Sixty years ago, at 10:18 on the night of July 17, 1944, a massive munitions explosion rocked the wartime naval loading dock at Port Chicago, on Suisun Bay just north of Martinez. The blast was felt throughout the Bay Area, shaking the ground like an earthquake in cities like Berkeley and Oakland.
In his 1989 book The Port Chicago Mutiny (now out of print), Bay Area historian Robert Allen described the explosion: “Loaded with some 4,600 tons of ammunition and high explosives...the [munitions ship] E.A. Bryan was literally blown to bits. ... The [munitions ship] Quinalt Victory was lifted clear out of the water by the blast, turned around, and broken into pieces. ... [A] Coast Guard fire barge was blown two hundred yards upriver and sunk. The locomotive and [munitions-filled] boxcars disintegrated into hot fragments flying through the air. The 1,200-foot-long wooden pier simply disappeared. Everyone on the pier and aboard the two ships and the fire barge was killed instantly—320 men, 202 of them were black enlisted men [who had been engaged in loading bombs and shells onto the two ships]. ... Another 390 military personnel and civilians were injured, including 233 black enlisted men. ... The explosive force of the blast was equivalent to five kilotons of TNT, on the same order of magnitude as the atomic bomb that would be dropped on Hiroshima just over a year later.”
The two ships were being loaded with munitions by units of segregated black sailors who were commanded by white officers.
Three weeks later, black naval personnel survivors of the Port Chicago disaster were ordered to return to their munitions-loading duties at Mare Island near Vallejo. Some 250 refused, citing their fear of unsafe work conditions that they believed caused the Port Chicago explosions. Some 200 were given dishonorable discharges from the Navy, but 50 were singled out and convicted of mutiny in a widely-publicized court-martial on Treasure Island. In the meantime, a Naval Court of Inquiry had absolved Naval officers of any wrongdoing in the Port Chicago explosions themselves.
Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who observed the mutiny court-martial in his capacity as director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, is quoted in Allen’s book as saying that the black sailors were tried for mutiny “solely because of their race and color. ... [The court-martial] was deliberately planned and staged by certain officers to discredit Negro seamen.”
By 1999, only three of the 50 convicted mutineers were still living. In that year, U.S. Congressman George Miller—who represents the Port Chicago area—secured a pardon of one of the survivors from President Bill Clinton. But surviving families and supporters of the convicted mutineers have pushed for complete exoneration by having the convictions set aside. On Saturday, in support of that drive and in honor of the 60th anniversary of the Port Chicago Disaster, the national Equal Justice Society, the African American Museum and Library of Oakland, and Noir Records are sponsoring a Port Chicago Ballet Suite For Jazz Orchestra at the museum.
Robert Allen, who will speak at Saturday’s events, spoke with the Daily Planet about the gathering and about the continuing meaning of what many people simply describe as “Port Chicago. “Allen teaches African American and Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley. He is an editor of Black Scholar magazine, and is currently researching for a book on the life of local African American labor and civil rights leader C.L. Dellums.
Daily Planet: Why is a pardon not enough for the Port Chicago strikers?
Robert Allen: While the pardon was an important thing to do, and called attention to the injustice, a pardon is like saying, “You did something wrong, but we are going to forgive you for it.” But whatever it was that you may call it, there was not a mutiny. There was never an attempt to usurp military authority. I think of it as a strike, or a protest at the unsafe working conditions and the racial discrimination on the base. And the trauma itself was passed on in the families. So even for today it’s important to have these convictions set aside. For the surviving families, but also for the historical record.
DP: Why do you think some of them were charged with mutiny?
RA: Part of the reason was they wanted to make an example of these guys and indirectly, according to what Thurgood Marshall said, “scapegoat” them for what happened at Port Chicago. By bringing these mutiny charges against these sailors, that created the whole context that the blame could go on the sailors, not only for the mutiny, but for the explosion itself.
DP: What’s the particular relevance of Port Chicago to today?
RA: [Port Chicago was part of] a long history of racism in the military and the effort to confront that and deal with it. And I think that question remains today in terms of, why is it we have large [over-representative] numbers of people of color in the military today? And the other question is, what are unjust orders? What kind of a situation should folks in the military resist? There is an understanding that soldiers have the right—and, in fact, the obligation—to resist unlawful orders. That’s exactly what came up at the prison at Abu Ghraib. These guys [at Port Chicago] were resisting [the racial discrimination] situation there that was certainly unjust and unfair. This was not a mutiny. This was a protest against an unjust situation. And afterwards the Navy gave covert recognition to that position, because it did begin to dismantle racial segregation shortly afterwards, right there at Port Chicago.ª