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Today in World War II History—July 4, 1944

US poster, WWII

US poster, WWII

75 Years Ago—July 4, 1944: Millionth Allied soldier lands in Normandy, less than one month after D-day.

In Normandy, 1100 US guns fire a Fourth of July salute at the German lines.

Soviets launch offensive into the Baltic States.

US Navy Task Force 58 bombards and bombs Iwo Jima, Haha Jima, and Chichi Jima, forcing the Japanese air force to leave the islands.

Yours Truly, Thomas, by Rachel Fordham

Yours Truly, Thomas, by Rachel FordhamPenny Ercanback works in the Dead Letter Office in Washington, DC. She receives a series of letters from a Thomas that didn’t reach his Clara, and Thomas’s hurting and tender heart touches Penny. Determined to reunite the lovers, Penny begins to investigate the mysterious man.

Thomas Conner is fleeing from his past in Virginia. When his Montana-bound wagon breaks down in Azure Springs, Iowa, he’s stuck for a lot longer than he likes. But the town’s friendliness is a balm to his wounds, and then he receives a letter from an anonymous woman at the Dead Letter Office who understands his pain like no other…

With an intriguing concept, Yours Truly, Thomas delivers a sweet and appealing romance with a healthy dose of humor. Rachel Fordham‘s characters grapple with grief and guilt and becoming a new person, which adds depth and heart to this warm story. Pour yourself your favorite beverage and prepare to lose yourself in this delightful story.

Today in World War II History—July 3, 1944

US tank, modified with iron teeth, cuts through the bocage (hedgerows) in Normandy, France, July 1944 (US Army Center of Military History)

US tank, modified with iron teeth, cuts through the bocage (hedgerows) in Normandy, France, July 1944 (US Army Center of Military History)

75 Years Ago—July 3, 1944: French and Algerian forces take Siena, Italy.

Soviets take Minsk in Byelorussia.

US First Army VIII Corps launches drive south from Cherbourg peninsula, the “Battle of the Hedgerows,” advancing only 7 miles in 12 days.

Today in World War II History—July 2, 1944

US Marines in Garapan, Saipan, 2 July 1944 (US Marine Corps photo)

US Marines in Garapan, Saipan, 2 July 1944 (US Marine Corps photo)

75 Years Ago—July 2, 1944: US Army troops land on Noemfoor Island in Geelvink Bay, New Guinea.

US Marines take Garapan, Saipan; Japanese fall back to final defensive line on northern Saipan.

Lt. Grace Hopper reports for duty, as a member of the WAVES, at the US Navy’s Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project at Harvard, to work on Mark 1 Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator (ASCC); in 1947 she will discover a moth stuck in a relay, leading to the term “computer bug.” 

Lt. Grace Hopper at Harvard, 1940s (public domain via WW2 Database)

Lt. Grace Hopper at Harvard, 1940s (public domain via WW2 Database)

The Port Chicago Disaster – Introduction

Damage to building A-14 at the US Naval Magazine, Port Chicago, 17 July 1944 (US Naval History and Heritage Command)

Damage to building A-14 at the US Naval Magazine, Port Chicago, 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.

Despite its significance, few people have heard about Port Chicago. I included these events in my third novel, Blue Skies Tomorrow, and I’m sharing what I learned about the Port Chicago Disaster in a five-part series:

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

Segregation of the US Armed Forces in World War II

All branches of the U.S. armed forces were segregated during World War II. Jim Crow rules were followed, supposedly so as not to offend the sensibilities of white Southerners. Blacks served in separate units and used separate barracks, mess halls, recreational facilities, and transportation.

In 1940, the Army had few commissioned black officers, and the Navy had none. Due to paternalistic attitudes at the time, blacks usually served under white officers, often from the South. The rationale was that Southerners had a “special understanding” of how to work with blacks.

In the Army, the bulk of black men served in Quartermasters or Engineers, and rarely in combat units. In 1940, all the blacks in the Navy served in the Steward’s Branch (mess). During combat, the stewards also manned the ship’s guns.

These segregated conditions were difficult to bear, especially for men from northern or western states, who had never lived under Jim Crow laws.

African-American mess attendants/gunners and white officers aboard cruiser USS Indianapolis, 10 July 1942 (US National Archives)

African-American mess attendants/gunners and white officers aboard cruiser USS Indianapolis, 10 July 1942 (US National Archives)

Slow Gains During the War

After the United States instituted the peacetime draft on September 16, 1940, leaders from the NAACP and other black organizations met with President Roosevelt on September 27 to air their grievances about segregation. Roosevelt responded on October 9 by allowing blacks to become commissioned officers—over black units only—but he retained segregation. He followed this action by promoting Benjamin O. Davis Sr. to brigadier general, the Army’s first black general. (Davis’s son, Benjamin O. Davis Jr. would later lead the Tuskegee Airmen).

Brig. Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Sr. watches a Signal Corps crew erecting poles, somewhere in France, August 8, 1944 (US National Archives)

Brig. Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Sr. watches a Signal Corps crew erecting poles, somewhere in France, August 8, 1944 (US National Archives)

One of the nation’s first war heroes was a black man. On the morning of December 7, 1941, Mess Attendant Second Class Doris “Dorie” Miller (pictured in the poster) was collecting laundry on board the USS West Virginia in Pearl Harbor. The Japanese attacked. The alarm for general quarters sounded, and Miller reported to his battle station, an antiaircraft battery amidships. It had already been destroyed. A heavyweight boxer, Miller carried wounded sailors to safety, aided the mortally wounded captain, and manned a .50 caliber machine gun—a weapon he’d never been trained to use—and was credited with downing a Japanese fighter plane. For his bravery, he received the Navy Cross on May 27, 1942. Sadly, he perished when the USS Liscome Bay was sunk by a Japanese submarine on November 24, 1943.

