Black History Month Review of “The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights” by Steve Sheinkin

Once again the multiple award-winning author Steve Sheinkin excels at reporting an important (but not widely known) moment in history in a format friendly to younger readers as well as to adults. In this case, the moment he records changed the course of race relations in the U.S.

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Port Chicago was a U.S. Navy base in the San Francisco Bay where, during World War II, black sailers were assigned to load bombs and ammunition into ships headed for American troops in the Pacific. All the officers were white, but all the men loading the bombs were black. In addition, the whites (who were not actually doing the work) received training in safe handling of warheads and incendiary bombs, but no such training was given to the blacks.

At that time, the military, like most of the country, was very segregated; even the blood supply was separated by color. Black men in uniform were not treated any better for serving the country; in fact, in parts of the country, they were considered even more offensive for presuming that their uniforms entitled them to any sort of respect or equal treatment. One white corporal reported a scene in Louisiana in which his black soldiers could not get served a meal in a single restaurant during a train stop, but a group of German prisoners of war, also at the train station, could walk right in to the station lunchroom and get served.

The hypocrisy of segregation:  black men fighting for freedom abroad (Battle of the Bulge, 1944)

The hypocrisy of segregation: black men fighting for freedom abroad (Battle of the Bulge, 1944)

In another instance in Louisiana, a black soldier on a bus was ordered to get out of the white section, and he replied he would rather get off the bus. He did so, but the bus driver stopped the bus, got out, and shot the soldier to death. The driver was not prosecuted. Nor were any of the other whites in southern cities who attacked black soldiers; rather, it was the victims who got charged with assault. Repeated instances like this kept the future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall busy as he travelled around the country for the NAACP trying to help fight the “avalanche of abuses reported by African American soldiers and sailors.”

At Port Chicago, the soldiers were pushed to load as many bombs as possible, with officers pitting one division against the other and placing bets on whose division could load the fastest. Safety was not a concern. On July 17, 1944, there was a huge explosion, killing 320 and injuring another 390.

A view of the wreckage at Port Chicago on July 18, 1944. (Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial photo)

A view of the wreckage at Port Chicago on July 18, 1944. (Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial photo)

A Navy Board of Inquiry decided that the way the explosives were being handled had no impact on safety; rather, according to the official report and based on only the testimony of the white officers:

The consensus of opinion of the witnesses…is that the colored enlisted personnel are neither temperamentally nor intellectually capable of handling high explosives…”

Following this incident, a large number of black sailors refused to load ammunition again. But after the commandant of the Twelfth Naval District threatened them with a firing squad, all but fifty reported for work. These fifty were put on trial for mutiny. Their defense team was good, and worked hard to show that there were no witnesses to the white officers’ allegations of a conspiracy; that the sailors were just afraid; and that the men had no interest in “usurping, subverting, or overriding superior military authority,” a part of the Navy’s definition of mutiny. But ultimately, as Joe Small, one of the Fifty, realized after the trial (summarized by Sheinkin):

The defense lawyers were all naval officers – they weren’t going to bring out details that would be embarrassing to the Navy. And even if they’d wanted to, the judges wouldn’t have let them.”

But the fact remained that many of the so-called mutineers were not capable of working with the munitions, and not for reasons of “mental inadequacy,” as came out at the trial. One sailor, who weighed just 104 pounds, said he was specifically told by a Navy doctor he wasn’t strong enough. Another suffered dizzy spells and also been declared unfit for loading. One still had a fractured wrist from the explosion. One mentioned that because the officers were racing for money, he was afraid another explosion would happen. Another testified that the prosecutor threatened that if he didn’t “come clean” about a conspiracy, he would be shot. (Thurgood Marshall released a statement charging that the prosecutor was prejudiced and that it was impossible for the sailors to get a fair trial.) And so on.

The Navy defense team sits in front of the fifty accused stevedores during the trial on Treasure Island in 1944.

The Navy defense team sits in front of the fifty accused stevedores during the trial on Treasure Island in 1944.

It was all to no avail. All fifty men were found guilty of mutiny. (Decades after the trial, the defense attorney revealed that he had overhead Rear Admiral Hugh Osterhaus of the court say, while the trial was still in progress, “We’re going to find them guilty.”) All fifty sentences were identical: fifteen years of hard labor in prison, and a dishonorable discharge from the Navy. A few of the younger sailors had some years knocked off of the sentences.

Thurgood Marshall didn’t give up, writing directly to the Secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal, arguing about the absurdity of the court’s proceedings and findings. Behind the scenes, Navy lawyers agreed with Marshall.

Thurgood Marshall as a young NAACP lawyer

Thurgood Marshall as a young NAACP lawyer

Meanwhile, the abuses of black soldiers both on and off bases continued. The Navy finally decided that segregation was actually hampering the war effort, and instituted gradual integration. But there was no diminution in the sentences of the Port Chicago men.

In May 1945, Secretary Forrestal’s office told Admiral Wright the court had made a mistake and the judges needed to reconsider their decision. The judges, however, voted to uphold all fifty convictions and prison sentences, claiming:

The trials were conducted fairly and impartially.”

After the war was over, the public wouldn’t let go of the case, and even Eleanor Roosevelt got involved. Forrestal would not admit the Navy made a mistake, but wanted to make the case go away. In January, 1946, he ordered the Port Chicago prisoners transferred to a Navy ship and returned to active duty for service at sea (not, however, changing their status from “convicted mutineers”).

The Fifty had to deal with prejudice on the ship, and Joe Small was forced to duke it out with one Alabama boy, Alex, who eventually became his close friend. When Small later asked Alex what it was that caused him to change his mind about befriending a black man, Alex replied:

I found out something. … A man is a man.”

An Epilogue gives a brief recounting of Civil Rights advances following the events at Port Chicago, and extensive source notes. Throughout the text, there are many photos of both the people and documents described in the book.

Evaluation: History doesn’t get much better or more readable than this. The author has done an outstanding job reporting an occurrence about which every American should be aware.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Roaring Brook Press, a division of Holtzbrinck Publishing Holdings, 2014

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