Port Chicago 1944 – A Black and White Situation: The Naval Disaster

Military history, Racial politics, Regional History, Society & Culture

Progressive advocates and activists for a more just and equal society in the US view the Port Chicago❈ naval disaster and mutiny in July 1944 as a crucible for the cause of civil rights. African-American seamen, the majority still in their teens, revolted against the entrenched discriminatory practices they encountered in the Navy during WWII, and although vilified and punished by White authority at the time, their stand was to be a key factor in the eventual decision to abolish segregation in the US armed forces[1].

Devastation on the PC pier after the explosion
The catalyst for the subsequent ‘mutiny’ (as the Navy and White society generally characterised it – see also the follow up blog) was a catastrophic series of explosions whilst two naval carrier vessels were being loaded at the naval dock with ammunition for transportation to the Pacific theatre of war. The mega-blast killed 320 sailors and civilians (the bulk of the sailors were African-Americans), plus a further 390 personnel were injured❧. It was the worst home front disaster of WWII (the cost included nearly $9.9m worth of damage to dock, ships and buildings). The fireball engulfing the Port could be viewed from miles away, triggering a quake felt as far away as Boulder City, Nevada. Such was the force of the explosion that one 300lb chunk of steel was ‘cannonballed’ a distance of 1.5 miles, landing in the main street of the Port township[2].

The disproportionate toll of African-American enlisted men in the disaster was the result of the Navy assigning them to the most menial, labouring jobs as stevedores, basically “pack mules” loading the munitions. The Navy made casual racist assumptions about their ‘limited’ vocational capacity, despite the fact that at the Navy boot camp the black sailors had each completed specific training for one or other of the naval rating occupations[3].

Navy double standards
In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, the Navy treated of the two groups of seamen involved markedly differently – the White officers and sailors were given a 30-day “survivor’s leave”, whereas all the Black sailors (despite being severely shaken and traumatised by the incident) were denied the leave – despite it being standard procedure in such instances. This proved a very sore point for the African-Americans at Port Chicago. African-American seamen enlisted in the US Navy, aside from motives of patriotism, for the promise of recognition as full American citizens – a chance to escape the South’s Jim Crow segregation policies or the North’s institutionalised “second citizenship”[4]. Unfortunately what they found, and Port Chicago was no exception to elsewhere in the military, was that they were still segregated and marginalised, despite the fact they were serving in the defence of their country.

Adding insult to injury: Compensation for African-American victims watered down
That the loss of Black lives in the Port Chicago catastrophe was of diminished importance in American society at the time was even more starkly underlined in the subject of restitution. The Navy asked for $5,000 to be paid to each of the families of the 203 dead African-American sailors. Extraordinarily, after a vigorous and forthright protest from Mississippi Democrat representative, John Rankin (a White Supremacist sympathiser) that the sum be reduced to $2,000, Congress caved in to his pressure and awarded the families $3,000 each[5] … a brazenly unequivocal acknowledgement from the authorities that Black lives in America at the time were not worth as much as White ones!

The Naval Board of Inquiry
The Inquiry into the explosion would give the surviving Black seamen (and the victims’ families) more cause for grievance. The report never established the cause of the disaster❖, but implied that an error by the enlisted men may have led to the explosions. As for the white officers and the base commander, they were all absolved of any blame for what happened[6]. The Naval Board effectively ‘white-washed’ the whole episode, choosing not to cast a critical eye over the glaring pre-conditions that contributed to the disaster. Both training and safety was lax at Port Chicago Naval Magazine. Deeply significantly, the Black assigned stevedores were not given instruction in ammunition loading. Training deficiencies were in fact common at Port Chicago – the White loading officers themselves had only minimal training in supervising enlisted personnel and in handling munitions. As well, the Port’s commander Captain Merrill Kinne himself had no training in the loading of munitions and very little experience in handling them[7].

Diagram of pier & the two cargo carriers prior to the explosion
Sowing the seeds of catastrophe
Safety requirements were not observed and unsafe practices abounded: there was a complacency about the maintenance of key operational equipment; safety regulations were not widely distributed for the staff to familiarise themselves with. The practice at Port Chicago was to force the stevedores, working around-the-clock, to load the explosive cargos[8] at a pace that would imperil safety – the rate was set at 10 short tons per hatch every hour (higher than commercial stevedores✾). Facility commander Kinne encouraged a climate of competitiveness between the different crews (which they called ‘divisions’) by keeping a tally of each crew’s hourly tonnage on a chalkboard … leading to the junior officers surreptitiously laying bets on which crew would win the “speed loading contests”[9].

