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Port Chicago – Desegregation of the US Navy

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)

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 third novel, Blue Skies Tomorrow. This is the last in a five-part series on the Port Chicago Disaster:

Part 1: Introduction: Segregation in the armed forces and the situation at Port Chicago

Part 2: The explosion

Part 3: The work stoppage

Part 4: The mutiny trial

Part 5: The aftermath and desegregation of the US Navy

Public Outrage

The explosion and mutiny trial were heavily publicized, at the Navy’s request. While the purpose was to discourage further insubordination in the ranks, the publicity backfired, exposing the segregated and discriminatory practices in the Navy. A great outcry went up in the black community, but many whites were appalled as well.

Further Discord

The difficult and humiliating conditions for blacks in the armed forces caused more strife and violence. On July 31, 1944, 75 black members of the 1320th Army Engineers refused to work on an airfield on Oahu. They were arrested and convicted of mutiny on February 1, 1945. Christmas Eve and Day on Guam were marked by an ugly race riot that killed one black and one white Marine. Forty-three blacks were court-martialed and sentenced; no whites were arrested. And in March 1945, one thousand black Seabees at Port Hueneme, California engaged in a two-day hunger strike to protest discrimination.

Proponents of Change

James V. Forrestal, US Secretary of the Navy (US Navy photo)

James V. Forrestal, US Secretary of the Navy (US Navy photo)

The black sailor had a friend in the new Secretary of the Navy, James V. Forrestal, who had been appointed by the president on May 19, 1944 after the death of Frank Knox. Forrestal found that Admiral Ernest King, Chief of Naval Operations and Commander-in-Chief of the United States Fleet, believed that integration was right and necessary. In March 1945, Forrestal asked Lester Granger of the National Urban League to serve as his adviser. Forrestal liked Granger’s tactics. Rather than arguing for desegregation solely in the name of fairness and rights, Granger argued that desegregation increased security, production, and administrative efficiency.

Gradual Changes

Ironically, on August 9, 1944, the same day the survivors of the Port Chicago Explosion refused to load ammunition, Forrestal informed the commanders of 25 fleet auxiliary ships that they would be assigned black sailors, to be fully integrated on their crews. In this experimental change, the black sailors were found to be accepted and efficient members of the crews. As a result, all auxiliary ships were fully integrated as of March 6, 1945.

Crew of destroyer escort USS Mason, the first US warship with a predominately black enlisted crew; Boston Navy Yard, 30 March 1944 (US Naval History and Heritage Command)

Crew of destroyer escort USS Mason, the first US warship with a predominately black enlisted crew; Boston Navy Yard, 30 March 1944 (US Naval History and Heritage Command)

In January 1945, a pamphlet went out to naval officers, encouraging ratings and promotions be made for blacks on the same basis as for whites. The pamphlet also warned against the use of racial epithets.

In response to the Port Chicago incident, on February 21, 1945, the Navy limited blacks working at ammunition depots to no more than 30 percent of the work force. An argument that proved effective was that dispersing blacks prevented collective action like riots and strikes.

Specialist training schools had quietly been integrating since 1943, simply due to the inefficiency of maintaining separate schools. In June 1945, all Navy training camps were desegregated, with recruits sent to the nearest facility regardless of race. In July 1945, the Navy opened submarine and aviation pilot training to blacks as well.

Strides were made within the Navy for black women as well. In October 1944, the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) opened recruitment for black women, and in March 1945, the Navy Nurse Corps was also opened to blacks.

Lt. (j.g.) Harriet Ida Pickens (left) and Ens. Frances Wills close a suitcase after graduating from the Naval Reserve Midshipmen’s School (WR) at Northampton, MA, 21 December 1944. They were the Navy’s first African-American WAVES officers and graduated with the Northampton school’s final class. (U.S. Navy Photograph)

Lt. (j.g.) Harriet Ida Pickens (left) and Ens. Frances Wills close a suitcase after graduating from the Naval Reserve Midshipmen’s School (WR) at Northampton, MA, 21 December 1944. They were the Navy’s first African-American WAVES officers and graduated with the Northampton school’s final class. (U.S. Navy Photograph)

Results

Progress in the Navy was slow but significant. By the end of the war, 5.3 percent of naval personnel were black, double the prewar percentage but still less than half the percentage of the population. Only 60 black officers served in the Navy, up from zero before the war. Seventy black women served as WAVES, and four black women served in the Navy Nurse Corps. Before the war, blacks were only allowed to serve as steward’s mates. By the end of the war, blacks held 67 different ratings, although 40 percent still served as steward’s mates.

Brochure about ratings in the US Navy, WWII

Brochure about ratings in the US Navy, WWII

Full Integration

Work continued in the Navy after the war. On February 27, 1946, without fanfare, the Bureau of Naval Personnel issued Circular Letter 48-46 which prohibited all segregation in assignments, ratings, ranks, ships, facilities, and housing. Not until 1948 were the rest of the armed forces completely integrated. While the Navy had been the most segregated service before the war, it became the first integrated service. The events surrounding the Port Chicago Explosion played a significant role in these landmark changes.

