Call for President Obama to exonerate WWII Port Chicago 50 African-American sailors

Construction of a Port Chicago Visitors Center to present the history of the deadly World War II munitions disaster in Concord is being considered as part of an East Bay Regional Parks development project. The land-use proposal was presented at a meeting in Concord Thursday.

Weathered old pier posts, twisted metal debris and large stone tables engraved with names of 320 souls who lost their lives, are all silent reminders that bear witness to a part of U.S. history not widely known.

The deadly Port Chicago explosion was called the worst domestic disaster of World War II and now some in Congress are calling on President Obama to acknowledge the military's racial segregation at that time and publicly exonerate the Port Chicago 50, a group of African-American sailors who refused to continue loading munitions after the incident.
There are also proposals to construct a Port Chicago Visitors Center to present the history of the deadly World War II munitions disaster in Concord on land being transferred from the military base to the East Bay Regional Parks. The land-use proposal was presented at a public meeting in Concord Thursday.

On July 17, 1944 at 10:18 p.m. some 5,000 tons of munitions and explosives exploded as they were loaded onto ships in Concord at Port Chicago.

Reverend Diana McDaniel of Oakland says her uncle Irvin Lowery was one of the survivors.

"His back was to the windows. He was talking to his roommates and suddenly when the explosion happened it threw him against the wall," said Rev. McDaniel.

She says Lowery told her that he worked for days recovering remains from the rubble.

"He said...there were feet in shoes and hands in gloves," McDaniel said "He said it took him 3 days to discover that he had glass in his back. He hadn't stopped. He said for 3 days they worked."

It happened at a time when the U.S. military was segregated. Among the victims, the munitions loaders were all African-American. There were 202 killed that night which comprised 15% of all African-American deaths in the war.

"They were loading ships that they couldn't even go to the bathroom on. You know, they'd have to walk a half a mile just to go to the bathroom," McDaniel said.

One month after the explosion, with no change in safety measures or additional training that white sailors received, 258 black sailors were ordered to go back to the same dangerous work.

Congressman Mark DeSaulnier said the sailors were ordered to leave Vallejo and came to a crossroads.

"They knew if they were ordered to turn right by the white officers, they would be going someplace that would be safe. If they were ordered left, they knew that they were going back to load a ship. So when the white officers gave the order to turn left, they stopped," DeSaulnier said.

Books, news articles, and military records have documented how 50 of the young men were convicted of mutiny and sent to hard labor. Their sentences were eventually commuted. Their names were never cleared. DeSaulnier and others dispute the idea that it was a mutiny, saying the men never took up arms.

A memorial at the site, now part of an Army base in Concord, marks the spot where some now hope to write a new chapter.

Congressman DeSaulnier, Congresswoman Barbara Lee, Congressman Mike Honda, and Senators Boxer and Feinstein are among those who have written letters urging President Obama to reject and remove the convictions from the mens records.

"We should have a way to go back in history and recognize an injustice ahs been done and correct. We need to do this both for the families, but also for the country," said DeSaulnier.

"You'd be appalled at the way they thought of African American people. It makes you cry just the way they thought of us," McDaniel said,"It happened prior to Rosa Parks sitting on the bus it happened prior to Martin Luther King and the marches."

Rev. McDaniel says none of the Port Chicago 50 are still alive, but she hopes they will be recognized for taking a stand.

"I think of them as heroes, that they were willing to risk their lives in another way, because they were fighting a war. It was World War II, but they were also fighting a racist war," said McDaniel.

There is a plan to create a Port Chicago Visitors Center in Concord when the military transfers part of the base over to civilian use.