“You are a Navy man, part of the largest and strongest seagoing force in the world. When you were sworn in and put on your uniform for the first time, you became part of a great tradition. All the brave men who have gone before you, and those who will follow you, make up an unbroken chain of courage and devotion to duty that should make you proud to wear your uniform… Be sure that no careless act of yours brings discredit to your uniform or to your country’s flag…” (W.R. Smedberg, III, Vice Admiral, U.S. Navy, circa 1960)
“Be sure that no careless act of yours brings discredit to your uniform or to your country’s flag…” Hmmm…
That’s what I remembered most, after receiving my “Bluejacket’s Manual” at the Great Lakes Naval Training Command. I heard it in boot-camp, in Radar School and in the fleet, at sea, during Shore Patrol and Riot Squad duties, over and over and over, again—even before some of the soccer matches we had against foreign teams, overseas.
It became “bible sacred” for me, at a time when the Civil Rights Movement, in the United States, was in high gear. I could only imagine that African-American Sailors and Marines (component of the Navy) before me internalized the same “scripture.” This included the black sailors involved in the alleged “worst home-front military disaster of World War II,” an ordnance explosion which nearly destroyed the town of Port Chicago, California, in 1944.
Perhaps unbeknownst to many Americans, escaped slaves and free African-Americans have been fighting in naval battles since the Revolutionary War, biologically laced with genetic instructions of ancient African watermen back to the fishing and trading routes from the Gambia and Senegal Rivers to the Niger and Shari River, which emptied into Lake Chad, before the grueling caravan journeys east to the longest river in the world, the Nile.
Plus, when I joined up, the U.S.S. Harmon (Destroyer Escort #678) had been named after an African-American (Leonard R. Harmon) who was awarded the Navy Cross for heroism, during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, in 1942 (as of early 2010, about 13 U.S. Navy ships had been named for African-Americans). And, during World War II, the U.S.S. Mason (DE-529) and the USS PC-1264 (a Submarine Chaser) had mostly all-black crews. The way I saw it, there were a lot of folk I needed to make sure I didn’t discredit.
I just imagined that the “Port Chicago 50” were just as proud to wear the uniform of the U.S. Navy. They were the 50, of an original 258 imprisoned, African-Americans charged with “conspiring to commit mutiny,” following the huge WWII ammunition ship explosion in Port Chicago, California. At 10:18 p.m., on July 17, 1944, time stopped for 320 dock workers whose lives were instantly snuffed out. Most, 202, were black enlisted men.
According to public records, 390 military and civilians were injured, including two black enlisted men. Surely, these 50 men couldn’t have been about the business of open rebellion against the U.S. government, as their charges suggested. According to the fictionalized, 1999 “Port Chicago” television movie, along with other public accounts, and a book by Robert L. Allen (“The Port Chicago Mutiny,” Warner Books, 1989), black survivors of the explosion were sent to nearby Mare Island Depot to load more ammunition on other ships. Fearing another disaster, from still unsafe working conditions, the sailors refused to load any further.
My “Bluejacket’s Manual” provided vital information necessary to survive military and Navy warship life, including seamanship, fire fighting, damage control, atomic-biological- and chemical-warfare and safety. But, I don’t recall hearing about the Port Chicago explosion until attending Radar “A” School, after boot-camp. Even then, there was no mention of those involved being mostly black. It wasn’t until I was assigned to an ammunition ship (U.S.S. Mazama, AE-9), following graduation, when I learned the specifics. Aboard an ammo ship, loading and unloading ammunition was an all-hands chore, regardless of your rate or rank. And, during the Cuban Crisis, the Battle “E” (Navy battle efficiency award) proved we were better than most.
