74 years later, Congressman fights to exonerate Port Chicago 50

July 17 marked the 74th anniversary of the worst homefront disaster of World War II, and officials are still working to exonerate the African-American sailors who refused to return to work after the Port Chicago explosion.

At 10:18 p.m. on July 17, 1944, smoke and fire shot two miles into the air as the SS E.A. Bryan, loaded with 4,000 tons of ammunition, and the SS Quinault Victory, in the process of being loaded, exploded. The blast killed 320 and injured 390. It was felt all around the East Bay, blowing out windows in Concord, Walnut Creek and surrounding towns.

Martinez native, Alan Perry was barely two but recalls his father replacing all the windows in their Palm Ave. home. “The memory is pretty vague, but for years the subject came up with family and friends every year on the anniversary.”

The ships and pier were destroyed, and all those on board the ships died. Of the 320 sailors that perished, 202 were African-Americans assigned to load ammunition onto ships headed for the war in the Pacific. The sailors were not trained to handle explosives, and there was tremendous pressure to speed up the loading – which went on 24 hours per day.

Within a week after the explosions, the surviving enlisted men were ordered to resume work loading munitions at a nearby base. But 258 men refused. Percy Robinson, one of the survivors, was interviewed in 1995 for the Podcast “The Port Chicago 50: An Oral History.” He recalled that when they were ordered to return to work, he still had bandages on his face and hands. Many were frightened about the possibility of more explosions.

The men were threatened with charges of mutiny and possible death sentences or prison time if they would not return to work. All but 50 went back to work.

A trial ensued two month later. The sailors claimed it was a work stoppage, not a mutiny, because they didn’t overtake a ship. However, they were found guilty of mutiny by the all-white court martial and sentenced to 8-15 years in prison.

NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall, who later became the first African-American on the Supreme Court, attempted an appeal in 1944. The appeal was unsuccessful; however, he was able to speak out about racial discrimination in the armed forces.

The incident spurred the Navy to make changes in training and to examine its policies on segregation. They began integrating bases and ships in 1945, before the rest of the U.S. military did so in 1948.

When the war ended, the Navy released the men, granted clemency and sent the men to finish out their service – eventually giving them honorable discharges. But many believed it was not enough.

In 1994, the Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Monument was dedicated near the location of the blasts. In 2009, the area became part of the National Park System. Each year, people gather on the anniversary to honor those who lost their lives there.

Along with a coalition of veterans, religious, civil rights and political leaders, Friends of Port Chicago National Memorial has been working for full exoneration of the Port Chicago 50. In 1999, President Bill Clinton pardoned Freddie Meeks, the last survivor of the group, in an effort led by Congressman George Miller. But for the 49 others, the guilty verdicts remain.

After supporters sent a letter to President Barack Obama in 2014, he wrote: “African-American service members at Port Chicago and at Posts around the world defended America with valor and distinction, even when their country did not treat them with the dignity and respect they deserved. Faced with tremendous obstacles, they fought on two fronts – for freedom abroad and equality at home.” But he did not grant any pardons.

Mark DeSaulnier, Congressman of Concord, successfully included a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act that required the Navy to investigate the treatment of the sailors at Port Chicago. The Navy has indicated that they support the pardoning of the Port Chicago 50.

However, DeSaulnier has shifted the focus to getting the men exonerated rather than pardoned because pardons imply guilt, and it is his opinion that there was no crime. With the support of the Congressional Black Caucus, he has introduced legislation supporting exoneration.

In addition, DeSaulnier is working to develop a system that can review historical injustices and make recommendations for groups like the Port Chicago 50. Finally, he asked the Smithsonian to include information about the Port Chicago 50 in the new National Museum of African American History and Culture. The Smithsonian is exploring ways to incorporate the story.

For more information, visit nps.gov/poch/ or portchicagomemorial.org.