Isn't it Time To Right The Wrong?

More than 60 years ago, a group of African-American sailors was dishonored by the U.S. Navy in one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in our history.

In the summer of 1944, Port Chicago —a Navy base 30 miles northeast of San Francisco—was the scene of a devastating explosion. Hundreds of lives were lost in what’s considered the deadliest home-front disaster of the war. Most of the dead and injured were African-Americans, put in harm’s way by a segregated military little concerned for their safety. Worse, racism lay at the heart of the disaster and later of an event that has been called one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in our history. At the time, Port Chicago was the busiest ammunition depot on the West Coast. The sailors worked around the clock, loading bombs, depth charges and torpedoes onto ships headed for the Pacific theater. In the segregated U.S. Navy, the job of loading the deadly ammunition was performed only by black sailors.“To find yourself loading ammunition was a disappointment,” recalls Robert Routh, an African-American sailor from Memphis who was 19 at the time. “We all wanted to be actually fighting. But we knew that what we did was essential to the war.”Essential but risky. “Loading ammunition was extremely dangerous,” explains Robert L. Allen, author of The Port Chicago Mutiny and the foremost authority on the events. “The sailors were given no training for it. On top of that, it was common practice for the officers to pit the men against each other, betting to see who could load their boat the fastest.” A Coast Guard detail working at the port warned the Navy that these unsafe conditions could lead to a disaster. The Navy refused to change its procedures, and the Coast Guard withdrew its men.

The Night Calm Was Shattered

On the evening of July 17, 1944, two cargo ships were tied up at the pier. The E.A. Bryan was almost fully loaded with 4600 tons of cluster bombs, depth charges and 40 millimeter shells. The Quinalt Victory had just docked. Robert Routh and fellow sailor Percy Robinson, 18, from Chicago, were in their barracks. At 10:19, the night calm was shattered. “I was in my bunk when the explosion occurred,” recalls Robinson. “I was looking out the window, and all of a sudden everything turned to sunlight. I jumped up to see what was happening, and then I felt the concussion. I instinctively covered my face with my arms. Then a second explosion lifted me up and knocked me to the floor.” Robert Routh also turned toward the window at the first explosion. “It was the greatest fireworks you ever wanted to see,” he recalls. It also was the last thing he ever saw. “With the second explosion, glass went everywhere. It was a combination of the glass and the concussion that destroyed my eyes.” The second explosion was so powerful that seismographs at Berkeley recorded it as an earthquake. The E.A. Bryan was blown into tiny pieces. The Quinalt Victory was ripped apart, and Port Chicago’s wooden pier was completely destroyed. The human cost was even worse. Everyone on the pier and aboard the two ships was killed. Of the 320 fatalities, 202 were black. And of the 390 injured, 233 were black. As bad as it was, though, the disaster might not have made history if it weren’t for what followed.

The Navy’s Insult

A Navy court of inquiry ruled out sabotage. It heard testimony about the unsafe conditions at the port, but its final report absolved the white officers of any responsibility and blamed the tragedy on “rough handling” of the explosives by the black sailors. Then the white officers were granted 30-day leaves. “None of the black sailors were granted leaves,” says Robinson, who suffered lacerations to his face, head and arms. “I requested 30 days of leave, which you’re entitled to if you’re wounded. I was turned down.” Instead, they were given the grim task of collecting the remains of their fellow sailors. “You can imagine the psychological impact this had,” says Routh. “My loss of sight was traumatic, but everyone had traumatic needs, physical or mental. And no help was given.”

The Sailors Take a Stand

Instead, three weeks after the explosion, the black sailors were ordered back to work. But the men had had enough. Of the 328 ordered to resume loading ammunition, 258 refused. Routh’s blindness had ended his military service, but Robinson—just released from the hospital—was among those who balked. “We all had our reasons for not going back to work,” he explains. “Some were afraid of another explosion. I was angry that they wouldn’t let me go home.”All 258 black sailors were locked up on a barge. “A few days later, we were led out and addressed by the admiral [Carleton H. Wright],” recalls Robinson. “He told us that if we didn’t go back to work, we would be charged with mutiny. And mutiny is punishable by death by a firing squad. I believed he meant it, so I was one of 208 men who stepped forward. I was put in prison anyway. I was charged with disobeying an order.” The 50 sailors who still refused to go back to work were, in fact, charged with mutiny.

