From: Charles R Spinner <>
Newsgroups: soc.culture.zimbabwe,soc.culture.african.american,soc.culture.african
Subject: BHM Moments: Port of Chicago Mutiny
Date: Fri, 28 Feb 2003 22:54:04 -0800
Message-ID: <>

The Port Chicago Mutiny

The History, [28 February 2003]

In 1942, The U.S. Navy built Port Chicago, a naval ammunition base located thirty miles northeast of San Francisco for the loading and shipping of ammunition to U.S. troops fighting the Japanese in the Pacific. All of the sailors performing the extremely dangerous job of loading the munitions were black and the officers commanding them and overseeing the loading were white. From the beginning, there were ominous signs: no training had been given to the loaders or the officers supervising them. In fact, the Navy did not even have written guidelines for loading munitions. The lack of official training meant that the men had to learn on the job. This method of training led to the inevitable improper handling of volatile explosives and, eventually, disaster.

At 10:15 PM on July 17, 1944, two munition ships—the E.A. Bryant and Quinalt Victory—blew up while being loaded with bombs, shells, and depth charges. Two terrific explosions rocked the base. Seismographs at UC Berkeley recorded the two explosions as small earthquakes. The forces of the blasts were equivalent to five kilotons of TNT—roughly the same order of magnitude as the atomic bomb that would later be dropped on Hiroshima. Everyone on the pier and aboard the two ships were killed instantly: 320 men, 202 of whom were black. Another 390 military personnel and civilians were injured, including 202 black enlisted men. It was the biggest homefront disaster of World War II and resulted in an amazing 15% of all black casualties sustained during the war.

The next day many of the black sailors searched the wreckage for bodies. Many of the victims could not be identified. The carnage was indescribable. Shortly after the disaster, a Navy Court of Inquiry cleared all white officers of responsibility in the disaster. The court did place blame on the black loaders, saying rough handling [of munitions] by individual or individuals may have caused the explosion. This conclusion did not take into account the lack of training the loaders had been provided by their officers. Traumatized by the horrible explosion and the grisly aftermath, 258 ammunition loaders—all of whom were black—refused to return to work considered too dangerous for white sailors. The Navy responded to the work stoppage by imprisoning the men on barge for three days. Eventually, all but 50 black sailors returned to loading ships.

The 50 seamen who refused to return to work were court-martialed, convicted of mutiny, and imprisoned until the end of the war. In the racially divided America of World War II, their plight outraged blacks and white liberals— including a young NAACP lawyer named Thurgood Marshall. Marshall was present at the trial and he voiced the frustration and anger of the men on trial. Marshall said, This is not fifty men on trial for mutiny. This is the Navy on trial for its whole vicious policy towards Negroes— Negroes in the Navy don’t mind loading ammunition. They just want to know why they are the only ones doing the loading! They want to know why they are segregated!

After the war, with the help of the NAACP and Thurgood Marshall’s persistence, the sentences of the 50 black sailors were significantly reduced, but not overturned. Ultimately, the actions of the black sailors helped change the face of the U.S. Navy; soon white sailors were put to work side by side with black sailors loading ammunition at Port Chicago. Later, again in part to Thurgood Marshall’s efforts and NAACP pressure, the Navy began a systematic policy of desegregation under Secretary of Navy Forrestal. In 1948, when President Harry S. Truman signed the historic Executive Order 9981, ordering an end to the racial segregation in the U.S. Armed Forces, the Navy was already in compliance. But more than 50 years later, the convictions of the 50 black sailors of Port Chicago still stand.