A group from Marin City attended the Port Chicago 75th Anniversary at the former Concord Naval Weapons Station in Concord, CA, on July 17, 2019, to commemorate the Port Chicago disaster. They included Felecia Gaston, Dévona Times, Federico Cortez, Kat Taylor, Renelle Cirera,, Juanita Edwards, Jade Sweeney, Jamese Brown, and Rev. Diana McDaniel, President Friends of Port Chicago.
The Port Chicago disaster occurred at 10:18 p.m. on July 17, 1944, when 5,000 tons of high explosive, bombs, and ammunition exploded while being loaded onto the S.S. E.A. Bryan.
The explosion killed 320 cargo handlers, crewmen and sailors who were working in the area, and injured 400. Among them were 202 young Black sailors who were ordered to load and unload explosives with no training and inadequate equipment.
The Bryan, the SS Quinault Victory and the pier were destroyed. The blast resulted in damaged windows in San Francisco 48 miles away, and registered as a 3.4 on the seismographs at UC Berkeley.
A month later, 258 Navy replacement sailors were asked to return to loading ammunition, but they refused to follow the order, and wanted Navy officials to change load procedures to enhance safety.
When the Navy refused to amend its procedures, the sailors refused to load the ships. Naval officials declared this a mutiny and arrested most of the men. Two hundred and eight of them were court-martialed, sentenced to bad conduct discharges and the forfeit of three months pay for disobeying orders.
Fifty of them were charged with outright mutiny, and were sentenced to eight to 15 years of hard labor. In January of 1946, all of the accused were given clemency, released from prison, allowed to complete their military service, and given honorable discharges. Only one was ever pardoned.
These revelations prompted Navy officials to start to work toward full desegregation of their personnel by 1945, three years before Pres. Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981 which integrated the Armed Forces.
Thurgood Marshall, Chief Counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, attended the trial and spoke with journalists about racial discrimination in the armed forces. He believed that the court martial unjustly charged the sailors with mutiny, and called for an investigation of the Navy’s practice of segregating support roles, as well as the unsafe conditions that the Black sailors worked in.
The Port Chicago 75th Anniversary remembers the 320 sailors who died and the 50 sailors who stood against discrimination and unsafe working conditions. Sailor Rafel Beason had a daughter born four months after his death. His daughter, Dr. Orville Ray Beason, who received a flag in honor of her father, remembers “There was no grave, no memorial, only pictures.”
“They should be remembered as heroes,” Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, wrote. “The charges of mutiny levied against these service members are wrong. These brave men should be honored, not only for their pivotal role in the World War II home front effort but also for their courage in the face of injustice.”