b-blog

Port Chicago – The Mutiny Trial

Buildings damaged by the explosion at the US Naval Magazine, Port Chicago on 17 July 1944 (US Naval History and Heritage Command)

Buildings damaged by the explosion at the US Naval Magazine, Port Chicago on 17 July 1944 (US Naval History and Heritage Command)

In the worst Home Front disaster of World War II, an explosion at the Naval Magazine in Port Chicago, California on July 17, 1944 killed 320 men, of whom 202 were black. The tragedy was followed by a work stoppage and a controversial mutiny trial. This sent ripples of change through the segregated armed forces.

These events are included in my novel Blue Skies Tomorrow. Previous blog posts discussed the situation in the armed forces and at Port Chicago, the explosion, and the work stoppage. Today’s post covers the mutiny trial, and next week we’ll look at the aftermath.

Mutiny Trial

On August 9, 1944, 258 survivors of the explosion refused to load ammunition at Mare Island Naval Depot in Vallejo, California. After the threat of a charge of mutiny on August 11, fifty of these men still refused to load ammunition and were charged with mutiny.

A General Court Martial was convened by Adm. Carleton Wright, commander of the 12th Naval District, with a seven-member court led by Rear Adm. Hugo Osterhaus to act as judge and jury. The prosecution was led by Lt. Cdr. James Coakley. The defense team was led by Lt. Gerald Veltmann and consisted of five additional lawyers who each handled the cases of ten defendants.

The trial was held in a Marine barracks on Yerba Buena Island (also known as Treasure Island) in San Francisco Bay.

Prosecution

On September 14, 1944 the trial opened. Coakley argued that a strike was mutinous in time of war. He dismissed the defendants’ claims, stating, “What kind of discipline, what kind of morale would we have if men in the United States Navy could refuse to obey an order and then get off on the grounds of fear?”

The questioning of the defendants was loaded with racial language, and the prosecutors often disparaged the men’s honesty, especially when their spoken statements contradicted their earlier statements—although the men had complained from the beginning that the transcriptions were inaccurate. One defendant had refused to load ammunition because he’d broken his wrist the day before the work stoppage and was wearing a cast. Coakley replied that “there were plenty of things a one-armed man could do on the ammunition dock.”

Defense

Veltmann quoted the official legal definition of mutiny: “a concerted effort to usurp, subvert, or override authority,” and argued that the men had never tried to seize command and therefore, were not guilty of mutiny. Since direct orders had not been given to each man, they could not be guilty of disobeying orders. The defense chronicled the discriminatory conditions at Port Chicago, the psychological effects of the explosion and cleaning up body parts, and the unchanged conditions they faced at Mare Island.

Damage at mess hall at US Naval Magazine, Port Chicago from 17 July 1944 explosion (US Naval History and Heritage Command)

Damage at mess hall at US Naval Magazine, Port Chicago from 17 July 1944 explosion (US Naval History and Heritage Command)

Publicity

The Navy encouraged the press to cover the trial, and the NAACP sent their chief counsel, Thurgood Marshall (the future Supreme Court justice), who sat through twelve days of the trial. On October 10, Marshall held a press conference and stated that the prosecution acted in a prejudicial manner. On October 17, he issued a statement deriding the conditions in the Navy and specifically at Port Chicago. He believed the men were guilty of the lesser charge of insubordination and did not meet the legal definition of mutiny.

Verdict

On October 24, 1944, after deliberating for 80 minutes, the court convicted all 50 defendants of mutiny, including the man with the broken wrist and two others who had never loaded ammunition previously for medical reasons. All 50 men received 15-year sentences, and at the end of November they were imprisoned at Terminal Island Disciplinary Barracks in San Pedro, California.

Further Legal Action

On November 15, Admiral Wright reviewed the court’s findings and adjusted the sentences to 8-15 years. On April 3, 1945, Thurgood Marshall filed an appeals brief to the Judge Advocate General’s office in Washington, DC. Concerned about hearsay evidence, the Secretary of the Navy asked the court to reconvene. They did so on June 12, 1945, but upheld the sentences. After the war was over, the sentences were reduced. In September 1945, one year was lopped off each man’s sentence, and in October the sentences were reduced to two years for all the men with good conduct and three for those with bad conduct. In January 1946, the Navy released all but three of the men—one remained for bad conduct and two in the hospital. The men stayed in the Navy and eventually received honorable discharges, but the felony convictions remained on their records.

Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, 1976

Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, 1976

Sources:

Allen, Robert L. The Port Chicago Mutiny. Berkeley CA: Heyday Books, 2006.

