Four years ago on July 17, a group of local citizens sat in silence near the shores of Suisun Bay at Port Chicago, upriver from the San Francisco Bay near the city of Concord.
The National Park Service had assembled the group to dedicate a new memorial at the site of the horrendous ammunition ship explosions that killed 320 people, including 202 black sailors, 70 years ago this week.
Silence and peace prevailed in this moment in 2010 because the group was under the spell of Yosemite National Park Service Ranger Shelton Johnson, keynote speaker.
Johnson, a black man from Detroit, commanded the crowd’s attention with his urging for everyone to close their eyes and imagine being in the same spot in July 1944 before tragedy struck. “They would have heard the same breeze blowing and seen the same sights.”
Johnson played a soothing Native American tune on his cedar flute, creating a mood that could not have contrasted more with the horrifying scene the night of July 17, 1944.
Much water has gone under the bridge since the night hell visited the naval ammunition depot and two earsplitting explosions six seconds apart disintegrated two cargo ships — both built by Henry J. Kaiser shipyard workers.
All the men on the ships and the loading dock were killed instantly; most bodies were impossible to recover or identify. The SS E.A. Bryan, a Liberty ship launched from the Kaiser Richmond shipyards Feb. 29, 1944, was “vaporized”.
The SS Quinault Victory ship was launched from the Kaiser Portland shipyard just one month before the disaster, June 17, 1944, and was on its maiden voyage. Pieces of the Quinault were scattered over a two-mile area adjacent to the port.
What could have been written off as simply a tragedy of war — careless sailors in a hurry to load much needed firepower for the Allied forces in the Pacific — became a flash point for the Civil Rights Movement.
The biggest catastrophe on the World War II Home Front, the Port Chicago disaster and its aftermath shined a spotlight on U.S. Navy personnel practices, especially the treatment of African-American sailors.
By policy, the Navy and all branches of the service were segregated in 1944. Black enlisted men were not eligible for promotion and their duties were restricted to menial tasks. The men assigned to load the ships at Port Chicago were all black; the officers at the installation were all white. None of the men assigned to Port Chicago had ammunition-loading training.
Before the disaster, the black stevedores believed their work was relatively safe, as their officers had told them. But after they saw their colleagues killed, the men became afraid to go back to work unless the Navy improved conditions.
Three weeks later, the black sailors were assigned to load ammunition ships at nearby Mare Island; 258 refused. When told they would be charged with mutiny and could be executed, all but 50 of them agreed to go back to work.
In late 1944, the Navy beefed up munitions training and safety measures and assigned white enlisted men to join the black enlisted men on the rebuilt Port Chicago pier.
But it was too late for the black sailors who refused the assignment at Mare Island. Even though they agreed to go back to work, they were docked three months pay and given a “bad conduct” discharge, which meant they could not get veterans’ benefits.
Those who continued in their resistance became the subject of the biggest mutiny trial in U.S. Naval history and gained the moniker “The Port Chicago 50.” Their cause attracted the attention of Thurgood Marshall, then-attorney for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who attended the trial.
In an appeal of the verdicts, Marshall argued that racism played a role in the trial and the charge should not have been mutiny but at most insubordination. He was unsuccessful in his appeal of the mutiny verdicts, and the 50 were sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Later, the sentences were reduced to eight to 10 years, and after the war, in 1946, all but one was released from prison and took assignments in the Pacific. Also in 1946, the Navy became the first branch of the U.S. military to fully integrate its forces.
Although Marshall’s mutiny appeal didn’t succeed, he scored a big win for the Civil Rights Movement in 1954 as attorney in the Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, the landmark case that resulted in the end of segregation in public schools.
As the Civil Rights movement gained momentum, Marshall played a key role, winning cases for civil rights activists: Browder v. Gayle, ended segregation on buses in 1956, and Garner v. Louisiana in 1961 protected peaceful civil rights demonstrators from prosecution under “disturbing the peace” laws.
These successes led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. President Lyndon B. Johnson, who signed the act, appointed Marshall the first African-American U.S. Supreme Court Justice in 1967.
In 1994, a Navy review of the explosion and aftermath found that racism had played a role in the work at Port Chicago and in the mutiny trials. However, officials let the convictions stand.
The National Park Service and the Friends of Port Chicago National Memorial are sponsoring events July 17, 18 and 19, to mark the 70th anniversary of the Port Chicago disaster.