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Remembering Port Chicago, Ca. And The Port Chicago 50 This Memorial Day

  • Sunday, May 19, 2024

Port Chicago was a small town in California in the 1940s. Population was less than 2,000. 

It will be 80 years come July 17, 2024, one of the worst disasters during war time took place on American land. An explosion so powerful it lit up the night sky and a plane flying in the area had to climb from 8,000 feet to an extra 2,000 in order to avoid all the debris blown into the sky from the explosion. Over 300 Navy sailors, all black, were killed in the explosion. Many so young, they hadn't even developed that little fuzz on their chin, had never so much as had a girlfriend and never lived so far away from home. The only ones to survive were some of the men in the blown up barracks, who  hadn't begun their shift or their shift had already ended for the day. Even so, many suffered serious injuries from the explosion. From burns to shattered glass fragment blown into their eye, from windows being blown out. 

The story of the Port Chicago 50, who defied orders and refused to return to work without proper training, were charged with mutiny. Although no such mutiny had taken place. The mutiny charge, which carried the death penalty, was meant to set an example and send a message. 

I happened upon their story as a teen, and over the years never forgot it. Over the last few years there's been an effort to exonerate the men. They were charged, convicted of mutiny and sentenced to long prison terms that were eventually reduced, and the men were allowed to remain in the Navy, finishing up their tours. But all these years, the mutiny charge has stuck. Upon discharge, If recall is correct, the Port Chicago 50 received an OTH discharge. They were allowed VA medical benefits, but couldn't qualify for GI Bill benefits, such as to buy a home or further their education. 

All the men of the Port Chicago 50 are now dead, but their legacy spearheaded many changes in the military. The Navy was the first to end segregation. Other branches of the military would follow, and do the same. 

You won't find any references to the Port Chicago 50 as being a vital part of the Civil Rights Movement. Their stories are mostly forgotten. Some never told their family members of their experience while serving. Their story and experiences, nearly forgotten. Some of the names on the list might jump out at you. One especially caught my attention. Famed writer Ernest J. Gaines, whose books have have been taught at colleges and sold around the world. But it couldn't have been the Ernest J. Gaines, could it? He'd have only been around 11 at the time? A father he was named for? He was raised by his mother and step-father, after moving to California from Louisiana. A grandfather, perhaps? No one can say for sure. 

In recent years there's been an effort to pass a bill exonerating the men of the Port Chicago 50, but the bill always dies in the Senate. 

It shouldn't take 80 years to right a wrong. As someone with seven brothers, a child, uncles, great-uncles, nieces, nephews, have served and continue to serve the country. Again, it shouldn't take 80 years to right a wrong, and do the right thing. A full exoneration is long overdue. Not a pardon. A pardon dictates the individuals were guilty, but the system is willing to let bygones be bygones, but the verdict still stands. 

Much of the info and knowledge of the Port Chicago 50 comes from being an avid reader as a teen. Being nosy around adults...always listening, gathering knowledge. No matter how dark and unsavory, events of historical significance have always piqued my curiosity and interest. Causing me to want to research and find more and more.

In present time, I happened upon a book titled, "The Port Chicago 50" by Steve Sheinkin, as they came to be known in the '40s. SCOTUS Thurgood Marshall, an attorney at the time, made sure the case remained public and relevant. It likely spared the surviving men of Port Chicago from receiving the death penalty. As the tragic story of Port Chicago and the aftermath of what happened to the 50 sailors became national, and possibly international news at the time. 

There have been petitions established for a full exoneration of the Port Chicago 50, CCCBA org is one, along with others, if anyone is interested in their story and righting a long overdue wrong. 

Nearly 50 years later, the Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial was established, in memory of the more than 300 men who lost their lives that day in 1944. Nearly 60 years later, a pardon was offered to the 50 who were charged, but only one member, Meeks, accepted it. The others would turn it down, because a pardon only established the men accepting they were guilty as charged, but the nation would show a token of kindness.  

Brenda Washington

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