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Sailors work on the piers at Port Chicago Naval Magazine. (U.S. Navy Photo. Courtesy of Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial)

CONCORD -- Seventy years ago today, a horrific explosion at the Port Chicago Naval munitions base claimed hundreds of lives. It also laid bare the ugly truth about racism in the United States military during World War II.

The subsequent mutiny trial and convictions of 50 African-American sailors who refused to resume loading ammunition under working conditions they believed were unsafe helped set the stage for the modern Civil Rights Movement.

Although the Port Chicago disaster was the war's deadliest home-front accident, many Americans still are unfamiliar with the tragedy and its legacy. Port Chicago hasn't been recorded in most history books or memorialized as a "date which will live in infamy." Although there is a National Park Service memorial at the still active Military Ocean Terminal Concord, it won't be open for the 70th anniversary because the Army is loading live ammunition there this summer.

Yet, for the few remaining survivors and families of the 202 African-American victims and the convicted mutineers, Port Chicago stands as a testament to courage, an indictment of injustice and a monument to resistance.

"The (survivors) that I talked to want people to know that they did their best in a poor situation, they did their best to help win the war," said Rev. Diana McDaniel, board president of the Friends of Port Chicago National Memorial. "They were patriotic and proud of America and they wanted to go fight ... but they got stuck loading munitions and they knew it was important."

THE EXPLOSION


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About 10:18 p.m. July 17, 1944, two explosions in rapid succession shook the Naval munitions base on Suisun Bay. Fire and smoke shot up two miles in the air above the base, and the blast was felt over a huge area, including as far away as Boulder City, Nev., near Las Vegas.

In an instant, 320 men were simply obliterated -- most of their bodies too ripped apart to be identified. The blast shattered windows in the barracks a mile from the pier, raining glass and debris down on off-duty sailors. In the nearby town of Port Chicago, the explosion damaged buildings and injured residents. A total of 390 people were wounded that night.

Chaos, confusion and fear gripped the darkened naval base. Some sailors believed the Japanese had bombed them, but others quickly concluded there had been an explosion at the pier where the SS E.A. Bryan sat loaded with about 4,600 tons of bombs, ammunition and depth charges. An additional 429 tons of munitions, packed onto 16 railroad cars, waited on the pier to be transferred into the holds of the SS Quinault Victory also docked there.

Enlisted men and officers who rushed to the waterfront found a nightmarish scene -- the pier was gone, and the E.A. Bryan had been reduced to pieces. The Quinault Victory's stern had landed upside down in the water 500 feet away.

William Mundon, of Ohio, a survivor of the 1944 Port Chicago Explosion, takes time to reflect in 1998 at the site where 320 munitions loaders and others
William Mundon, of Ohio, a survivor of the 1944 Port Chicago Explosion, takes time to reflect in 1998 at the site where 320 munitions loaders and others were killed in the Concord Naval Weapons Station blast. (Contra Costa Times/Susan Pollard)

Irvin Lowery, McDaniel's late uncle, was stationed at Port Chicago as a physical recreation instructor. He was sitting on his bunk when the force of the blast threw him across the room and into the windows, McDaniel said.

"They were put to work immediately cleaning up. They were picking up shoes with feet in them and gloves with hands in them," she recalled Lowery saying. "He said he didn't sleep for three days due to the cleaning up. He discovered he had glass in his back when he finally lay down."

SEGREGATION AND RACISM

Patriotism and a desire to help the war effort drove black men to enlist in the armed services, said Robert Allen, author of the definitive book about the disaster, "The Port Chicago Mutiny: The Story of the Largest Mass Mutiny Trial in U.S. Naval History."

Freddie Meeks, a survivor of the July 17, 1944, explosion that blew up two ships at a weapons shipping depot in Port Chicago, holds a picture of himself as
Freddie Meeks, a survivor of the July 17, 1944, explosion that blew up two ships at a weapons shipping depot in Port Chicago, holds a picture of himself as a young seaman at his Los Angeles home July 14, 1994. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzelo)

For African-Americans living under dehumanizing Jim Crow policies in the South and less overt but still institutional racism in the North, military service held for them the promise of recognition as full citizens, Allen said.

