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Blast Survivors Again Try to Clear Names

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

That place has remained with them.

Even after they left, they never forgot: 320 dead, 390 wounded and 258 young men marked for life.

“It lives with you, year after year,” said Carl Tuggle, 73, of Cincinnati. “I haven’t seen that place where the explosion occurred since that night. They offered us the opportunity to go back and get our belongings. I told them they could have it. I didn’t want to go back to that place.”

The place was the Contra Costa County town of Port Chicago, the site of the worst war-related disaster in the continental United States.

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On the night of July 17, 1944, an explosion ripped through the Navy munitions depot, blowing up two ammunition ships and killing or wounding more than 700 people.

Days afterward, still reeling from the devastating accident, the men--fearful of their working conditions--refused to resume loading the explosives.

Eventually, 50 were convicted of mutiny and sent to prison, and 208 others were given summary courts-martial and returned to duty after they served shorter sentences.

Earlier efforts to have the men’s convictions expunged have been unsuccessful. Now a new push is underway to persuade President Clinton to correct what some call an injustice.

At Port Chicago, the men responsible for loading munitions on ships were all young and all black. Most had volunteered for service, hoping to see combat.

“I’ve sent letters to the president, the acting secretary of veteran affairs, and the director of the president’s initiative on race,” said Sandra Evers-Manly, president of the Black Hollywood Education and Resource Center. “We’re talking about race in America. I think we have to deal with past issues before we can deal with the present. These men wanted to serve their country, and right now their country is not serving them.”

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This weekend several of the men and their families--including Tuggle--will be in Los Angeles for events sponsored by Evers-Manly’s group. On Sunday they will be honored at a ceremony at the California Science Center’s Kinsey Auditorium at 4 p.m. The following day, Assemblyman Roderick Wright (D-Los Angeles) will introduce a motion in the Legislature to have the records expunged.

“They’ve suffered in silence,” Wright said of the men. “At a minimum the country should acknowledge their service, acknowledge its culpability and the hell it put them through.”

The men’s actions led the Navy to implement safety procedures and begin desegregation, said UC Berkeley professor Robert L. Allen, who has written a book on the incident.

“These men were convicted of mutiny, but there was no mutiny,” Allen said. “There was a protest over unsafe working conditions and racism at the base.”

Tuggle said his Navy duty “was a disappointment from the first day we got off the train. We had been fed so much information, talking about what you could do. There was a labor problem regarding stevedores and we were the next resource. They just made laborers of us.”

Black men eager to take up arms in the World War II Navy were relegated to menial--and dangerous--jobs like loading ammunition.

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Spencer E. Sikes Sr. of Oakland remembers being a frightened 18-year-old. “There wasn’t a day that I went to work that I wasn’t scared half to death. I felt that something would happen. I wasn’t alone. We were all scared half to death.”

Racism was a fact of their military lives.

“I can remember in 1942 when we were loading ships, we were not allowed to use the restroom,” Sikes said. “You would have to walk a half a mile before you could relieve yourself. That was sinful.”

Tuggle said the men did not refuse to work after the explosion. “We said, ‘We’re not going to load ammunition anymore,’ ” he said.

Percy Robinson of Los Angeles said he refused because of the unfair treatment he received. Although he was injured, he said, he was denied the standard 30-day sick leave. But “the white boys that got hurt were granted their sick leave,” he said. “That was my main reason for refusing. . . . “

The 50 who were tried for mutiny were sentenced to 15-year prison terms. They were released after 16 months but received less-than-honorable discharges and were denied veterans benefits. The others returned to work and were sent overseas after serving their time.

In 1994, an effort to have the convictions of the men expunged failed. The secretary of the Navy reviewed the trials, concluding that racism played no role.

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In essence the decision said “we got what we were supposed to get,” Robinson said. “It wasn’t anything due to prejudice. But that was his opinion.

“My opinion is that it was due to prejudice. The only thing we did was disobey an order. If a white man had done the same thing he would have been charged with disobeying an order”--a lesser offense.

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Robinson said officers threatened the men “with a firing squad and everything else.” Tuggle said the Navy “ran into a group of men who were doing things right and who were challenging them. That’s what they couldn’t handle.”

On Monday, some of the men will return to the East Bay site of the accident. For some, it will be their first visit in more than 50 years. Many believe this effort to clear their names will succeed.

“Memories are like the waves of the ocean; they come and go, but never cease,” Sikes said. “Unless something is done to clear this up, it will continue to haunt.”

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