The Articles of War. Washington DC: United States War Department, approved 8 September 1920, accessed 25 June 2019.

Department of the Navy. Articles for the Governance of the United States Navy, 1930. Washington DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1932. On Naval History and Heritage Command website, updated 22 August 2017. Accessed 25 June 2019.

Marshall, Thurgood. “Statement on the Trial of Negro Sailors at Yerba Buena, September 24, 1944.” On Organization of American Historians website, printed 20 November 2007.

Today in World War II History—July 22, 1944

Japanese Prime Minister Kuniaki Koiso (3rd from left, front row) and his cabinet, 22 July 1944 (public domain via Wikipedia)

Japanese Prime Minister Kuniaki Koiso (3rd from left, front row) and his cabinet, 22 July 1944 (public domain via Wikipedia)

75 Years Ago—July 22, 1944: German SS glider troops land in the Vercors region of France and break up the Maquis uprising; over 800 French resistance members and civilians will be killed.

Gen. Kuniaki Koiso becomes Prime Minister of Japan.

Today in World War II History—July 21, 1944

US officers plant flag eight minutes after troops begin landing on Guam, 21 July 1944 (US National Archives)

US officers plant flag eight minutes after troops begin landing on Guam, 21 July 1944 (US National Archives)

75 Years Ago—July 21, 1944: US Army and Marines invade Japanese-held Guam with heavy opposition.

Many of the July 20 Operation Valkyrie conspirators who attempted a coup are arrested, and Col. Count Claus von Stauffenberg, who attempted to assassinate Hitler, is executed.

Today in World War II History—July 20, 1944

Col. Count Claus von Stauffenberg and Adm. Karl-Jesco von Puttkamer greet Hitler at Rastenburg, 15 July 1944, 5 days before assassination attempt. (German Federal Archive: Bild 146-1984-079-02)

Col. Count Claus von Stauffenberg and Adm. Karl-Jesco von Puttkamer greet Hitler at Rastenburg, 15 July 1944, 5 days before assassination attempt. (German Federal Archive: Bild 146-1984-079-02)

75 Years Ago—July 20, 1944: Operation Valkyrie—German officers attempt to assassinate Hitler, led by Col. Count Claus von Stauffenberg, but fail; the following coup attempt also fails.

Movie premiere of Since You Went Away, starring Claudette Colbert and Joseph Cotten.

The Moon Landings—The World War II Connection

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin on the surface of the moon near the lunar module Eagle during the Apollo 11 moonwalk; Astronaut Neil Armstrong took this photograph and is visible in Aldrin’s visor, 21 July 1969 (NASA photo)

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin on the surface of the moon near the lunar module Eagle during the Apollo 11 moonwalk; Astronaut Neil Armstrong took this photograph and is visible in Aldrin’s visor, 21 July 1969 (NASA photo)

In honor of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing on July 20, 1969, I asked my son Stephen Sundin, a mechanical engineer and a lifelong space and history buff, if he would be willing to write an article about the connection between the space race and World War II. He did, and I think you’ll enjoy it!

The Moon Landings—The World War II Connection, by Stephen Sundin

Apollo 11 Lunar Module Eagle descending to the moon, 20 July 1969, photographed from command module Columbia (NASA photo)

Apollo 11 Lunar Module Eagle descending to the moon, 20 July 1969, photographed from command module Columbia (NASA photo)

In the afternoon of July 20, 1969, the Space Race was coming to a head. The world’s two superpowers were in a race to retrieve samples from the surface of the moon. The USSR had effectively conceded the race to land men on the Moon to the United States following the repeated failures of the Soviet lunar rocket, the N1, earlier in the year, but there was still an opportunity to best the Americans.

The Luna 15 sample return mission, the Soviet’s last chance at getting moon rocks before the US, was orbiting the Moon, having arrived three days prior. As the Soviets were making their final preparations, the Americans were doing the same. The Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were in their Lunar Excursion Module, the Eagle, preparing to leave the ship Columbia and its pilot, Michael Collins. This final confrontation and competition between the two countries was born out of the technologies and animosities that emerged from the conflagration of World War II.

Early Rockets

Dr. Robert H. Goddard and a liquid oxygen-gasoline rocket at Auburn, MA, 8 March 1926 (NASA photo)

Dr. Robert H. Goddard and a liquid oxygen-gasoline rocket at Auburn, MA, 8 March 1926 (NASA photo)

The earliest development efforts on a liquid fuel rocket started with an American scientist, Robert Goddard. As early as 1917, Goddard reached out to the US military to discuss using rocketry-based weapons. One of his earliest proposals was a shoulder-fired weapon that would eventually become the bazooka. Following his first demonstration launch in 1926, he was contacted periodically by German engineers interested in his work. These questions ceased in 1939 with the outbreak of war.

