Navy Reopens WWII Black Mutiny Case

By Reese Erlich, | The Christian Science Monitor, April 10, 1992 | Go to article overview

Navy Reopens WWII Black Mutiny Case


Reese Erlich,, The Christian Science Monitor


NEAR the end of World War II, a group of African-American Navy men refused to load an ammunition ship, saying they feared unsafe working conditions would lead to a massive explosion like the one that had occurred a few weeks earlier. The United States Navy put them on trial for mutiny, the first such trial in Navy history.

Critics charge that their subsequent conviction and harsh sentences were racist persecution. Under strong pressure from Bay Area congressmen, President Bush signed a law last December calling on the Navy to review the case.

Now, almost 50 years later, the Office of the Secretary of the Navy is investigating the Port Chicago mutiny and is expected to release its findings soon.

On July 17, 1944, Seaman First Class Percy Robinson was having trouble falling asleep when the first massive explosion hit him. He sat up on his bunk and saw the night air "turn like daylight."

A second explosion went off, totally destroying three ships and registering as a small earthquake on local seismographs. The Port Chicago Navy base 30 miles north of Oakland, Calif., was destroyed; 320 men died and 390 were wounded. Mr. Robinson's face and arm were badly mutilated.

In those days the Navy was strictly segregated. White officers commanded black enlisted men working as manual laborers.

Three weeks after the Port Chicago explosion, the worst homefront disaster of World War II, the Navy brass ordered the black seamen to load another ship. Even Robinson, with his face and arm still bandaged, was ordered to start work. Fearing more explosions, 258 men refused. Ultimately, 205 were court-martialed and 50 convicted of mutiny.

The Navy refuses comment on any aspect of the Port Chicago case, pending completion of its re-investigation. The Navy's Office of the Judge Advocate General is conducting the review to determine "the extent, if any, to which racial prejudice ... may have tainted the original investigation and trials," according to a prepared Navy statement.

Freddie Meeks, then a seaman first class, remembers well the dangerous conditions under which he worked prior to the Port Chicago disaster. The untrained men often loaded airplane bombs and artillery shells by hand.

Mr. Meeks describes how the enlisted men on deck would roll bombs down a wooden plank to those stationed below. Sometimes the bombs came down too fast. "You just couldn't catch them," remembers Meeks.

The Navy maintained that since the bombs had no fuses, they couldn't explode. The white officers constantly urged the men to load faster and awarded the highest producing division a flag. At least some of the officers also placed bets on whose crew could work faster, according to two Port Chicago survivors.

"They got the money," says a rueful Robinson, "we got the flag." Robinson is a retired engineer now living in Los Angeles.

After the July 17 explosions, injured white officers and white skilled workers received 30-day leaves. The African-Americans didn't, fueling even more anger at the Navy brass.

On Aug. 9, when ordered to load a transport ship, 258 black seamen refused. Under threat of mutiny charges and capital punishment, most of the men relented. But 50 still refused.

Meeks says those men preferred a firing squad to a fiery death in the hold of a ship. …

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