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Port Chicago Mutiny--The Facts Behind the Story


As American struggled to gear up for full participation in world war on two fronts, black servicemen found themselves in a racial quandary. On the one hand, they were willing to enlist and fight for a nation that considered them second-class citizens. On the other hand, the racially segregated United States armed forces were unwilling to provide them the opportunity to fight for their country. What the U.S. Army, Navy and Marine Corps was willing to do was employ them in mostly service and support jobs, carefully and intentionally keeping most of them off the front lines. Certainly there were exceptions and as the war continued and the demand for manpower grew all black units were raised and trained. Most familiar are the fliers of the Tuskegee Airmen, tankers of the 761st Tank Battalion and a few others but by and large black Americans in uniform were serving in the rear with the gear.

The U.S. Navy put black sailors on men-of-war at sea but they were primarily employed as stewards and mess cooks. It was a frustrating situation that came to a notorious boil near the San Francisco Navy complex in 1943. A large contingent of black U.S. sailors was being used at Port Chicago to load and unload cargo destined for shipment to combat units overseas. Much of this cargo consisted of high-explosive munitions and the sailors had little or no training in handling this volatile material. They complained but their objections mostly fell on deaf ears among the white Navy establishment.

When a gigantic explosion shattered the facilities at Port Chicago one night and killed a number of sailors and civilians, the issue came to a head. The black stevedores refused to work until certain safety and training standards were met. They considered it a matter of safety and security. The Navy considered it a mutiny and convened a General Court-Martial.

None of the sailors involved were convicted of actual mutiny but several were convicted of disobedience to orders and dereliction of duty. Those convictions were overturned after the war but it was clear to most Americans that a great injustice had been done.