Soldier holding an M1 “Bazooka,” 1943 (Library of Congress)

Soldier holding an M1 “Bazooka,” 1943 (Library of Congress)

Once the US entered the war, Goddard was approached by the US Army, which was familiar with his work due to his acquaintance with General James Doolittle, and he was tasked with developing Rocket Assisted Take-Off technology. However, following Germany’s surrender in May of 1945, he learned how influential his work on liquid fuel rockets had been on the war, when he saw an unlaunched German V-2 rocket brought to America, which would later be joined by its mastermind, Wernher von Braun.

Wernher von Braun and the V-2 Rocket

V-2 Rocket launch, Peenemünde, Germany, 21 June 1943 (German Federal Archive: Bild 141-1880)

V-2 Rocket launch, Peenemünde, Germany, 21 June 1943 (German Federal Archive: Bild 141-1880)

Wernher von Braun is often quoted saying “The rocket worked perfectly except for landing on the wrong planet” upon learning the first V-2 had successfully hit London. And he was largely an idealist, having been interested in space travel since his youth, having been taught by Germany’s own rocket pioneer, Hermann Oberth.

Wernher von Braun (in civilian clothes) with German officers at Peenemünde, Germany, 21 March 1941 (German Federal Archives: Bild 146-1978-Anh.024-03)

Wernher von Braun (in civilian clothes) with German officers at Peenemünde, Germany, 21 March 1941 (German Federal Archives: Bild 146-1978-Anh.024-03)

Building off Goddard’s ideas, Oberth and von Braun built a better rocket. And much like Goddard, von Braun’s country sought to use his capabilities for war, and the patriotic man complied. However, von Braun’s idealism does not excuse him from the atrocities committed by the Nazis. Von Braun was a member of the Schutzstaffel (SS), albeit for political reasons rather than ideology. The V-2s were largely built using slave labor provided from nearby concentration camps and it is estimated that 12,000 prisoners died making the rockets, more than the 9,000 Allied casualties from the rockets.

Postwar Rocket Development

US Army V-2 cutaway drawing showing engine, fuel cells, guidance units and warhead, 1 August 1945 (US Air Force photo)

US Army V-2 cutaway drawing showing engine, fuel cells, guidance units and warhead, 1 August 1945 (US Air Force photo)

The V-2 was the starting point for both Soviet and American rocket design. Both nations actively scoured the smoldering remains of the Third Reich, searching for technological secrets, particularly related to rocketry.

Von Braun and his team chose to go to the Americans, using his SS credentials to safely journey to Austria before surrendering. With the hundreds of remaining V-2s, both the Russians and the Allies were able to reverse engineer the design, using it to kickstart their own ballistic missile programs and then immediately pointing the results at their former partners.

This technology was then used for political and scientific purposes, and the countries started putting men in space, with von Braun, now a US citizen, leading the American efforts with his rocket designs, culminating in the Saturn V rocket that sent Apollo 11 to the Moon.

Navigation and Computation

No matter how developed the rocketry was, all efforts to reach the moon would be in vain without better navigation and computation methods. The V-2 was notoriously inaccurate, even with new methods of mechanical piloting and radio guidance. During the Battle of Remagen, V-2 missiles missed a targeted bridge by up to 40 miles.

Bombe at Bletchley Park, England, 1945 (United Kingdom government photo)

Bombe at Bletchley Park, England, 1945 (United Kingdom government photo)

However, another WWII development would allow men to traverse Deep Space: the British bombes developed by Alan Turing. As part of the British Ultra program to crack the German Enigma machine, Turing designed electromechanical machines called “bombes” to decode German military messages, which were used to great effect.

German Enigma code machine captured from U-505, Chicago Museum of Science and Industry (Photo: Sarah Sundin, September 2016).

German Enigma code machine captured from U-505, Chicago Museum of Science and Industry (Photo: Sarah Sundin, September 2016).

Following the war, Turing continued developing similar machines, including the first true design of a stored-program computer. Computers were rapidly developed following the end of the war, to the point that these machines could be used to perform the staggering number of computations needed to fly to the Moon.

WWII Technology and the Moon Landings

Countless other technological developments from WWII led to that momentous day in 1969. Artificial rubber, developed due to Japanese control of rubber plantations in South Asia, led to advanced materials used to build the rockets and spacesuits.

