The Port Chicago 50
Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights
By Steve Sheinkin
Roaring Brook Press Copyright © 2014 Steve Sheinkin
All rights reserved.
HE WAS GATHERING dirty laundry when the bombs started falling.
It was early on the morning of December 7, 1941, at the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and Mess Attendant Dorie Miller had just gone on duty aboard the battleship USS West Virginia. A six-foot-three, 225-pound Texan, Miller was the ship's heavyweight boxing champ. But his everyday duties were somewhat less challenging. As one of the ship's African American mess attendants, he cooked and cleaned for the white sailors.
Miller was below deck, picking up clothes, when the first torpedo slammed into the side of the West Virginia. Sirens shrieked and a voice roared over the loudspeaker:
"Japanese are attacking! All hands, General Quarters!"
Miller ran to his assigned battle station, an ammunition magazine — and saw it had already been blown apart.
He raced up to the deck and looked up at a bright blue sky streaked with enemy planes and falling bombs. Japan's massive attack had taken the base by surprise, and thunderous explosions were rocking American ships all over the harbor. Two direct hits cracked through the deck of the West Virginia, sending flames and shrapnel flying.
Amid the smoke and chaos, an officer saw Miller and shouted for him to help move the wounded. Miller began lifting men, carrying them farther from the spreading fires.
Then he spotted a dead gunner beside an anti-aircraft machine gun. He'd never been instructed in the operation of this weapon. But he'd seen it used. That was enough.
Jumping behind the gun, Miller tilted the barrel up and took aim at a Japanese plane. "It wasn't hard," he'd later say. "I just pulled the trigger, and she worked fine."
As Miller blasted away, downing at least one enemy airplane, several more torpedoes blew gaping holes in the side of the West Virginia. The ship listed sharply to the left as it took on water.
The captain, who lay dying of a belly wound, ordered, "Abandon ship!"
Sailors started climbing over the edge of the ship, leaping into the water. Miller scrambled around the burning, tilting deck, helping wounded crewmembers escape the sinking ship before jumping to safety himself.
* * *
After the battle, an officer who had witnessed Miller's bravery recommended him for the Navy Cross, the highest decoration given by the Navy. "For distinguished devotion to duty," declared Miller's official Navy Cross citation, "extraordinary courage and disregard for his own personal safety during the attack on the Fleet in Pearl Harbor."
In early 1942, soon after the United States had entered World War II, Admiral Chester Nimitz personally pinned the medal to Miller's chest. "This marks the first time in this conflict that such high tribute has been made in the Pacific Fleet to a member of his race," Nimitz declared. "I'm sure that the future will see others similarly honored for brave acts."
And then Dorie Miller, one of the first American heroes of World War II, went back to collecting laundry. He was still just a mess attendant.
It was the only position open to black men in the United States Navy.
THE DAY AFTER JAPAN ATTACKED Pearl Harbor, the United States declared war on Japan. Japan's powerful ally, Germany, responded by declaring war on the United States. World War II was already raging across Europe, Africa, and Asia. Now the United States had officially entered the biggest war in human history.
"We are now fighting to maintain our right to live among our world neighbors in freedom," President Franklin D. Roosevelt told Americans in a radio address from the White House. "We are now in the midst of a war, not for conquest, not for vengeance, but for a world in which this nation, and all that this nation represents, will be safe for our children."
Trucks with roof-mounted speakers cruised slowly through American cities, blaring the call to arms: "Patriotic, red-blooded Americans! Join the Navy and help Uncle Sam hit back!"
For black Americans this was not so simple. When they volunteered to fight as sailors, they were reminded of the Navy's long-standing policy. They could serve on ships only as mess attendants.
* * *
It was a policy as old as the country itself.
When George Washington took command of the Continental Army in 1775, he told recruiters to stop signing up black soldiers. The fact is, black volunteers had already fought in the war's opening battles at Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill. But slave owners objected that arming African Americans could lead to slave rebellions, and Washington agreed not to accept more black soldiers. Two years of losing battles to the British, and soldiers to desertion and disease, changed the commander's perspective. Washington needed men, no matter the color. Eventually, about 5,000 African Americans helped win the American Revolution.
The pattern was repeated soon after the Civil War erupted in 1861. At first the United States Army would not accept black men, fearing that to do so would offend the slave states that were still in the Union. Then, as the war dragged on, and the Union's need for fighting men grew increasingly desperate, the policy changed. More than 200,000 black soldiers fought to save the Union and end slavery — but they did so in segregated units, led by white officers.
