The Port Chicago Disaster and Mutiny
By Tom Morrow
One of the greatest single catastrophes during World War II didn’t occur on any battlefield, but alongside a dock in Northern California. The July 17, 1944 disaster at Port Chicago Naval Weapons Depot on Mare Island that killed 320 sailors and civilians, with another 390 injured and maimed.
The incident caused a racial controversy because most of those killed or injured were African-American sailors acting as “stevedores” loading munitions headed for the Pacific. At the heart of the controversy was a charge of “unsafe” loading and handling procedures by the Navy. With no procedural changes, a month after the disaster hundreds of black sailors refused to continue loading. Court martials ensued convicting the “Port Chicago 50” African-American sailors. The media dubbed it the “Port Chicago Mutiny.” Yet, the Navy maintains proudly there has never been a mutiny in U.S. Naval services.
The town of Port Chicago, which no longer exists, was located just north of Concord on the south shore of Suisun Bay in the estuary of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. Munitions being loaded included bombs, artillery shells, naval mines, torpedoes, and small-arm ammunition desperately needed for the war effort against Japan. Munitions came by rail from all across the United States. Each piece of ordinance was unloaded by hand from rail cars and put onto cargo ships.
Enlisted men who were assigned to the dangerous task were all black, led by white commissioned and non-commissioned officers. To add to the controversy, the young sailors, who had trained at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center, were assigned to Port Chicago with no safety training for the dangerous work.
The top scoring 30 percentage of boot camp graduates were selected to go to the fleet; the remaining low-scoring sailors were assigned to Port Chicago to do the labor-intensive work. Black sailors assigned to Port Chicago were considered by their officers to be “unreliable,” “emotional,” and lacking the ability to understand and remember orders.
Leading the recruits were black petty officers, who later were described as being “slave drivers,” and “Uncle Toms.” Many of the white commissioned officers were newcomers to the Navy with little or no training in supervising enlisted men, although the Navy considered them adequate for job.
Officers managed 100-man crews. They created competition by waging which crew could load the most tonnage in the shortest period of time. With no safety control, it was a recipe for disaster.
On July 13, 1944, the USS Bryan docked with 5,292 barrels of heavy fuel for the trip across the Pacific. After four days of round-the-clock loading, the ship was nearly 40 percent loaded. At 10:18 p.m. on July 17, witnesses later reported a loading crane crashed to the dock, igniting an explosion. Scientists at UC Berkeley reported two shock waves measuring 3.4 on the Richter scale.
Of the 320 dead personnel, only 50 could be identified. A series of court martials was convened with some 50 men convicted. After the convictions of the so-called “Port Chicago 50,” public pressure grew to the point the Navy reconvened the court-martial board for further investigation. While the board reaffirmed the 50 convictions, by January 1946, after the War had ended in September 1945, some 47 of the 50 were freed, with the remaining three released several months later.
One of the results coming out of the Port Chicago disaster/mutiny was the Navy’s “desegregation” of the fleet.
This is a mere “thumbnail sketch” of the entire story. It is complex with many factors involved. However, it’s one of the more obscure and dark stories of World War II that seldom gets discussed.
GROANER — A Hollywood movie producer was planning his next blockbuster — an action docudrama about famous composers, so he set up a meeting with such noted silver-screen icons as Sylvester Stallone, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Arnold Schwarzenegger, offering each a chance to select which famous classical musicians they’d like to portray.
“I’ve always admired Mozart,” Stallone said. “I’d love to play him.”
“Chopin has always been my favorite of mine,” said Van Damme. “That’s the part for me.”
The producer turned to Schwarzenegger. “And you, Arnold? Who do you want to be?” There was a long silence, then the former “Governator” replied, “I’ll be Bach.”
SCAG SEZ: It seems that the less a man knows, the easier it is to convince himself that he knows it all.