Memorial Day history lesson: 100s of black men victims of institutional racism in the military

This Memorial Day, author James Campbell reminded me that even the Greatest Generation had its dark shadows.

In his new book, "The Color of War: How One Battle Broke Japan and Another Changed America," Campbell lays out in stunning detail one of that generation's most nightmarish events: the racism that caused the deaths of hundreds of African-Americans in the explosive annihilation of Port Chicago.

That's Port Chicago, Calif., and for more recent generations who haven't heard of the Port Chicago tragedy during World War II, they need to rush out to get this book for a taste of how things were more than 60 years ago.

On the night of July 17, 1944, the Port Chicago Naval Ammunition Depot, 35 miles northeast of San Francisco, was obliterated in an explosion equaling the force of a small nuclear bomb. It killed 320 sailors and civilians — of which 202 were African-Americans. It injured an additional 390, 233 of whom were African-Americans. Of those killed, only 51 could be identified. Those loading ammunition were instantly disintegrated or were ripped apart, their body parts hurled into the air, along with parts of two Liberty ships, a couple of locomotives, box cars loaded with ammunition and the pier on which they sat.

Why were so many black servicemen killed? Because of bigotry that was institutionalized in the kind of legal segregation condoned and so widely practiced in America, including in the military. They had enlisted believing that they would perform a meaningful service for their country, on the front lines in the Marines and aboard Navy combat ships, and develop meaningful skills. Instead they found themselves in second-rate boot camps and ended up performing the most menial of duties because, by popular opinion — including among senior military officials — they were incapable of doing little else.

Ironically, hundreds ended up at Port Chicago in jobs requiring a great deal of skill, but for which they and their white officers were little qualified — loading ammunition onto ships supplying combat forces in the war in the Pacific against Japan. They were pushed to the brink, forced by their officers into dangerous cargo-loading races. Winches and other equipment were poorly maintained, and close calls in the loading of torpedoes, artillery shells and other munitions were not uncommon. The Navy ignored the Coast Guard's dire warnings of a near-certain catastrophe as well as the local longshoremen's union urgent offer to properly train the black laborers in the complicated and risky business of filling a ship's hold with high explosives.

After the disaster, some of the surviving black seamen refused to load ammunition at another port under similarly hazardous conditions — as if the Navy learned nothing from the tragedy; 50 eventually were court-martialed for mutiny. Looking back, this largest mutiny trial in the Navy's history can only be regarded as a shameful affair, violating the defendants' due process rights. In other words, the black enlisted men were blamed for a disaster for which their superiors should have been court-martialed.

Making the book especially worthwhile was Campbell’s juxtaposition of the Port Chicago tragedy with another neglected World War II drama, the battle for Saipan. It was one of the Pacific theater’s most critical battles, arguably the most critical. An American victory there opened the way for aerial attacks on Japan’s mainland and signaled the possible end of the war. It was to supply ammunition for that heroic battle that the men of Port Chicago were pushed beyond endurance or reason.

Campbell tells both the Port Chicago and Saipan stories in gripping detail through the eyes of real people who were killed or survived those horrific events. In whole, Campbell has crafted a fitting tribute to those men of all races to whom we owe so much.

It should also remind us that while the fight for justice isn’t over, there was a time when that fight was more of a matter of life and death than of rhetoric. And it should remind us of when the fight for national survival wasn’t simply a figure of speech. It should give proportion to present-day real and imagined plights. And make us thankful for the progress that we, together, have made.

The last three paragraphs of this column did not appear in the column as printed in the Chicago Tribune. It was entirely my mistake and I regret that these further thoughts were left out. 



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  • Great story Dennis. One of the great features of Leo High School's Veterans Observance each November ( always on the Friday prior to Veterans Day) is the participation of the Chicago Chapter of the Montford Point Marines.

    These heroes joined a Jim Crow Service that was thick with southern leadership and attitude, More than their parent branch, The Marine Corps was hostile to African American membership.

    Montford Point Marines served as ammunition carriers in combat, or as members of anti-aircraft batteries. On Iwo Jima and Okinawa the Montford Point Marines distinguished themselves in combat.

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