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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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