The People News, a free newspaper serving Cleveland Tennessee (TN) and Bradley County Tennessee (Tn).

Of Bradley County Tn.

JUNE  2007

                            The People News, a free newspaper serving Cleveland and Bradley County Tn.






Fifty Black Fire-Crackers

Bizarre, Fascinating, and Wacky World War I & ll Secrets.

by Cecil Owen

Suddenly, without warning, a mighty explosion lit up the western sky. Then a few seconds later, it was followed by an even larger blast. The blast was so tremendous that it was equal to the force of a five kiloton atomic bomb (5,000 tons or 10,200,000 lbs. of TNT).

The time was 22:18 U.S. Navy time (10:18 PM)  Monday July 17, 1944. The place was Port Chicago, California, U.S, Navy Ammunition Supply Depot. Port Chicago was the largest U.S. Navy supply base on the entire Pacific Coast, covering 760 acres. A huge fire ball and cloud mushrooms around 12,000 ft up into the atmosphere. The shock wave was felt seventy-five miles away, damaging twelve small towns in its path. On one side of the Port Chicago 500 ft loading dock, the Liberty Ship SS Bryan was anchored. It was being loaded with anti-craft shells, incendiary (fire) bombs, fragmentation bombs (splinter into small pieces) and mark 47 depth charges. And by 22:00 clock (10:00 PM), nearly 5,000 tons had been secured down into the ships five holds. In the middle of the dock a train of sixteen boxcars was parked. While cranes were unloading the boxcars of ammunitions directly onto the Liberty Ship SS Bryan on the other side of the loading dock, another ship, SS Quinalt Victory was being rigged to begin loading.

Loading the ammunition cargo ships was a round-the-clock operation. It never stopped as long as there was a ship to load. After dark, flood lights the entire length of the dock were switched on. The officers in charge encouraged competition between the various

Cecil Owen

cargo shifts. The tonnage of ammunition loaded by the shift going off duty was posted, so the next shift might possibly do better. Some of the officers even made wagers on who would win.

There was a very peculiar situation among the ammunition loading crews. Every officer was white and every enlisted man was black.
Back to the explosion.

This mega blast was so big that the enlisted men's barrack a mile away was heavily damaged. Off duty sailors were injured by shattered windows and light fixtures and objects flying through the air.

In the town of Port Chicago, falling debris, including un-detonated bombs and jagged chunks of metal damaged 300 homes and stores. It also injured 109 townspeople, and the town never fully recovered from the ordeal. On the loading dock everything was literally blown to bits or vanished into thin air. The train engine and all sixteen boxcars completely disappeared. The Liberty Ship SS Bryan was blown into small fragments. The Liberty Ship SS Quinalt Victory was broken into several pieces (it also lifted out of the water and turned completely around). All personnel onboard both vessels and the loading dock, were killed instantly, all 320 of them. (Only 51 bodies sufficiently intact to be identified were recovered). Of the 390 Navy personnel injured, 233 were black. And of the 320 men killed, 202 were black ammunition loaders. Port Chicago was shamefully a completely segregated Navy base. The black sailors were assigned to their own barracks. They could not mingle with the white sailors. When chow time (dinner) came,  the white sailors ate first. Then after they left, the black sailors could go in to eat.   

The damage to the Port Chicago base and surrounding towns was estimated to be at least twelve million dollars. An

investigation was started just four days after the explosion. For more than a month witnesses were called and various kinds of testimonies were heard. But all of the eye witnesses had perished in the accident.

Conventional depth charges could be loaded onboard ship in regular cargo nets safely but the new mark 47 depth charges were supposed to have a protective tray to cushion the shock of landing. Just maybe one of these exploded. Maybe a crane had been allowed to swing against the side of the the ship. Maybe a full cargo net had been dropped into the ship's hold from too great height? Because of the contests between the loading shifts, ammunition could have been handled faster than acceptable for safe operations. However, as the inquiry ended,

the Navy could not come to the exact cause.