In the Spanish-American War, future president Teddy Roosevelt became a national hero for leading the charge up Cuba's San Juan Hill. Actually, hundreds of African American soldiers were charging up the hill too, in separate, segregated units. By the time they reached the top, white and black soldiers were all mixed together, and together they took the hill. But when newspapers reported on the victory, Roosevelt and his white volunteers got the credit.
More than 350,000 African Americans served in World War I, nearly all in segregated labor battalions. They drove trucks, dug trenches, buried bodies. The military based its policy of using African Americans as laborers on the prejudiced assumption — one already decisively disproven by history — that black men would not make good combat soldiers.
"Poor Negroes!" one American general wrote in his diary during the war. "Everyone feeling and saying that they are worthless as soldiers."
Tellingly, several African American regiments wound up under the command of the French army, where they were given a fair shot to fight, and fought well. One black regiment from New York, nicknamed the Harlem Hellfighters, spent 191 days in combat — longer than any white American unit. They won a pile of medals, and returned to New York City as heroes. But the policy of the American military did not change.
At the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, just 5,000 African Americans served in the entire U.S. Navy, all as messmen. The Army offered slightly better opportunities in terms of training and access to promotion — but remained strictly segregated. The Marines and Army Air Corps (later renamed the Air Force) did not accept blacks at all until later in the war.
"This policy," declared the War Department, referring to segregation, "has proven satisfactory over a long period of years."
Satisfactory to the government, that is.
* * *
As the United States raced to prepare for global combat, civil rights groups challenged the Navy to abolish its racial restrictions. Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox insisted there was nothing he could do.
True, there was an obvious contradiction in a nation fighting for freedom while denying it to its own citizens in the military. But, Secretary Knox explained, segregation and racism were deeply rooted facts of life in American society. These problems were not created by the military and were not the military's problems to solve. Aboard ships, men were crammed into close quarters, making it impossible to keep the races segregated. Neither could they be integrated, Knox argued, because white sailors wouldn't work well with black sailors, and certainly wouldn't take commands from them. To desegregate the Navy, therefore, would hurt the war effort.
Knox concluded the only solution was to keep black men, other than those working as servants, off ships. The secretary insisted he was not a racist — simply a realist.
President Roosevelt accepted Knox's logic, agreeing that this was no time to desegregate the Navy. "To go the whole way at one fell swoop," he told Knox, "would seriously impair the general average efficiency of the Navy."
But Roosevelt was also a politician, always looking ahead to the next election. He counted on strong support from African American voters, and was getting pressure from black leaders to do something about the military's racial policies. So the president did what politicians often do — he looked for a compromise.
Secretary Knox unveiled the policy change in April 1942. The Navy would now begin accepting black volunteers for training as sailors, he announced. It sounded good, until you read the details. Black men could serve as sailors, but they'd be limited to low ranks; and they still could not serve aboard ships at sea, except as mess attendants.
African Americans were not impressed.
"In its abrupt announcement of a change of policy, the Navy department actually insults the intelligence of the Negroes it should seek to enlist," charged an editorial in the Louisville Defender, an African American–owned newspaper.
"It is difficult not to feel disgusted at the tricky, evasive, hypocritical manner in which the Secretary of the Navy has dealt with this problem," added a scathing editorial in another black paper, the Pittsburgh Courier. Roosevelt spoke in soaring phrases about America's battle to preserve freedom and democracy around the globe — but where were those ideals here at home? "If Negro youth are not good enough to fight alongside their white fellow Americans on land and sea in defense of their country, then this talk of democracy is hollow and meaningless."
In spite of the protests, the Navy went ahead with its plan.
* * *
And, in spite of the restrictions, plenty of young African Americans were eager to serve. That was certainly true of many of the men who would find themselves at a remote California naval base called Port Chicago.
In a speech at his high school graduation, seventeen-year-old Jack Crittenden spoke of Dorie Miller's inspiring heroism at Pearl Harbor. "All our men are facing the same enemy under the same flag," he told fellow students. "And when more black men are given the opportunity to serve their country, they will prove themselves worthy of the trust placed in them. Give them a chance!"
A Chicago teenager named Percy Robinson felt the same way. "The feeling was that we wanted to go in," Robinson said of himself and his friends. "We wanted to serve, and we wanted to get into combat, because all we were ever taught is that we were cowards, not capable of competing with the white man."
"We felt patriotic toward our country," recalled Albert Williams, Jr., about his feelings when joining the Navy. "Cause this is our country too."
Martin Bordenave was so eager to get into the Navy that he lied about his age and enlisted at sixteen.
Robert Routh was seventeen — old enough to enlist with a parent's signature. Growing up on a Tennessee farm, in a home with no electricity or indoor plumbing, Routh set his mind on joining the military and building himself a brighter future.
