Black History Month

The Port Chicago Mutiny

Revolutionary Worker #1092, February 25, 2001, posted at

In 1941 the U.S. went to war with Japan for the control of the Pacific rim. In keeping with the U.S. way of war, a major part of their strategy was to overwhelm the Japanese imperialist forces with U.S. war materiel. A massive logistical effort was quickly put in place--to flood the great ocean with American shells, bombs, ships, and planes.

On December 9, 1941, two days after the U.S. declared war on Japan, the order was given to construct the Port Chicago Naval Magazine--where the Sacramento River flows into Suison Bay, part of the larger San Francisco Bay. Within a year, that isolated stretch of bay shore, 30 miles from San Francisco, was lined with piers for ships, packed with long strings of railroad cars bringing in the weapons, and crowded with primitive barracks for the laborers. By 1944 it was the major loading point for the Pacific war.

The military turned Port Chicago into a place of great danger, forced labor, and Jim Crow racism--ruled by the harsh discipline of a capitalist military at war. The Black men brought there to work and die made it a place of heroism and fierce resistance.

The story of these Port Chicago events were buried underneath the mythology of "the good war"--until a remarkable book by Robert L. Allen, The Port Chicago Mutiny, enabled Black sailors to tell their story themselves.

A military is a concentration of the society and social order it is fighting for. The story of the Black sailors of Port Chicago gives a chilling glimpse of the U.S. society that was making its bid for world domination.

Navy Plantation on the Bay

"To be shot down is bad for the body," said Simple, "but to be Jim Crowed is worse for the spirit."

Langston Hughes, "Simple
on Military Integration"

The Port Chicago naval facility was a labor camp where Black enlisted men worked around the clock loading high explosives in the hot, cramped and stifling holds of ships. These were young Black men--many in their teens. Many were drafted into the Navy--as the U.S. government press-ganged millions into its war effort. One of the Port Chicago seamen told Robert Allen that he had been given a choice at the draft board between the Marines and the Navy--and chose Navy because he had no interest in fighting. Others had joined, believing that "serving their country" would entitle them to fair treatment and opportunity once the war was over. Others simply dreamed of breaking out of the routine of life in the plantation South or the Northern ghettos and just finding themselves in some other place in the world.

The place the Navy found for 1,400 of these men was Port Chicago. It was, one man said, "a chain gang with funny hats."

About a million Black people entered the U.S. military during World War 2, including more than 150,000 Black men in the Navy. Black people in the military were almost exclusively assigned the dirtiest and most menial work in labor battalions--cleaning, digging, loading, and working as servants for officers. There were only rare exceptions to this--like the Tuskegee airman. The U.S. military in World War 2 was intensely Jim Crow. Black people were forced into separate segregated units within the Navy. All their commissioned officers were white. Naval intelligence conducted investigations of Black recruits, seeking to identify any sailors who were opposed to Jim Crow and interested in communism.

At Port Chicago, all the ammunition loaders were Black. The 71 overseers were white Naval officers. And, generally, the only other white people in sight were the sailors and railroad men bringing the ammunition in and out.

The pressure to load these ships was intense and reckless--as the Black crews moved and packed mines, shells, mortars, depth charges and many other munitions--including volatile, new, barely tested high explosives. One ship followed another--in and out, day and night. The white officers held betting contests over whose crews could load ships most quickly.

Neither the Black stevedores nor their white officers were ever given any training in the correct techniques for handling ammunition. But some officers attended a training course at the Navy's Great Lakes Training facilities listed in a Navy report as "negro psychology."

The loading crews were not even given work gloves--and in the heat, the shells often slipped out of their sweaty hands. Accidents and injuries were constant--as the officers insisted that the bombs had no detonators and were safe.

Anger and nervousness built among the enlisted men. They hated the plantation conditions--with its open disrespect and "whites only" bathrooms. Many understood that the total disregard for their safety could turn this dangerous operation into a disaster. Years later, these men described this life as a "mule team" and a "slave camp."

