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The Port Chicago 50: An Oral History

From: Long Haul Productions
Series: American Worker Series
Length: 25:12

The story of the worst homefront disaster of World War II -- an ammunition explosion that killed more than 300 men -- and what happened to the 50 African-American men who refused to go back to work loading ammunition after the explosion. Read the full description.

Portchicago_small On July 17, 1944, two Liberty ships anchored at the Port Chicago Munitions Case near San Francisco exploded, killing 320 men and injuring 390. It was the worst homefront disaster of World War II. A majority of the casualties were African-American sailors who loaded ammunition onto the ships at Port Chicago. Shortly after the explosion, the African-American munitions loaders who survived were transferred to a nearby base and ordered back to work. Shaken by the death of their workmates and afraid that another explosion might occur, 50 men refused. In the largest courtmartial in Navy history, they were all convicted of mutiny and sentenced to up to fifteen years of hard labor. In January 1946, only months after the war ended, all convicted men's sentences were suspended as part of a general amnesty. While these men were allowed to return to civilian life, they were left angry, ashamed, and afraid they would be fired from their jobs or worried that they would be seen as unpatriotic. As a result, some did not discuss the case, even with family members, for more than 50 years. Originally broadcast on This American Life in 1996.

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Piece Description

On July 17, 1944, two Liberty ships anchored at the Port Chicago Munitions Case near San Francisco exploded, killing 320 men and injuring 390. It was the worst homefront disaster of World War II. A majority of the casualties were African-American sailors who loaded ammunition onto the ships at Port Chicago. Shortly after the explosion, the African-American munitions loaders who survived were transferred to a nearby base and ordered back to work. Shaken by the death of their workmates and afraid that another explosion might occur, 50 men refused. In the largest courtmartial in Navy history, they were all convicted of mutiny and sentenced to up to fifteen years of hard labor. In January 1946, only months after the war ended, all convicted men's sentences were suspended as part of a general amnesty. While these men were allowed to return to civilian life, they were left angry, ashamed, and afraid they would be fired from their jobs or worried that they would be seen as unpatriotic. As a result, some did not discuss the case, even with family members, for more than 50 years. Originally broadcast on This American Life in 1996.

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Review of The Port Chicago 50: An Oral History

I've been impressed with all the work I have heard from Long Haul Productions, and this documentary is a great example of the company's talents at blending intimate interviews with perfect music.

The story of Port Chicago is extraordinary in American history, because it brings so many compelling topics together - race relations, military mobilization, World War II, labor... The fact that it is not a more widely known incident is a shame, because I think it gives great lessons in all of the above topics, as well as the importance of integrity in life.

Told exclusively through the words of survivors of the blasts that killed more than 300, this radio piece is a wonderful way to learn about history - first hand through a great diversity of voices. Long Haul Productions mixes the story together with top-notch production values. It's a pleasure to listen to.

As senior producer at KALW News in San Francisco, I'm very glad we had a chance to run this story on the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. And I think it would be an excellent story for listeners to hear anytime.

Broadcast History

Broadcast on This American Life in 1996.

Transcript

HOST INTRO:

On July 17th, 1944, a massive explosion flattened the Port Chicago Navel Weapons Depot near San Francisco and shook the entire Bay Area. Some people thought it was an earthquake. Others feared an enemy attack. It was neither. The source of the blast was two "Liberty" ships that were docked at Port Chicago. One of the ships was fully loaded with ammunition. The other was in the process of being loaded. They both exploded with the force of nuclear bombs that would be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki a year later.

320 men were killed, 390 injured. A majority of the casualties were African-American sailors who had the job of loading ammunition onto the ships at Port Chicago.

The United States Navy was never able to determine the cause of the explosion but a Navy Court of Inquiry indirectly blamed the black sailors.

The court concluded, quote, "The colored enlisted pe...
Read the full transcript

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