In July 1944, hundreds of seaman, mostly black, died in an explosion while loading ammunition aboard ships at Port Chicago, in northern California, while mostly white American troops battled on Saipan across the Pacific.
Using diaries, memoirs, transcripts and interviews, Campbell (The Ghost Mountain Boys: Their Epic March and the Terrifying Battle for New Guinea—The Forgotten War of the South Pacific, 2007, etc.) jumps back and forth between both stories. Saipan does not lack competent histories, but Campbell’s description of the explosion revives a little-known landmark in race relations. He reminds readers that, after Pearl Harbor, black Americans yearned to fight and demanded equality in the rigidly segregated military. Franklin Roosevelt had no objection but refused to oppose his entire cabinet, and readers will squirm as otherwise admirable figures (Marshall, Stimson, Knox, Eisenhower) deliver unctuous homilies on black inferiority. As always, only Eleanor got it right. Yielding slightly, the Navy expanded black job categories from one (messman) to include shore-based labor. At Port Chicago they worked under white officers, most of whom knew little about handling explosives, and the Navy refused to heed warnings from the stevedore’s union. After the disaster, hundreds refused to resume work. Many reconsidered after threats from superiors; the Navy charged the remainder with mutiny, a far more serious offense than refusal to obey orders. The trial generated sympathetic headlines, but the court convicted all defendants, sentencing them to long prison terms. Both senior admirals and the Defense Department considered this overkill, and the Navy released everyone within six months. It also abolished its Jim Crow policy, two years before President Truman did the same for other services.
A fine account of a little-known milestone in the battle for civil rights.