The Port Chicago Naval Munitions base, located where the Sacramento River flows into San Francisco Bay, was used during World War II to load munitions onto ships headed to the Pacific Ocean. Three shifts of 125 men worked 24 hours a day. Because of the segregated nature of the U.S. Navy, all munitions loaders were black, while the officers supervising them were white. The conditions were very dangerous. The loaders received no training and no safety equipment. In fact, the white officers often wagered to see which crew could load the munitions fastest, adding to the hazard.
On the evening of July 17, 1944, two ships were at the Port Chicago docks. The SS E.A. Bryan was almost full of munitions, while crews were preparing to load the SS Quinalt Victory for her maiden voyage. Due to unknown causes, at approximately 10:20 p.m. there was a small explosion. This ignited a second, massive, catastrophic explosion. Every man working on the loading dock and on the two ships was killed. The photograph shows the destruction caused by the explosion in the Port Chicago area. In all, 320 sailors lost their lives and an additional 390 were injured. Black sailors accounted for 202 of those killed and 233 of those injured. This represented 15 percent of all African American casualties during World War II.
The tragedy caused shock and grief among all the Port Chicago survivors. The Navy granted customary 30-day survivor's leave to the white officers, but no special considerations were given to black sailors. In fact, just weeks later, on August 9th, the African American men were ordered onto the loading pier of a nearby munitions loading facility at Mare Island Naval base, to continue loading munitions with no new training and only minimal safety improvements. Of 328 men, 258 initially refused. They said they were willing to do any job but load munitions. The sailors were told that if they refused to go back to work, they would be court-martialed for mutiny during wartime, a charge that potentially carried the death penalty. About 200 agreed to go back to work, but instead were sentenced to time in the brig. The remaining 50 men faced a court-martial for mutiny.
The trial of the 50 African American sailors was presided over by seven senior white Naval officers, six serving as jury and one as judge. The trial was observed by Thurgood Marshall, later a Supreme Court Justice, on behalf of the NAACP, and he commented on the racist nature of the proceedings. After 32 days of testimony, the jury needed less than two hours to convict all 50 men, and they were sentenced to between eight and 15 years in prison. After the end of the war, all were released from prison and later dishonorably discharged with felony court-martial convictions.
The Port Chicago incident was part of a series of events that changed American society in general and American policy specifically. President Harry S. Truman ordered the end to all segregation in the U.S. military in 1948, partly because of the racist nature of the Port Chicago trial.
Despite these changes, the mutiny convictions remained. As time went on, there was growing support to review the Port Chicago case and make things right. In 1992, Congress, led by Representative George Miller-whose district included the area of Port Chicago-created a monument at the site of the explosion. In 1999, just before Christmas, President Clinton pardoned Freddie Meeks, one of only three convicted men known to be alive at the time. As of 2003, there has been no pardon for any other sailor.
- Students analyze America's participation in World War II.