PostScript: Was the explosion a nuclear detonation?
In the early 1980s investigative journalist Peter Vogel postulated the hypothesis that the explosion at Port Chicago was likely to have been a nuclear one. Vogel noted the continued secrecy surrounding the naval base site and pointed to the specific characteristics of the fireball (as described by eyewitness accounts) – a “brilliant flash of white” and the mushrooming effect of the explosion’s dispersion (ie, a Wilson condensation cloud). Vogel also asserted that the force of the actual blast was greater than the reported 1,780 tons of high explosives on board the two Liberty carriers (E.A. Bryan and Quinault)[10].

Whilst Vogel’s theory would hold obvious appeal for conspiracy theorists, it has been not gained traction among historians. Its detractors, especially nuclear historians Badash and Hewlett, point to Vogel’s lack of hard evidence to support his claim, and his inability to explain why the US Government would want to detonate a nuclear device on populated home soil. Badash and Hewlett have noted in particular the absence of any residual radioactivity and resultant harm to the local community – which suggests that only conventional weaponry was involved[11].

______________________________________________________________________
❈ the town of Port Chicago, now called Concord, is located about 30 miles north of San Francisco on the Sacramento River
❧ toll for Black Navy servicemen: 203 dead, 233 injured – representing 15% of all African-American casualties for the entire war
❖ it was a bad time for the Navy, PR wise. Just two months prior to the Port Chicago disaster, another calamitous explosion at West Loch (Pearl Harbour) resulted in the death of 163 seamen and hundreds injured … and like Port Chicago the disaster remained unexplained
✾ the quota set on the main base at Mare Island for instance was only 8.7

[1] President Truman’s 1948 Executive order officially desegregating the American armed forced, United States of America Congressional Record (106th Congress), Vol 146-Part 4 (April 3, 2000 to April 25, 2000)
[2] 430 miles to the south, ‘Port Chicago Mutiny (1944)’, www.blackpast.org; ‘Port Chicago disaster’, Wikipedia, http://Wikipedia.en.m.wikipedia.org; ‘A Chronology of African American Military Service. From WWI through WWII.’ (U.S. Army, Redstone Arsenal, Alabama. History), www.redstone.army.mil/history/integrate/chron36.htm
[3] RL Allen, The Port Chicago Mutiny: The Story of the Largest Mass Mutiny Trial in U.S. Naval History, (1989)
[4] ibid.
[5] M Moorehead, ‘The Port a Chicago Mutiny’, (Workers World), Feb 1995, www.hartford-hwp.com
[6] Allen, op.cit.
[7] ibid.
[8] The White officers used wilful deception to gain acquiescence, lying to the Black loaders as to the inherent dangers of the work – telling them the ammunition was not live which was catastrophically wrong, I Thompson, ‘Mare Island mutiny court-martial changed Navy racial policies, Daily Republic (Solano County), 23-Feb-2014, www.dailyrepublic.com
[9] Allen, loc.cit.
[10] Vogel, P (1982). THE LAST WAVE FROM PORT CHICAGO. The Black Scholar, 13(2/3), 30-47. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/41066881
[11] L Badash & RG Hewlett, cited in ‘Port Chicago disaster’, Wikipedia, op.cit.

5 thoughts on “Port Chicago 1944 – A Black and White Situation: The Naval Disaster

  1. I’m curious. Other than Badash and Hewlett, who are the mainstream historians who have discredited Vogel’s theory? Where is that information published?

    1. It seems to be mainly Badash & Hewlett who have taken Vogel to task for his nuclear contention. It’s probably more accurate to say other mainstream historians seem to have largely ignored his conclusions. Among academics I only known of Robert L Allen who has given credence to Vogel.

      1. Yeah, that’s what I’ve picked up also. Have you read Vogel’s Last Wave at Port Chicago? http://www.petervogel.us/
        Some of it gets pretty technical. Credible? Who knows, but I find it impressive with very in-depth research, to say the least. What do you think?

        1. I only skimmed through ‘Last Wave’ for my PC piece, Vogel apparently put 35 years into developing his theory so its evident that it was a serious amount of work. My view is though that I can’t see a compelling argument for why the Navy would’ve been loading atomic weaponry or even material onto ships bound for the Pacific theatre of war. US scientists were still testing & it was still a good 13 months before they went ‘live’ with it in Japan.

          1. “still testing” — what better than a live test? What I did find was a couple of citations about how beneficial the study of the Port Chicago explosion was for the development of the bomb, and that explains Parsons’ being there on the 20th of July.

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