Thursday, September 19, 2013

book review

The Port Chicago Mutiny by Robert L. Allen (1989)

On the evening of July 17, 1944, at a naval munitions station on the Sacramento River called Port Chicago, 200 black US Navy enlisted men - whites didn't have to do this sort of work in the segregated Navy - were loading bombs and other ammunition onto transport ships for the Pacific War. They were entirely untrained, though some of them had been doing it for a couple of years by then, and they were under pressure to work fast. They were told the munitions had no detonators installed and couldn't explode, but something went wrong. Nobody knows what, because in the ensuing explosion all 200 of them, plus their supervising (white) officers, the entire crews of two docked ships, and anybody else around were all killed. The ships disintegrated; so did the dock.

Three weeks later, the day shift, all of whom were awoken in their barracks and some of whom were injured by the explosion, were taking their morning march when for the first time since then they were ordered to march left, the direction of the ships - and they just stopped and wouldn't move. Nothing had been done to address the safety and training issues, and they just weren't going.

Were they civilian stevedores, this would have been a wildcat strike. Since this was the Navy during wartime, they were charged with mutiny, tried, and convicted. This book rescued their story from oblivion, and proposed that, instead of treacherous cowards, they were honorable men who were sick of racial discrimination and unsafe, impossible working conditions, who were willing to face death from enemy bullets but not this.

I already knew this story in outline, but among the details I learned from this book were:

1) The mutiny didn't take place at Port Chicago. It took place at Mare Island. The destroyed dock was the only one Port Chicago had, so the sailors were transferred to another nearby naval base.

2) The prosecutor at the trial was a naval officer named Coakley. This is the same J. Frank Coakley who, two decades later as Alameda County D.A., was to earn a little infamy for his fierce prosecutions of student protesters and Black Panthers, and for denouncing them as traitors and Communists.

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