The late evening of July 17, 1944 was clear and warm. The merchant ships SS E. A. Bryan and SS Quinault Victory were docked at the 1,200-foot wooden pier at Port Chicago, about 30 miles north of Oakland, California. They were being loaded with munitions desperately needed by the soldiers, pilots and sailors fighting the Japanese in the South Pacific.
320 men were working on or near the pier including 202 African American sailors tasked with the back-breaking job of off-loading munitions from railcars into the huge holds of the ships. Several crew members remained on the ships. Nine white Naval officers drove their subjects hard to win bets with fellow officers as to whose crew loaded the most tonnage in a shift. Seventeen million pounds of bombs, depth charges and all calibers of ammunition were packed into the holds of the E.A. Bryan. Another million pounds were in the sixteen railcars spanning the length of the pier ready to be moved into the Quinault Victory.
1,400 black enlisted men and 71 white officers were stationed at Naval Magazine Port Chicago. The base was guarded by 106 Marines—all white. World War II in the Pacific Theatre was raging. My father, Captain Grover Gauntt, and his men of the Cannon Company, 145th Army Infantry, were locked in close-quartered, ferocious battles with 25,000 deeply entrenched soldiers of the Japanese Imperial Army on Bougainville in the Solomon Islands. The need for re-supply of ammunition was deeply personal for my father and his men.
The ships that docked at Port Chicago were loaded with explosives at a frenetic pace 24-7. The men were divided into three shifts and worked six days a week, with one off. At 10 p.m. on the evening of July 17 the sailors who weren’t loading ships were either in their bunks or off base on leave.
One hundred yards away, a new loading pier was being built for the Department of the Navy by Macco-Case. Macco -Case was a joint venture between Macco Holdings and Case Construction Company, based in Long Beach and owned by my grandfather, Vernon D. Case. At the time, Vern’s companies were doing a lot of work for the War Department including a huge project to dredge San Diego Bay to enable deep-draft warships to enter the protected waters. Vern personally oversaw that job and he and his wife, Henrietta, and their teenage son, Sandy, lived in San Diego for most of 1944 and 1945.
Three Macco-Case employees were working that evening in the construction trailer adjacent to the pier. Lawrence Clifford “L.C.” Bustrack, age 43, was from Fresno, California. His parents were Norwegian and settled in North Dakota where Bustrack was born. L.C. was the project office manager. Gunder “Gundee” Halverson was from Cambridge, Iowa. He was 30 years old and married Dagmar Viola Carlson in 1937. He was the timekeeper and handled payroll.
Thomas “David” Hunt, 25, was from nearby Berkeley and a recent graduate of the U C Berkeley with a degree in engineering. He and his older brother, Daniel, were classmates and members of the Kappa Delta Rho fraternity. Their father had been a professor at Cal before his death in 1941. Before joining Macco-Case, David was an engineer in Honolulu.
Daniel elected to enlist in the Navy in May of 1941, while a senior in the College of Commerce instead of graduating a month later. He became a pilot and was stationed in Honolulu. The following year Ensign Hunt’s plane crashed during a training exercise and he was killed. He was 24 years old. After Daniel’s death, David came back home to Berkeley to live with his mother.
L.C., Gundee and David were working late that evening to complete some paperwork.
At 10:18 p.m. there was an explosion, followed seconds later by a much more massive blast. It is believed the first explosion occurred in one of the rail cars which then ignited the munitions in the holds of the E.A. Bryan and the rest of the rail cars.
An enormous shockwave tore through the nearby barracks, blowing out the windows and shooting shards of glass into eyes, faces and bodies of the sailors who had recently retired to their bunks. The men were lifted out of their bunks and thrown into the walls and onto the floors of their barracks.
An Air Force pilot witnessed the blast from 9,000 feet above. “There was a huge ring of fire, spread out on all sides. There were pieces of metal that were white and orange in color, hot, that went a ways above us. Some had to be over 100 pounds.”
Every building in Port Chicago was flattened by the blast, including the movie theater where several sailors on leave were inside watching a war film. People were literally knocked off their feet. Smoke and fire extended two miles into the air.
