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War, ‘mutiny’ and civil rights: Remembering Port Chicago

To mark the 70th anniversary of a homefront disaster that led to the mutiny convictions of 50 African American sailors — and to the desegregation of the U.S. military — a number of Berkeley scholars, including sociologist Robert Allen and historian Leon Litwack, are set to take part in a July 17 symposium at Diablo Valley College on the "Port Chicago 50."

Wrecked pier after the explosion at Port Chicago

A view of the wrecked pier after the explosion at Port Chicago. The submerged stern of the Quinault Victory is visible at upper right. (U.S. Navy photo, courtesy of Robert Allen)

Just after 10:18 p.m. on July 17, 1944, UC Berkeley seismographs measured what looked like a 3.4-magnitude earthquake. Far from a routine temblor, though, this was a seismic event of a different kind: a ferocious explosion at the Port Chicago naval base, the worst stateside disaster of World War II.

The cargo ship E.A. Bryan, docked at the base east of Martinez on the southern bank of the Sacramento, was loaded with 4,000-plus tons of bombs and ammunition, roughly half its capacity, when it lit up the East Bay skies. With the explosive force of five kilotons of TNT, the blast instantly killed 320 men, 202 of them African American, and injured another 390 military personnel and civilians. The Quinault Victory, set to start taking on munitions later that night, was also destroyed, along with the base itself and much of the small town of Port Chicago, more than a mile away. The Bryan was so decimated that its wreckage was never recovered. Neither were most of the bodies.

Robert Allen

Robert Allen

Aftershocks followed. The explosion led to the six-week trial — and dismayingly swift conviction — of 50 black sailors, whose refusal to return to loading ammunition was judged by the Navy to be mutiny. But Berkeley sociologist Robert Allen, who spent years poring over records and interviewing Port Chicago survivors, views the “mutiny” as an act of resistance, best understood in the context of other protests by African American servicemen during wartime, and of the nationwide civil-rights movement it foreshadowed.

“What happened there was what was happening to black labor generally — namely, to be segregated into the most demeaning jobs, the hardest jobs, the lowest-paying jobs,” says Allen, whose 1989 book, The Port Chicago Mutiny, sparked a resurrection of public interest in a pivotal moment in the history of U.S. race relations. “That was the history of black labor, going back to sharecropping, the Jim Crow system, all of that. These guys were products of that themselves.”

Allen, a soft-spoken Georgia native and recently retired Berkeley adjunct professor, will moderate a panel discussion at a 70th-anniversary symposium July 17 at Diablo Valley College, near the site of the disaster. A second panel at the event, which will feature speakers including historian Leon Litwack, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Berkeley professor emeritus, will be moderated by John Lawrence, a Berkeley Ph.D. and former chief of staff to East Bay congressman George Miller, with whom he has worked for federal recognition and exoneration for the convicted sailors.

‘Remember Port Chicago?’

Allen himself was unaware of the case until 1976, when he came across a pamphlet written in 1945 by Thurgood Marshall, a future Supreme Court justice, for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. It began with a question: “Remember Port Chicago?”

Allen read on. The brochure laid out not only the facts of the case, but the broader racial context. All of the roughly 1,400 enlisted men assigned to load ammunition at the base were black, while all the commissioned officers were white. The African American sailors could not become officers, or even transfer laterally to other types of work — including combat, which is why many had volunteered for service in the first place.

Black sailors unload ammunition at Port Chicago under the watch of a white officer.

Black sailors, supervised by a white officer, unload ammunition at Port Chicago.

“A racially segregated base — here in California,” Allen says, his wonder at the discovery still evident. “And segregated by federal law at that.” The sailors, he adds, “were basically locked in a prison called Port Chicago Naval Depot.”

And though neither enlisted men nor officers were trained to handle bombs, they faced constant, round-the-clock pressure to ship ammunition from Port Chicago, built in response to Japan’s 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. The odds of a catastrophic accident were not lost on the men.

After the worst finally happened — an explosion so violent it blew a 440-foot Navy vessel to bits, along with any clues to the accident’s cause — the survivors were understandably fearful of returning to work.

“Keep in mind that half of them are teenagers,” Allen says. “These are kids, terrified of going back to work and getting killed in another explosion.”

Joseph Small, who was 23 when the Bryan blew and respected by most of his younger crewmates, recalled in interviews with Allen how the survivors were expected simply to return to their regular jobs: “The men said, ‘Well, what are you going to do?’ And he said, ‘I’m not going back to the same work under the same conditions under the same officers.’

“That’s the language of a strike. That’s exactly what the stevedores would have said on the waterfront here if they were engaged in a wildcat strike,” Allen says. “But there’s no such thing in the military. And so they get put on trial for mutiny, and for their very lives.”

Labeled a “ringleader,” Small was among the 50 sailors convicted by a panel of admirals. Their defense counsel, a white Navy lieutenant, argued that the men — many of whom acted heroically in the wake of the accident — may have refused to follow orders, but had made no concerted effort to seize command from established military authorities, and so were not guilty of mutiny.

‘This is the Navy on trial’

Outside the San Francisco courtroom, meanwhile, Thurgood Marshall was raising broader issues. “This is not 50 men on trial for mutiny,” he declared. “This is the Navy on trial for its whole vicious policy toward Negroes.”

Nonetheless, after barely an hour of deliberation, all 50 men were sentenced to 15 years in prison, to be followed by dishonorable discharge from the Navy. (The end of the war brought their early release.) But they also won a crucial victory. The notoriety of their plight — which had prompted Eleanor Roosevelt to send a copy of Marshall’s pamphlet to Navy Secretary James Forrestal, with the wish that “in the case of these boys special care will be taken” — led to two white divisions sharing the work of loading ammunition at Port Chicago.

“That’s the very first step in beginning to desegregate the Navy, when they bring in these guys to do the same work that only blacks were doing before,” Allen says. Over the next year the Navy would permit mixed crews of black and white sailors, though initially limiting black sailors to 10 percent of crews on some auxiliary vessels, and 30 percent at ammunition depots. (The other military branches remained segregated until 1948.)

With the dawn of the postwar era, the explosion and subsequent trial — not to mention their larger significance — were relegated to footnotes in history. “So by the time I was onto it, it was really lost to memory,” Allen says. “And I became interested in trying to find out what had happened.”

It would be 13 years before The Port Chicago Mutiny was completed. Its publication quickly led to an Emmy Award-winning KRON documentary, and then to a spate of other articles, movies and books. (Steve Sheinkin, who recently published a book on the topic for younger readers, is scheduled to speak at Diablo Valley College next week.)

As media attention grew, so did public interest and political efforts to “remember Port Chicago.” Prodded by Lawrence — now a visiting professor at the UC Washington Center — Rep. Miller and others pushed Congress to create the Port Chicago National Memorial at the site of the explosion in 1994, and helped persuade President Clinton to pardon one of the few surviving convicted sailors in 1999.

Yet the Navy has refused to exonerate them, and Allen’s not optimistic about Congress. He’s pinning his hopes on a proclamation by President Obama — and on the spotlight from events like Thursday’s symposium.

Though none of the 50 are still alive, “it would be important to the families to remove this stigma, and it’s important to the nation,” he says. “Because then the nation could say, ‘OK, we understand it. These guys did something that was technically illegal. But they did it in a way that brought about change for the better, just as the civil-rights activists did in the South.’

“The government may not necessarily want to paint them as heroes, but it can no longer paint them as demons,” he adds. “When we look at the process of desegregation in the military, one of its sources is what happened at Port Chicago. We should stop penalizing these sailors for having done something that we now recognize was for the benefit of the country.

“It’s time,” Allen says, “to exonerate these fellows.”

For more details, or to register for the free July 17 event, visit The Port Chicago Disaster at 70: A Symposium on Race and the Military During World War II.