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World War II
Port Chicago: A Case of Racism in the War Effort?
Clinton Pardons Freddie Meeks
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Port Chicago: A Case of Racism in the War Effort?
African American sailors unloading a boxcar while White officer looks on.

Segregation in the US armed forces during the Second World War led to various incidents. One incident that showed just how poorly African-American enlisted men were treated in comparison to their white peers is the tragedy at Port Chicago.

The Port Chicago Naval Magazine

After World War I, the Navy tried to remove African-Americans from the armed forces, replacing them with Filipinos. The Navy started to again recruit African-Americans in 1932, but only for menial tasks such as kitchen helpers. There were no black officers.

Two days after Pearl Harbor was attacked, on Dec. 9, 1942, authorization was given to construct the Port Chicago Naval Magazine near San Francisco, California. The shipyard was crucial to the war effort, since ships were being sunk daily by the Axis forces and allied troops needed new ships, as well as supplies and ammunition. Three crews worked around the clock at the shipyard.

The extremely dangerous task of loading ammunition was given to African-American sailors. Their supervising officers were all white. Neither had received much training and there was a lot of pressure to work faster and faster to meet the demand. More than 150,000 African Americans were serving in the navy at the time, but none were allowed to have combat duty or become officers. So much of the difficult and dirty support work fell on their shoulders.

A horrible explosion

On the evening of July 17, 1944, two ships were being loaded with explosives. More than 300 cargo handlers, crewman, and sailors were working in the area of the ships. A huge explosion suddenly took place and destroyed one of the ships completely. The entire area was an inferno. Everyone within 1,000 feet of the loading dock perished. Of the men on duty that night, 320 were killed and nearly 400 wounded. More than 200 of the dead were African Americans assigned the dangerous duty of loading the ships.

The mutiny

Everybody present that day was in total shock at what they had just witnessed. The white officers were given leave to recover from the shock. But the African-American military personnel who survived did not receive leave, injured or not. On August 9, 258 out of 358 African-American men on duty that day refused to obey orders. Almost no new safeguards had been put into place. The men were not willing to load more ammunition under such dangerous circumstances. These men were quickly arrested and imprisoned. After being threatened with charges of mutiny and the possible death penalty, most returned to work. But 50 men still refused to resume their work. None of these was called to testify in the investigation into the cause of the explosion. Instead, Navy investigators blamed the black sailors, insinuating they were intellectually incompetent to handle loading operations.

The judgment

In September 1944, 50 men faced a trial that lasted 32 days. All the members of the jury and the judge were white. The Prosecution argued that the men were cowards and guilty of treason. The men lost the case and all were dishonorably discharged and sentenced from 8 to 15 years in jail.

In January 1946, after the end of the Second World War, the men were released from prison. But they continued to have a criminal record and did not receive any veteran’s benefits. It was until 1999 that President Bill Clinton pardoned Freddie Meeks, one of the few remaining survivors of those that were court-marshaled.

Today, the site of the Port Chicago Naval Magazine has been turned into a national memorial, dedicated to the lives lost in the explosion.

Photo courtesy of the US Navy and the National Parks Service.
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This day in history
Today: 11 December 2018
Then: 11 December 1941

Germany and Italy declare war on the United States; the U.S. respond in kind.

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