The commanding officer, Captain Nelson Goss, complained, "The black recruits arrived with a chip on their shoulder, if not, indeed, one on each shoulder." He suspected they were under "subversive influence" because they clearly resented their assignment.

The Explosion

"Men were screaming, the lights went out and glass was flying all over the place. The whole building was turned around, caving in. And we were a mile and a half away from the ships."

from a survivor

July 17, 1944, late evening--There were 320 men, including cargo handlers, officers and sailors, working around the two ships tied at the pier at Port Chicago, the SS Quinalt Victory and the SS E.A. Bryan. Their holds were packed with over 4,500 tons of munitions, plus the diesel fuel for an ocean voyage. More explosives were in 16 rail cars on the pier. The U.S. marines and navy were, at that moment, engaged in an invasion aimed at reconquering the long-time U.S. colony, the Philippines, from rival imperialist forces of Japan.

10:18 p.m.--an explosion went off in the Bryan and triggered a huge blast that disintegrated everything for a mile. A brilliant flash burned hot for a long time. A huge column of roiling, mushrooming gases rose almost two miles into skies, dark on the outside, flashing orange and red inside. High in the sky explosions continued as ejected shells blew up in flight.

The E.A. Bryan was blown into vapor and the tiniest scraps of metal--little was ever found. The Quinalt Victory was blown out of the water, completely flipped from its original heading, and shattered into pieces. A pilot flying at 9,000 feet reported seeing a chunk of white hot metal "as big as a house" flying past. The bow of the ship rose 200 feet. The keel, with the propeller sticking out, was found 1,000 feet away. A 12-ton locomotive on the pier simply disappeared and was never found. For a radius of two miles, there was a shower of smoldering metal and unexploded shells falling back to earth.

The explosion was close to the size of the atomic bombs that would soon be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki--and left a crater in the river bottom 300 feet wide and 700 feet long. The shock wave registered as an earthquake as far away as Nevada. A mile from the explosion, ships had their hatches ripped off by the air blast and encountered a wall of water 30 feet high. The blast and rain of metal destroyed much of the town of Port Chicago one and a half miles away. Windows were blown out in Vacaville, Concord, Vallejo, Benicia, Martinez, Napa, and San Francisco itself, 30 miles away.

The blast killed everyone in the vicinity instantly--320 died. Fragments of human bodies flew like bullets, and rained down with scraps of wreckage--landing on a nearby island over a mile away. Severed heads were found floating on the river waters. Roughly two-thirds of the dead, 202, were African American, and the rest were sailors and officers at the scene. In addition there were 390 wounded, and again, two-thirds were Black.

The explosion at Port Chicago accounted for 15 percent of African American casualties in all of World War 2. The loss of life was worse than the bombing at Pearl Harbor.

The Hearing

Rear Admiral Carleton H. Wright, commander of the 12th Naval District, immediately convened a board of inquiry in San Francisco into the cause of the explosion. Within four days of the explosion, hearings had started.

The simple fact is that no one could know the specific trigger for this disaster--since no one at the scene had survived. Some of the junior officers tried to expose the disregard for safety and the betting within the command over whose crews could be made to work fastest. These concerns were largely ignored. The lack of training was justified by claiming that Black people were incapable of being trained, and so "actual demonstration" (i.e. putting them to work without training) was the only possible approach. The senior officers and Navy procedures were essentially cleared of any wrongdoing.

In a display of crude white supremacist prejudices, the inquiry ruled that Black seamen had proven to be too ignorant to follow orders. The shameless logic of this official whitewash read like the diaries of slavemasters:

"These enlisted personnel were unreliable, emotional, lacked capacity to understand or remember orders or instructions, were particularly susceptible to mass psychology and moods, lacked mechanical aptitude, were suspicious of strange officers, disliked receiving orders of any kind, particularly from white officers or petty officers, and were inclined to look for and make an issue of discrimination. Because of the level of intelligence and education of the enlisted personnel, it was impracticable to train them by any method other than by actual demonstration. Many of the men were incapable of reading and understanding the most simple directions [T]he officers at Port Chicago have realized for a long time the necessity for great effort on their part because of the poor quality of the personnel with which they had to work. They worked loyally, conscientiously, intelligently, and effectively to make themselves competent officers and to solve the problem of loading ships safely with the men provided."

