In July of 1944, as the Allies were poised to win both the Western and Eastern fronts, there was a horrific explosion at a Naval port in San Francisco's East Bay.
The explosion, called the Port Chicago disaster, killed 320 servicemen and civilians and wounding 390 others. Roughly two-thirds of the men killed in the explosion were African Americans.
A month later, inspired by the horror of what they'd seen just thirty days earlier, servicemen refused to load munitions, leading to what was called the Port Chicago Mutiny. Fifty men, often called the Port Chicago 50, were convicted of mutiny and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor and dishonorably discharged. Forty-seven of the 50 were released from prison in January 1946, with the remaining three men serving additional months in prison.
This disaster is little discussed in most American retellings of World War II, for two main reasons. One, it did not stem from an attack but rather continued negligence on the part of the enlisted officers who continually pushed servicemen to load volatile munitions faster than was safely possible. Two, it resulted in a justified refusal of work and unjustified jailing of men under the pretext of mutiny. The fact that the majority of the men were African American, and that the majority of the men stationed at that port were viewed as the lowest rung on the Navy's ladder, serves to highlight the inequities within the military at the time.
The horrifying disaster did have some significant effects though. For one, the widespread publicity of the event at the time eventually led to the formal desegregation of Naval forces in February 1946.
Fifty years after the disaster, the Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial was dedicated to those that died. That memorial, however, did not exonerate the 50 men unjustly convicted of mutiny. That came more than twenty years after the memorial and more than 70 years after the atrocity.
On June 11, 2019, a resolution sponsored by U.S. Representative Mark DeSaulnier officially exonerated the 50 men court-martialed and dishonorably discharged.
At 10:18 p.m. on July 17, as more than 100 men were loading munitions into both the SS E. A. Bryan and another 100 or so men were rigging the SS Quinault Victory in preparation for munitions to be loaded into it, witnesses described hearing "a metallic sound and rending timbers, such as made by a falling boom." Immediately after that, an explosion on the pier caused a fire and within ten seconds of that a second, much larger explosion detonated.
According to a book written by Naval historian Robert A. Allen entitled The Port Chicago Mutiny, that second explosion produced a fireball that could be seen for miles. An Army Air Forces pilot flying in the area reported that the fireball was roughly 3 miles in diameter. The E. A. Bryan was destroyed almost instantly. Metal and body parts were strewn about the port. Out of the 320 men that died, only 51 were identifiable. In total, 202 African American men were killed and another 233 were injured, which accounted for 15 percent of African American casualties during World War II.
The explosion, while horrific and bloody, was not entirely unexpected based on the nature of munitions loading at the time. Captain Merrill T. Kinne, commander of Port Chicago at the time of the explosion, was well-known for pushing servicemen to load highly explosive munitions as fast as possible, at times substituting speed for safety. According to Allen, Kinne had no experience loading munitions and very little experience handling them. Kinne, however, was not the only officer who pushed servicemen to the point constituting abuse.
Captain Nelson Gross, Commander Mare Island Naval Yard, whose jurisdiction included Port Chicago, pushed enlisted men to load the munitions very quickly. According to the Naval Library, most enlisted men considered Gross' goal of 10 short tons per hatch per hour too high. Additionally, Allen reports that the junior officers would place bets amongst each other in support of their own 100 man crews, called divisions, and pushed their crews to load more so they could win more money. The enlisted men were aware the bets were technically a violation of Naval code but were forced to adhere to junior officers' demands.
Allen also reports that safety regulations at Port Chicago were severely inadequate. Enlisted men received two formal lectures and additional informal lectures about safety regulations. The regulations were posted at a single location on the pier rather than in the barracks as Kinne felt enlisted men could not comprehend the nature of the regulations.
On August 9, 1944, three divisions that were present during the Port Chicago Disaster that had been moved to Mare Island Naval Yard, were tasked with loading munitions onto the USS Sangay. Three hundred and twenty-eight men in total refused to load the munitions under the same conditions and same officers. Most of the men admitted they were willing to load the munitions but wanted adequate safety protections. As Allen, accurately points out, had the men been civilians this would have obviously been called a strike.
The Navy, not an institution to tolerate mass work stoppages of any kind but especially not during wartime, and 258 of the men were put into a makeshift brig, or prison, on the island after 70 of the group followed officers orders to load the munitions. That brig was only built to accommodate 75 men at maximum. Civilian contractors were called in to replace the imprisoned enlisted men.
By August 10, conflict was brewing. A fight broke out in the mess hall, conflict between the white officers as well as the Black officers and the imprisoned enlisted men continued to escalate and some of the imprisoned men were seen sharpening spoons into makeshift knives. Seaman First Class Joseph Randolph "Joe" Small, was tasked with controlling the more than 250 men now imprisoned.
According to Allen, Small reportedly gathered the group and told them, "We've got the officers by the balls—they can do nothing to us if we don't do anything to them. If we stick together, they can't do anything to us." Small highlighted that the Black shore patrolmen as guards was better than the alternative which was the white Marines as guards.
In total, 258 men were brought to a nearby sports field and lectured by Admiral Carleton H. Wright. Wright reportedly implored the men to load the munitions as the soldiers in the Pacific Theater were desperate. Wright also highlighted that failing to do so would result in a charge of mutiny, which carried the death penalty in times of war.
After Wright left, the men were asked to organize themselves into divisions based on who would follow what orders. Small and 44 others chose to form a group unwilling to obey any of the orders. On August 12, six men from obey-all divisions failed to show up for work. The six were put in the brig with the 44 others who failed to obey the orders, making 50 prisoners in all.
In total, 208 were court-martialed, sentenced to bad conduct charges and forfeit three months' pay. All of those 208 men were barred from receiving their military benefits because of the bad conduct charges. The 50 men who were imprisoned were identified as mutineers.
Throughout August, all of the 258 men were brought to Camp Shoemaker in Dublin for questioning. Forty-nine of the so-called mutineers were imprisoned in the brig. Joe Small was held in solitary confinement.
According to Allen, the officers questioned the man about potential ringleaders, hoping to identify those who initiated the work stoppage. Much of the interrogation was done in the presence of an armed guard. The enlisted men were asked to sign a statement following the interrogation. Some men refused to sign, indicating that the statement did not reflect what they had said. Others were pressured to sign.
While none of the 50 who refused all orders men were sentenced to death, most were sentenced to at least 10 years with some of the younger men getting their sentences reduced to eight. Regardless, the majority were granted clemency in 1946. Despite the clemency, the vast majority of the men were never able to attain their military benefits.
The Port Chicago Disaster and the subsequent mutiny served as a pivotal point in the eventual desegregation of Naval ranks. Additionally, the horror of the disaster led to increased safety protections regarding munitions. Despite all that, more than 200 hundred men were stripped of most of their benefits from service and the 50 who were convicted as mutineers were never able to regain any potential benefits.
The disaster at Port Chicago serves as a horrid reminder that little in this country's status quo changes without the blood and sacrifice of those brave enough to say no. While the loss of the 320 servicemen can never be fully repented, the courageous legacy of the Port Chicago 50 and all the men who said no, honors the legacy of the lost.
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