On July 17, 1944, when the war in the Pacific was raging, 320 sailors and civilians died instantly and 390 were injured at a naval base north of San Francisco when 5,000 tons of munitions–including 1,000-pound aerial bombs, 40 mm artillery shells, incendiary and fragmentation bombs, and anti-submarine depth charges–exploded while being loaded onto transport ships.
The blast registered 3.4 on the Richter scale and could be felt 450 miles away. The explosion was the worst stateside disaster of World War II.
Most of the dead and wounded sailors were African-American enlisted men. They accounted for 15 percent of all African-American naval casualties during the war.
“This is the Navy on trial for its
whole vicious policy toward Negroes.”
NAACP attorney, future U.S. Supreme Court Justice
defending the Chicago 50
The men were munitions loaders, doing one of the few jobs available to African-Americans during a time when the Navy, like all branches of the military, was segregated. At the time, there were about 100,000 African-American servicemen in the Navy but not one officer. Most were cooks or stevedores of one type or another.
At Port Chicago, all the loaders were African-American, and all their commanding officers were white. None of the loaders had been formally trained in handling and loading of explosive munitions. They had been assured that the munitions were not active but would be armed overseas. The loading officers set overly ambitious goals, pitted loading teams against one another, and even bet on the outcomes.
On August 8, 328 surviving loaders, along with some fresh recruits, were asked to resume loading munitions. All said they were afraid and that they would not load munitions under the same officers and conditions as before.
On August 9, 70 men agreed to load. The 258 men who refused were sent to a makeshift prison barge. After all 258 men were interviewed, 208 men were convicted in summary court-martial proceedings of disobeying orders. They were assigned menial duties.
At the end of their enlistment, each received bad conduct discharges, which meant the loss of virtually all veterans’ benefits.
Fifty of the 258 men were charged with mutiny, a crime punishable by death during war time. The Navy conducted the court-martial proceedings on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay between San Francisco and Oakland. The press and others were invited to observe the first mutiny trial in World War II and the largest mass trial the Navy had ever convened.
Thurgood Marshall, then the chief special counsel for the NAACP, went to observe. “This is not an individual case,” he said. “This is not 50 men on trial for mutiny. This is the Navy on trial for its whole vicious policy toward Negroes.”
The defense argued in a pre-trial brief that the Chicago 50, as they were called, had not conspired to seize command from their superior officers, but rather they refused to do certain work under certain conditions. The court rejected the motion to dismiss the charge of mutiny.
On Oct. 24, the court found all 50 defendants guilty of mutiny. Each man was reduced in rank and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor to be followed by dishonorable discharge. The sentence for 40 of the men was reduced.
Marshall appealed the decision. “I can’t understand why whenever more than one Negro disobeys an order it is mutiny,” he said.
The military court, in another 1945 court-martial proceeding, reaffirmed each of the mutiny convictions and sentences.
Finally, in 1946, the Navy released all of the 50 men, except one for bad conduct, and gave them a general discharge “under honorable conditions”. However, the mutiny convictions remained a stain on their records.
In 1948, President Truman ordered the desegregation of the military, an action that historians attribute in part to the allegations of systemic racism stemming from the Port Chicago case.
But the men who were convicted of mutiny were not pardoned.
In 1994, the Navy reviewed the case, but it declined to expunge the convictions. “Sailors are required to obey the orders of their superiors,” said William J. Perry, then secretary of defense, “even if those orders subject them to life-threatening danger.”
In 1999, President Clinton pardoned Freddie Meeks, then 80 and one of just three surviving members of the Chicago 50, reported the New York Times.
“The lesson is we stood up for our rights,” said Meeks. “We stood up to get the same rights the whites had. We all should have been treated the same, because we were all in the Navy and were going to fight for the same purpose. But they thought we should do the dirty work.”
On July 17, 2016, the National Park Service will commemorate the 72nd anniversary of the Port Chicago disaster at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial.
On its web site, the Park Service acknowledges the importance of Port Chicago’s history: “The explosion and its aftermath led to the largest Naval mutiny in US history, and it and the subsequent trial became major catalysts for the United States Navy to desegregate following the war.”
By Mike Brown, firstname.lastname@example.org