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This Day in Labor History: July 17, 1944

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On July 17, 1944, a munitions explosion at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine in Port Chicago, California killed 320 soldiers, mostly African-Americans loading munitions onto ships. This spurred them to demand improved conditions. When conditions did not improve, a group refused to load the munitions. Charged with mutiny, fifty were sentenced to long prison terms.

Is military work part of labor history? It’s not something we usually consider when we think of the subject. For one thing, soldiers don’t produce profit for capitalists, although one could broadly argue that the U.S. military serves capitalist goals and soldiers are the capitalists’ shock troops. That’s more of an ideological argument than a practical one. Soldiers aren’t traditional workers. But they do work. They labor and they get hurt and die on the job. They also have almost no way to protect themselves as workers. A union of soldiers is probably not practical and maybe not even desirable. But they surely deserve some way to express their rights, especially when they are placed in unreasonable danger, as the Port Chicago story shows.

Racial discrimination was rife in the World War II military. Like in previous wars, African-Americans were segregated and given the worst and most dangerous non-combat jobs. At Port Chicago, today the Concord Naval Weapons Station, all of the workers assigned to load munitions onto ships were African-American. Every officer was white. The sailors were not given proper training in loading ammunition, or really much useful training at all. Munitions loading was seen as low-end work. The military drew soldiers from the lower end of testing at the point of enlistment for this work.

Even the idea of loading munitions scared the sailors. Their officers told them it was safe, that the weapons were not active and could not explode. They lied. On July 17, sailors were loading the S.S. E.A. Bryan with munitions. At 10:18 p.m., an explosion took place on the pier leading to the ship. A few seconds later, the munitions on the ship exploded, creating a gigantic fireball that led to the immediate death of everyone on the ship and pier, a total of 320 people. Another 390 were wounded. African-Americans made up 202 of the dead and 233 injured, 15% of the total African-American naval casualties in World War II. Seismologists registered the explosion at 3.4 on the Richter scale. Of the 320 dead, only 51 bodies could be identified. The rest had been blown to smithereens.

Not only did African-Americans suffer high number of casualties, but the aftermath reinforced the inherent racism in the military. The Navy often gave a 30-day leave for soldiers traumatized by the deaths of their friends in combat. None of the black survivors of Port Chicago received it, even those hospitalized. All of the white officers received it. The Navy asked Congress for a $5000 payment to each victim’s family. When Mississippi Congressman John Rankin found out most of the dead were black, he insisted it be reduced to $2000, Congress compromised at $3000.

The surviving munitions loaders were rightfully scared for their lives. They began to refuse to do the work. On August 8, officers ordered 328 men to resume munitions loading. Each one refused. It was a mass strike. Over the next day, officers badgered 70 of them to change their minds. 258 continued to refuse. All were arrested. After continued pressure, including telling them soldiers fighting on Saipan were dying because of their refusal and threatening them with the death penalty if convicted of mutiny, only 44 men, led by Seaman Joe Small, refused to obey. An additional six joined them in next day. The military charged them with mutiny. They other 208 were sent to the Pacific Theater, forced to do menial duty, and received bad conduct discharges at the end of war, making them ineligible for military benefits.

The young NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall became interested in the case. He observed the trial, which ended in guilty verdicts and sentences of 15 years of hard labor (a judge soon reduced it by a few years for some of the men). Marshall began a campaign to publicize the plight of the prisoners. Marshall received permission from each of the fifty to serve as their attorney for the appeal. Before the judge, he said “I can’t understand why whenever more than one Negro disobeys an order it is mutiny.” The case began to get more attention. Eleanor Roosevelt for one asked Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal to become involved. The attention did move the judge to reconvene the court martial, but in the end the sentences were reaffirmed.

When the war ended in August 1945, there was no good reason to hold these men for such a long period of time and pressure to free them continued. Their sentences were quickly reduced to two years and then on January 6, 1946, 47 of the 50 were released to menial tasks on active duty ships in the Pacific. Two others remained in the hospital recovering from their injuries from the explosion and one was not released due to behavioral problems while a prisoner. They were given a discharge “under honorable conditions” when they left the Navy.

The Port Chicago explosion was not the only example of African-Americans soldiers resisting unsafe work conditions based upon discriminatory racial patterns during World War II. In March 1945, 1000 African-American sailors engaged in a 2-day hunger strike to protest discrimination in their work. The Navy began working toward integration in 1944 and conditions slowly improved for African-Americans.

