OAKLAND, CALIF. — NEAR the end of World War II, a group of African-American Navy men refused to load an ammunition ship, saying they feared unsafe working conditions would lead to a massive explosion like the one that had occurred a few weeks earlier. The United States Navy put them on trial for mutiny, the first such trial in Navy history.
Critics charge that their subsequent conviction and harsh sentences were racist persecution. Under strong pressure from Bay Area congressmen, President Bush signed a law last December calling on the Navy to review the case.
Now, almost 50 years later, the Office of the Secretary of the Navy is investigating the Port Chicago mutiny and is expected to release its findings soon.
On July 17, 1944, Seaman First Class Percy Robinson was having trouble falling asleep when the first massive explosion hit him. He sat up on his bunk and saw the night air "turn like daylight."
A second explosion went off, totally destroying three ships and registering as a small earthquake on local seismographs. The Port Chicago Navy base 30 miles north of Oakland, Calif., was destroyed; 320 men died and 390 were wounded. Mr. Robinson's face and arm were badly mutilated.
In those days the Navy was strictly segregated. White officers commanded black enlisted men working as manual laborers.
Three weeks after the Port Chicago explosion, the worst homefront disaster of World War II, the Navy brass ordered the black seamen to load another ship. Even Robinson, with his face and arm still bandaged, was ordered to start work. Fearing more explosions, 258 men refused. Ultimately, 205 were court-martialed and 50 convicted of mutiny.
The Navy refuses comment on any aspect of the Port Chicago case, pending completion of its re-investigation. The Navy's Office of the Judge Advocate General is conducting the review to determine "the extent, if any, to which racial prejudice ... may have tainted the original investigation and trials," according to a prepared Navy statement.
Freddie Meeks, then a seaman first class, remembers well the dangerous conditions under which he worked prior to the Port Chicago disaster. The untrained men often loaded airplane bombs and artillery shells by hand.
Mr. Meeks describes how the enlisted men on deck would roll bombs down a wooden plank to those stationed below. Sometimes the bombs came down too fast. "You just couldn't catch them," remembers Meeks.
The Navy maintained that since the bombs had no fuses, they couldn't explode. The white officers constantly urged the men to load faster and awarded the highest producing division a flag. At least some of the officers also placed bets on whose crew could work faster, according to two Port Chicago survivors.
"They got the money," says a rueful Robinson, "we got the flag." Robinson is a retired engineer now living in Los Angeles.
After the July 17 explosions, injured white officers and white skilled workers received 30-day leaves. The African-Americans didn't, fueling even more anger at the Navy brass.
On Aug. 9, when ordered to load a transport ship, 258 black seamen refused. Under threat of mutiny charges and capital punishment, most of the men relented. But 50 still refused.
Meeks says those men preferred a firing squad to a fiery death in the hold of a ship. "If you're going to shoot us, just go ahead," he remembers telling an officer. "We're not going back to load under them conditions."
The Navy moved rapidly to put the 50 on trial for mutiny, the first mutiny trial in Navy history, according to the defendants' attorney, Gerald Veltmann. The prosecuting attorney was J. Frank Coakley, who later became a northern California district attorney and mentor to Edwin Meese.
During the court martial that began in September, Mr. Veltmann was not allowed to present testimony about unsafe working conditions or the Navy's policy of segregation. He still maintains the Navy never proved the men engaged in a conspiracy, a necessary element for a mutiny conviction. He and a young National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) attorney named Thurgood Marshall, who handled the case on appeal, said the incident was a spontaneous work stoppage. "They weren't any more
guilty of mutiny then I was," says Veltmann, now a retired Houston attorney. "Some were guilty of refusing to obey an order."
The court took only 80 minutes to reach a guilty verdict for all 50 defendants. The court sentenced them to 15 years imprisonment at hard labor. Later Navy decisions and the end of World War II led to their release after less than two years. But all got dishonorable discharges and no GI benefits. Most lived in fear of having their past uncovered.
Robert Allen, author of the book "The Port Chicago Mutiny," says the Navy used the mutiny trial as a diversion. The Navy never determined the cause of the Port Chicago explosion. But, he notes, the public attention focused on the mutiny trial precluded "white officers from being blamed" for their part in poor safety procedures that likely caused the blast.
Declassified Navy documents also show that the Pentagon feared criticism of its segregationist policies, so it immediately dispatched white crews to load munitions at Port Chicago. The mutiny trial, a similar rebellion by seamen in Guam, and pressure from groups such as the NAACP, led the Navy to start desegregating, says Dr. Allen. The Navy formally abolished racial segregation in 1946. "The Port Chicago mutiny was ... where the process began," says Allen.
Allen's 1989 book and a later Emmy Award-winning documentary by San Francisco's KRON-TV led to renewed interest in the Port Chicago case. Rep. George Miller (D) of California says he and other Congressmen asked the secretary of the Navy to review the case but were turned down.
Representative Miller termed the case "a major miscarriage of justice. These people were maligned and terribly wronged."
Freddie Meeks, Percy Robinson, and other Port Chicago survivors say no Navy action can undo the harm done them. Meeks, a retired Los Angeles County worker, says he lived in constant fear that his old conviction would be discovered.
"That's the way I went through life," he says, "keeping this hid, keeping it inside me."
Nevertheless, he says the Navy should toss out the convictions and give the men honorable discharges and any back benefits due them, with interest. That won't make up for a 48-year-old injustice, says Meeks, "But it's the least they can do."