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 2: The explosion
Part 3: The work stoppage
Part 4: The mutiny trial
Part 5: The aftermath and desegregation of the US Navy
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.