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.