In the hearing there had been 125 witnesses. Only five of them were Black. The surviving Black enlisted men on the base, who had not been on that fatal duty shift, were not even told that the inquiry was going on.

In fact, the Navy did not even wait for this whitewash to be over, before they ordered the Black enlisted men of Port Chicago to return to loading ammo--under exactly the same deadly conditions as before.

Heroic Refusal by Survivors

"That's what they wanted us to do. They wanted us to go back to the same work we were doing, handling it the same way, under the same leadership. And I had made up my mind that I wasn't going to do it."

Freddie Meeks,1944

"We thought there was a better alternative --that's all."

Joe Small, spokesman for the
work stoppage at 23 years old

Ordinarily, the Navy granted 30-day survivor's leave to people who had experienced intense danger and loss of close comrades. The white officers of Port Chicago were allowed to go home after the explosion, but the Black enlisted men were denied any relief. Even those Black men hospitalized with injuries were denied the usual medical leave.

The survivors were sent to nearby bases, assigned other work. And then on August 9, only three weeks after the blast, the men were ordered into formation and marched toward the docks.

Joe Small remembers, "I was marching on the left-hand side of the ranks. When the lieutenant gave the command, 'Column left,' everybody stopped dead, boom, just like that. He said, 'Forward march--column left!' Nobody moved. Later an officer got up on a platform at the parade ground and said, 'Small, front and center.' I walked up and crossed to the front, stopped in front of him. He said, 'Small, are you going back to work?' And I told him, 'No, sir.' Then someone over in the ranks said, 'If Small don't go, we're not going either.' Well, that put me in the forefront of everything, made me the spokesman for the whole group."

A chaplain came to convince them to work--offering to stand with them on the dock and share the danger while they worked. The rebels were not impressed.

Of the 328 men in the three divisions, 258 refused to return to loading bombs. They considered it suicide, and they were very aware that the Navy was willing to let them die in this war to reconquer the Pacific.

Threat, Trial and Punishment

The Navy treated the work-stoppage as a criminal, wartime mutiny. They imprisoned the rebels for three days on a stifling hot barge--packed in like captives on a slave ship--while the high command decided what to do. The men carried out intense discussions and debates. They organized themselves to cook and keep order. Some expressed to the Navy that they were willing to work, and even volunteer for combat--but not return to loading ammo. And some prepared for the worst by making homemade knives to defend themselves.

Admiral Carleton Wright personally ordered his officers to gather the men in a baseball field: "Just in case you don't know who I am, my name is Admiral Wright and I am the commandant of the Twelfth Naval District. They tell me that some of you men want to go to sea. I believe that is a goddamn lie! I don't believe any of you have enough guts to go to sea. I have a healthy respect for ammunition; anybody who doesn't is crazy. But I want to remind you men that mutinous conduct in time of war carries the death sentence, and the hazards of facing a firing squad are far greater than the hazards of handling ammunition."

The men were stunned by this cold threat of execution. They were ordered to fall in and go to work--and, in a scene of intense emotions, two different groups formed, one to return to work, the other to stand hard with the rebellion. One rebel quipped: "What you gonna do? You gonna let them shoot you blindfolded or you gonna be looking at them?"

A hardcore 50 refused to work and were led off to jail. Joe Small described his comrades in that group as the "loudmouths and fighters, the most nervy men." Small was placed in solitary confinement. The other men were interrogated one by one, in hopes they would break. The interrogators wrote out statements and demanded that the men sign.

The base commander said that "extreme care and patience" had always been shown toward the enlisted men, and so their rebellion could only have been caused by "outside agitators and subversive influences."

