On the night of July 17, 1944, sailor Freddie Meeks was on leave from his post as a munitions loader at the Port Chicago naval base near Concord, Calif., when the sky lighted up more brightly than any fireworks display. Meeks' constant nightmare had come true but, in some ways, the worst was yet to come.
That night, two huge explosions at what was then the West Coast's largest munitions depot destroyed two ships and killed 320 men, including 202 black sailors. It was the deadliest stateside disaster of World War II.
Only black sailors -- most of them, like Meeks, fresh from boot camp -- were assigned the deadly duty of loading ammunition into ships bound for the Pacific theater. They had no special training for the hazardous duty. Their superiors told them there was no special danger, claiming that the ammunition, which ranged from rifle rounds to 2,000-pound "blockbuster" shells, was not live.
After the blasts, which left body parts strewn across a large area, the white sailors were sent home on extended leaves to recover from the trauma.
The black sailors were sent back to the docks.
Meeks was among 258 who refused to resume loading munitions until safety conditions were improved. He was among 50 who ultimately were convicted of mutiny and sentenced to prison terms as long as 15 years.
Their sentences were later reduced, but the men spent the rest of their lives under the pall of injustice.
Only Meeks, who died Thursday at age 83, ever saw his honor restored. He was pardoned by President Clinton on Christmas Eve 1999.
On that joyous day, the heavy burden of shame Meeks had been carrying for more than 50 years was lifted.
"I hope that all of America knows about it," he said of the tragedy at Port Chicago. "It's something that's been in the closet for so long."
Meeks, who had been in poor health for the last decade, died at the West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs Healthcare Center from complications of diabetes, heart failure and gangrene.
He is survived by his wife of 62 years, Eleanor; a daughter, Cheryl Jackson, of Los Angeles; two sons, Daryl of Los Angeles and Brian of Denver; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
Funeral services will be held at 10 a.m. Thursday at Bethesda Temple Apostolic Church in Los Angeles.
For more than four decades after the war, the only family member who knew of Meeks' role in the Port Chicago incident was his wife. He was terse when his children asked about his war experiences, and he lied about his record on job applications.
Port Chicago, on the south side of Suisun Bay, about 30 miles northeast of San Francisco, was authorized as the site for a munitions depot after the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. The first munitions ship to be loaded there sailed a year and a day later.
Meeks, a native of Natchez, Miss., arrived at Port Chicago in December 1943. He joined an all-black crew that worked around the clock to fill Navy carriers with explosives. Speed was rewarded; crews that took too long on the job found their liberty cut.
Some sailors lifted the ammunition with winches, some rolled it and others stacked it. Meeks found himself at the receiving end of a ramp that delivered grease-coated bombs into the hot belly of a ship. All night long he heard the sounds of bombs knocking against bombs. Sometimes he couldn't catch them because they slid down the ramp so fast.
"And that would almost give you a heart attack," Meeks recalled in a 1999 interview with National Public Radio. "And so we used to ask sometimes ... 'Say, is it any danger, this ammunition?' " The officers would say, " 'Oh, no, don't worry about it, it's safe, it's not live.... They don't have no detonators in them.' "
At 10 o'clock on the night of the explosion, the Quinalt Victory was being prepared for its maiden voyage. An older ship, the E.A. Bryan, was already loaded with 4,600 tons of ammunition and explosives, including 40-millimeter shells, fragmentation cluster bombs, depth bombs and 650-pound incendiary bombs.
"These latter bombs," historian Robert L. Allen wrote in his 1989 book, "The Port Chicago Mutiny," "had their activating mechanisms, or fuses, installed. Considered especially dangerous -- 'hot cargo' -- they were being loaded gingerly, one bomb at a time."
An officer noticed "that the men were having some difficulty getting the bombs out of the boxcar because they were wedged in so tightly," Allen wrote.
The cause of the calamity that struck at 10:18 p.m. would never be determined. But there were two explosions, about five seconds apart, that tore apart the Quinalt Victory and the Bryan. The second blast was the more powerful. Measuring the equivalent of a magnitude 3.4 quake, it shattered windows 35 miles away.
