Into Forgetfulness (Transcript)
In our lives, there are moments…events…usually lasting a very short time, that result in irreversible change.
As a people, we have a need to memorialize these events so that future generations will know and remember.
July 17th, 1944 at 10:17 pm, a peaceful, quiet California summer night thousands of miles from the fighting of World War II, an event took place. In one explosive moment, 320 men vanished. And in the rubble, the way the military and America treated its citizens, began to change.
“America At War”
(Images of war scenes depicting ship wreckage)
President Franklin D. Roosevelt: “Yesterday, December 7th, 1941, a date that will live in infamy. The United States of America was suddenly and deliberately…”
(Historic video of soldiers loading ammunition into weapons)
(War planes moving slowly along a runway)
Most of the black sailors stationed at Port Chicago had enlisted hoping to fight the enemy. Unable to serve on the front lines, they found themselves doing dangerous manual labor.
(Sailors loading munitions)
(Steam engine train moving along a track)
Munitions manufactured around the country would arrive at Port Chicago daily by train. As a transit site, not a storage site, the cargo had to be unloaded as rapidly as possible. It was the job of the black enlisted sailors to manually transfer the munitions from the rail cars to large cargo ships. With war raging in the Pacific, victory depended on rapid delivery of munitions, and the sailors of Port Chicago were proud of their crucial link in the delivery process.
(Sailors loading munitions)
Ignoring standard safety practices, two ships were loaded at one pier. The work proceeded 24 hours a day. All the sailors handling cargo were black. All the officers in charge were white. Competition was encouraged by the officers. Loading rates for each division were posted.
Loading rates for each division were posted, and incentives were awarded.
Slower divisions were shamed and threatened. Officers and sailors cut corners to save time. Many people warned: the fast pace of the work, the huge volume of munitions being moved, loading two ships on one pier, and the lack of proper training, proper safety procedures, would lead to disaster.
Two explosions, 6 seconds apart, ignited the night sky with a column of fire and steel rising 2 miles. The first blast was fairly small. The second, incinerated two ships, the pier, 16 rail cars…320 men.
(Historic video of the disaster aftermath. Pieces of a ship floating in the water)
Text on screen: “SS Quinault: 500 ft. off shore. rotated 180 degrees. inverted. no sign of life. SS E.A.BRYAN: missing.”
(Video of disaster aftermath on shore. Smashed train cars, destroyed vehicles, demolished buildings, leftover piles from the pier...gravestones)
Text on screen: “Joseph Crosby, 27, Greenville, Texas: “I am injured in my spine, But that is nothing compared with my many friends who have been blown into forgetfulness.”
The survivors were in shock. Friends had disappeared without a trace. Next time…it would be them. On August 9th, 300 black sailors were ordered back to work loading munitions. Continued lack of training, unsafe working conditions, lack of any official explanation. Everyone believed another explosion would happen.
The benefits of Navy life no longer outweighed the extreme danger of the work.” Any order but that…” “Any order but that…”
After a peaceful confrontation, over 250 black sailors were arrested. The sailors were given the opportunity to put the so-called uprising behind them and return to work. About 200 reluctantly agreed, but were instead thrown in the brig. The 50 remaining black enlisted sailors
who refused to load munitions were charged with mutiny-- In time of war, punishable by death.
Text on screen from various articles:
“This is the first time in naval court history in which 50 men have been tried at one time.”
“Thurgood Marshall, special NAACP counsel, arrived by plane, here this week to assist in the civilian defense of the 50 Negro sailors.”
“Is there one or more Negro Navy officers sitting on the panel of judges? Everybody knows there is not,”
“Rear Admiral Carlton H. Wright later added: “I am gratified to learn that, as was expected, Negro personnel performed bravely and efficiently in the emergency.”
“Jim Crow, abuse and ill-treatment. Long hours of work, little recreation, arrogant officers, and constant danger have put most of the Negro sailors here on edge.”
“Earlier, defense attorney Veltmann had shot holes into the conspiracy case built up by Judge Advocate Lt. Commander Frank Coakley.”
“Boyer said he had never heard his division officer give the men an order to load ammunition. “The cooperation of my men was always wonderful, their discipline excellent,” he said.”
“…certainly the men, involved, deserve not public condemnation, but, rather, public sympathy.”
On October 24th, 1944, the specially convened military court found all 50 men guilty of mutiny as charged.
Newspaper headline: “Fifty Sailors Get 8-15 Year Terms In Mutiny Trail.”
Narrator: All were sentenced 8 to 15 years in prison, and dishonorable discharge from the Navy.
(Prison door slamming shut)
(Modern video of the remaining pier at the memorial)
Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial was established to honor the courage and commitment of the sailors, Marines, National Guardsmen, Merchant Marines and civilians killed and injured in the largest homeland disaster during WWII.
(Modern video of visitors looking at the memorial)
The Memorial recognizes the critical role they and the survivors of the explosion played in the winning of the War in the Pacific. The explosion and its aftermath was a major catalyst that helped persuade the U.S. Military to begin the long journey to racial justice and equality.
Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial will ensure the story of these brave men is not lost into forgetfulness.
Last updated: November 8, 2017