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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 over the next few weeks, I’ll discuss the situation in the armed forces and at Port Chicago, the explosion, work stoppage, mutiny trial, and aftermath.

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

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.

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.

9 Responses to “The Port Chicago Disaster – Introduction”

  1. Pat

    Thank you for writing about this part of history. I don’t think it is very well known but it should be.

  2. Tobia cutino

    Thank you for this information both my parents worked at Benicia . My dad Art Sutterfield supervised loading of the ships . Helen packed ammo to be loaded . Love this article! !! I do have their papers

  3. Shirley Mozena

    I enjoyed the article and saddened by the segregation nearly 100 years after the Civil War.
    I enjoy your work and meeting you at Mt. Hermon!