The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights by Sheve Sheinkin, National Book Award Finalist and Newbery Honor Winner for Bomb: The Race to Build–and Steal–the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon.
I’ve never heard of Port Chicago or the Port Chicago 50. So Mr. Sheinkin’s tale of 50 black seamen who defied orders to load dangerous munitions onto ships during World War II and who were subsequently tried and convicted of mutiny was a revelation to me. It’s a story of the civil rights movement before there really was a civil rights movement, or at least before the part I knew about.
I knew about Truman’s order to integrate the U.S. armed forces. I knew about Dr. Martin Luther King and the civil rights struggles of the 1960’s. But way back in 1944, at the height of World War II, when the outcome of the war was still in question, a massive explosion on the docks at Port Chicago in San Francisco killed 320 servicemen, many of them black Navy men who were segregated and assigned the dangerous job of loading bombs and ammunition onto ships for the war effort in the Pacific. These men, both the ones who died and the ones who escaped, were never trained to handle explosives. They were ordered to load and load fast, and their white officers made bets on which division or work group could load the most cargo in a day. Almost all of the stevedores who were handling this ammunition under very unsafe conditions were black.
A few weeks after the explosion, the men were ordered to go back to the very same work of loading ammunition under the very same conditions. When they refused the order, they were tried for mutiny, a crime which in the naval code carried a possible death sentence. Most of the men who were “on strike” backed down when they were threatened with the firing squad, but fifty of them did not.
The author’s sympathies are completely on the side of the alleged mutineers, with good reason. They do seem have been mistreated and subjected to unnecessarily dangerous working conditions. Their crime, disobeying a direct order, didn’t really rise to the level of mutiny. (Mutiny: “an unlawful opposition or resistance to or defiance of superior military authority, with a deliberate purpose to usurp, subvert, or override such authority.”) The defense argument when the men came to trial was that there was no plan to subvert or override authority, just a refusal by a bunch of traumatized men to return to loading ammunition under the very same conditions that caused the original explosion.
I found myself in sympathy with the Port Chicago 50, too, even as I could see the reasons that impelled the Navy authorities to bring the men to trial. The United States was at war. The military was a segregated force, wrong but true. Even though the black seamen who were loading the ammunition were treated abominably and the working conditions were hazardous, their work was a necessary part of the war effort. No member of the armed forces can be allowed to disobey orders from a superior officer with impunity. However, the Port Chicago 50 were right about the stand they took, and they were brave to take it. So, I stand conflicted and confused as to what I think about the entire episode.
Joe Small, unofficial leader of the group called the Port Chicago 50: “I realized that I had to work. I wasn’t trying to shirk work. But to go back to work under the same conditions with no improvements, no changes, the same group of officers that we had. . . . Improve working conditions this is what I, personally, was after. And desegregation of the base.”
Steve Sheinkin also wrote Lincoln’s Grave Robbers, a book I reviewed last year when I was reading and reviewing Cybils nominees for YA nonfiction.
QOTD: Who is a person from history that you respect? Why? Is there any historical figure that you admire while at the same time you acknowledge the person’s faults?