Mutiny Charged

It was the largest mass-mutiny trial in U.S. Navy history. “Their lawyer was a junior officer going up against senior officers,” explains Robert L. Allen. “He took the position that the men were in shock and fear, and that led to a work stoppage. There was no conspiracy to commit mutiny. This was nothing but a peaceful sit-down strike.” The trial received a lot of attention and was followed closely by Thurgood Marshall, the future Supreme Court justice who was then chief counsel for the NAACP. Fully aware of the conditions at Port Chicago and how segregation, unfair treatment and discriminatory orders had contributed to the incident, Marshall noted: “This is not 50 men on trial for mutiny. This is the Navy on trial for its whole vicious policy toward Negroes.”

Injustice Continued

But after 32 days of hearings, the court deliberated only 80 minutes before finding all the sailors guilty. They were sentenced to 15 years in prison. The 208 sailors who had initially joined them were imprisoned for 90 days, then given summary courts-martial and bad-conduct discharges. The verdicts caused a public uproar in black communities. Thurgood Marshall appealed the case to the Pentagon, and even Eleanor Roosevelt became involved. But the Navy refused to reconsider the convictions. It wasn’t until 1946, in the general euphoria over the end of the war, that the Port Chicago sailors—along with many other imprisoned servicemen—were granted clemency and released. Ironically, from behind bars, the accused had helped to achieve some of their objectives. “With all the protests, the Navy realized it had a public-relations problem,” says Allen. “They brought in white sailors to help load ammunition. This began the process of desegregation in the Navy.”The survivors of Port Chicago returned home, but what had happened to them continued to weigh on their lives. “Many of the men were still living with a sense of humiliation and shame over their being imprisoned for mutiny,” Allen says. “I didn’t tell anyone about my court-martial,” says Percy Robinson, now 79. “Not even my wife.”

Can We Set This Right?

For more than 15 years, Rep. George Miller (D., Calif.), whose district includes the old port, has joined others in trying to clear the names of the men. “This was a miscarriage of justice based on the racism of the time,” Miller says. “What these men did by disobeying were acts of personal courage.”The Navy did review the cases in 1994, but it upheld the original convictions. “The Navy has a lot of trouble admitting mistakes,” says Miller. “They keep saying the trials were fair. Well, the trials only took place because the sailors were African-American. They would not have been on trial if they hadn’t been.” Finally, in 1999, President Clinton granted a pardon to one of the only surviving Port Chicago sailors convicted of mutiny—Freddie Meeks. Percy Robinson’s defiant spirit (he was once a boxer) is still evident. He told his lawyers he didn’t want a pardon to erase the court-martial on his record. “A pardon means I’m forgiven for something I did wrong. I don’t think I did anything wrong,” he asserts. After 35 years as a research scientist in Los Angeles, Robinson is now on his second career as a commercial photographer. Despite his blindness, Robert Routh went back to school, eventually earning a master’s degree at Pepperdine University. Robust and good-humored, he still works full-time as a benefits counselor with the Department of Veterans Affairs.Port Chicago itself no longer exists. The site of the explosion is now part of the Concord Naval Weapons Station, which is used by the Army. The only sign of the tragedy that once occurred here are the pilings from the old pier. In 1994, a monument was built and a chapel dedicated to commemorate the men who lost their lives. To further honor the memory of those men, there is an ongoing campaign to support the creation of a Port Chicago stamp to be issued by the U.S. Postal Service. Forty members of Congress have already indicated they will support the initiative.“A stamp will help make people aware of the great injustice that was done here,” believes Robert L. Allen. “It would be an appropriate way to recognize this tragedy and honor these men.”

What You Can Do

To support a stamp in memory of those who lost their lives at Port Chicago, contact your U.S. Representative and/or the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee, Stamp Development, U.S. Postal Service, 1735 N. Lynn St., Room 5013, Arlington, Va. 22209-6432.

For more on an advocacy group that is working to clear the sailors’ mutiny convictions, visit on the Web.⋆