The case was reviewed by President Franklin Roosevelt himself. Roosevelt upheld the Navy's actions and ordered that the men who agreed to return to work would be punished with dishonorable discharges but not imprisoned. The 50 who continued to resist were then put on trial for their lives.

This so-called "trial" was as rigged and racist as the earlier "inquest." In September 1944, the 50 rebels faced judgment from seven white senior Navy officers, six as jury and one as judge. Prosecutor Lieutenant Commander James F. Coakley argued that the men were cowards and guilty of treason. He argued that the fact that they had discussed the situation collectively on the barge proved that this was an organized conspiracy. The white naval officer assigned to the defense made a weak case--essentially agreeing that the men were cowards, while arguing that they were only guilty of individual insubordination, not organized mutiny.

The trial lasted 32 days, but when it was done the jury of officers took only 80 minutes to convict all 50 men. The rebels of Port Chicago were found guilty of mutiny. They were sent to military prison on California's Terminal Island--with sentences that ranged from 8 to 15 years of hard labor, plus dishonorable discharge and denial of all military benefits. It is the only known naval case involving mass mutiny since the case of 53 Africans involved in the slave revolt on the Amistad in 1840.

The Black press and community mobilized a campaign of protest--exposing the extreme treatment of Black sailors and the incredible madness of ordering them to return to loading after the Port Chicago disaster.

The Aftermath

"It affected my life."

Joe Small

In August 1945, just 13 months after the Port Chicago explosion at the dock, the war in the Pacific ended. The U.S. imperialists suddenly faced a whole new world situation. After defeating their Japanese and German rivals they were now focused on absorbing the international colonial empires of European powers. They faced the Soviet Union and the powerful anti-colonial movements that had developed during the war. Only a few years after the defeat of Japan, Maoist revolution achieved victory in China, and the shockwaves were felt around the world. Meanwhile there were major outbreaks of rebellion among Black people in the military including a rebellion of Black troops on Guam and a protest movement among Seabees.

In this international situation, the harsh oppression of Black people in the U.S. was an intense problem and embarrassment for the U.S. Under pressure from the rising anti-colonial movements, the U.S. government enacted a series of concessions to the growing struggle of African American people.

Among them was the decision, in January 1946, to release the 50 Port Chicago rebels from prison--at the same time as a general clemency for wartime military prisoners. The Navy continued to hold the Port Chicago rebels for a "probationary period" in the South Pacific--before gradually allowing them to leave the Navy.

Their release did not end their persecution. These man carried a felony record throughout their lives--and were denied the benefits that helped other veterans afford housing and education. The truth about their struggle was suppressed--even while the U.S. role in World War 2 was widely portrayed as a "fight for democracy."

Almost 40 years later, when historian Robert Allen contacted the survivors to record their story, all were eager to talk, but several believed they were placing themselves, and even their grown children, in danger. In 1999 the U.S. government finally pardoned the Port Chicago "mutineers." Only one of the survivors, Robert Meeks, was able to attend the ceremonies. The system that had denied these men justice for 55 years really intended to pardon itself.

Port Chicago was rebuilt and renamed the Concord Naval Weapons Station (Port Chicago). It was a center of supply for the Vietnam War and became a target of protests--including in 1987 when the anti-war military veteran Brian Willson lost his legs trying to obstruct a trainload of war supplies bound for the counterinsurgency in Central America.

The prosecutor of the Port Chicago Trial, Lt. Commander James F. Coakley, continued his service to the system, becoming notorious again in the 1960s as the Oakland District Attorney who prosecuted anti-war activists and the leadership of the Black Panther Party. By then, the spirit of Port Chicago was alive throughout the U.S. military as mutinies, rebellions and refusals to fight spread throughout the forces sent to occupy Vietnam, especially among the Black GI's and soldiers--including Joe Small's son who was "asked to accept a discharge for his subversive actions in the military."

For more information:

The Port Chicago Mutiny, Robert L. Allen, Amistad Press, 1989

Mutiny, a NBC drama produced by Morgan Freeman, 1999, available on video

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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