Port Chicago: Who were those men?

by Jacqueline Davis

Who were those men who stood erect like telephone poles and looked like wooden soldiers in perfect formation? Who were those men who stood with no emotions displayed on their faces? Who were those men who marched with guarded timing ever so elegant and graceful, yet never leaving formation even through verbal humiliation?

Port-Chicago-Naval-Magazine-Black-sailor-loading-ship-before-explosion-cy-Natl-Park-Svc-archives-web-300x241, Port Chicago: Who were those men?, Local News & Views
One of those fine young Black sailors loads a ship at Port Chicago before the largest homeland disaster during World War II: On the evening of July 17, 1944, residents in the San Francisco East Bay area were jolted awake by a massive explosion that cracked windows and lit up the night sky. At Port Chicago Naval Magazine, 320 men – 202 of them Black – were instantly killed when the munitions ships they were loading with ammunition for the Pacific theater troops mysteriously blew up.
Port-Chicago-Black-crew-unloads-railcar-1944-before-explosion-by-Percy-Robinson-300x208, Port Chicago: Who were those men?, Local News & Views
The Navy was still segregated in 1944, when this photo of a crew of Black sailors was taken shortly before the July 17 explosion. Blacks were given the hardest, most dangerous work with little if any safety training and were constantly pushed to work faster. – Photo: Percy Robinson

Who were those men who loaded ammunition without proper training while their White commissioned officers stood back and watched? Vast numbers of men died in a fashion that was inhumane, unkind and undeserving of any human being.

Who were those men who witnessed the explosion – relatives, friends and newfound buddies strewn all over the place? Some so badly dismantled that they had to be scooped up with shovels.

Who were those men who didn’t have to wait for night to come to have nightmares? Who were those men who will carry scars and memories of those events forever? Who were those men who had colored skin? Skin tones ranged from fair – almost white – to damn near blue-black, kinky hair, large lips and wide noses.

Who were those men who served this country with great pride and dignity? They were Black men who served their enlistment term at Port Chicago Naval Base, in Contra Costa County. These men were enlisted in the service from 1943 to 1946.

Port-Chicago-Pier-1-day-after-explosion-071844-300x240, Port Chicago: Who were those men?, Local News & Views
Navy brass inspect the massive damage the day after the explosion, which was so destructive, the question whether it was nuclear is still debated. The idea is not far-fetched considering that the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima was secretly assembled and shipped from the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, not far from Port Chicago on San Francisco Bay.
Port-Chicago-50-sailors-face-trial-for-mutiny-Chicago-Defender-1944, Port Chicago: Who were those men?, Local News & Views
After the blast, Black sailors declared a general strike, refusing to go back to work until safety and racism issues were addressed. Fifty were charged with mutiny – and never got justice. The Chicago Defender was then the nation’s largest Black newspaper.

These men were subjected to unprotected dangers; no consideration for their safety was given. Segregation, discrimination and who gives a damn attitude were displayed toward them.

These men are just now being properly recognized for the historical part they played in making America what it is today.

To all Black men, if you have served this country, be it in the armed forces or as a ditch digger, a teacher, a Baptist minister, a book writer, somebody’s big brother or just a man with no title, please take time out to study your past history, for it is from the past that we learn to avoid stumbling blocks, therefore enhancing our futures.

There cannot be earned power without learned knowledge. Today is the residue left from yesterday.

Jacqueline Davis is a writer based in Vallejo, Calif. The Bay View thanks Allen Jordan, her brother, proprietor of their parents’ landmark Sam Jordan’s at 4004 Third St. in Bayview Hunters Point, San Francisco, for forwarding this story.