Of course I’ll always remember the 24th of July – but the week before that is just as important to me because then it was that I was making the first steps towards meeting you. Remember? I got your letter of July 8 – last night when I got back from the hospital. It was a particularly sweet letter, dear and made me feel good. You express the hope that although I don’t write the same way as I did in Dec. and Jan. – I still feel the same. Don’t you ever have a second’s thought on that account, sweetheart. You mean more to me now – than you ever did – because then, dear, you didn’t belong to me and now you do. If my tune is different it is because my surroundings are different, too, and it’s a rare time when I can be alone and write down in quietness what I’m thinking. As for sharing my experiences – darling. I’m glad you don’t have to and where do you get that stuff about going too far in presuming your presence might help! It certainly would – although I don’t think it would help the war effort. And don’t worry about me hardening. I found how soft and real I could be when I went to work operating in the hospital – and saw all the patients around me. No – I’m not hard, darling – life just takes on a different meaning here – that’s all. There’ll be no barrier for you to crack and I know you’ll find me the same fellow who loved you hard when he last saw you and loves you much more now. Love to the folks, dear and
|The Route of the Question Mark|
|(A) Douville to (B) Deville (6 miles)|
11 to 17 July 1944
(Exact route taken is unknown)
On July 17, 1944, the United States saw its worst home front disaster during WWII. Two transport vessels loading ammunition at the naval base in Port Chicago, California, on the Sacramento River were suddenly the center of an enormous explosion. The blast wrecked the naval base, heavily damaged the small town of Port Chicago, killed 320 American naval personnel, and obliterated both vessels in an instant. The entire pier at which the ships had been docked was gone without a trace. More than 300 people were injured. Property damage was estimated at 9.9 million dollars. Windows were shattered in towns 20 miles away, and the explosion itself could be seen 35 miles away in San Francisco!
The EA Bryan, a 7,212-ton EC-2 Liberty ship docked at Port Chicago on 13 July 1944, and at 8 a.m. on July 14, naval personnel began loading the ship with ammunition. The Quinalt Victory was a brand new ship preparing for her maiden voyage. The ship was being rigged in preparation for loading ammunition. By 10 p.m. on July 17, both ships were heavily laden with explosives and ammunition. The EA Bryan had taken on 4,600 tons of munitions including 1,780 tons of high explosives. One boxcar delivery containing a new airborne anti-submarine depth charge design, the Mark 47 armed with 252 pounds (110 kg) of torpex, was being loaded into No. 2 hold. The torpex charges were more sensitive than TNT to external shock and container dents.
The docks were congested with men and machines. 98 men from Division Three were busy loading the EA Bryan. 102 men from Division Six were busy on the Quinalt Victory. There were also 9 Navy officers, 67 members of the crews from both vessels, and armed guard detail of 29 men, 5 crew members from a Coast Guard fire barge, a Marine sentry, and dozens of civilian personnel. The pier was jammed with equipment, a locomotive, and 16 railroad boxcars. There were also about 430 tons of bombs and other munitions on the pier waiting to be loaded. In all, the munitions on the pier and in the ship contained the equivalent of approximately 2,000 tons of TNT. Just before 10:20 p.m. on July 17, 1944, a massive explosion ripped through the pier. A column of fire and smoke shot up more than 12,000 feet into the night sky. Everyone on the pier and aboard the ships was killed in an instant. The port's barracks and other buildings and much of the surrounding town were severely damaged. Shattering glass and a rain of jagged metal and undetonated munitions caused many additional injuries among both military and civilian populations, although no one outside the immediate pier area was killed.
The Quinalt Victory was blown out of the water, completely turned about, and smashed back down leaving only fragments. The 12-ton diesel locomotive that had been sitting on the pier vanished entirely. Not a single recognizable piece was ever recovered. The entire pier was obliterated including all of the man and machines that had been there only moments before. The dead and injured, or parts thereof, were scattered throughout the harbor and on the land as far inland as 1/2 mile. It would be days before all of the bodies and parts were recovered and longer still before those which could be identified could be completed. Despite a naval inquiry into the incident and a slap on the wrist to the commanding officers who had been making a competition of the loading, no official cause for the explosion was determined.
The aftermath of the disaster showed the gross discrimination of the Navy against African American soldiers. From the beginning, all the enlisted men employed as loaders at Port Chicago were African American; all their commanding officers were European Americans. Each of the enlisted men had been trained for a naval rating but the men were instead put to work as stevedores. None of the new recruits had been instructed in ammunition loading. All had been told the munitions were not "live." After surviving the explosion and performing the gruesome task of cleaning up body parts and corpses littering the bay and port, the men were in a state of shock; all were nervous. Many of them inquired about obtaining a 30-day "survivor's leave" sometimes given by the Navy to sailors who had survived a serious incident where their friends or shipmates had died, but no 30-day leaves were granted, not even to those who had been hospitalized with injuries. White officers, however, received the leave, causing a major grievance among the enlisted men.
Three hundred twenty-eight men were asked to resume the dangerous task of ammunition loading; all said they were afraid and that they would not load munitions under the same officers and conditions as before. 50 were later identified by the Navy as mutineers during war. Despite the efforts of their legal defense as well as intervention by Thurgood Marshall, as chief counsel for the NAACP, they were convicted and given prison terms of 10 to 15 years. This included a cook, who had never worked loading muntions and a soldier with a broken wrist, still in a sling.
It wasn't until the surrender of Japan that the sentences were reduced by one year, as the Navy was no longer able to justify such severe sentences as a warning to other potentially dissident servicemen and labor battalions. Finally, in January of 1946, 47 of the 50 were released. These 47 were paroled to active duty aboard Navy vessels in the Pacific Theater, where the men were assigned menial duties associated with post-war base detail. Two of the 50 prisoners remained in the prison's hospital for additional months recuperating from injuries, and one was not released because of a bad conduct record. Those of the 50 who had not committed later offenses were given a general discharge from the Navy "under honorable conditions".
The story of the Port Chicago 50 was the basis of "Mutiny," a made-for-television movie which was written by James S. "Jim" Henerson, directed by Kevin Hooks and included Morgan Freeman as one of three executive producers.