July 17, 2020 marks the 76th anniversary of a frequently overlooked episode during World War II that had profound changes on the US military and the legal and social structure of American society. As with many aspects of our history involving equity and justice, the events surrounding what happened at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine that night continue to affect our perceptions of history and the legal system decades later.
Whether by choice or by circumstance, the US military has been at the forefront of social change, especially when it comes to matters of diversity and equality, gender, and sexual preference. The aftermath of the Port Chicago disaster compelled a re-evaluation of the role of racial minorities in the military following World War II, a consequential prologue to the broader civil rights movement that changed America.
The disparate treatment of African Americans during World War II era is well-documented; minorities (especially Black and Asian citizens) whether or not they wore the uniform. During the war, stories of the indignities and violence circulated widely and the black press, and civil rights leaders pressured the Roosevelt administration for serious action to address discrimination.
At Port Chicago, Black sailors who had been trained for combat roles were instead relegated to loading munitions aboard ships under the supervision of white officers. A premium was placed on speed and efficiency; the officers would conduct “races” among teams of loaders with little regard for safety. Neither the Black sailors nor the officers were trained adequately for the dangerous work; many loaders reported they were not even given gloves for handling the 600 pound bombs and other munitions including highly volatile incendiaries fitted with detonators. So little training was provided while the longshore union warned that a catastrophe was imminent.
On July 17, that admonition came true with almost unimaginable consequences. For reasons that can never be accurately determined, a cataclysmic series of explosions—the largest man-made detonation in history to that point—erupted with the force of 5,000 tons of TNT. Instantly, 320 men, two-thirds of them African American, were killed and hundreds more were injured. The ships they were loading were nearly obliterated; a locomotive evaporated. The force of the blasts was felt 20 miles away in San Francisco.
In the aftermath, white officers were given hardship leaves and Black survivors were ordered to clean up the decimated base, including the remains of their dead colleagues. Then they were ordered to resume loading operations at the Mare Island Ammunition Depot across the Sacramento River in Vallejo. Without an explanation for what had happened at Port Chicago or additional training, dozens of the sailors refused.
After being threatened with harsh disciplinary action, many relented, but 50 continued their protest and were charged with mutiny, an extraordinarily rare accusation and one that significantly distorted what had occurred.
After a military trial that documented the inequities in the treatment of the Black sailors, the Port Chicago 50 were all convicted and given 15 year prison sentences. Appeals by the NAACP and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt were unsuccessful. Only after the war were the men released from prison and reassigned to duty, many at sea. For many, with the end of the war, the story of the Port Chicago explosion and the disturbing prosecution of the sailors was forgotten, although the 1948 decision of President Harry Truman to issue an Executive Order desegregating the military had roots in the controversy over the mutiny convictions.
For the Port Chicago 50, however, there was no justice, and most lived the rest of their lives concealing their experience even from their own families. Only in the early 1990s did Congress begin looking into the case, led by Rep. George Miller whose district included the Port Chicago site. In 1994, Congress created the Port Chicago Naval Magazine Memorial, which is now part of the National Park System. The Secretary of Defense agreed that racism was a chronic problem at the facility, and in 1999, President Bill Clinton granted a pardon to Freddie Meeks, one of the few sailors remaining alive. A decade and a half later, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus endorsed additional “executive action in favor of the 49 remaining Sailors. . .in light of the well documented challenges associated with uniformed service by African Americans during that era.”
History demands such compassion for the sailors of Port Chicago, and the current attention to racial inequities in our society should encourage efforts to provide them long-delayed justice. When a reexamination established the unjust conviction of the captain of the USS Indianapolis, Cap. Charles McVay, Congress passed a resolution exonerating him of responsibility for the loss of his ship in 1945. Similar action should be taken on behalf of the Port Chicago 50.
In fact, the House of Representatives passed such an exoneration resolution last year under the leadership of Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, who now represents the Port Chicago site. But the Senate refused to agree to the provision, and it was amended to delete the exoneration, although it gave that power to the president and military leadership.
As we prepare to mark the 76th anniversary of the Port Chicago disaster, this long overlooked event of World War II deserves renewed public attention, and the sailors who still carry the stigma of a mutiny conviction deserve exoneration.