When Port Chicago blew apart, Meeks was in the midst of a three-day liberty in Oakland, his reward for having worked an exceptionally long shift. Despite orders, he did not return to base immediately. That landed him in the brig for a few days.
When he was released, he was ordered to stand guard over the dead. "That was my duty," he told NPR. "And you couldn't tell one from the others."
The black sailors expected the same 30-day leaves that white sailors were given to recover from the trauma.
Instead, three weeks after the explosions, they were placed in a new work detail at nearby Mare Island, where another ship was awaiting ammunition. Even black sailors still nursing their wounds were told to fall in line.
To the right were the parade grounds, to the left were the docks. When the white lieutenant called out "column left," the black sailors stopped dead in their tracks.
The 258 men who initially refused to head for the docks were imprisoned on a barge for three days. When they were told they would be charged with mutiny -- a crime punishable by death -- most returned to work. Meeks and 49 others chose not to go back, convinced that nothing had changed to prevent another tragic accident.
"We said, 'If we're going to be shot, we'll be shot.' We were not going back to those conditions," Meeks said. "I wouldn't call that mutiny. It was just a refusal to load ammunition."
He and the others were sent to Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay to await the courts-martial that began on Sept. 14, 1944. Thurgood Marshall, then a young lawyer for the NAACP, defended them.
"This is not 50 men on trial for mutiny," said Marshall, who later became the first African American on the U.S. Supreme Court. "This is the Navy on trial for its whole vicious policy toward Negroes. Negroes are not afraid of anything, any more than anyone else. Negroes in the Navy don't mind loading ammunition. They just want to know why they are the only ones doing the loading! They want to know why they are segregated, why they don't get promoted."
The courts-martial ended on Oct. 24, when the trial board, after only eight minutes of deliberation, declared the Port Chicago 50 guilty of mutiny. Sentences ranged from eight to 15 years in prison.
Meeks and the others served 16 months at the Terminal Island Disciplinary Barracks in San Pedro, then were sent to sea for a year of rehabilitation.
They were discharged in 1946 "under honorable conditions" -- one step short of dishonorable discharge and deprived of veterans' benefits.
In 1948, President Truman ordered the desegregation of the military, an action that historians attribute to the allegations of racism stemming from the Port Chicago case. But that offered little comfort to those who bore the stain of the court-martial on their records.
Back in civilian life, Meeks gave up his dream of becoming a police officer. Instead, he pursued the best jobs then open to black men. For the first several years, he worked as a chauffeur and butler for celebrities such as Ann Sothern, Danny Thomas and Sidney Sheldon. Then he worked as a mechanic for Los Angeles County, until a back injury forced his retirement in 1969.
After some recuperation, he returned to work in the 1970s as a security officer at CBS studios in Los Angeles, where he was responsible for persuading then-CBS Chairman William Paley to desegregate the network's elite "red coat" guards.
After CBS, he worked in security for the Los Angeles City Housing Authority.
He retired in 1989, the year Allen's book was published. Although the book does not mention Meeks by name, the former sailor decided that it was time to tell his children what had happened to him 45 years earlier.
"We were shocked at first," said his daughter Cheryl. "Then we were more concerned with why he didn't tell us. He said he didn't want kids teasing us. He was concerned about how it was going to affect our careers."
Several years later, when a group of congressmen led by California Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez) raised the possibility of seeking a presidential pardon, at least one of the handful of survivors of the Port Chicago 50 resisted, arguing that he had never done anything wrong, and therefore could not be pardoned. Meeks was the only one who wanted to pursue it.
"He did not see it as personal exoneration, but as a way to get the story told," John Lawrence, an aide to Miller, said Friday. "He was very modest about it ... and very committed to playing the role that history had dealt him."
Meeks said the prospect of a pardon "kept me going" through years of illness. When it was finally announced, it was front-page news around the country.
"Oh, yeah, it's going to be history," he told the New York Times a short while later, "and I'll be a part of it for kids to read about. I want people to know about it now because it happened and it's over with and my name's cleared up."