The massive explosions were felt all over the Bay Area and rocked buildings and blew out windows in Oakland and San Francisco. David Hunt’s mother, Jane, was at home a few miles away in Berkeley and awakened by the blast. She immediately turned on the radio and heard the explosion was very near to where her son was working. Her frantic calls to him were not answered.
Every single person aboard the two ships being loaded and working on the two piers were instantly killed. 320 men lost their lives including all 202 black sailors loading ammunition and the three employees of Macco-Case. Another 390 men were injured, most of them sailors in the barracks.
Both piers were completely obliterated. The ships were blown to bits. The only visible piece of the Quinault Victory was its stern sticking up out of the water. There was nothing left of the E.A. Bryan. The locomotive and 16 railroad cars that were on the pier- gone. It was later estimated that the simultaneous ignition of the seventeen million pounds of explosives inside the holds of the E.A. Bryan was the equivalent of a small atomic bomb.
The devastation was horrific. Sailors with only minor injuries took on the gory task of finding bodies. Of the human remains pulled from the bay, only fifty-one of the 320 killed could be positively identified.
The loss of life in this single incident at Port Chicago accounted for fifteen percent of all African Americans killed during World War II.
However, this tragedy marked only the beginning of the struggles to be faced by 250 of the surviving sailors. Not only had they suffered the massive, instantaneous loss of almost half of their fellow comrades-their friends—they continued to be victims of the unconscionable discrimination and prejudice inherent in the U.S. Navy’s long-standing policy of strict segregation of whites and blacks.
The Navy’s Strict Segregation Policy
Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7,1941 brought the United States into World War II. At that time there were only 5,000 African Americans serving in the entire U.S. Navy. They were restricted to serving on ships as mess attendants. They worked in the kitchens, cleaned bathrooms and toilets—they were servants. The Navy’s thinking was essentially this: segregation and racism were deeply embedded in American society, whites would not work with blacks, especially in the close confines of a ship, and these weren’t problems for the Navy to solve or experiment with—especially in time of War.
As the need for more men became exacerbated, the Navy made a change to its policy. In the spring of 1942, the Navy began accepting black volunteers for training as sailors. However, they could not become officers and they still could not serve on ships, except as messmen. The black sailors were assigned to land-based jobs white sailors were loath to do, such as loading ammunition onto ships.
In his thoroughly researched book, The Port Chicago 50, Steve Sheinkin painfully describes the discrimination and humiliation suffered by the black sailors at Port Chicago—banned to the backs of buses; barred from all but a handful of establishments; and always under the thumbs of their white officers and Marines guarding the base.
The Port Chicago disaster brought this all to a head for the surviving sailors. They had signed up, just like white sailors, to give their life—their all—for their country, and yet they were denied the right to do so on a battlefield or a battleship.
The inquiry into the incident did not identify a specific cause of the explosions, no doubt hampered by the fact all possible witnesses were instantly killed. However, it did come out that the officers and sailors on the loading teams had little to no training on how to handle explosives. There were no manuals; no classes. This shocked white civilian stevedores who loaded ships at other ports.
In early August, 328 surviving African American sailors of the Port Chicago disaster, excluding the severely wounded, were transferred a few miles north to Mare Island Naval Shipyard on San Pablo Bay in the city of Vallejo. The men hadn’t been told what they’d be doing. However, this was another port where ships were loaded with munitions, so they had a pretty good idea.
On August 9, after lunch, the officers assembled the men and began to march them down to the pier where the USS Sangay, a huge, empty ammunition ship, was docked. The men could clearly see railcars loaded with bombs on the pier. About halfway to the ship the men stopped in their tracks. No one within their ranks ordered them to do so. They just did.
The officers were infuriated and threatened the men with court martials and jail for refusing to obey orders. The sailors were separated and interrogated individually. The officers suspected a well-organized, pre-meditated plan to refuse to load. Most said the same thing:
We’ll do any other job. We’ll go fight on the front lines. We’ll go to sea. We are afraid of loading ammo.
