40 pages 1 hour read

Steve Sheinkin

The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights

Nonfiction | Biography | YA | Published in 2014

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In The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights, historian Steve Sheinkin traces the story of the Port Chicago 50, a group of African-American sailors charged with mutiny for disobeying orders during World War II. Sheinkin’s history opens, however, with the story of Dorie Miller, a black mess attendant stationed at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attack in 1942. Though not trained for battle, Miller courageously begins fighting with an anti-aircraft gun, earning a Navy Cross for his bravery. Yet, the US Navy’s policy of segregation means that Miller can only return to work as a mess attendant, despite his heroism.

The US military’s segregationist policies trace back to the Revolutionary Army. Such policies are fueled by fears that armed AfricanAmericans will revolt against the slave owners, as well as racist beliefs that AfricanAmericans are less skilled than white people. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the US enters World War II, and, in the process, begins accepting more black recruits to both the Navy and the Army. Many AfricanAmericans enlist, proud to serve their country and hopeful that they can prove that AfricanAmericans are just as capable as whites. Despite this progress, the military remains segregated, and black soldiers and sailors are often treated poorly by their white counterparts.

A group of new black sailors, including a recruit named Joe Small, is stationed at Port Chicago Naval Magazine, a port located in the San Francisco Bay Area. Though the sailors hope to serve at sea and engage in combat, they quickly learn that, due to the Navy’s segregationist policy, their only job is to load ammunition and explosives into Navy ships. Their commanding officers are all white. Furthermore, the black sailors do not receive proper instruction in handling explosives, as the white officers do not believe they are literate enough to read safety manuals. Captain Merrill T. Kinne, the commander of Port Chicago, orders the black sailors to load ammunition as quickly as possible. Kinne and the other Naval officers race squads of sailors against each other, taking bets on which group can load explosives the fastest. Such policies lead to a dangerous environment at Port Chicago, and Joe Small becomes convinced that a disaster is looming.

On July 17, 1944, Small’s fears are realized when a massive explosion completely destroys Port Chicago, killing hundreds of men in the process. The explosion occurs at night, when Small and many of his fellow sailors are at the barracks, preparing to sleep. These sailors hear two explosions—one smaller explosion followed by a second, larger one—and feel the barracks begin to collapse around them. The explosion is felt for miles from the port, with metal and refuse raining down on nearby towns. For days after the explosion, Small and his fellow sailors go to the pier to try to save men, but they are unable to locate any survivors. 

The Navy opens an inquiry into the explosion. In its report, the Navy concludes not only that the black sailors were reckless in their handling of explosives, but that AfricanAmericans lack the proper temperament to load explosives. Small and his fellow sailors are sent to Mare Island Naval Shipyard, where they learn that they will soon be again tasked with loading explosives. On the day the sailors are ordered to resume handling explosives, they all refuse, explaining to their officers that they are afraid of the work. The dissenting sailors are led onto a prison barge, where tensions run high. Joe Small gives a speech to the men, explaining that any misbehavior will give the Marines guarding them an excuse to fire at them. After several days, Admiral Carleton Wright threatens the men that, if they don’t return to work, they will be charged with mutiny and could face the death penalty. While most of the sailors choose to follow orders, fifty sailors, including Small, continue to refuse.

The fifty sailors are charged with mutiny, and a court-martial convenes to determine their guilt. The prosecution, led by James Coakley, aims to show that the sailors intentionally planned to disobey their officers’ authority, with Joe Small as the leader of the group. The defense attorney, Gerald Veltmann, argues that the sailors’ actions did not follow the Navy’s standards for mutiny, and that their motivations were not to refuse authority but to avoid dangerous work. The admirals judging the court-martial ultimately find the fifty sailors guilty of mutiny, and the sailors are sent to prison.

Thurgood Marshall, a civil rights lawyer for the NAACP, attends the trial and becomes convinced that the Navy has mishandled the case and is attempting to cover-up its discriminatory policies. Marshall continually petitions the Navy to re-open the case, and the NAACP publicly advocates for the Port Chicago 50. The Navy, however, refuses to concede that racial bias influenced its judgment of the sailors. Meanwhile, Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal becomes convinced that segregation is a useless policy and makes advances toward racial equality, with the Navy fully desegregating in February 1946. Forrestal ultimately decides to commute the sentences of the Port Chicago 50, allowing them to serve as sailors at sea. Despite numerous petitions over the decades, however, the Navy never admits fault in its treatment of the sailors, and the Port Chicago 50 remain convicted mutineers in the eyes of the law.