The Navy officially integrated in 1946. Harry S. Truman desegregated the military in 1948, one of the most important early steps toward the end of legal segregation. Thurgood Marshall of course went on to argue Brown v. Board of Education and become the first African-American Supreme Court justice. People have long attempted to have the Port Chicago prisoners exonerated, but there has never been an official apology or pardon, although Bill Clinton pardoned one sailor who asked for it in 1999. Resistance developed among the still living white officers and nothing came of a 1990 attempt by a group of Congressmen to see some sort of exoneration. The site of the explosion is now a National Memorial, operated by the National Park Service.

This is the 68th post in this series. The others are archived here.

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  • Warren Terra

    See also the twenty-minute story on this from This American Life:

    When 50 survivors of the blast refused to return to work under the same unsafe conditions, they were court-martialed and sentenced to up to 15 years of hard labor. There have been many attempts to clear the names of these fifty men, including one in 1944 by then-civil rights attorney Thurgood Marshall. Dan Collison spoke with five survivors of the blast about what really happened. See the Long Haul Productions website for more.

    • JoyfulA

      There’s a book on the subject, which I managed to sell before I read it.

  • Barry Freed

    A nitpick on an excellent post but: killed 320 soldiers. That should be “sailors” and not “soldiers.”

  • Matt McKeon

    I knew someone would beat me to the soldiers/sailors thing.

    While “being placed in unreasonable danger” is in one sense the definition of being in the military in wartime, what sticks up here in that they were killed or wounded by an mistake that should have been avoidable, far from combat. And that while the Navy wasn’t in the business of exploding their own ammo, somehow the loss of black servicemen was less tragic. After all, as Mississippi Congressman and colossal asshole James Rankin noted, they were worth less than half a white man.

    The Congress raising the paid out to $3000 means they were applying the 3/5s rule, even at this late date.

    • Kurzleg

      The transparent racism is what stuck out to me too. The fact that a US Congressman would feel entirely comfortable making this demand – and that Congress would feel comfortable shortchanging the families of the victims – is a quick and depressing reminder of the way things were.

      • Hogan

        Rankin on the Jewish menace in 1952:

        They whine about discrimination. Do you know who is being discriminated against? The white Christian people of America, the ones who created this nation… I am talking about the white Christian people of the North as well as the South… Communism is racial. A racial minority seized control in Russia and in all her satellite countries, such as Poland, Czechoslovakia, and many other countries I could name. They have been run out of practically every country in Europe in the years gone by, and if they keep stirring race trouble in this country and trying to force their communistic program on the Christian people of America, there is no telling what will happen to them here.

        Why, he could be one of our very own trolls.

        • Cody

          Holy. Shit.

          This is (minus the Soviet Union part – only because it doesn’t exist) exactly what conservatives write every day.

      • But .. but .. but .. Rankin was a Democrat!!

    • Stephen

      That the black sailors were very badly treated is obvious. But by my arithmetic 118 of the dead and 157 of the wounded weren’t black. How were they treated?

      • Kurzleg

        One assumes that the families of the 118 received full $5k benefits.

        The other question, though, is whether or not the white sailors also resisted working under unsafe conditions or just took the lack of safety as an inevitable part of their military service.

        • Most of them were not loading munitions. In any case, I have no evidence that they resisted.

          • Kurzleg

            That’s interesting because you’d think the Navy would want to create a safer process if only to prevent the loss of white sailors due to another catastrophe. One almost gets the sense that the principle of keeping African-American sailors in their place was more important to those in charge than safety.

            • Barry

              “That’s interesting because you’d think the Navy would want to create a safer process if only to prevent the loss of white sailors due to another catastrophe. ”

              That’s actually a stretch; it assumes that the *system* cares, meaning that it’s not like Commodore Joe Rnadom Smith in charge of those people had much power to change thing, or that Admiral High Muckety Muck cared about little things like a couple hundred guys dying needlessly.

            • rea

              Racism was definitely a big part as to why these particular sailors were treated so badly, but a big part of the problem was that the military put a very low priority on the job, culling out everyone competent and sending them to supposedly more important duties. One of the things that struck me on readng accounts of the events leading up to the explosion is how munitions were routinely and obviously mishandled, leaking stuff on the docks, etc. At the same time, I know from other reading that the combat soldiers and sailors at the time were complaining that lots of torpedos and artillary shells were duds. The possibility of a connection ought to have occurrred to someone.

          • rea

            Actually, the Wikipedia article has a long line of people who complained about unsafe ammunition handling practices before the explosion, notably the Coast Guard fire crew (100% casualties).

        • Stephen

          I wouldn’t be at all surprised if you’re right, but it would be better to know than to make an assumption.

          As far as I can make out from the Wikipedia article, the Navy introduced divisions of white sailors to load ammunition alternating with black divisions, and these did not refuse to load munitions.

          • Hogan

            I wonder if they had better training than the black sailors.

      • Miriam

        I recall from reading a monograph on this years ago that the white survivors were offered paid leave to recover from their shock and trauma, while African-American survivors were expected to get right back to work under unchanged conditions.

