Port Chicago disaster remembered

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PORT CHICAGO, Calif. ― In what would become a pivotal moment in the civil rights struggle, 320 men died July 17, 1944 in a munitions explosion aboard a ship being loaded at the Port Chicago Navy Magazine with armaments bound for the war in the Pacific. This base was the largest weapons transfer facility on the West Coast. Some 1,431 Black enlisted personnel served there together with 71 officers, 106 Marines who guarded the base, and 231 civilian skilled workers.

To this day, the Navy has refused to investigate the cause of the explosion, and efforts are still underway to demand an investigation.

Felt as far as San Francisco, some 60 miles away, the explosion completely destroyed two munitions ships and the town of Port Chicago surrounding the naval base. Of those killed, 202 were African Americans. Only Blacks were assigned the dangerous job of loading ammunition, with no prior training in weapons handling. The discrimination stretched even to the compensation awarded to the families of those killed: the Navy gave $5,000 to white families, but only $3,000 to Black families.

The explosion and its aftermath led to the start of desegregation of the U.S. Armed Forces, a goal not achieved until President Truman’s decree in 1948.

Since the pier at Port Chicago was also destroyed, operations had to be transferred to other regional ports. Three weeks after the disaster, when the surviving, already traumatized Black sailors were ordered to resume loading at Mare Island, 258 men refused, protesting both the unchanged dangerous working conditions and the continuing discrimination. When the Navy called the work stoppage a mutiny, 50 men were singled out for court martial, swiftly convicted of mutiny and sentenced to 8-15 years in prison.

By the end of the war, pressured by Thurgood Marshall, an NAACP-led public protest campaign and Eleanor Roosevelt, the Navy began reducing the sentences, and in January 1946 released all but three of the men. Most refused the offer of a pardon because of the implication they had done something wrong, and the convictions of mutiny still stand.

The 65th anniversary of the tragedy was commemorated July 18 in ceremonies at Port Chicago. The National Park Service and Friends of Port Chicago National Memorial organized the event, attended by over 250 people, including several survivors of the explosion and family members of those lost. An audience participation segment of the program yielded many heart-rending stories from the families. Six middle school students, members of the Cougar Cadet Corps, read excerpts from oral histories of survivors.

Speakers included California Senator Mark DeSaulnier, D-Contra Costa County, and California Senator Roderick D. Wright, D-Los Angeles County. Wright is working on a campaign for full exoneration of all 50 mutineers, full compensation with interest to the families of Black sailors killed and a ship to be named in honor of the disaster. A fourth demand relates to several victims’ graves marked only “Unknown Sailor.” Sen. Wright wants to have one of those moved to Arlington National Cemetery and he is urging President Obama to honor the survivors in a White House ceremony.

A representative of U.S. Representative George Miller, D-Calif., reported that the previous week he introduced the Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial Enhancement Act of 2009, which passed the House, 415 to 3. Senator Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., introduced a companion bill the following day, and that vote is pending.

If enacted, the bill would convert the current Port Chicago memorial into an official National Park Service Site. This would create a Visitor and Interpretive Center to “promote greater public awareness of the events surrounding the tragedy and the historical significance of the mutiny trial as a catalyst for civil rights in our country,” according to the Friends of Port Chicago National Memorial brochure.

Robert L. Allen tells this important history in great detail in his 2006 book, The Port Chicago Mutiny: the Story of the Largest Mass Mutiny Trial in U.S. Naval History. And actor Morgan Freeman’s docudrama, “The Port Chicago Mutiny,” can be seen at www.portchicagomutiny.com.

A commemoration of the 65th anniversary of the mutiny will take place at Mare Island on Aug. 9, at 2 pm. For more information: www.nps.gov/poch or www.friendsofportchicago.