Seventy men obeyed the orders to proceed to the pier. The 258 who refused were placed under guard and marched to a barge tied up to the pier which served as a temporary brig.
Two days later, Admiral Carleton Wright, Commandant of the Twelfth Naval District, came to Mare Island and addressed the prisoners:
They tell me that some of you men want to go to sea. I believe that’s a goddamn lie! I don’t believe any of you have the guts to go to sea! I handled ammunition for approximately thirty years, and I’m still here.
I want to remind you men that mutinous conduct in time of war carries the death sentence, and the hazards of facing a firing squad are far greater than handling ammunition.
I’m going to let you all know that I personally will recommend the charge of mutiny—and death will be the penalty.” [Port Chicago, by Dr. Robert Allen]
Admiral Wright’s words had the desired effect of scaring the daylights out of many of the sailors, most of whom were in their late teens, early 20’s. 208 of the men returned to work loading munitions. Their punishment for initially refusing to obey orders was forfeiture of three months pay.
The remaining 50 were transferred to Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay to await their trial for mutiny.
The Mutiny Trial and a Young NAACP Lawyer
The trial began on September 14. Lieutenant Gerald Veltmann, a 34-year old lawyer, and four even younger assistants were assigned to represent all 50 defendants. They were given a pitifully brief 30 days to prepare a defense to charges that could result in the death penalty for each man. The Navy prosecutor and his team, the defense team, and the seven high ranking Naval officers serving as judges were all white.
Because of the extremely high profile of the case, extensive press coverage, and entreats by family members of the accused, the trial came to the attention of a young lawyer making a name for himself in New York City. Thurgood Marshall was 34 and the lead attorney for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He would later become the first African American Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, serving on the Court from 1967 to 1991. But in 1944, he was swamped with civil rights cases spanning the country and, in particular, those involving the discrimination and prejudicial mistreatment of black soldiers and sailors.
In early October, Mr. Marshall sought and obtained the permission of James Forrestal, then Secretary of the Navy, to attend and observe the trial of the Port Chicago 50, as they had come to be known in the press. Although he was not allowed to speak at the trial, he gave daily briefings to the covey of reporters following the case and met regularly with the prisoners.
Marshall was incredulous that, in defense of the men, nothing was being said about the Navy’s unequal treatment of black sailors. He told the NAACP and the press:
“This is not fifty men on trial for mutiny. This is the Navy on trial for its whole vicious policy toward Negroes. Negroes are not afraid of anything more than anyone else. Negroes don’t mind loading ammunition. They just want to know why they were the only ones doing the loading! They want to know why they are segregated, why they don’t get promoted! [People’s World, October 17, 1944]
Marshall pleaded with Secretary Forrestal to open an investigation of the Port Chicago disaster:
“I want to know why, at the time of the explosion at Port Chicago, every man loading ammunition was a Negro. I want to know why sailors were put to work on the loading docks with no training. I want to know why commissioned officers at Port Chicago were allowed to race their men. I want to know why bets ranging from five dollars up were made between division officers as to whose crew would load more ammunition.” [People’s World, October 17, 1944]
None of this was allowed to be admitted at trial. The judges summarily ruled discrimination and segregation were not relevant or pertinent to the matters before them.
The defense focused on the Navy’s definition of mutiny: “An unlawful opposition or resistance to or defiance of superior military authority, with a deliberate purpose to usurp, subvert or override such authority.”
Lieutenant Veltmann argued the prosecution had submitted no credible evidence any man committed a mutinous act; and certainly not all 50. Marshall observed the only possible offense committed by these men was to disobey an order—no one attempted to take control or override anyone’s authority.
The trial and closing arguments were completed the morning of October 24. After an eighty- minute lunch break, the Court reconvened and the Judges announced their verdict: All fifty men were found guilty of mutiny.
A few days later, the Port Chicago 50 returned to Court to hear their sentences. They were the same for each man: Fifteen years of hard labor in prison, to be followed by a dishonorable discharge.
