The Moral Universe – What Happened at Port Chicago was not Mutiny

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It seems impossible to start a new post without referring to current events. It is more important than ever, I believe, that white people understand the twisted history of the African-American experience in the United States. While many of the tragedies have led to civil rights legislation, the cumulative effect of this history has left scars on millions of our fellow citizens.

My friend Don told me about the Port Chicago incident last Labor Day weekend, and the subject has been on my “write about” list since. It was the release of Steve Sheinkin’s book on CD for young adults that finally spurred me to get down to business.

Port Chicago bookcoverThe Port Chicago 50 is a short and concise history of the explosion and the mutiny trial of 50 African-American sailors, a perfect read or listen for young people and adults as well. Read by Dominic Hoffman, it would make a good project for Black History Month. (Even though it is American history, I doubt you’ll ever find it in a regular history textbook.)

During World War II, thousands of African-American men were ready, willing and eager to sign up for military service. Joe Small went with a friend to a recruitment center to enlist in the Army. It was late in the day and the white officer was in a hurry to close the office. He signed Joe’s friend up for the Army and Joe for the Navy. He did not tell Joe that the Navy was segregated and that black men could only serve as mess workers and would never actually go to sea.

Joe was assigned to Port Chicago, at the time an isolated Naval Magazine outside of San Francisco. There he was assigned, along with other black servicemen, to load live ammunition and bombs onto ships. Joe was a born leader, and the other men looked up to him and often sought his advice; he became the foreman of his group. None of them was happy that the white officers often bet each other as to whose group could load the ammunition fastest. The sailors had had no training in loading live ammunition at all, and an offer by a San Francisco teamsters’ group to come instruct them was turned down by the Navy.

quinault

The remains of the SS Quinault Victory. The SS E.A. Bryan was completely disintegrated by the blast.

On July 17, 1944, around 10 pm, during a loading session, a bomb went off, killing most every sailor nearby and even civilians in the town of Port Chicago while also rattling windows in San Francisco. The SSEA Bryan, carrying 4,600 tons of ammunition already, and the SS Quinault Victory, carrying 430 tons of bombs, were blown sky-high. The blast sent up a 30-foot wall of water. Of the 320 killed, 202 were black enlisted men. Of the 390 injured, 233 were black enlisted men. (These facts come from the American Merchant Marine at War website, www.usmm.org.)

After the blast, the black sailors were ordered back to work. On the parade ground, Joe and his group of 250 men stood still. One officer after another came out to harangue them, and 200 of the men eventually went back to work. Fifty men were detained in a barracks while the Navy tried to figure out what to do with them.

joe smallThe detained men held a meeting at which Joe was the unofficial chair. They decided to continue to refuse the load ammunition, saying that they were scared to do so because nothing about the operation had changed and another explosion could happen at any time.

The 50 were court-martialed on charges of mutiny. In fact, the military definition of mutiny was based on not just refusing orders, but actually attempting to take over the authorities and establish the mutineers’ own authority. The fact that the men had held a meeting indicated conspiracy, said the prosecutor, Lieut. Cmdr. Joseph Coakley, despite the fact that the men all volunteered to serve in active duty or any other duty than loading live ammunition.

Lieut. Gerald Veltmann’s defense of the 50 failed and they were all sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment. Thurgood Marshall, then an NAACP lawyer, appealed the verdict, but it was upheld.

Attempts were made over the years to exonerate and/or pardon the black sailors over the years. In 1999, President Clinton did pardon Freddie Meeks, 80 years old at the time. Mr. Meeks, one of the last surviving members of the 50, was grateful. However, a pardon is not the same as having the conviction overturned, and there are still activists who would like to see this happen.

The Navy was desegregated in 1945.

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