But in 1944, every branch of the U.S. armed forces was segregated. Most black enlistees were assigned menial labor as cooks, stewards and drivers. At Port Chicago, only black sailors were given the dangerous job of loading munitions onto cargo ships headed for the Pacific theater. Many had not been trained to safely handle explosives (nor were the officers, all of whom were white). The official explosion investigation found no one at fault, but described the black sailors as "poor material" for training in handling munitions, requiring "unusually close supervision."

July 18, 1944 - Two ammunition ships explode at Port Chicago.
July 18, 1944 - Two ammunition ships explode at Port Chicago.

Even in death, Port Chicago's black sailors could not escape racism. Congress reduced the maximum benefit for victims' families from $5,000 to $3,000 to placate a Mississippi representative who complained because most of the eligible recipients were black, according to Allen.

THE MUTINY TRIAL

After the explosion, white officers were given 30 days leave, but black sailors were not. At the Mare Island Naval Shipyard on Aug. 9, the sailors contended they were asked whether they were willing to resume loading bombs and ammunition, while the officers insisted they ordered the sailors to do so. Still shaken and afraid, 258 of them refused. Under threat of a death sentence for "mutinous conduct" during wartime, 208 of the men eventually agreed to return to work. The remaining 50 were charged with mutiny.

The trial began Sept. 14 in a makeshift courtroom on Treasure Island. The prosecutor argued that by refusing to load ammunition, the sailors had conspired to undermine the authority of their superior officers. The defense countered that the men acted only out of fear. On Oct. 24, after deliberating for less than two hours, the court found all 50 of the sailors guilty; each was sentenced to eight to 15 years in prison. Although the convictions weren't overturned as future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and other advocates had demanded, the Navy released the sailors from prison in January 1946 and sent them overseas.

Today, supporters including Allen and McDaniel maintain the sailors engaged in a "work stoppage," not mutiny. A key point, Allen said: There was no attempt to seize any control from the officers.

Over the years, Bay Area politicians have joined members of the Friends of Port Chicago National Memorial to push for exoneration of the 50 convicted sailors, all of whom have since died.

"They asked a simple question 'What happened here?' and that was viewed as a mutiny," said Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, who wrote the 1994 bill that created the Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial. "I think that the memorial is important and a clear delineation of the facts is important, and for people whose reputations were harmed we should try to sort that out and the historical record should be corrected."

In 1999, President Bill Clinton pardoned Freddie Meeks, one of the 50 convicted men. Today, supporters are exploring whether to pursue federal legislation, press the Navy for full exoneration or appeal to President Barack Obama for more pardons.

LEGACY OF PORT CHICAGO

Shortly after the explosion, seeking to deflect charges that the Port Chicago base was segregated, the Navy brought in two divisions of white sailors to load ammunition, but they weren't assigned to work with black sailors. Next, the training facilities, bases and, finally, the ships were integrated. By the time President Harry Truman issued the historic executive order desegregating the armed forces in 1948, the Navy more or less already had done that, Allen said. Although officers and enlisted men alike resisted, the radical experiment of blacks and whites living and serving side by side in the military largely took place without the widespread violence many feared.

The young black men who fought the war, and the black women who worked in the defense industry, joined high school students to become the "foot soldiers" in the Civil Rights Movement, according to Allen.

Port Chicago, Allen contends, must be remembered because it's a remarkable story about young African-American men -- many just teenagers -- standing up to the most powerful Navy in the world and forcing it to change.

"It's a story about tragedy and loss but it's also a story about struggle that actually, in a curious way, succeeds despite the fact that all these men went to jail," he said. "Struggle is what is necessary for change."

Lisa P. White covers Concord and Pleasant Hill. Contact her at 925-943-8011. Follow her at Twitter.com/lisa_p_white.

port chicago 70th anniversary events
  • The Port Chicago Disaster at 70: A Symposium on Race and the Military During World War II
    8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., Today
    Diablo Valley College, 321 Golf Club Road, Pleasant Hill.
  • Commemoration and tours of S.S. Red Oak Victory ship
    10 a.m. to noon, Saturday
    Shipyard No. 3, Kaiser Shipyards, Richmond.