The white officers were all given survivors leave, but none was given to any of the black enlisted men. This type of treatment increased their psychological fears and their physical damages too.

On August 8, 1944, just days after the blast the ammunition Liberty Cargo Ship SS San Gay arrived at Mare Island ammunition supply depot at loading dock 34 east. Rail road cars filled with shells and depth charges backed up beside the ship. It was rigged for loading and all the hatches were opened. The Port Chicago black loaders were notified that they would have to resume their ammo loading duties. It was then the white officers discovered, because of three weeks of confinement, the black sailors had become very moody. Some were still in shock, some were still recovering from their wounds.
Three hundred fifty four of them refused to go back to work. Chief petty officer Gordon Koller was furious because they were disobeying his work order. They were all taken to the chaplain's office. "You will all be court-martialed if you don't return to work soon. I will even go with you and stand beside you as you work," the chaplain said. 

By nightfall 258 black sailors still refused and were separated from the rest of the men. The next morning they were assembled on the baseball field. Admiral Carelton Wright, Commandant of the 12th Naval District, gave them a strong speech, continued refusal to obey a direct order will be considered mutiny. Which in time of war is punishable by death before a firing squad. His speech threw a big scare into the black ammo loaders. "We thought that mutiny could only occur onboard a ship on the high seas," several black sailors said.

So 208 black ammo loaders agree to go back to work. But instead they were arrested and taken to camp Shoemaker for summary court martial.

The defiant fifty were escorted by armed guards to the Navy brig (jailhouse). White officers singled out seaman First

Class Joseph R. Small Sr. as the ring leader, although he denied it. Three of his sailor shipmates were Albert Williams Jr., Freddie Meeks, and Percy Robinson, who voiced the same fear. "We will obey any order except the one to load ammunition onboard any ship. For it is the same kind of ammunition, with the same kind of officers, and the same kind of working conditions. We are afraid for our very lives that  we will be blown to pieces too."

On September  14, 1944, their trial began in Yerba Buena Island. A general court martial was convened, the highest court in Navy legal proceedings. It is the only court with the authority to pronounce a death sentence. The prosecution team was headed by judge advocate Lieutenant Commander James Coakley. Seven other senior officers presided over by a rear admiral brought out of retirement. This was the rest of the court. (They would be the judges and the jurors too.)

The defense was headed by Lieutenant Gerald Veltmann, he had five Navy lawyers (one for each ten sailors). When called before the court, each sailor pleaded not guilty. The prosecutor stated that work stoppage was indeed an act of mutiny. As was a sailor's refusal to obey the lawful order of a  superior officer. The defense contended that no order to load ammunition was disobeyed. He added that the loaders had only stated their fears of handling the ammunition.

This trial went on fast and furious for thirty three days. When the presiding officers retired to reach a verdict, it took them only eighty minutes... All fifty black sailors are guilty of mutiny. All fifty are sentenced to fifteen years in prison and a dishonorable discharge. But Admiral Wright, who had the final say, came up with this: 10 sailors received 15 years, 24 sailors received 14 years, 11 sailors received 10 years, and 5 sailors received 8 years. (Who knows how he came to this kind of a conclusion?)

The other 208 black sailors were given a summary court martial. They sentenced to receive bad conduct discharges and forfeiture of 3 months pay.

After World War Two ended, President Harry S. Truman agreed to give a general amnesty to all fifty of the black sailors. They were released from prison and put back on active duty onboard ships. They were promised honorable discharges if they behaved themselves, after serving a probationary period. But yet their mutiny conviction was still upheld.

Many people and various organizations feel that these black sailors have suffered terribly at the hands of the Navy, but the publicity that their trial has received has played an important role in the desegregation of the entire armed forces of the United States of America.

Well now, just what do you think? Were these black sailors mutineers or not?

Mutiny: A History of Naval Insurrection.. Leonard F. Guttridge
World War Two Magazine September 2001
World War Two 4,139 Strange & Fascinating Facts... Don McComb & Fred L. Worth
The History Channel: (History Undercover)
Ooltewah, TN. Librarian Debbie Parrish.