The Port Chicago 50: Towards Exoneration

By Jordan Rynning

July 17, 2024, will mark the 80th anniversary of the Port Chicago explosion that killed 320 U.S. Navy sailors and wounded hundreds more in the worst home front disaster of the Second World War. The Friends of Port Chicago National Memorial hope that this anniversary will also mark one year closer to the exoneration of the Port Chicago 50.

Only three weeks after the horrific explosion that killed many of their friends and shipmates, 50 sailors refused to return to loading ammunition onto ships and were convicted of mutiny at court martial.

Though their work stoppage was nonviolent and they obeyed all commands other than to continue loading munitions, they also found themselves guilty of being Black in a segregated Navy.

Two thirds of the men lost in the explosion were also Black enlisted men, most of whom were never identified.

Due to policies of the Navy at the time, Black sailors were restricted from serving on ships like their white counterparts, and instead often found themselves doing hard labor like loading munitions. They were provided no training, and some of the survivors of the Port Chicago explosion said they thought it was only a matter of time before tragedy struck.

The men who refused to return to handling munitions were convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison before their sentences were eventually shortened, and they were returned to duty before being dishonorably discharged from the Navy.

The Port Chicago 50 and the attention they brought to the unjust treatment of Black sailors led to the Navy becoming the first of the armed services to integrate, but their records remain stained by mutiny charges.

Groups like the Friends of the Port Chicago National Memorial hope to remove those charges so the Port Chicago 50 can be honored as men who served their country and stood up against racial injustice. They also have support from the East Bay Regional Park District, U.S. Representatives Barbara Lee (D-12) and Mark DeSaulnier (D-10), and other community leaders.

“There’s still a lot to do and we’re not there yet, but we’re in a much better position to be able to move for exoneration than maybe 20 years ago,” said Camarin Madigan, a member of the Friends of Port Chicago National Memorial and law firm partner at Perkins Coie, LLP.

Congressman Mark DeSaulnier has introduced several pieces of legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives that would exonerate the Port Chicago 50, but none have been passed into law.

“My own feeling is, the resistance was an example of institutional racism, both in the House and in the Department of Defense,” DeSaulnier said. “When people hear the story, if they listen, they change.”

Sharon McGriff Payne, the resident historian at the Vallejo Naval and Historical Museum also hopes the 50 sailors are exonerated, but points out a painful truth, “I have such mixed feelings . . . They’re gone. It’s wonderful for someone to say I’m sorry, but it would have been so much better had that apology come while they were alive.”