were instructed to resume their work at the ammunition depot and loading piers at Mare Island. In the time between the explosion and these orders, they received no time off, no further safety instruction, and no offers of any psychological counseling or assistance. 328 African American enlisted men gathered and marched back towards the dangerous task of loading and unloading munitions. During this march, they hit a fork in the road. When instructed to go to the left, towards the loading area, they all came to an abrupt halt. Despite urging from their officers, the men refused to move forward. They explained that they were still afraid after what they had seen at Port Chicago and did not wish to continue working under the same conditions that lead to the deaths of so many of their peers. They demanded better training, new officers, and time to recover from the traumatic events. Before they knew it, the white officers had a mass work stoppage (strike in civilian terms) on their hands.

African American ordnance battalion Sailors assembling 5-inch shells in a Port Chicago Naval Magazine workshop, circa 1943/44. Note the improvised nature of the work area.
(U.S. Navy/National Park Service)

Before I continue into the legal proceedings which followed the sailors’ protest, I would like to backtrack to before the incident, and discuss with you the decisions made with regard to the training of Black enlisted personnel. The court of inquiry which examined the incident found that only the white officers present at Port Chicago were directly trained in munitions handling. While their instruction was far from perfect, time was taken to have them learn from experienced officers and ordnancemen at the Naval Ammunition Depot, Mare Island. On the other hand, the Navy came to the conclusion that the enlisted men, the vast majority of whom were African American, were not intellectually and/or emotionally capable of receiving the same level of training as their white officers. The court of inquiry described these men as “particularly susceptible to mass psychology and moods, lacking mechanical aptitude, suspicious of strange officers, disliked receiving orders of any kind, and were inclined to look for and make an issue of discrimination”. It was thus up to the white officers to impart the necessary information upon the divisions in their command. However, the information passed along to the enlisted men was not always accurate. Many were told that the materials they were handling were not active, and thus not at risk for detonation during loading. White officers also encouraged competition between the divisions, assuring the men under their command that loading powder into shells as quickly as possible was perfectly safe and sound. At the end of the day, the African American men who stepped up to the plate to serve their country during the war were seen as lesser in almost every way. This racism influenced the quality of training and preparation of these men and contributed directly to the unimaginable amount of tragedy caused by the Port Chicago disaster.

75 of the 328 men who refused to return to work eventually conceded and took up their positions once again. The remaining 258 African American sailors were rounded up and taken to a barge utilized as a temporary brig. The barge was built to accommodate only 75 men. A few days later, Admiral Wright addressed these men, warning them that if they did not return to their work, their actions would be considered mutinous. He reminded the sailors that mutiny was punishable by death during wartime, and mentioned the perils of death by firing squad. The men were even further divided following these threats, with around 200 agreeing to return to work under pain of death. Many of these men were subject to lighter forms of punishment, such as receiving a dock in their pay. But 50 men held fast in their refusal. They were imprisoned, some even placed in solitary confinement, and officially declared mutineers. These men are now known as “The Port Chicago 50”.

None of these 50 men received a death sentence, however each and every one of them were found guilty of mutiny. All had their rank reduced to seamen apprentice, and all were sentenced to 8-15 years of hard labor followed by a dishonorable discharge. Their sentences drew the attention of Thurgood Marshall, then working on behalf of the NAACP. Marshall published essays, circulated petitions, and issued general calls to the public to denounce the actions of the Navy in response to the Port Chicago disaster, and demanded the men be released. Following the conclusion of World War II, the Navy found it difficult to justify such harsh sentences for mutiny, and many of the prisoners had their sentences slightly reduced, and their dishonorable discharges changed to discharges under honorable circumstances. Most of the men were released by 9 January 1946.

A scene from the mass trial held for The Port Chicago 50 on Yerba Buena Island, California.
(U.S. Navy)

While none of the men imprisoned for protesting poor working conditions and institutional racism in the Navy served their full sentences, their charges as mutineers remained attached to their names until the day they died. Over the years, some political leaders have led initiatives to have The Port Chicago 50 officially exonerated, though none ever carried through. President Bill Clinton did issue an official pardon to Freddie Meeks, one of the last remaining individuals of The Port Chicago 50, in 1999, however many were still dissatisfied. Pardons are acts of forgiveness for those who are still considered to be guilty of a crime.

However, this year, which marked the 75th anniversary of the Port Chicago Disaster, concurrent resolution H.Con.Res.49 was sponsored by Representative Mark DeSaulnier (D) of California’s 11th congressional district. This resolution, which was included in the National Defense Authorization Act, H.R. 2500, demanded the recognition of the victims of the Port Chicago disaster, and most importantly the exoneration of the 50 African American sailors charged with mutiny as a result. On 11 June 2019, this initiative was passed by the 116th Congress, and the records of the Port Chicago 50 will finally be wiped clean.

If you wish to learn more about the Port Chicago disaster, please read the following article from the February 2015 Naval History magazine.

https://www.usni.org/magazines/naval-history-magazine/2015/february/disaster-desegregation