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin’s visor and glove from the Apollo 11 mission, on display at Heinz History Center, Pittsburgh, PA, October 2018 (Photo: Sarah Sundin)

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin’s visor and glove from the Apollo 11 mission, on display at Heinz History Center, Pittsburgh, PA, October 2018 (Photo: Sarah Sundin)

Pressurized aircraft, such as the B-29, were designed to allow bombers to reach higher altitudes, but also led to the ability to build vessels that would survive in the vast emptiness of Outer Space.

B-29 Superfortress (USAF photo)

B-29 Superfortress (USAF photo)

Radar, built to detect enemy aircraft across vast distances, could now be used to track a vessel heading to the moon. All of these were crucial to the efforts to land on the Moon.

One Giant Leap…

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin salutes the US flag on the moon, 20 July 1969 (NASA photo)

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin salutes the US flag on the moon, 20 July 1969 (NASA photo)

Ultimately, the Luna 15 mission was a failure. The Eagle successfully touched down in the evening of July 20. As the astronauts completed their mission and were preparing to return home, the Luna 15 lander crashed into a side of a lunar mountain.

But despite all the vitriol between the former allies, for a single solitary moment on July 20, 1969, the entire world watched in amazement. Temporarily oblivious to the perils of the Cold War and to the memories of the horrors of WWII, only 24 years in the past, they gazed at a grainy black-and-white image sent from the surface of the Moon. Humanity watched in wonder as the human race left its first footprint on another world, landing in a ship inscribed with the words “We came in peace for all mankind.”

Further Reading:

Recollections of Childhood by Wernher von Braun

V-2s on Remagen

Robert Goddard Biography

Stephen Sundin

Stephen Sundin with the actual Apollo 11 command module Columbia, on display at Heinz History Center, Pittsburgh, PA, October 2018 (Photo: Sarah Sundin)

Stephen Sundin with the actual Apollo 11 command module Columbia, on display at Heinz History Center, Pittsburgh, PA, October 2018 (Photo: Sarah Sundin)

Stephen Sundin is a lifelong space enthusiast and history buff, receiving his first telescope from his parents at age ten. He graduated from UCLA with a degree in Mechanical Engineering; his time there included working on a NASA-funded space science mission. Stephen lives near Irvine, California and works as a satellite engineer for a startup aerospace company. He spends his time playing with his cat, Nova, and complaining about being unable to see stars at night in Southern California.

Today in World War II History—July 19, 1944

Japanese-American troops of 100th Infantry Battalion of US 442nd Regimental Combat Team resting in Livorno, Italy, 19 July 1944. (Hawaii War Records Depository)

Japanese-American troops of 100th Infantry Battalion of US 442nd Regimental Combat Team resting in Livorno, Italy, 19 July 1944. (Hawaii War Records Depository)

75 Years Ago—July 19, 1944: Democratic convention opens in Chicago; President Roosevelt will be nominated for an unprecedented fourth term on July 20, Sen. Harry Truman will be nominated for vice president.

US Fifth Army takes crucial port of Leghorn (Livorno), Italy with little opposition, but Germans have destroyed the harbor.

Today in World War II History—July 18, 1944

Two French boys watch as Allied vehicles pass through the ruins of Saint-Lô, France, July-August 1944 (US National Archives)

Two French boys watch as Allied vehicles pass through the ruins of Saint-Lô, France, July-August 1944 (US National Archives)

75 Years Ago—July 18, 1944: Japanese Prime Minister Gen. Hideki Tojo resigns with his whole cabinet.

In Normandy, British Second Army breaks out of Caen in the biggest British tank battle of WWII (200 British tanks & 100 German tanks lost).

Allies send over 2000 bombers to the Caen area in the largest ground support operation to date.

In Normandy, US First Army takes critical crossroads town of Saint-Lȏ.

Today in World War II History—July 17, 1944

Damage at US Naval Magazine, Port Chicago from 17 July 1944 explosion. (US Naval History and Heritage Command)

Damage at US Naval Magazine, Port Chicago from 17 July 1944 explosion. (US Naval History and Heritage Command)

75 Years Ago—July 17, 1944: Port Chicago Explosion: freighters E.A. Bryan and Quinalt Victory explode at the US Naval Magazine in Port Chicago, CA, killing 322 (mostly black sailors) in the largest home front disaster of the war; the resulting controversy exposes discrimination in the armed forces and leads to the desegregation of the Navy.

In Normandy, German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel is injured by a strafing RAF Spitfire.

First-ever use of napalm, by US P-38 Lightnings, on a fuel dump at Coutances, France.

To read more about the Port Chicago Explosion, please see my blog series:

1) Segregation in the armed forces and the situation at Port Chicago.

