Name: The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight For Civil Rights
Author(s): Steve Sheinkin
What It’s About: This is the true story of 50 brave men who stood up for what they believed in, and stood up to the U.S. Navy and it’s injustices in the time of segregation. The United states has just entered World War II. Americans from all over the country are called to join the battle, but it isn’t that easy for African American people, for with all the prejudice of the time the regulation is that they can only serve as mess attendants. President Roosevelt was not so keen on desegregating the Navy, but he was a politician, and counted on their votes to be reelected. Ignoring black leaders complaints to do something wasn’t going to fly. So he compromised. The policy change was unveiled in 1942. Black volunteers would now be accepted for training as sailors. Sounds good, till you look at the details. Limited to low ranks, and still not able to serve at sea unless as a mess attendant, African Americans were not impressed. However, plenty of young men rushed to sign up. Some such men were sent to the U.S. Naval Training Center at Great Lakes, Illinois. There they immediately encountered… segregation. White recruits and black recruits stood in separate lines for lunch, were housed in separate camps, etc. They were not allowed to compete with white recruits for the opportunity to go to special schools that trained sailors to be electricians, radiomen, and mechanics. Instead they took swimming tests, practiced on the rifle range, and cleaned their barracks. They exercised, marched, and stood at attention. They were not trained how to handle explosives. When boot camp drew to an end, they were sent to the Port Chicago Naval Magazine. There they learned what exactly they would be doing. Loading ammunition. Day after day, they loaded bombs they had never been told how to handle. Day after day, they lived in fear of a explosion. Then in April of 1944, Captain Merrill T. Kinne took command of Port Chicago. His job was to get the ammunition loaded as fast as possible. How he planned to do that was by promoting competition between divisions with the prize of free movies. Officers pitted division against division now, betting on the outcome. Then one night, two ships and the pier exploded. Everyone on the ships and pier were killed. The death count was over 300. At the beginning of August, the men were moved to Mare Island Naval Shipyard. They had a pretty good idea of what they would be doing there, and were dreading it. On August 9, 1944, the men lined up and started marching toward the nearby river. They came the a split in the road. Go right, a day of routine exercise. Go left, a day of loading ammunition. The lieutenant ordered them to go left. Somebody stopped. Or maybe many. Everyone came to a stop. They refused to load ammunition. Superiors came. Superiors threatened. Of the 328 scheduled to load ammunition that day, a total of 258 refused. They were marched onto a prison barge. On the third day there Admiral Carleton Wright came. He accused them of mutiny- reminded them that death was the penalty of such. The men were given another chance to come back to work. 214 men complied. The next morning, guards led six men onto the barge to join the 44. They were all charged with mutiny. This is the story of their struggle before and after the accusation.
My Review: If I had to use one word to describe this book, I would say powerful. The story of these men is inspiring, infuriating, and powerful. Inspiring because no matter the struggle of facing all that was against them, they hung together. Infuriating because of the lengths of segregation in that time, and the injustice of segregation itself. Powerful because of, well, everything. The feeling that comes along with these men. I would suggest you read this because it really gives you a look into the worse side of our history.
Re-Readability: Medium to High. It really depends on your mood and what you like to read.
“The men at Port Chicago described the scene on the loading pier as frantic, stressful, loud, chaotic – bombs rolling and clanking together, winch engines chugging and smoking, nets swinging through the air, sailors shouting and cursing, officers urging the men on.”
“But it’s important to remember that before Brown vs. Board of Education or Truman’s executive order, before Rosa Parks or Jackie Robinson – before any of this, there was Port Chicago.”
“Just how deeply ingrained was segregation? Absurdly, the military even segregated it’s blood supply. Military leaders knew there was no difference between the blood of black and white men. They knew it was a waste of time and money to store two separate blood supplies. But that was the tradition, and no one in power wanted to challenge it.”