Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Port Chicago 50

I am a Cybils second round judge. I am currently reading the all the nominated books in a fun "armchair readalong" way with the first round judges. My reviews and opinions are strictly my own and do not reflect the work of the committee.

The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights Steve Sheinkin

During WWII, the armed forces were still segregated. Black men who signed up were subjected to segregated mess halls (sometimes eating the cold leftovers of their white counterparts) and barracks, and given the most menial jobs. They were often treated even worse when they were off base.

In the Navy, black sailors were only allowed to be mess attendants when on a ship. They weren’t eligible for promotion. At California’s Port Chicago, they had to load ammunition onto ships. Only black sailors had to do this and they were not given any training on how to properly handle explosives. Their white commanding officers took bets on which Divisions could load the most, creating a hurried and unsafe atmosphere.

On July 17th, 1944, there was an explosion. A small one, then a big one. 320 men died (202 were black men loading ammunition.) Another 390 were injured (mostly due to flying glass when the shock wave blew out windows.) The 1200 foot pier was gone, as were the 2 battle ships being loaded. No one’s entirely sure what happened or why, because anyone who saw it was killed immediately.

On August 9th, the black sailors, some still recovering from their injuries, were told to go back to work loading ammunition. 258 (out of 328) refused, saying they would obey any order but that one. On August 11th, facing mutiny charges, 208 returned to work. The remaining 50 were charged.

The trail was a racist farce and all were found guilty, sentenced to 15 years of hard labor, followed by dishonorable discharge. In 1946 their sentences were commuted and eventually all were discharged with honorable conditions (which is better than dishonorable, but not honorable. You can get VA benefits, but not the GI Bill). In 1999, President Clinton pardoned one of the mutineers, but many did not want a pardon--they wanted their convictions overturned.

Today, all of them have passed on. All of them are still convicted of mutiny.

No one will be surprised to hear that once again Steve Sheinkin has written a riveting account of history. It is a great one for WWII or Black History projects, or anyone interested in injustice, legal dramas, or the armed forces. In true Sheinkin fashion, he pulls in many threads--American racism, the Navy and War Department’s unwillingness to challenge that status quo, the personal stories of many of the sailors involved, the story of what was actually happening, and the impact it had in larger society then and today.

One thing I found interesting--Thurgood Marshall is introduced as an NAACP lawyer, working throughout the war to help defend black armed service personnel from racist persecution and injustice. He watched the trial and foughtfor years to appeal. But, it never mentions what Marshall goes on to eventually do. (I mean, it’s not like we all grow up to be Supreme Court Justices.)

There are many photographs throughout the text (unfortunately, a few have been blown up too largely and are pixelated) and I love the trim size--even though it’s written a bit younger than younger than Bomb: The Race to Build--and Steal--the World's Most Dangerous Weaponor The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism & Treachery, but the trim size should entice older readers to pick it up.

It’s a story that many have sadly forgotten, but Sheinkin’s powerful storytelling will hopefully tell this story to many more readers.

Book Provided by... my local library

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