US poster honoring Pearl Harbor hero Dorie Miller, WWII

US poster honoring Pearl Harbor hero Dorie Miller, WWII

On February 7, 1942, the Pittsburgh Courier, the nation’s foremost black newspaper, announced the “Double V Campaign” to fight for victory and freedom at home as well as abroad.

As of June 1, 1942, blacks were allowed to enlist in the Navy for general service, not just the mess. However, they were restricted to work in Construction Battalions (the Seabees), in ammunition loading, and to stateside duties. On July 12, 1943, the Navy allowed blacks to be rated and promoted on the same basis as whites, but not until March 17, 1944 did the first twelve black officers enter service in the Navy.

These minor gains did little to appease. In the summer of 1943, race riots sprang up around the nation—from Los Angeles to Harlem, from Detroit to Mobile.

Naval Magazine, Port Chicago

The Naval Ammunitions Depot at Mare Island, Vallejo, California provided a large quantity of supplies for the Pacific Fleet. A sub-command of Mare Island was established at nearby Port Chicago on January 28, 1942. Construction soon began, and the first ship moored at Port Chicago on December 8, 1942.

Port Chicago lies by the deep water of Suisun Bay, where the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers merge before entering San Francisco Bay. The area was sparsely populated at the time, and the little town of Port Chicago (population 1000), was served by two transcontinental railroads, the Southern Pacific and the Santa Fe.

A single wooden pier allowed for one cargo ship to be loaded at a time. This was widened to twenty feet as of May 10, 1944, which allowed two ships to be loaded simultaneously.

Conditions at Port Chicago

Sailors loading ordnance aboard a ship at Port Chicago Naval Magazine, CA, circa 1943/44 (US Navy photo)

Sailors loading ordnance aboard a ship at Port Chicago Naval Magazine, CA, circa 1943/44 (US Navy photo)

At Port Chicago, eight divisions of 100-125 men worked around the clock. All the men working as stevedores (ammunition loading) were black, as were the petty officers. All commissioned officers and Marine guards were white.

The enlisted men arrived straight from the basic training centers, without any specific training in handling munitions. In addition, none of the officers had munitions handling experience either. Only two lectures on safety were given before the explosion.

To increase speed of loading, the officers instituted competitions between divisions, offering free movies to the winning group. There were also reports of betting among the officers. These conditions did not foster safety.

Morale was low at Port Chicago. The discrimination and segregation in the Navy, coupled with the lack of promotions or the chance to earn specialized ratings led to an apathetic attitude for many of the men. In addition, they earned lower pay than civilian stevedores. Not until June 1944 did the men have recreational facilities on the base, and no military transport was provided to Oakland or San Francisco for the men’s leaves.

Not all the men complained. Some were grateful for the opportunity to prove their worth through service. And one common complaint only proved the men’s patriotism—they wanted the right to go to combat and fight for their country.

Continue Reading: Part 2: The explosion

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.

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.

Today in World War II History—July 1, 1944

Bocage country of the Cotentin Peninsula, France, 1944 (public domain via WW2 Database)

Bocage country of the Cotentin Peninsula, France, 1944 (public domain via WW2 Database)

75 Years Ago—July 1, 1944: US First Army secures the Cotentin peninsula in Normandy, France.

United Nations Monetary Conference begins in Bretton Woods, NH; will establish International Monetary Fund and International Bank for Reconstruction & Development.

Today in World War II History—June 30, 1944

Map showing Allied advances in Normandy from June 6 to July 1, 1944 (US Army Center of Military History)

Map showing Allied advances in Normandy from June 6 to July 1, 1944 (US Army Center of Military History)

75 Years Ago—June 30, 1944: Adm. Sir Bertram Ramsay declares the conclusion of Operation Neptune, the naval portion of Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy.

US secures island of Biak off New Guinea.

Today in World War II History—June 29, 1944

Abandoned vehicles of German 9th Army at Bobruysk, Byelorussia, July 1944 (public domain via Wikipedia)

Abandoned vehicles of German 9th Army at Bobruysk, Byelorussia, July 1944 (public domain via Wikipedia)

75 Years Ago—June 29, 1944: Soviets take Bobruysk in Byelorussia, capturing 70,000 troops of German Army Group Center.

Gen. Friedrich Dollmann, commander of German 7th Army in Normandy, dies of a heart attack after Hitler threatens to court-martial him for the loss of Cherbourg.

In Nazi campaign against Italian partisans, Germans execute all 73 men in San Pancrazio, Tuscany.

Today in World War II History—June 28, 1944

Thomas Dewey, 1948 (US Library of Congress)

Thomas Dewey, 1948 (US Library of Congress)

75 Years Ago—June 28, 1944: At the Republican convention in Chicago, Thomas Dewey is nominated for president.

Last Japanese planes leave New Guinea as Allies advance.

Glenn Miller’s Army Air Forces Band arrives in Scotland on HMT Queen Elizabeth.