Marshall Continues the Fight for the Port Chicago 50 and an End to Segregation in the Military
This case was far from over. As he prepared an appeal on behalf of the men, Marshall continued to press Secretary Forrestal to investigate the injustices at Port Chicago. Although publicly brushing off Marshall’s demands, privately Forrestal expressed concern that the Navy’s strict segregation policy was actually hampering the war effort. A few experiments of assigning black sailors to work alongside whites on ships had gone well.
In early 1945, the Navy assigned more black sailors to integrated crews aboard ships, and the first black naval officers were assigned to ships at sea. More white sailors were moved into unpopular shore duty assignments, like ammunition loading. The change was gradual, but it was real change. [Sheinkin, Port Chicago 50]
In May of 1945, Marshall’s appeal was rejected by the Navy who found “The trials were conducted fairly and impartially. Racial discrimination was guarded against.”
The legal process may have come to end, but the trial in the court of public opinion had not.
In August of 1945, Japan surrendered to the Allies and World War II came to end. Marshall, other members of the public and some Congressmen continued to press Secretary Forrestal to reexamine the fate of the Port Chicago 50. Even Eleanor Roosevelt, the widow of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, weighed in with a brief note to Forrestal: “I hope in the case of these boys, special care will be taken.”
Secretary Forrestal made his decision with little fanfare and even less explanation. In January 1946, the Port Chicago 50 were released from prison and returned to active duty for service on ships at sea.
A month later, the Navy became the first branch of the military to officially eliminate all racial barriers with this historic order:
Effective immediately all restrictions governing types of assignments for which Negro personnel are eligible are hereby lifted. Henceforth they shall be eligible for all types of assignments in all ratings in all activities and all ships of the naval service.
This was followed two years later by the Executive Order of President Harry Truman ending segregation in all branches of the military:
It is hereby declared to be the policy of the President that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin.
Thurgood Marshall cautioned: We have just begun to scratch the surface in the fight.
But this was a major step forward in the battle for equality, desegregation and respect. And it began with the 202 African American sailors tragically killed in the line of duty at 10:18 P.M., July 17, 1944.
This story is dedicated in memory and respect of those men and all 320 of the men who lost their lives at Port Chicago.
Upon completing active duty, the Port Chicago 50 were discharged “under honorable conditions.” This meant they performed their duties satisfactorily, but their records contained a disciplinary action. They were never exonerated from their mutiny convictions, although one sailor, Freddie Meeks, did receive a pardon from President Bill Clinton in 1999. They were entitled to Veteran health care benefits but could not participate under the GI Bill which provided free college education.
All of the Port Chicago 50 have passed on.
Macco-Case’s contract with the Department of the Navy provided for the lump sum payment in full only upon completion of the pier. Construction was about 95 percent complete when it was destroyed by the explosions. Vern Case travelled to Washington D. C. to plead their case to the Navy. The Navy didn’t budge: no completed pier, no payment.
Macco-Case had fronted a lot of money on the project and faced serious financial problems. Fortunately, they discovered they had insurance which covered their loss. The insurance company paid the claim and then went after the Navy for reimbursement. That dispute dragged on for another twenty years.
Vern Case admitted, “I had no idea if our inurance policy covered us, but I’m sure glad it did.”
The piers were never rebuilt.
I want to thank my uncle, Stanford “Sandy” Case, for bringing the Port Chicago story to my attention. In January of 2019 we took a family research trip to Willits in Mendocino County where a lot of our maternal ancestors were born and raised including my grandfather, Stan’s father, Vern Case. As we drove back through San Francisco Stan reminisced: “During the war, Vern’s company was building a pier in Port Chicago. There was huge explosion and I believe some of their men were killed.”
Thanks to Ancestry.com, Genealogybank.com and my subscription to their enormous archives of newspapers, I quickly found the horrific details of the explosions, references to the Macco-Case joint venture and the three employees who were killed. I also began to read about the Port Chicago 50 and the enormous injustices suffered by these men, the other survivors and the 202 African American sailors who were killed.
This led me to Steve Sheinkin’s terrific book published in 2014, The Port Chicago 50-Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights.