It was deemed a mutiny though the incident did not occur on the high seas as most would imagine a naval insurrection. When 50 Black sailors at the Port Chicago Navy Magazine station in 1944 refused to load live ammunition aboard combat vessels weeks after a deadly explosion they were court-martialed and declared to have committed mutiny. The incident brought to light discriminatory practices in the U.S. Navy and drew the attention of legendary civil rights attorney Thurgood Marshall of the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
Port Chicago, located near San Francisco, was one of the U.S. Navy installations that serviced combat ships and loaded weapons aboard vessels. While this was not an unusual function the manner in which this dangerous duty was reserved for Black sailors at Port Chicago was an issue. The Navy, like other branches of the military, was segregated at the time and Black enlisted men were not given combat duty; instead relegated to manual labor or mess detail. At Port Chicago they were given the task of loading highly explosive munitions, bombs and other artillery, but given no training in the proper handling of such deadly devices. Their jobs were even made all the more dangerous because they were under constant pressure to load ship quickly and their work divisions were pitted against each other by their white commanders. Black sailors at Port Navy engaged in gallows humor, knowing full well that a simple slip could have deadly consequences and that their lives were in constant jeopardy.
On the evening of July 17, 1944 disaster struck at Port Chicago. A large explosion rocked the base, followed by a more powerful blast moments later. The force of the explosion severely damaged buildings on the base and caused widespread injuries to seamen. When personnel rushed to the dock where two ships – the SS E.A. Bryan and SS Quinault Victory – had been docked and were being packed with munitions; there was nothing left. Both ships and all of the men on board and on the dock working were missing. The blast was so powerful it destroyed buildings in the nearby town of Port Chicago. The second shock wave from the blast was measured at 3.4 on the Richter scale and had the force of an atomic explosion. The blast did $9.9 million in damage; roughly $125 million in current value. All told, 320 men on duty were killed and 390 civilian and military personnel were injured. Of that total, 202 Black seamen were killed and 233 injured. The loss of Black soldiers in the Port Chicago explosion accounted for 15% of all African-American casualties during World War II.
The scene after the blast was horrific, with body parts floating in the water and scattered throughout the area. The uninjured sailors took part in claiming the remains of their fallen comrades. White officers were granted the traditional 30-day “survivor’s leave,” but Black enlisted men were denied leave; despite the fact that Black seamen accounted for the majority of the dead and injured. Many Black enlisted men began to express reservations about returning to the work of loading ammunition. An official Navy Board of Inquiry was convened to investigate the tragedy and it glossed over the unsafe conditions at Port Chicago and dismissed the role that the pressure applied by white superiors to quickly load the vessels may have contributed to the explosion. In the end, the Board of Inquiry implied that the men – Black seamen - handling the explosives were responsible for the blast. Sensing the danger, Black personnel balked at returning to duty when it was clear their superiors were trying to make then resume loading munitions. As a result, 50 Black seamen were court martialed, charged with mutiny and ultimately convicted and imprisoned. The case attracted the attention of Thurgood Marshall and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. The N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense and Educational Fund, under Marshall’s leadership, led a campaign to have the sentences of the men overturned. Ultimately the sentences, ranging from 7 to 15 years, were reduced and the men were released as the war was winding down. The convictions of the “Port Chicago 50” on the charge of mutiny remains on the books despite the overwhelming evidence that points to their innocence. The Port Chicago base was dismantled by the U.S. Navy and now the Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial honors the lives lost in the disaster.