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THE PORT CHICAGO MUTINY by Robert L. Allen

THE PORT CHICAGO MUTINY

The Story of the Largest

By Robert L. Allen

Pub Date: March 27th, 1989
ISBN: 446-71004-0

A haunting if sometimes discursive reprise of a sorry chapter in the history of the US Navy. On July 17, 1944, a tremendous explosion wracked Port Chicago, an ammunition depot near San Francisco Bay. The blast killed 320, destroyed two cargo vessels, and leveled the nearby naval base. Among those lost were 202 black sailors working as stevedores in segregated labor battalions under the command of white officers. In the wake of the never-explained blowup (WW II's worst home-front disaster), many of the dead men's shipmates balked at loading more ordnance; 50 black sailors were charged with mutiny, found guilty, and given prison sentences ranging from 8 to 15 years. Most of those incarcerated were quietly released within a year; however, the verdicts stood. Allen (Black Awakening in Capitalist America, 1969) tracked down many of the court martial's surviving defendants and reviewed many contemporary news reports as well as recently declassified Navy files on the proceedings. From these firsthand and archival sources he has fashioned an often affecting narrative that reflects precious little credit on military justice. For openers, the author notes that the blacks detailed to load bombs and ammo on craft bound for the Pacific theater had a number of legitimate complaints, not the least of which was a lack of training in how to handle hazardous materials. In addition, he convincingly argues that the still-racist Navy overstated its case in accusing an unled group of sailors, traumatized by their own narrow escapes and understandably reluctant to resume high-risk duties, of mutinous conduct. That their quick convictions have not been mitigated or reversed in the interim simply confirms his well-documented suspicion that the whole affair represents a gross miscarriage of justice. In large measure, Allen allows the principals and trial transcripts to speak for themselves. On occasion, though, he strays from the inherently dramatic story line, e.g., to relate the mutineers' alleged defiance of lawful orders to his own experiences as a Vietnam-era draft resister. This quibble apart, a splendid addition to the less glorious annals of military history. The frequently gripping text has 16 pages of photos (not seen).