Port Chicago Disaster

The Port Chicago disaster was a deadly munitions explosion that occurred on July 17, 1944, at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine in Port Chicago, California, United States.

Munitions detonated while being loaded onto a cargo vessel bound for the Pacific Theater of Operations, killing 320 sailors and civilians and injuring 390 others. Most of the dead and injured were enlisted African-American sailors.

A month later, continuing unsafe conditions inspired hundreds of servicemen to refuse to load munitions, an act known as the Port Chicago Mutiny. Fifty men, called the Port Chicago 50, were convicted of mutiny and sentenced to long prison terms. Forty-seven of the 50 were released in January 1946; the remaining three served additional months in prison.

During and after the trial, questions were raised about the fairness and legality of the court-martial proceedings. Due to public pressure, the United States Navy reconvened the courts-martial board in 1945; the court affirmed the guilt of the convicted men. Widespread publicity surrounding the case turned it into a cause célèbre among African Americans and white Americans; it and other race-related Navy protests of 1944–1945 led the Navy to change its practices and initiate the desegregation of its forces beginning in February 1946. In 1994, the Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial was dedicated to the lives lost in the disaster.

The explosion had shaken all of the men, but especially those surviving men who worked on the pier. Of the 320 men killed, almost 2/3 were African-American from the ordnance battalion. What had been minor grievances and problems before the explosion began to boil as apprehension of returning to the piers grew. On 9 August, less than one month after the explosion, the surviving men, who had experienced the horror, were to begin loading munitions, this time at Mare Island. They told their officers that they would obey any other order, but not that one.

Of the 328 men of the ordnance battalion, 258 African-American sailors refused to load ammunition. In the end, 208 faced summary courts-martial and were sentenced to bad conduct discharges and the forfeit of three month's pay for disobeying orders. The remaining 50 were singled out for general courts martial on the grounds of mutiny. The sentence could have been death, but they received between eight and fifteen years at hard labor after a trial which a 1994 review had strong racial overtones. Soon after the war, in January 1946, all of the men were given clemency. On 23 December 1999, President William Clinton pardoned Freddie Meeks of Los Angeles, one of the few still living members of the original 50.