Sources

MacGregor, Morris J. Jr. Integration of the Armed Forces 1940-1965. Washington DC: Center of Military History, United States Army, 1985. On U.S. Army Center of Military History website. Accessed 25 June 2019.

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

Today in World War II History—July 29, 1944

US Marines Gunnery Sergeant J. Paget and Privates L.C. Whether and V.A. Sot, Guam, 28 July 1944 (US National Archives)

US Marines Gunnery Sergeant J. Paget and Privates L.C. Whether and V.A. Sot, Guam, 28 July 1944 (US National Archives)

75 Years Ago—July 29, 1944: On Guam, US Marines clear Orote Peninsula and take Orote Airfield.

New song in Top Ten: “It Could Happen to You.”

Today in World War II History—July 28, 1944

American armored and infantry forces pass through the battered town of Coutances, France, July 1944 (US National Archives)

American armored and infantry forces pass through the battered town of Coutances, France, July 1944 (US National Archives)

75 Years Ago—July 28, 1944: In Poland, Soviets cross the Vistula River south of Warsaw and take Brest-Litovsk.

In the drive out of Normandy, US First Army takes Coutances.

Me 163 Komet jet fighter goes into combat with Luftwaffe.

Today in World War II History—July 27, 1944

Map showing the Allied breakthrough at Saint-Lô, France, 25-31 July 1944 (US Military Academy)

Map showing the Allied breakthrough at Saint-Lô, France, 25-31 July 1944 (US Military Academy)

Gloster Meteor over England (Imperial War Museum)

Gloster Meteor over England (Imperial War Museum)

75 Years Ago—July 27, 1944: In Operation Cobra in Normandy, US First Army breaks through German defenses south of Saint-Lô.

First operational use of RAF Gloster Meteor jet fighters, which will down 14 V-1 buzz bombs by the end of the war.

Today in World War II History—July 26, 1944

Pres. Franklin Roosevelt in conference with Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Adm. Chester Nimitz, and Adm. William Leahy, Hawaii, July 1944. (US Navy photo)

Pres. Franklin Roosevelt in conference with Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Adm. Chester Nimitz, and Adm. William Leahy, Hawaii, July 1944. (US Navy photo)

75 Years Ago—July 26, 1944: President Roosevelt arrives in Honolulu to meet with Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Admirals Chester Nimitz and William Leahy to determine strategy in the Pacific; the decision will be made to invade the Philippines rather than Formosa (Taiwan).

Today in World War II History—July 25, 1944

Lt. Gen. Lesley McNair, 1944 (US Army Signal Corps photo)

Lt. Gen. Lesley McNair, 1944 (US Army Signal Corps photo)

75 Years Ago—July 25, 1944: Operation Cobra: US First Army begins breakout from Normandy.

While supporting Cobra, US Eighth Air Force accidentally bombs Allied troops, killing 102, including Lt. Gen. Lesley McNair, former commander of US Army Ground Forces.

Today in World War II History—July 24, 1944

US Marines landing on Tinian, 24 July 1944 (US Marine Corps)

US Marines landing on Tinian, 24 July 1944 (US Marine Corps)

75 Years Ago—July 24, 1944: Soviets liberate first Nazi German concentration camp, at Majdenek near Lublin, Poland.

US Marines land on Tinian in the Marianas.

Today in World War II History—July 23, 1944

Artillerymen of Chinese 2nd Army in Sung Shan area of Burma. (US Army of Center of Military History)

Artillerymen of Chinese 2nd Army in Sung Shan area of Burma. (US Army of Center of Military History)

Canadian Gen. Harry Crerar, 1943-45 (Library and Archives Canada)

Canadian Gen. Harry Crerar, 1943-45 (Library and Archives Canada)

75 Years Ago—July 23, 1944: In Italy, US Fifth Army takes portion of Pisa south of the Arno River.

Chinese renew attack against Japanese at Sung Shan, Burma in Salween region.

Canadian First Army becomes operational in Normandy, with Gen. Harry Crerar in command.

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.

This is the fourth in a five-part series on the Port Chicago Disaster:

Part 1: Introduction: Segregation in the armed forces and the situation at Port Chicago

Part 2: The explosion

Part 3: The work stoppage

Part 4: The mutiny trial

Part 5: The aftermath and desegregation of the US Navy

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.”

Trial for the “Port Chicago 50” at Yerba Buena Island, CA, September-October, 1944 (US Navy photo)

Trial for the “Port Chicago 50” at Yerba Buena Island, CA, September-October, 1944 (US Navy photo)

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

Continue Reading: Part 5: The aftermath and desegregation of the US Navy

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.