On Saturday, July 19, the Black Hollywood Education and Resource Center (BHERC) will commemorate the 70th Anniversary of the 1944 Tragic event in Port Chicago in Northern California. Do you know the Story…
In 1944 when America was at war, the majority of the seamen assigned to load munitions onto Liberty ships in this country were black. For the black Navy recruits, it was their dream to serve this country as sailors and be trained to go to sea. That did not happen. Instead, some of the men feared for their lives on their own home land because of racial prejudice. With dreams deferred and the prevailing discriminatory attitudes of the Navy during that time, the black seamen were assigned to do either menial labor or dangerous work such as loading ammunition without proper training at the Port Chicago Naval Weapon Station.
On July 17, 1944 at 10:18 pm, two explosions, with a force equal to the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, nearly leveled the Port Chicago area. Two military cargo ships loaded with ammunition and the entire Port Chicago waterfront (located in the East Bay area outside of San Francisco) vanished. Three hundred and twenty men died from the blast, 202 of them – black men. Hundreds of others were physically and emotionally injured for life. The cause of the blast was never determined. Because a majority of the men were black, the military at the time, changed the death benefit from five thousand dollars to two thousand and finally three thousand dollars.
After spending several weeks picking up the remains of their fellow seamen, the surviving black sailors were ordered to return to work on August 9, 1944 to load ammunition at a nearby base (Mare Island) under the same unsafe working conditions that existed previously. Fearful that another blast might happen, 258 of the black seamen refused to go back to work. They fought for training or answers, but that did not happen and they were consequently imprisoned on a barge. Several days later, after being threatened with the death penalty, 208 of the black seamen agreed to return to work. The remaining 50 were charged with mutiny, an act punishable by death.
NAACP counsel Thurgood Marshall, who represented the men, stated that the “Court-martial proceedings were one of the worst frame-ups we have come across.” Even in death the black seamen were not treated as equal to their white counterparts as the black sailors who died were buried in a segregated section of the military cemetery. The black men of Port Chicago fought a war on two fronts – one of WWII and the war of racism at home. They were true men of valor.
Port Chicago is one of America’s darkest and long forgotten secrets. The black sailors who served their country under horrific conditions deserve recognition for their journey in the segregated Navy. Since 1999 the Black Hollywood Education and Resource Center (BHERC), under the leadership of Sandra Evers-Manly who formed a support group for the African American men who served in Port Chicago and bring them together to commemorate the tragic day of July 17, 1944. While most of the survivors have passed on, some of them still live and the BHERC commemorates the 70th anniversary of the Port Chicago Blast – the largest military disaster on American soil.
For detailed information contact BHERC at (310)284-3170 or visit online at www.bherc.org. This week EURweb.com will also rebroadcast a special edition of “Port Chicago 1944: Singed and Unsung Heroes by the Sea.” Don’t miss this compelling story in it’s entirety.