2) The explosion

3) The work stoppage

4) The mutiny trial

5) The aftermath (posting July 29)

Today in World War II History—July 16, 1944

Lt. Gen. Jacob Devers (US Army Center of Military History)

Lt. Gen. Jacob Devers (US Army Center of Military History)

75 Years Ago—July 16, 1944: Allied Sixth Army Group (US Seventh Army & French First Army) is established under Lt. Gen. Jacob Devers for Operation Anvil, the invasion of Southern France (later named Operation Dragoon).

Lt. Cdr. Goodwin of New Zealand escapes a Japanese POW camp in Hong Kong and swims to mainland China, the only man to escape from Hong Kong.

Port Chicago – The Work Stoppage

Damage to depot at US Naval Magazine, Port Chicago from 17 July 1944 explosion (US Naval History and Heritage Command)

Damage to depot at US Naval Magazine, Port Chicago from 17 July 1944 explosion (US Naval History and Heritage Command)

In the worst Home Front disaster of World War II, an explosion at the Naval Magazine in Port Chicago, California on July 17, 1944 killed 320 men, of whom 202 were black. The tragedy was followed by a work stoppage and a controversial mutiny trial. This sent ripples of change through the segregated armed forces.

These events were included in my novel Blue Skies Tomorrow. Previous blog posts discussed the situation in the armed forces and at Port Chicago, and the explosion, today I’ll cover the work stoppage, and over the next couple of weeks we’ll look at the mutiny trial, and the aftermath.

Survivors

After the July 17, 1944 explosion claimed 320 lives, most of the survivors were taken to Port Shoemaker in Oakland, CA. However, two hundred men remained to help in the grisly clean up. By the end of the month, reconstruction began, and the first berth on the new pier opened September 6, 1944. Survivors’ leaves were granted to the white, but not the black survivors.

Congress met to decide on payments to beneficiaries, usually $5000. However, when Senator John Rankin (D-Mississippi) heard most of the beneficiaries were black, he demanded lowering payments to $2000. Congress settled on the insulting amount of $3000, which applied to white beneficiaries as well.

Since the war continued and the Navy’s need for munitions in the Pacific had not diminished, three of the surviving work divisions (all black) from Port Chicago were sent to the main depot across the river at the Mare Island Navy Yard in Vallejo.

Damage to barracks at US Naval Magazine, Port Chicago from 17 July 1944 explosion (US Naval History and Heritage Command)

Damage to barracks at US Naval Magazine, Port Chicago from 17 July 1944 explosion (US Naval History and Heritage Command)

Work Stoppage

The men remained jittery from the explosion that had killed so many of their friends. No new training was given, no new safeguards were instituted, and the men served under the same white officers from Port Chicago. Tensions rose as they realized they’d be asked to load ammunition again. They knew firsthand the hollowness of the promise that the ammunition couldn’t detonate.

On August 9, 1944, the men were marched from their barracks at Mare Island toward the dock to load ammunition again for the first time since the explosion. Suddenly, the men stopped marching. They said they were afraid to handle munitions and they’d obey any order except the order to load ammunition.

Upon further questioning from the officers, of the 328 men in the three divisions, 258 refused to work. These men were confined to a barge, since the brig wasn’t big enough. For three days, the men remained under guard on the crowded, poorly ventilated barge.

The Admiral’s Demand

On August 11, the 258 men were gathered on the baseball field. Admiral Carleton Wright, commander of the 12th Naval District, addressed the men. He informed them that refusing to work in time of war was mutinous behavior, and that mutiny carried the death penalty.

The men were asked again if they were willing to work, and 208 said they were willing, but the remaining 50 refused and were taken to the brig at Camp Shoemaker in Oakland, California. These 50 men included two who refused because they were mess cooks and had never handled munitions before—one had a nervous condition and the other was underweight. Another man refused to work due to a broken wrist in a cast.

Interrogations

All 258 of the men who initially refused to work were interrogated at Camp Shoemaker, under armed guard and without counsel. The transcripts of their testimonies were often wildly inaccurate, but they were given no choice but to sign the testimonies.

On September 2, President Roosevelt recommended that the 208 men who agreed to return to work receive light sentences. These 208 were given Summary Courts Martial and bad-conduct discharges, and were docked three months’ pay. The 50 men who refused to work were given General Courts Martial with the charge of mutiny.

Sources:

Allen, Robert L. The Port Chicago Mutiny. Berkeley CA: Heyday Books, 2006.

War Time History of U.S. Naval Magazine, Port Chicago, California. Washington DC: US Navy Bureau of Ordnance, 5 December 1945. On Naval History and Heritage Command website. Accessed 25 June 2019.