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Sunday, July 16, 2006

And then there were few ...

If you've ever read Dr. Robert L. Allen's disturbing account of the July 17, 1944 Mutiny at Port Chicago, then you'll have some appreciation for the events of yesterday. It is a must read for anyone wanting to pinpoint the place where the great Civil Rights struggles of the Sixties began.

At the invitation of our park superintendent, Martha Lee, I joined her for the drive to Walnut Creek to pick up our honored guest for the day, Dr. Robert Stanton, former Director of the National Park Service (appointed by President Bill Clinton). He and others had flown out from Washington, D.C., to honor this day with us. We would spend a long day observing and memorializing the most horrific loss of life suffered on home soil during World War II. The celebration was scheduled to end with a performance of the African American composer and musician, Marcus Shelby, of a jazz suite written in honor of this tragic event at Port Chicago. It was the annual day of remembrance of the 320 men lost in the great explosion; 220 of whom were young black navy men.

I'd spent much of the day before re-reading Mutiny in preparation for the event -- and was struck by a kind of dissonance -- a place where my recollections of the Port Chicago tragedy and the account as written by Allen were just slightly out of sync. The tiny difference was to surface fullblown as I sat in the memorial service yesterday quietly listening to the service.

It was this:

When we entered the room where the service was to be held, the entire first two rows -- across the width of the hall -- had neatly-printed signs on each chair stating, "reserved for survivors and families." I walked to the far side of the room and found a seat some rows back and settled in for the somber ceremonies.

It wouldn't become evident until late in the service; after speeches by a local historian, then Dr. Stanton, the base chaplin et al -- then Martha reappeared at the lectern to invite anyone present who had to story to share ...

I kept looking at those two front rows and finally turned to Cynthia Morris, another of the visitors from Washington, -- seated to my right and whispered, "...why are there so few African Americans seated with the survivors and their families?" She acknowledged my question with a glance toward the front of the room and with a quizzical look answered, "I don't know. Wondered about that myself."

I listened for a while longer and ... suddenly ... I felt my throat tighten as the truth began to shorten my breathing and crowd out all else. It was that thing that had not quite fit in the account in the book. Dr. Allen had interviewed survivors -- the men who had lived through the tragedy and then been tried for mutiny by the military, some of whom were jailed, convicted, and later served time for refusing to return to the docks to load explosives as before. That was the operative word here, "men."


On that fateful Saturday afternoon on July 17, 1944, my young husband, Mel, and I held one of the many house parties that took place on weekends throughout the Bay Area for colored servicemen. At that time there were literally no recreational activities provided for them. The USO was reserved for white servicemen and women. The armed forces were not yet racially integrated. From time to time, we opened our little Sacramento Street (Berkeley) apartment to these youngsters (like ourselves) who were far away from home. It was just such a day. There were a number of Port Chicago kids (Mel and I were in our early twenties) like ourselves in the mix. I only recall the name of one, Richert, and I'm not sure just why that is, except that he seemed far too young to be serving and admitted to being only 16.

Because of the dim-out that we lived under and the defense-imposed curfews, those young men were all on their way back to Port Chicago and Camp Stoneman by 8 o'clock. At a bit after ten that night, the blast that registered on the Richter scale was heard and felt throughout the Bay Area. It was awful! The first reaction was that it was an earthquake. The next was that the Japanese had finally made a successful hit somewhere in the vicinity. That it was the munitions ships being loaded around the clock at Port Chicago never entered our minds; or that those youngsters who only a few hours before had been dancing and laughing and teasing and flirting -- would have been blown to bits!

But they were.

After a number of speakers raised their hands to take the microphone to share memories, I felt my arm drifting upward as if being pulled by an invisible string. I knew what was wrong with those two front rows. Dr. Allen had interviewed mature men who were survivors, and many years after the fact. I had experienced not men, but boys in my little apartment at the time of the explosion. Allen described the eldest of the group of "mutineers" as "... Joe Smalls who had evolved as the leader of the group because he was the oldest of the bunch, at 22." DrAllen gave the ages of those young sailors as "...16 to 20."

The disconnect I was experiencing yesterday in those moments before I stood to speak was that those 202 youngsters who were being mourned had not lived long enough to have left survivors. Most were too young to have married or produced children. I had met them not as men but as boys -- and that's how they've remained in my mind for all these years.

Those first two rows were taken up by survivors of the Port Chicago Explosion from the no-longer-existing town of Port Chicago. These were white former residents who were speaking of the impact on their lives of the awfulness that still resonates after 62 years. And, of course, it is quite real. With the exception of two black survivors and the daughter and son of another, those who were here today were recalling how the blast had effected their lives.

"...windows blown in and walls imploding and splinters of glass flying through the air -- everywhere..."!

In that moment -- an insight: This, then is how history gets written. There need be no dark conspiracy to censor the black stories. Suddenly I realized that within a few more years only those who'd lived nearby in the tiny town of Port Chicago and/or their descendants will be sitting in those two front rows as the carriers of the lore. It will be the majority story that will overwhelm the minority story and only that will survive. Those two front rows will hold no more black survivors and the tragic story of their loss will have faded into the past as if it never happened.

If we don't advocate for the final exoneration of those men who were convicted of mutiny; if we don't advocate for those 202 who were lost before they lived long enough to create survivors of their own -- they will be forgotten. Time will fold in around these memories, and the truth of their effects upon all that followed will have been lost.

What we will remember of Port Chicago on July 17, 1944 will be the implosion and collapsing of the wall in the movie house on main street, and little else. It is this that will become the stuff of legend for future generations.

That will extend the tragedy and lose an important part of the story of this nation, the story of the beginning of the social revolution that changed a nation and altered the course of history -- and -- that started on the piers just off the tiny town of Port Chicago -- not in the south, but in California -- on the edge of the Pacific, at the edge of the continent. A place that -- in that horrific moment in time became the cutting edge of social change.

The mission of the National Park Service may be our only defense against such a loss. This is the repository for the nation's collective memory. That agency is charged with the preservation of the places and stories that tell of who we are and of what matters most to us all. I'm awed by being able to be a part of the process.

Photo: Self-evident, I guess, except for the second photo that shows Dr. Stanton and another dignitary in the process of laying the wreath upon the waters of the no-longer existing Port Chicago munitions pier.



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