SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – The site of a munitions explosion that crippled the main West Coast port on the Pacific during World War II and killed 320 people – the majority of them black sailors – may become part of the National Park System.
A ceremony was set for Saturday to commemorate the 63rd anniversary of the blast, which helped fuel a movement to desegregate the military because of the ensuing treatment of the black survivors.
On Friday, U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., announced a measure that would make Port Chicago Naval Magazine in eastern San Francisco Bay eligible for federal funding for a visitor center, to hire educational rangers and maintain aging facilities.
“The events of July 17, 1944, are so important to our nation’s military and racial history that more Americans ought to be able to learn from it, to visit the historic site, and to know that it will be properly maintained for generations to come,” said Miller.
Although the base is already affiliated with the national parks, the new status would give the site increased visibility, Miller said of the bill, which was introduced Thursday night.
It’s unclear what set off the blast that destroyed the two munitions ships anchored at the base, said Robert Allen, a University of California, Berkeley professor and author of a book, “The Port Chicago Mutiny.”
“Anyone who was close enough to see what happened didn’t survive,” he said. “It was the worst home-front tragedy of World War II.”
Most of the dead – 202 men – were black sailors who loaded heavy bombs, ammunitions and other explosives onto ships. They were given no formal training in handling hazardous materials and they labored under all white officers, said Allen.
Besides the hard labor, they suffered the indignities of living in a segregated environment. Blacks were not allowed to use the restrooms on the ships they loaded and could not rise to officer ranks, Allen said.
When the explosion scattered body parts among the wreckage, white survivors who asked for a month leave were granted the time off, Allen said. The black seamen were ordered to clean up the debris, he said.
It was night when the explosion happened and the dark sky turned bright with the white-hot blaze of more than 5,000 tons of explosives going off at once, said retired sailor Percy Robinson, 82. Robinson had been in the barracks when the flash made him turn to the windows. A fraction of a second later, a formidable blast of air blew the panes into the room.
Robinson said he raised his left arm to protect his eyes, but the rest of his face and upper body was cut so badly that a friend he ran into outside the crumbling building did not recognize him, Robinson said.
“They patched me up and told me to get back to work. I could walk, so I could work,” he said.
The blast further angered men already frustrated by the circumstances in which they were living and working. In response, 258 ammunition loaders, all of them black, defied orders to return to work in the same unsafe conditions, Robinson said.
The Navy responded by imprisoning all of them for three days on a barge on San Pablo Bay that was outfitted to hold 75 people, said Allen. The sailors were told that if they did not obey orders, they would be charged with mutiny, which carries a death sentence during wartime.
“They said we got back to work or got shot by a firing squad for mutiny,” said Robinson. “Those were the choices they gave us.” All but 50 men backed down. They withstood a monthlong military trial and were found guilty by white officers after an 80-minute deliberation, said Allen. The sailors got 15 years in federal prison.
Thurgood Marshall, then a lawyer with the NAACP, had watched the trial and started a campaign asking the public to write to the Navy protesting the injustice, Allen said.
“A massive public response began to develop to this situation – hundreds of letters, thousands of names on petitions,” said Allen. “The Navy needed to make some kind of response. They began desegregating right there at Port Chicago.”
First, the Navy introduced white munitions loaders at the base. By the end of 1945, they had desegregated their training facilities.
In 1946, the Port Chicago 50, as the men were known, were pardoned in a general amnesty. They had to serve parole – but did so on ships that were already desegregated, Allen said.
In 1948, President Truman issued an order desegregating all the Armed Forces.
“Once the Navy got started, it opened the door for other services to fall in line,” said Allen.
On the Net:
National Park Service: http://www.nps.gov/poch/
Naval Historical Center – search for “Port Chicago”: http://www.history.navy.mil
Rep. George Miller: http://www.house.gov/georgemiller
National Park Conservation Association: http://www.npca.org