Everybody knows that African-Americans served in the Navy during WWII. But like the rest of the military, they served in segregated units with many unable to advance to higher positions. A fateful day in 1944 would set in motion the integration of the U.S. Navy and would lead to the executive order that would desegregate the military.

Port Chicago is a Naval port located 30 miles north of San Francisco. The Naval magazine at the port was constructed in 1942 to help nearby Mare Island keep up with the demand for munitions for the war effort. Sailors would work day and night transferring bullets, depth charges, artillery shells and bombs from train cars to waiting ships. During the 1940’s such a grueling and dangerous job fell mainly to the black sailors in the Navy. At Port Chicago, the personnel included 1, 400 African American sailors who would work in 125- man crews loading vessels with the munitions. Many of these sailors had minimal dock training and practically none had any formal training in the proper handling of explosions and munitions. This lack of training was also evident in the officers who oversaw the crews and who placed an emphasis on speed. The sailors were often given a target goal of moving ten tons per hatch per hour. The highly trained stevedores on Mare Island only averaged 8.7 tons. While sailors would bring up safety concerns over inadequate training, they were assured that the bombs lacked the detonators needed to set them off.

Workers at Port Chicago
Image- National Parks Service

Workers at Port Chicago
Image: National Parks Service

On July 17, 1944, two ships were docked at the main pier. The E. A Bryan was packed with 4,606 tons of explosives and ammunition. The Quinault Victory was next up for loading. Shortly after 10:18pm, witnesses reported hearing a metallic clash and splintering wood – a boom followed by a burst of flames. Six seconds later, the larger of the blasts occurred. The E.A. Bryan was almost entirely incinerated. The Quinault Victory was lifted out of the water and thrown 500 feet away. Reports came in of windows being shattered all the way in San Francisco. After the fact, seismologists would report the explosion as having registered at a 3.4 on the Richter scale. Sailors who were in the barracks thought that they were under attack by the Japanese until they stepped outside and saw the devastation. These enlisted sailors were the first on the scene and quickly sprang into action. One such sailor was Pharmacist’s Mate Third Class John Andrew Haskins, Jr. based in nearby Mare Island. The 21-year old sailor originally from Alexandria, Virginia had only enlisted a year earlier and was part of the first class of African-American hospital corpsman to serve in World War II. Reports of Haskins’ actions say that upon his arrival on the scene he rushed into the dangerous gases and flaming box cars in search of survivors. He gave first aid where he could and helped to bring the flames under control while attempting to initialize any further loss of life. More than 320 sailors would lose their lives at Port Chicago. Haskins received the Navy and Marine Corps medal in October 1944 for his actions at Port Chicago that night. He was the first African-American hospital corpsman to be honored for a wartime act of heroism. But Haskins would not be the only hero to emerge from the Port Chicago Disaster.

After the explosion
Image- National Parks Service

After the Explosion
Image- National Parks Service

Out of the 320 men who perished on July 17th, 202 were African American. This number would later account for 15 percent of all African Americans killed during World War II. The black enlisted sailors were left stunned after the incident. In giving accounts of the days after the disasters, sailors commented that if someone slammed a door or dropped a tool box, the men would jump, fearing another explosion had happened. Three weeks after the disaster, 328 sailors were reassigned to Mare Island and told to go back to work loading ammunition despite their cries for proper training. At first, 258 sailors refused, too terrified of another accident. Led by Seaman 1st Class Joseph Small, the men said they were happy to obey any order- expect handling ammunition. Being treated with a charge of mutiny, most of the men returned to work except for 50 sailors, led by Smalls. In September 1944, all 50 were formally charged with mutiny and sentenced to hard labor and a dishonorable discharge from the Navy. The trial of the “Port Chicago 50” would put the institutional racism of their American military under a microscope. As public support for the 50 men rained in, the Navy adopted new standards for the safe handling of munitions and began using a mix of both white and black recruits as stevedores.

In January 1946, the “Port Chicago 50” were given clemency and released from prison. One month later, the Navy would become the first branch of the U.S. military to fully desegregate its ranks. In later writings on the explosion, the Port Chicago 50 were hailed as early heroes of the civil rights movement. Today Port Chicago is still the site of an active military base, but a memorial to more than the 700 people who were killed or wounded calls the site home. Port Chicago and the integration of the Navy would lead the way for the desegregation of the Armed Forces. Stories like that of the explosion and others came to the attention of President Harry S. Truman. Truman was outraged at the treatment of those who served our country. His passion for the cause led him to be the first American president to speak at a meeting of NAACP in 1947 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. On July 26, 1948, Truman issued Executive Order 9981 stating, “It is hereby declared to be the policy of the president that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to races colors religion or national origin.” The order also established the President’s on Equality of Committee Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services.

The Navy was the most compliant with the new order, having already started the integration process after the Port Chicago explosion. In June of 1949, Secretary of the Navy James V. Forrestal wrote a directive which had all jobs and ratings open to all enlisted men, black or white. In the span of five years, the Navy had moved from a policy of exclusions for African Americans to complete integration in general service. The President’s committee reported, “In this about face, the Navy had not been primarily motivated by moral considerations or by a desire to equalize treatment and opportunity. Undoubtedly, public opinion had been a factor in this reversal of policy, but chiefly the Navy had been influenced by considerations of military efficiency and the need to economize Human Resources. Equality of treatment and opportunity, the Navy had discovered, was a necessary and inevitable condition and by product of a sound policy of manpower utilization.”http://usnhistory.navylive.dodlive.mil/2014/07/26/peoplematter-truman-ends-segregation-in-armed-forces/

The Port Chicago disaster shed light on an issue that was not only happening in the Navy, but throughout the country.  While no one wishes for such a tragic event to occur, it forced the Navy to look at its problems and do what needed to be done to right the mistakes. Sailors such as John Andrew Haskins and Joseph Smalls are only two examples of heroes that rose from the ashes of the explosion.  Both did their part to save lives either by running into the fire or standing up for those who survived to make sure it would never happen again.

Memorial at Port Chicago
Image- National Parks Service

Image- National Parks Service

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