Memorial Day 2021 — Remembering Port Chicago

Some years ago, Ken Stewart, a longtime friend and filmmaker was kind enough to ask me what I was likely to take on in my next play. I’d just finished a play about trans-national adoption and wanted a subject that would absorb my attention for the next year or so. He’d recently wrapped up his documentary, The Richmond Rosies, an account of the contribution made by women working in the Kaiser shipyards in Richmond, California turning out Victory and Liberty ships. He’d interviewed the surviving women who had been known as Rosie the Riveters or Welding Wendys and had pulled together some amazing footage. He’d also built a friendship with the Rosies, continuing to visit with them after the film had been released. A subject had been on my mind, but I feared it would be something he wouldn’t recognize although it is a significant chapter in race relations in the United States . With some care, I began to speak about Black sailors put on trial for mutiny during WWII. I hadn’t finished the sentence when he jumped in:

“Port Chicago? That’s what I’m doing next.”

Ken’s focus is sharper than mine, and he has staying power as a writer, director, and producer. His new film, a documentary entitled The Port Chicago Incident, is in distribution. The synopsis of the film is straightforward, echoing the mission statement of the National Park’s Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Monument.

A violent and powerful explosion in July 1944 sent shock waves through Port Chicago, Ca and the US Navy. 320 sailors were killed instantly, and 50 sailors were charged with mutiny in the aftermath. It became the largest mutiny trial in US Naval history and was the tipping point for the desegregation of the U.S. Navy and ultimately the entire U.S. Military.

It is not surprising that the Park Service does not identify the personnel assigned to the loading of munitions at this isolated facility as Black stevedores, nor does it describe the triple shifts worked,the lack of instruction given the men loading munitions,the absence of safety measures, the poor maintenance of of the machinery used in loading explosives on ships, or the gambling on daily totals of pounds loaded by White officers who had returned to active duty or newly commissioned with no experience in handling munitions. The Park Service doesn’t describe the contempt with which White officers held the men who worked with munitions. A common supposition among officers was that the Black sailors assigned to Port Chicago were not capable of understanding procedural regulations or safety measures; neither were in place.

My play never came together, largely because I couldn’t decide what story I wanted to tell. As I set out to work on the project, I saw three separate and equally compelling chapters. The first would describe the conditions under which Black Americans served in WWII, at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine in particular, a munitions depot and loading facility that provided the munitions needed by the Paciific Fleet. 160,000 Black Americans enlisted in the Navy during the war; they were permitted to serve as cooks, stewards, or stevedores. An “Intelligence” test determined which would be assigned the most physically demanding job — loading explosives at Port Chicago. One study found that the Alpha Intelligence used by the Army after WWI designated 89% of Black enlistees as “morons”.

The second story chronicles the ineptitude of White officers who operated the facility with no regard for the lives of the men in their command and a description of the explosion. Three shifts operated around the clock, ordered to enter into speed contests; the officers amused themselves by betting in which shift would load the greatest tonnage; Blackboards were placed on the docks so that the tally was always visible. Given no instruction in handling the explosives, men working on the docks were told that large bombs, torpedoes, and shells could not explode without fuses. Officers ordered the men to use crowbars to unpack the bombs, to roll the heavy bombs and shells to the docks, and to drop the munitions in nets into the hold of receiving ships. The winches used to deposit the over full nets were not maintained; their brakes often gave out. The explosion which took place at 10:18 pm on July 17, 1944 sent smoke and fire almost two miles into the sky. The effects were felt 30 miles away in San Francisco, and the blast was heard in Nevada. All personnel working on the docks were killed and many at the station were killed or injured. In the end, 535 Black sailors were killed or injured, roughly two thirds of the men assigned to the station.

The third story is the account of what was called a mutiny.

Following the explosion, White officers were given hardship leave, and 329 Black sailors were transferred to the Mare Island munitions facility. On August 8th, the men were marched to the dock and ordered to load explosives on a ship in port. The men refused; no measures had been taken to ensure the safe transfer of munitions. The 258 men who refused were taken by barge to a makeshift prison intended to hold no more than 70 prisoners. On August 11th, the prisoners were addressed by Admiral Carleton Wright and told that those who continued to refuse orders would be subject to the charge of mutiny. He suggested that while fear of another disaster was understandable, death by firing squad was a worse option. The 50 men who continued to refuse orders were declared mutinous.

Admiral Wright convened the General Court Martial which was held in Marine barracks at the Treasure Island Navy, charging the Port Chicago 50 with “a deliberate purpose and intent to override superior military authority

,” a charge which in wartime could be punished by death. The surviving records of the trial are appalling, filled with racial slurs and dismissal of the defendants accounts of the events. The defense attempted to present the actions of the prisoners as insubordination rather than mutiny, a defense NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall endorsed and one that he continued to cite in the aftermath of the court-martial. All 50 were found guilty. They were given a 15 year sentence to be served at the Terminal Island DisciplinaryBarracks in San Pedro. Marshall continued to advocate for the prisoners, filing an appeal, which was unsuccessful. At the end of the war, the sentences were reduced, and by 1946 all but three had been released on parole to complete their enlistment.

The Navy had closed ranks in carrying out the court-martial and in imprisoning the Port Chicago 50, but the Secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal had already begun the integration of Black sailors into service on all auxiliary ships. The Navy, formerly the most segregated, was the first of the services to end segregation in all aspects of enlistment, including assignments, ranks, facilities, and housing. The rest of the armed forces were not integrated until 1948.

Courtroom dramas always allow for great moments of passion and reckless histrionics, catnip for clumsy dramatists such as I am. I was tempted for a few weeks, then I came against the hard truth: Although there is a great deal of value in bringing the Port Chicago Disaster to public attention, as Ken has done so well, the very human dimensions of the mutiny trial are not mine to tell. It has to be told in language and cadences that are not mine; the world does not need the Uncle Remus version of the mutiny trial.

This story is one of hundreds, perhaps thousands, that reveal a dark history we as a nation have been reluctant to face. A cherished and carefully decorated idealization of ourselves as people more aware of justice, more capable of kindness, more worthy of admiration has started to crumble. Story by story, voice by voice, we have an opportunity to see ourselves as we have been and as we are.

I’m the author of four novels and America’s Best Kept College Secrets, a retired teacher of the humanities, eclectic reader, and prisoner of popular culture.