Many African Americans were eager to serve in the U.S. military during World War II, hoping their patriotism and courage would prove them worthy of the nation’s promise of equity for all people. But even as they battled foreign enemies that threatened our democracy, at home these men and women found themselves fighting the same racism and segregation they had endured as civilians.
In a new book, Half American, Matthew F. Delmont, a historian at Dartmouth College, chronicles the service members’ struggles—including a momentous but largely forgotten Navy catastrophe that, he says, “helped force the Navy and the larger military to desegregate.”
At the U.S. Navy ammunition depot at Port Chicago, on Suisan Bay some 36 miles northeast of San Francisco, Black seamen worked in shifts around the clock loading ships bound for the Pacific. Every day they transferred hundreds of tons of bombs and shells from railroad boxcars to the ships. Sometimes the bombs were wedged so snuggly in the boxcars that the sailors struggled to loosen them safely. It was dangerous work, and shortly after 10 p.m. on July 17, 1944, it proved deadly.
People throughout the Bay Area awoke to something that felt like an earthquake—a blast with the force of five kilotons of TNT. Sailors sleeping in their barracks a mile and a half from the port thought they were under attack from Japanese bombers. “Everybody felt at that point that it was another Pearl Harbor,” said Jack Crittenden, a 19-year-old seaman from Montgomery, Alabama. “People running and hollering....Finally, they got the emergency light together. Then some guys came by in a truck, and we went down to the dock, but when we got there, we didn’t see no dock, no ship, no nothing.”
One ship, the Quinault Victory, was lifted out of the water, spun around and shattered into pieces. Only tiny fragments of another ship, the E. A. Bryan, were ever recovered. All the people on the pier, aboard the two naval ships, and on a nearby Coast Guard fire barge were killed instantly. Three hundred and twenty people died, including 202 Black enlisted sailors. Only 51 bodies were recovered. It was the worst home-front disaster of the war.
Sailors raced to help injured crewmates and fought fires that could have triggered additional explosions. All of them were shaken by what they witnessed. “I was there the next morning,” Crittenden recalled in an interview with historian Robert Allen. “Man, it was awful....You’d see a shoe with a foot in it....You’d see a head floating across the water—just the head or an arm...just awful....That thing kept you from sleeping at night.” One of the seamen had been home in San Diego on leave after his wife gave birth to their son. When he returned to Port Chicago after the explosion and found all of his buddies had been killed, he said, “something just snapped” within him.
The Black sailors at Port Chicago had voiced their safety concerns numerous times over the prior year. Segregation relegated them to the dangerous task of handling tons of high explosives every day, even though the men were given no specific training. Men learned how to operate winches to move thousand-pound bombs by watching other sailors operate the machines. White officers pitted different divisions against each other, pushing the sailors to race to load the most tonnage during their shifts. Winners got access to recreational privileges, radios and Black newspapers, but as the pace ratcheted up so did the risk of an accident.