World War II had a major impact on so many American families. Most often we hear the stories of the soldiers who went overseas, only to lose their lives in battlefields on foreign soil. But there were, on occasion, accidents and other events on domestic soil that also left families bereft. One of those occurred 70 years ago.
When the war started in 1942, a base was built about 30 miles north of San Francisco to deal with munitions headed to the Pacific. During this time, the American armed forces were still segregated. About 1,400 African-American were assigned to Port Chicago. As you can imagine, hauling munitions is dangerous and challenging work. As might be expected, this work was delegated to those units. The troops were ill-trained for this work. And because of the pressing needs of the war, officers pressed them with astronomically high production goals.
The night of July 17 was an average one. Two brand new cargo ships were at the pier. The S.S. E.A. Brian was docked at the inboard, landward side of the pier, while the S.S. Quinault Victory was docked on the outboard side. Workers had filled the hold of the Brian with 4,400 tons of munitions, and at 10:18 p.m. On the pier and ships, 320 men were preparing the Quinault Victory for loading.
Witnesses reported hearing the clash of metal on metal, and the sound of splintering wood, followed by an incredible blast. This was followed six seconds later by an explosion even more powerful than the first. White-hot metal was flying through air filled with fire and smoke. The blast was so powerful that it registered as a 3.4 seismic event on the Richter scale, and was felt as far away as Nevada.
The Brian and a nearby locomotive were completely obliterated. The 7,600-ton Quinault Victory was lifted out of the water and flung 500 feet, landing in pieces. All 320 men were instantly killed in the blast, and almost 400 more suffered serious injuries. Two-thirds of those killed were African-American troops.
A Navy court of inquiry laid the blame at the feet of the African-American stevadores, without acknowledging that the white officers did not train them properly and pushed them too hard. The surviving stevadores were not given leave, and were ordered back to work immediately at nearby port. Hundreds of them were told to start loading ordnance again. 258 (about 80%) refused. It was the only order that they refused to obey.
The men were placed under guard on a prison barge. Admiral Carleton Wright warned them that their actions constituted an act of mutiny — which, during this time of war, carried the death penalty. All but 50 of the men returned to work.
The remaining men were put on trial for mutiny, the largest such trial in the history of the U.S. Navy. After six weeks, the men were found guilty, and sentenced with 8 to 15 years of hard labor.
A young NAACP lawyer named Thurgood Marshall witnessed the end of the hearings, and accused the Navy of framing the sailors. He appealed the decision to the Judge Advocate General, but it was denied. But the public fervor was against them. The Navy was forced to release the men, and in January 1946 became the first branch of the armed forces to become fully integrated. But the men were only given clemency, and never officially exonerated. More than half a century later, the men received an official pardon from President Bill Clinton.
The Port Chicago accident accounted for 15% of the total deaths of African-American military personnel during the entire war. During their lives, the “Port Chicago 50” actively avoided obtaining a pardon. In the words of one, “That means, ‘You’re guilty but we forgive you.’ We want the decisions set aside.”