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This Day in History – July 17, 1944

The Port Chicago Mutiny occurs, killing 320 sailors

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On this day in 1944, The Port Chicago Mutiny occurred. A major explosion at Port Chicago, California destroyed the SS E.A. Bryan, killing all men on board. 320 sailors, 202 of who were African Americans, were instantly killed in the explosion. 390 more were injured by falling debris as far as two miles from ground zero. Many black men in the US Navy refused to continue loading ammunition under the unsafe conditions that led to the horrific explosion.

258 of the enlisted black men refused to return to loading the ammunition when instructed to a month later. They demanded that the Navy increase safety procedures, which the Navy refused to do. Officials declared a mutiny and charged 50 of them with the crime, who would later become known as the Port Chicago 50. Most of these men were sentenced to 8-15 years hard labor, before they were all released in 1946. 208 of the sailors were charged with lesser crimes for their involvement and lost three months of pay as punishment for refusing to follow orders.

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As the end of the war neared, the Port Chicago explosion and mutiny finally led to the change in loading procedures for ammunition. Most African American sailors reported in a survey by the NAACP that they saw themselves as expendable to the Navy. It was common for them to be placed in segregated units led by bigoted officials. Following this incident, the Navy began to work towards desegregating in 1945. This came a full 3 years before Harry Truman ordered the integration of the Armed Forces through Executive Order 9981. The Navy’s deciding factor for desegregation was the Port Chicago Explosion and Mutiny. In 1994, the men who lost their lives in the disaster were honored with the Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial.

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