  • Scott P.

    There was a made for TV movie on the deisaster in 1999.

  • Turkle

    I know that these posts don’t get a ton of comments, so I’m just writing to say thank you for the work you put in to this series, and keep ’em coming. I’ve learned so much from these.

  • Alan Tomlinson

    I’m glad to see a post about Port Chicago. A very minor nit is that while Truman may have “desegregated” the military in 1948, many military bases in the South(e.g. Fort Benning) remained very much segregated into the 1950s.

    Thanks again,

    Alan Tomlinson

  • BigHank53

    Members of the Royal Netherlands Army are represented by a union.

    • The Tragically Flip

      Yeah, I had heard some Northern European militaries have unions. Glad someone knew for sure.

    • CapnVan

      South African National Defence Forces have *two* unions…

  • Michael Rebain

    I also want to commend you on this great series. One nitpick: Forrestal was Navy Secretary during this period, DOD not having been created until after the war.

    • Good point, forgot that he was the transitional figure in that switch.

  • For a fun/depressing/addictive account of wartime enlisted minority work, I can’t recommend “Now the Hell Will Start” enough. Long story short: black guy working in India/Burma gets fed up with shitty conditions, escapes into the jungle, goes native, becomes the focus of a massive manhunt. Great book.

    http://www.amazon.com/Now-Hell-Will-Start-Soldiers/dp/0143115332/

    • Davis X. Machina

      And Brendan Koerner has a nifty website, Microkhan. He has a new book out, on airling hijacking in the ’70’s….

  • Joseph Slater

    Another great post in a great series. I do think it is important to include in labor history work that does not “produce profit for capitalists.” Beyond lots of interesting stuff in the centuries that preceded capitalism, such a definition would exclude the history of public-sector workers and their unions. So, good to include this.

  • Pete Gaughan

    The portion of the property that is still officially military is now Army; it’s called Military Ocean Terminal Concord (MOTCO). Oddly, it’s a NPS National Memorial that is not open to the public, at all–even for this weekend’s anniversary commemoration. (I live in Concord.)

  • The Tragically Flip

    When Mississippi Congressman John Rankin found out most of the dead were black, he insisted it be reduced to $2000, Congress compromised at $3000.

    What a collossal asshole. Fucking conservatives.

    • Amanda in the South Bay

      But Rankin was a Democrat, which according to Manju makes him a true fascist, and I’m sure he hung out with LBJ and Robert Byrd at KKK meetings.

      • The Tragically Flip

        Liberal fascists!

  • Bruce Vail

    This post is at least about an actual labor strike, as opposed to your Stono piece last week, which didn’t have any labor angle at all.

    I think you are guilty sometimes of too great a stretch in your history pieces — but not today. Good piece.

    • Yes, slavery was not a labor system! Why would anyone cover it in a labor history series!!!

      You have got to be kidding me.

      • Bruce Vail

        Lighten up, I’m on your side.

        Your post prompted me to read up a little on the Stono Rebellion and it is indeed a fascinating episode in American history. No one could argue that Stono, or any other slave rebellion in human history, was an act of resistance to a brutal system of slave labor. By the same token, every act of resistance to slavery — whether it was a single individual running away from the plantation or a farmworker vandalizing his owner’s property — was a labor protest.

        The main reason I criticize your choice of Stono is that no rebellion actually took place. The evidence that a large conspiracy even existed is extremely sketchy. It’s truly remarkable that South Carolina establishment reacted with such blind fear and savagery, but that’s a story more about the psychology of plutocrats the it is about labor.

        • Bruce Vail

          Geez…of course I am very embarassed to have confused the Denmark Vesey story with the Stono Rebellion. My bad.

    • rea

      You know, it’s Erik’s blog and Erik’s series–he can write about whatever he wants.

  • DrDick

    My father, a former SeaBee, sometimes commented on the horrible working conditions of black sailors that he witnessed in Nagasaki during the occupation. Worth noting that he did not hold the most enlightened racial views.

  • merl

    My ship stopped at Portsmouth to load munitions on our way to the Persian Gulf in 1978, I carried one case of hand grenades on board, said “Fuck this shit” and found a place to hide for the rest of the day.
    I did wonder what we were supposed to do with grenades.

    • Lee Rudolph

      Trade them for beads with the natives, perhaps?

    • Russ

      Take a grenade to side of ship.
      Pull pin
      Immediately drop into water.
      Await stunned fish floating to surface
      Scoop up fish
      Take fish to galley

  • Russ

    While many remember Truman as the President who officially desegregated the US military, few remember, or maybe just avoid acknowledging, the President who officially segregated the US military, Woodrow Wilson.

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