The Port Chicago Disaster — 70th Commemoration

by John Lawrence

A ceremony was held at the Rosie the Riveter Home Front National Park on July 19th to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Port Chicago disaster and the ensuing events which have such great significance in the history of the U.S. military and the evolution of the struggle for civil rights in mid-20th century America.  I received the Commemorative Hero’s Award for my work on creating the Port Chicago National Memorial and my efforts to secure exoneration for the sailors wrongly charged, by a racist judicial system, with mutiny.  Below are my remarks at the ceremony:

I would like to thank the Friends of Port Chicago for honoring me with this year’s Commemorative Hero’s Award, particularly our chair, Rev. Diana McDaniel, my fellow board members, and Superintendent Tom Leatherman and his outstanding team form the National Park Service. And especially, I want to acknowledge Congressman George Miller without whose leadership and determination, there would be no Memorial, no pardon of Freddie Meeks, and far less understanding of the significance of the events of July 17, 1944 and their aftermath.

We meet here at a time of momentous milestones. Not only is 2014 the 70th anniversary of the events that led to the de-segregation of the military and helped fuel the modern civil rights movement, but also of D-Day – June 6, 1944 – that marked the beginning of the liberation of Europe. Just 16 days ago, I walked on the beach at Normandy, and I brought back a vial of red sand that I deposited on the shore at the Port Chicago Memorial on Thursday to symbolically link these two places that share such historic significance.

Coincidentally, this year also marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I, during which more than 370,000 African Americans served in combat, as well as the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, and the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act.

These are important moments in our national history, and they require recognition and solemn celebration. They changed our country, and they changed the world.

We recall them not simply for reasons of sentimentality but because they compel us to think about something more than our own times and our own struggles. They challenge us to consider how we arrived at this place, the sacrifices that were required, and who we are as a result of these shared experiences. 

These events marking the 70th anniversary of the Port Chicago disaster are a good example of why we need memorials and commemorations.

For decades after the war ended, few knew anything about Port Chicago, or the racism that pervaded the military during the War. Apropos of our presence here today, few understood the crucial, changing role of women on the Home Front during the war – not just the Rosie the Riveters who built the Victory ships and tanks right here in Richmond, but also the unprecedented role that women began to play in the nation’s economy.

These events also serve as a reminder that it can be time-consuming and frustrating to challenge old stereotypes and erroneous records. It took an Act of Congress in 1992 to compel the Navy even to review the shameful prosecution of the sailors convicted of mutiny after the explosion. Unfortunately, the Navy refused to overturn the convictions.But as a result of the determination of Congressman Miller, with strong support from other Californians like Barbara Boxer and Ron Dellums, legislation was soon passed creating the Port Chicago Memorial.

Yet even military has begun to revise its views of the Port Chicago disaster and its aftermath. It is worth noting the remarks at the memorial service on Thursday of Lt. Colonel Timothy Zetterwall, the new commanding officer in Concord, which included unprecedented recognition of the Navy’s serious shortcomings in the handling of both the Port Chicago facility and the prosecutions that followed the disaster. That acknowledgement is a very important step.

When I began researching Port Chicago back in the mid-1980s, I remember calling an African-American veteran who had served there at the time of the explosion. Like many others, he had put the memory of that terrible night far behind him. He had rarely discussed his experiences even with his own family. Yet, when I told him I was calling to talk about his recollections of July 17, 1944, he quietly said, “I’ve been waiting my whole life for this phone call.”

My work on Port Chicago conjures up a number of such vivid scenes for me:

  • Percy Robinson, Robert Routh and Yale Lewis telling me of having to write home for gloves to prevent their hands from being cut in the loading of weapons — because the Navy would not supply them;
  • how a trumpet, sent by a worried parent, resulted in a fortuitous assignment to the base band instead of an assignment loading the E.A. Bryan on that night 70 years ago.
  • the unapologetic testimony of the purported “ringleader,” Joe Small at a congressional hearing when we began the effort to create the National Memorial;
  • the quiet dignity of Freddie Meeks when Rep. Miller and I visited him shortly after the issuance of the pardon by President Clinton in 1999 – the aging photos of him in his Navy uniform still proudly displayed in his living room.

After the story of the pardon appeared in the newspaper, many people wrote to Mr. Meeks to share their own recollections and emotions. One told Mr. Meeks, “Your fight is not just for you, or just for black people, but for all people. The United States is still on the path to Freedom and Equality. You have helped us stay on that path.”

Out at Normandy last month, I saw a few of that Greatest Generation wearing their veterans’ caps, carrying canes and riding in wheelchairs pushed by children or grandchildren. They had brought their families back to France, to that hallowed beach, to create a personal connection to that shattering experience – to ensure that they would always remember the sacrifices that were made for future generations.   It is in that same spirit that we continue our efforts to explain the significance of Port Chicago to our children and grandchildren.

When I wasn’t working late nights in the Congress or helping my wife raise our two sons, I also composed and recorded songs, including “The Ballad of Port Chicago.” I’d like to close by reciting to you the last verse and the chorus, which seem appropriate to today’s celebration. It goes like this:

And out in California, a flag still flies today,

Right where old Port Chicago stood

Before it blew away.

It waves there to remind us brave men served there once and died

And we must fight for justice still

That’s why they gave their lives.

Chorus:

Oh, my, what a terrible sight

The sky blew apart with a thundering light

And all those boys were blasted right

To Kingdom Come on that terrible night.

Their legend lives on and it’s quite a tale.

Half a hundred went to jail.

They took a step down freedom’s trail

Those Port Chicago boys.

When the National Anthem was played at the Port Chicago Memorial during Thursday’s memorial service, a flock of pelicans appeared from nowhere and suddenly formed a perfect “V” for “Victory,” hovering high over the fluttering flags until the song ended, and then disappeared, as did the 320 victims of the Port Chicago explosion.

I am very grateful to you for recognizing my work for this important cause, and I salute all those committed to telling the story of Port Chicago.

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