Final Outcome? Fifty Years after the Port Chicago Mutiny

By Allen, Robert L. | American Visions, April-May 1994 | Go to article overview

Final Outcome? Fifty Years after the Port Chicago Mutiny


Allen, Robert L., American Visions


Almost 50 years ago, as the world waited anxiously to learn whether the D-Day landing would lead to the swift defeat of Nazi Germany, the United States experienced its worst home-front disaster of World War II--and placed the blame squarely on African Americans.

On the evening of July 17, 1944, the Port Chicago naval ammunition base located on San Francisco Bay, about 30 miles northeast of San Francisco, erupted in an explosion so violent that an air force pilot flying above reported that "there was a huge ring of fire spread out to all sides, first covering about three miles--and then it seemed to come straight up. We were cruising at 9,000 feet, and there were pieces of metal ... that went quite a way above us. [These pieces] were as big as a house."

On the ground the devastation was measured differently: 320 men died (only 51 bodies sufficiently intact to be identified were recovered), about 390 Navy personnel were injured, and two cargo ships at the loading pier were destroyed. At the town of Port Chicago, located a mile away, falling debris--including undetonated bombs and jagged chunks of smoldering metal weighing up to hundreds of pounds--damaged 300 homes and stores, injured 109 people, and delivered such a blow to the community that it never recovered.

Of the 320 men killed at the base, 202 were black ammunition loaders. Of the 390 men injured, 233 were black. Indeed, every U.S. Navy man handling ammunition at Port Chicago was black, and every officer directing them was white. The black sailors--most of whom were in their teens and lacked formal training--had been assigned to racially segregated working divisions and to racially segregated barracks. Many had complained both about the Navy's Jim Crow conditions and about the unsafe working practices at the base.

The white officers, many of them inexperienced reservists, sometimes raced their work divisions against each other--in part to relieve the boredom, with wagers laid against brother officers, and in part to speed up loading.

Just before the eruption, Cyril Sheppard was reading a letter, when "suddenly there were two explosions," he says. "I found myself flying toward the wall. ... I hit the wall. Then the next one came right behind that, phoom! Knocked me back on the other side. Men were screaming, the lights went out, and glass was flying all over the place. ... The whole building was turned around, caving in. We were a mile and a half away from the ships. ...

"I said, |Jesus Christ, the Japs have hit!' ... But one of the officers was shouting, |It's the ships! It's the ships!' So we jumped in one of the trucks and we said let's go down there, see if we can help. We got halfway down there on the truck and stopped. Guys were shouting at the driver of the truck, |Go on down. What the hell are you staying up here for?' The driver says, |Can't go no farther.' See, there wasn't no more docks. Wasn't no railroad. Wasn't no ships. And the water came up to ... all the way back."

Jack Crittenden was sitting by a window when there was "this great big flash, and then something must have hit me. I found myself outside of the building and I don't remember going out of no window or climbing out," he says. He just remembers seeing the building he had been in and the barracks caving in, windows broken. "You know, a lot of guys were sleeping in the barracks," he continues. "They were blown to pieces. Some guys lost their sight; others were badly cut."

Only three weeks after the explosion, the surviving ammunition loaders were ordered back to work under the same officers and the same working conditions. Saying that they feared another disaster, 258 men balked at the August directive to resume loading ammunition. As a consequence, they were locked up on a barge for several days while their officers considered what to do. Eventually, 50 black sailors were singled out and formally charged with conspiring to mutiny, "the United States then being in a state of war. …

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