Justice sought in deadly 1944 blast

'Mutuny": The Navy still seems little interested in addressing apparent wrongs to black sailors at Port Chicago.

August 29, 1999|By James Warren

WASHINGTON -- In sultry noontime heat and humidity on Aug. 13, the short black woman in the starched white uniform stood ramrod straight at a podium and thanked the small group of older black men seated on metal benches before her.

"You have all made it possible for me to be here before you today with the admiral's stripe," said Rear Adm. Lillian B. Fishburne, the first black woman appointed by the secretary of the Navy to flag-officer status.

The pride of Fishburne, 50, was unmistakable. So was that of the older men, mostly in their mid-70s, assembled at the U.S. Navy Memorial, an uninspired and cold monument across the street from the U.S. Justice Department and the National Archives.

Her father, Fishburne told them, was one of the first hospital foremen in the Navy. And, just like them, in the early 1940s, her father had trained at Great Lakes Naval Training Station, outside Chicago.

The older men came up to Fishburne after the brief ceremony and congratulated her.

"It's an honor," said Louis Perkins, a biologist-botanist and longtime professor at Howard University who volunteered for duty as an 18-year-old at the Gulfport, Miss., draft board days after Pearl Harbor.

Yet there was one matter Fishburne would not mention, either in her brisk remarks or later when I approached her. It was, after all, the reason this dwindling and proud group was here, advocating a cause with which the Navy formally disagrees, even if it graciously sent the lady admiral as an emissary.

The cause is the "mutiny" at Port Chicago, an event calling out for a response. But few are left to call out and few interested in listening, including Fishburne's bosses.

Like the membership of this group, the World War II Black Veterans of Great Lakes, the memory of what happened on a loading dock just north of San Francisco 55 summers ago is dwindling.

There have been magazine articles, at least one book and "Mutiny," a television movie produced by actor Morgan Freeman and broadcast a few months ago on NBC.

But the book wasn't a big seller, and the movie didn't draw many viewers. Even a California congressman, Democrat George Miller, who's assisting the group's cause, sent an aide to the Washington ceremony in his stead.

Inattention aside, the tale is straightforward and profound.

The armed forces were segregated. The dirty job of loading munitions was left to blacks. Those assigned to Port Chicago, one of the largest depots on the West Coast, had not been trained to handle ammunition. There was no manual on loading 16-inch, armor-piercing shells or bombs -- or anything else for that matter.

They complained about their circumstances and anxieties. They complained about the act of "racing" -- namely, contests that white officers engaged in to see whose black crew could load a ship faster. The officers had money bets, and the black grunts who lost were denied privileges.

On the cloudless night of July 17, 1944, two merchant ships were at Port Chicago, being prepared for duty on the Pacific front. At 10:18 p.m., two gigantic explosions occurred, and the seismic shock was felt in Boulder City, Nev.

Flames shot 12,000 feet in the air. One of the two ships blown to smithereens had weighed 72,000 tons.

It was the war's worst home-front accident.

"I was talking to a buddy of mine in the barracks, about a mile away," recalled Eugene Sayles, 74. "It knocked him clear out of the top bunk and threw me up against the lockers on the other side of the room. The glass from the windows peppered my back."

The 320 men on duty that evening apparently were killed instantly.

Of the 320, 208 were blacks -- which means that 15 percent of the black soldiers killed during World War II died that night.

A military inquiry did not determine the cause, though some believe that a crane whose brakes had failed inspection dropped detonator-loaded munitions onto the dock. The investigation run by whites cleared the white officers while indirectly bad-mouthing and blaming the black victims.

The black sailors, the inquiry concluded, "are neither intellectually nor temperamentally capable of handling high explosives."

I read those words soon after spending time chatting in a hotel with Perkins, the biologist-botanist who did high-level work at the National Institutes of Health, and with James Peters of Storrs, Conn., another member of the Great Lakes group. Peters is a clinical psychologist and an author who did graduate work at the University of Chicago and has graduate degrees from Purdue University and the Illinois Institute of Technology.

258 refused order

Days after the incident, the Navy ordered the black sailors to return to munitions loading, this time at nearby Mare Island. After 258 refused, the Navy locked them in a barge.

Several days later, 208 agreed to go back to work, though they were given summary courts-martial and time in the stockade.

The 50 who did not return were charged with mutiny.

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