"If you sign for me," he told his father, "I can help make the country a better place for us blacks."
Reluctantly, Routh's father drove his son to the recruiting station in Macon. A farm boy who'd never been near the ocean, Routh saw himself as a soldier, not a sailor. But by the time they got to the Army recruiting office, the place was closed.
Routh looked around. About thirty yards down the block, a uniformed man stood outside the Navy recruiting office.
"Will the Army open up any more today?" Routh called.
"Come down here!" the man shouted.
Routh walked toward the office. "Well, I was trying to volunteer for the Army," he said.
The recruiter told Routh and his father all about the new opportunities open in the U.S. Navy. Before he left the office, Routh was signed up.
Joseph Small's path to the Navy involved a bit of chance. Small was working as a truck driver in New Jersey when he got his draft notice. He and a friend went for their physicals. Both passed.
"What branch of the service do you want?" the doctor asked them.
Surprised to be given a choice, they both hesitated.
The doctor picked up a stamp marked ARMY and — BAM — brought it down on Small's friend's enlistment papers.
"All right soldier," he said. "Move out."
Then he picked up a stamp marked NAVY and — BAM — hit Small's papers.
* * *
That random stamp is an essential element of this story.
Before the war, Joe Small had been in the Civilian Conservation Corps, a government program providing jobs for young men during the Great Depression. It was in a New Jersey CCC camp, at the age of eighteen, that Small discovered a quality he hadn't known he possessed.
He was working with a crew, cutting brush in the woods, when two of the men started to argue. Small looked up and saw the guys stepping angrily toward each other, both raising their axes.
Without thinking, Small jumped between the men.
"You give me your ax," he demanded of one. Then he turned to the other. "And you give me your ax."
Small took the axes. The fight was over.
"Small, you have natural leadership ability," his boss told him. Small was made squad leader, with his own crew to supervise.
This became a pattern with Joe Small. He didn't go around asking for respect, but he just naturally commanded it. He didn't ask to be put in leadership roles, but people just naturally turned to him for advice, or to settle disputes, or to speak up to the bosses on their behalf. In the Navy, Small would display these same qualities, with the same results. The men in his division would look to him as a leader, a spokesman.
And it was to these same qualities that officers would point when they accused Joe Small of leading the largest mutiny in the history of the United States Navy.
JOE SMALL AND THE OTHER RECRUITS were sent to the U.S. Naval Training Center at Great Lakes, Illinois, a sprawling complex on the banks of Lake Michigan. For many, just being away from home was an exciting experience.
"We were so young, not old enough to vote or to have a legal drink," remembered Robert Routh. "Many of us had done no more than embrace a girl."
"Most of us didn't know how to shave," Percy Robinson recalled. The food, at least, was decent. "We ate three squares a day, which we never did before, at least I never did."
That was the good news about life in the Navy. The bad news was that the men couldn't go anywhere at Great Lakes without being made to feel like unwelcome guests.
"The first thing they did," remembered a sailor named DeWitt Jameson, "was to start segregating us."
Percy Robinson described lining up for his first meal at Great Lakes. "There were two lines," he explained. He stood with the other black recruits. "So you look around, and there's another line over there that's all white." Robinson watched the white recruits march up to the main floor to eat. Then the black recruits were led downstairs to separate tables. Until that moment, he hadn't realized how completely segregated the Navy was going to be.
The black recruits were actually housed in their own separate camp, a brand new black-only training center, slapped together when the Navy announced its new policy of accepting black sailors. The Navy needed somewhere to train these men, but didn't want them mixing with white recruits at Great Lakes. Classes at Great Lakes were segregated, musical bands, sports teams — everything.
The attitude of the black camp's commander, Lieutenant Commander Daniel Armstrong, was typical of the times. He had his men decorate the base with murals of black naval heroes throughout history, from Dorie Miller all the way back to black sailors who served with Revolutionary captain John Paul Jones. The murals were Armstrong's way of honoring black sailors. But this same officer wouldn't allow black recruits at Great Lakes to compete with whites for spots in special schools that trained sailors to be electricians, radiomen, and mechanics. He didn't think they were smart enough, so he didn't even let them try.
Just how deeply ingrained was segregation? Absurdly, the military even segregated its blood supply. Military leaders knew there was no difference between the blood of black and white men. They knew it was a waste of time and money to store two separate blood supplies. But that was the tradition, and no one in power wanted to challenge it. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Port Chicago 50 by Steve Sheinkin. Copyright © 2014 Steve Sheinkin. Excerpted by permission of Roaring Brook Press.
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