Originally posted on nationalww2museum.org.
July 17, 2020 marks the 76th anniversary of a frequently overlooked episode during World War II that had profound changes on the US military and the legal and social structure of American society. As with many aspects of our history involving equity and justice, the events surrounding what happened at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine that night continue to affect our perceptions of history and the legal system decades later.
Whether by choice or by circumstance, the US military has been at the forefront of social change, especially when it comes to matters of diversity and equality, gender, and sexual preference. The aftermath of the Port Chicago disaster compelled a re-evaluation of the role of racial minorities in the military following World War II, a consequential prologue to the broader civil rights movement that changed America.
The disparate treatment of African Americans during World War II era is well-documented; minorities (especially Black and Asian citizens) whether or not they wore the uniform. During the war, stories of the indignities and violence circulated widely and the black press, and civil rights leaders pressured the Roosevelt administration for serious action to address discrimination.
At Port Chicago, Black sailors who had been trained for combat roles were instead relegated to loading munitions aboard ships under the supervision of white officers. A premium was placed on speed and efficiency; the officers would conduct “races” among teams of loaders with little regard for safety. Neither the Black sailors nor the officers were trained adequately for the dangerous work; many loaders reported they were not even given gloves for handling the 600 pound bombs and other munitions including highly volatile incendiaries fitted with detonators. So little training was provided while the longshore union warned that a catastrophe was imminent.
On July 17, that admonition came true with almost unimaginable consequences. For reasons that can never be accurately determined, a cataclysmic series of explosions—the largest man-made detonation in history to that point—erupted with the force of 5,000 tons of TNT. Instantly, 320 men, two-thirds of them African American, were killed and hundreds more were injured. The ships they were loading were nearly obliterated; a locomotive evaporated. The force of the blasts was felt 20 miles away in San Francisco.
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Today, a measure authored by Congressman Mark DeSaulnier (CA-11) to honor and provide federal recognition of the Port Chicago 50 passed in the House of Representatives as part of the National Defense Authorization Act (S. 1790). If signed by the President, which is expected to happen this month, it would represent the first time that federal law recognizes the racial bias experienced by the Port Chicago 50 and the first official call from Congress that the Secretary of the Navy recommend remediation for the Port Chicago 50.
“Seventy-five years ago, the explosion at Port Chicago changed the course of the lives of many and set the stage for racial integration in the military. The brave men who fought back against their unfair, discriminatory treatment have never properly been recognized by the same government that betrayed them. This effort is an important first step toward righting this historical injustice and properly honoring the Port Chicago 50, and we will continue fighting to get the justice these brave service members deserve,” said Congressman DeSaulnier.
“The Friends of Port Chicago National Memorial are deeply gratified by Congressman DeSaulnier’s diligent work to include this language recognizing the bias against these African American sailors during World War II. It is extremely meaningful, on the 75th anniversary of this tragedy, that the Congress recognize the discrimination endured by the 256 Port Chicago sailors who were treated so unfairly by the Navy and the nation they served. Survivors of that tragic explosion have said they wanted everyone to know they did their best to help win the War,” said Rev. Diana McDaniel, President of The Friends of Port Chicago National Memorial.
Also included in the bill is a provision authored by DeSaulnier to improve financial transparency for America’s veterans who experience hardship when receiving both separation pay and disability pay. S. 1790 also takes a significant step by providing paid family leave for federal workers.
Despite these successes, Congressman DeSaulnier ultimately voted against the bill as it increases the defense budget by another $30 billion, bringing the total spending to a whopping $738 billion for this year alone with no requirement for an in-depth spending analysis or accountability. Last Congress, Congressman DeSaulnier authored the Department of Defense Waste Reduction Act (H.R. 2367) to address reckless spending at the Department of Defense (DoD) and prevent it from receiving any additional funding until wasteful spending practices within the Department are addressed. He is also a sponsor of the FAMILY Act (H.R. 1185), which would provide universal family leave.