A year later, after the Cuban Crisis, and following President John F. Kennedy’s assasination, I was transferred to a guided-missile cruiser (U.S.S. Springfield, CLG-7), with greater potential for growth and advancement in my rate. However, time spent aboard the ammunition ship was rewarding and highly beneficial. It’s also where I first learned that the “Port Chicago 50” were African-Americans. I learned it from a couple of seasoned black Seadogs, a Gunner’s Mate and a Boatswains Mate, in the kind of graphic detail African-Americans shared much of their history about the Jim Crow years. This process, too, was necessary for survival.
To me, it sounded like Port Chicago was some sort of an experiment, laden with racist leadership, poor training and inept decision making. But, various historical archives attempted a more balanced approach. Located on the Sacramento River, northeast of San Francisco, it was the first U.S. pier especially built for loading and shipping ammunition and dangerous explosives.
On the day of the explosion, the pier had been upgraded to support the handling and loading of two ships, at the same time. The bulk of the 24/7 loading operations was conducted by black cargo handlers, ill-equipped to handle dangerous explosives and white officers, typical of a then-segregated America, mirrored by the military. Tight loading schedules and deviation from standard safety practices seemed to be common, due to speed-loading constraints involved in getting ammunition and explosives to various units in the Pacific Ocean.
That evening, July 17, 1944, an empty merchant ship (SS Quinault Victory) and another merchant ship (SS E.A. Bryan), loading for another trip, were at the same pier, across from each other. Records show that the vessel being loaded contained over 4600 tons of ammunition, including high explosives, depth charges and incendiary bombs. On the pier sat an additional 429 tons of ammunition, waiting to be loaded.
Then, at 10:18 p.m., fireworks! Massive explosions ripped through splintering wood and lit up the nighttime sky with white flashes, billowing smoke and a fiery orange and yellow glow. Six seconds later, the merchant ship being loaded violently exploded. The shock wave was said to have been felt over 500 miles away, in Nevada. The largest piece found of the 7200-ton ship was said to be the “size of a suitcase,” according to Port Chicago Memorial records. Witnesses say the bow and mast of the empty merchant ship was launched into the air, landing in the water some 500 feet away. Across the Bay, some 48 miles away, San Francisco recorded damages from the blast.
A month later, it took just one hour and 20 minutes of deliberations, within the highly racially charged atmosphere, for a Naval Court of Inquiry to find the “Port Chicago 50” guilty of organizing a mutiny, sentencing them to 15 years in prison, and eventually, dishonorable discharges. The verdict was heavily protested by area blacks and whites, which caused the sentences to be reduced to less than three years. The other 208 received “bad conduct” discharges and forfeited three months of pay, according to published reports.
After the explosion, the “Port Chicago 50” was represented by National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The chief counsel was the future, first African-American Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall. His defense argued that the black seamen were unfairly singled out for prosecution and were products of segregated and unsafe working conditions. A spontaneous work stoppage followed and the 258 men were imprisoned. Reportedly, the “prison” was said to be in a cramped barge with quarters, similar to “slave ships.”
Yet, despite the carnage, despite the ugly Jim Crow environment and despite the trumped-up charges, prudence prevailed and justice was ultimately rendered. In January 1946, after WWII, the “Port Chicago 50” was given clemency. The explosion had placed racial discrimination in the United States—and the military—under the international microscope. But, the U.S. Navy worked hard toward full integration. It was another important footnote to President Harry Truman’s decision to outlaw segregation in the military.
On December 23, 1999, President Bill Clinton formally pardoned Freddie Meeks, of Natchez, Mississippi, one of three living members of the “Port Chicago 50.” Before his death, on June 19, 2003, at 83 years of age, he was once quoted as saying, “After all these years, the world should know what happened at Port Chicago. It should be cleared up that we did not commit mutiny, and we were charged with that because of our race.”
What do you think? Have we done enough to pass on the lessons learned from the ugly episodes of the years of segregation? Or, do we still have work to do? You probably know what I think. But, let us have your thoughts within the ‘comments’ section, below. Thanks. “Backstreet Djeli” w.d.s.