The 17 July 1944 explosion at Navy Weapons Station Port Chicago near San Francisco, California, was the deadliest homefront disaster of World War II. It killed 320 people, destroyed two merchant vessels—and in a moment of contingent history, helped spark the civil rights movement in the United States.(See “From Disaster to Desegregation,” February 2015, pp. 16–25.)
An official U.S. Navy inquiry into the event cleared white officers of any negligence in the accidental explosion and concluded that unsafe procedures followed by the African-American enlisted workforce contributed to the disaster.1 A few months later, survivors of Port Chicago refused an order to conduct ammunition-loading operations at a neighboring weapons station over concerns that unsafe conditions continued. The Navy charged these dissenters with mutiny, claiming that disobeying orders in wartime was tantamount to usurping the authority of the base commander.
1. Port Chicago Disaster online documents, Naval History and Heritage Command, www.history.navy.mil/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/p/port-chicago-ca-explosion/online-documents/court-of-inquiry/opinion.html; findings 13–16 are especially relevant.
2. Regulations Governing Transportation of Military Explosives on Board Vessels During the Present Emergency, NAV CG, 1 October 1943.
3. The Coast Guard at War: Port Security, vol. 18, 1 September 1949, U.S. Coast Guard Historian website.
4. Record of Proceedings of a Court of Inquiry Convened at the U.S. Naval Magazine Port Chicago California, 24 July 1944, Opinion 40, U.S. Navy Historian website.
5. Record of Proceedings, Opinion 33.
6. The Coast Guard at War; Robert L. Allen, The Port Chicago Mutiny (San Francisco: Heyday Books, 2006), 45–50.
7. Record of Proceedings, Opinion 51.
8. Record of Proceedings, Opinions 59–61.
9. Record of Proceedings, Opinion 30.
10. Record of Proceedings, Opinion 29.
11. Allen, The Port Chicago Mutiny; Joe Small interview no. 1, 21 July 1980, University of California, Berkeley, Library Oral History Center website.
12. Manual for Courts-Martial, Article 92: Failure to Obey Order or Regulation: IV-23, U.S. Army website.
13. LT Joe Hanacek, USN, “Exonerating the Port Chicago 50 Is About the Future,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 146, no. 2 (February 2020).
14. According to the UCMJ, an order is unlawful if it is “contrary to the Constitution, the laws of the United States, or lawful superior orders or for some other reason is beyond the authority of the official issuing it.” DOD website.