On July 17, 1944, a massive explosion ripped through the Navy ammunition depot at Port Chicago, California. In an instant, 320 sailors were killed—most of them segregated black troops tasked with loading munitions onto ships bound for the Pacific Theater. Tremors from the blast reached as far away as Nevada, and its effects continued a month later, when hundreds of African American sailors refused to return to work. The strike prompted the largest mass mutiny trial in U.S. Naval history, and paved the way for an examination of racism in the U.S. military.

The Naval magazine at Port Chicago—a sleepy town some 30 miles north of San Francisco—was first constructed in 1942, after a base at nearby Mare Island was unable to keep up with the demand for munitions for the war effort. From the port’s main pier, sailors toiled day and night transferring bullets, depth charges, artillery shells and mammoth 1,000 and 2,000-pound bombs from train cars into the holds of waiting ships.

Hauling the ordnance was grueling, dull and dangerous work. Like so much of the military’s menial labor in the segregated era, it fell to the black recruits. Port Chicago’s personnel included some 1,400 African American soldiers who worked in 125-man crews under the supervision of white lieutenants. These troops had minimal training as dockworkers, and even less in the precarious task of handling high explosives and munitions. Despite the hazardous cargo, the Navy placed an emphasis on speed above all else. Black laborers were given a target goal of moving ten tons per hatch per hour—professional stevedores at Mare Island averaged just 8.7—and officers rewarded or punished their men based on results. “The officers used to pit one division against the other,” sailor Joseph Small later remembered. “I often heard them argue over what division was beating the others.” Small and a few other recruits voiced concerns about handling such volatile material, but their commanders waved them off, saying most of the bombs lacked detonators.

Damage at Port Chicago, looking south from ship pier
Damage at Port Chicago, looking south from ship pier

On the night of July 17, 1944, Port Chicago was its usual buzz of activity. Two ships were docked at its main pier. Sailors had packed the hold of the 440-foot E.A. Bryan with 4,606 tons of high explosives and ammunition, and the brand new Quinault Victory was being prepped for loading. Shortly after 10:18 p.m., disaster struck. Witnesses later reported hearing a metallic clash and the sound of splintering wood prior to the first explosion—a piercing boom followed by a blinding burst of flames. The second, much larger blast came some six seconds later in the form of an earthshaking eruption that sent smoke, fire and scorched metal shooting into the night sky. The devastation was staggering. Both the E.A. Bryan and a nearby locomotive were almost entirely incinerated, and the Quinault Victory was lifted out of the water and blown some 500 feet away, where it landed in pieces. Buildings in Port Chicago came crashing down, and windows shattered as far away as San Francisco. A pilot flying over the blast area at 9,000 feet saw chunks of debris go screaming past his aircraft. Seismologists would later report that the explosion had registered at a 3.4 on the Richter scale.

Sailors in the nearby barracks initially thought they were under attack by the Japanese, but they soon realized the explosions had been triggered on the pier. Enlisted men were among the first to arrive on the scene, and a few distinguished themselves by helping extinguish a fire in a boxcar filled with munitions. Others ferried survivors to a nearby hospital and collected the bodies of the deceased. The blast proved to be the deadliest incident on American soil during World War II. All 320 of the men working on the ships and the pier had been killed instantly, and another 390 people in the surrounding area were injured, many of them maimed by shattered glass and debris. Among the dead were 202 black troops, who would later account for 15 percent of all the African Americans killed during World War II.

The exact cause of the explosion was never uncovered. While a Navy court of inquiry criticized Port Chicago’s officers for turning the loading process into a race, it placed most of the blame for the accident on “rough handling” by the African American stevedores. “The consensus of opinion of the witnesses,” the court concluded, “…is that the colored enlisted personnel are neither temperamentally or intellectually capable of handling high explosives.” Congress initially planned to award $5,000 dollars to the victims’ families, but segregationist House member John Rankin objected after learning most of the recipients were blacks. The payment was later reduced to $3,000.

Damage at Port Chicago, looking north toward pier
Damage at Port Chicago, looking north toward pier

The disaster left the surviving black enlisted men stunned. “Everybody was scared,” Percy Robinson later told researcher Robert L. Allen. “If somebody dropped a box or slammed a door, people [began] jumping around like crazy.” Many of the troops were suffering from symptoms of posttraumatic stress, but all were denied leave and reassigned to nearby Mare Island. Only three weeks after the disaster—and having still received no formal training in handling ammunition—328 sailors were lined up and told to return to work loading ordnance onto ships. 258 refused, claiming they were terrified of another explosion. Led by Seaman 1st Class Joseph Small, the men said they were willing to obey any order given—except the command to load munitions. The defiant recruits were promptly placed under guard and confined to a prison barge. A few days later, Admiral Carleton H. Wright addressed them and warned that their work stoppage constituted mutiny—a charge punishable by death during times of war. The threat of the firing squad was enough to scare most of the sailors into complying, but 50 recruits remained unwilling to work.

The holdouts were jailed and interrogated during the rest of August. In September 1944, all 50 were formally charged in the largest mutiny trial in the Navy’s history. Six weeks of hearings followed in which the prosecution alleged that the men had “conspired each with the other to mutiny against the lawful authority of their superior naval officers.” The case caught the attention of future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who was then working as a legal counsel for the NAACP. Marshall sat in on the last few days of the proceedings, and later argued, “This is not 50 men on trial for mutiny. This is the Navy on trial for its whole vicious policy toward negroes.” But despite the protests of Marshall and others, it took only 80 minutes of deliberation for the court to find the 50 black sailors guilty. Each man was sentenced to between eight and 15 years hard labor and a dishonorable discharge from the Navy.

Marshall immediately denounced the verdict as a “frame-up” and went to work organizing an appeal. In April 1945, he travelled to the Navy Judge Advocate General’s office in Washington, D.C. to present evidence that the strike had not been a mutiny and that black sailors had been made into scapegoats for the disaster. His appeal was denied, but by then the plight of the “Port Chicago 50” had succeeded in putting the institutional racism of the American military under the microscope. The Navy adopted new standards for the safe handling of munitions, and even began using a mix of both white and black recruits as stevedores. Following a flood of letters and petitions from concerned citizens—including a note from former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt—it was also compelled to reevaluate the mutineers’ punishment. In January 1946, after some sixteen months behind bars, nearly all the men were given clemency and quietly released from prison. Only one month later, the Navy became the first branch of the U.S. military to fully desegregate its ranks.

While the Port Chicago 50 were later hailed as early heroes of the civil rights movement, the Navy never officially exonerated them of mutiny. President Bill Clinton issued a pardon to sailor Freddie Meeks in 1999, but the other men all died without having their names cleared. Some, such as Joseph Small, had actively refused to seek a pardon. “That means, ‘You’re guilty but we forgive you,’” he said before his death in 1996. “We want the decisions set aside.” Today, the site of the deadly explosion that led to their protest still sits on the premises of an active military base. It is now home to a memorial to the more than 700 people who were killed or wounded in the Port Chicago disaster.