Saturday, April 03, 2010

Three responses to my last entry about the absence of flags on the caskets of those lost in the explosion at Port Chicago ...

"You could be right, Betty.  Maybe there were not enough flags during the war for all of those lost but I imagine the flags were given to the European Americans first." 

"Perhaps the burial was over or the draping had not been done yet.  Hate to think the worst."

"... another reason could be that the flags were removed before lowering into the ground."  (all of them at once?)

Would it help to know that this burial was taking place in the Negro Section of the National Cemetery at San Bruno?  I hadn't known that there was such a thing in California until two years ago when several of the living survivors were invited to participate in the Day of Remembrance.  I was to meet them at the Rosie Memorial for a guided tour of that site.  They were late and explained upon arrival that they'd been caught in traffic on the S.F. Bay bridge.  Prior to joining me they'd been taken to San Bruno to visit the graves of those African Americans who perished in the explosion.  It was then that I learned for the first time that racial segregation had followed those black navy men into the grave -- and not in the South -- but here in California.  It is a National cemetery and therefore subject to the times and political environment in which the greatest home front tragedy occurred.  It would be 3 years before President Truman would order the desegregation of the Armed Forces; full compliance would be achieved by 1954. 

I suppose it was from the back of my mind where things too disturbing to process get stored, that suddenly the information surfaced with that "sharp involuntary intake of breath" on Tuesday.  As much as I'd prefer to think we're better than that -- history has proven that it wasn't always so.

 I continue to be persuaded by my original premise that the withholding of the flags was deliberate and that, symbolically, it is in keeping with the fact that the graveside where this burial service was held was in the Negro Section of the National Cemetery.

From the cemetery's website:
One of America's most valiant naval officers -- Admiral Chester W. Nimitz -- is buried at Golden Gate National Cemetery.  A number of distinguished officers who served are also buried there.   The 44 German and Italian Prisoners of War are interred here were captured in North Africa after the collapse of the German Afrika Corp under the command of Lt. General Erwin Rommel in 1943.  The P.O.W's were housed at Camp Beale and Camp Cook in California and Camp Rupert in Idaho, where they were originally buried at the respective post cemeteries.  When the posts closed, the P.O.W.'s were re-interred at Golden Gate.  Additionally, 24 African Americans who perished while loading Liberty Ships in the Port Chicago incident on July 17, 1944, and whose remains were unidentifiable, are buried as unknowns in Section P.
It would be wonderful if more of you would enter the conversation.  I'm open to discovering another possible answer than the one I'm left with.

Why is this important?  I am truly convinced that unless we re-visit those unfinished and untold stories and excise the toxins from that history, and measure that against where we are today (with a long way to go still), we'll have no idea how far we've come in comparison to where we've been -- or how powerful is our system of governance to have accommodated such monumental changes without more civil unrest.  Those of us who've lived long enough to have experienced those changes first hand know how much cause there is for hope for eventual freedom from the bigotry, brutality, and for continued heroism in the face of unspeakable shame.  Our Democracy continues to be a dynamic uncompleted story of courage and valor.   We know there is cause for hope because we've witnessed a past strewn with the ashes of hatred and degradation, and lived to see the possibility of fulfillment of the promise of America, and to participate in the nation's atonement and redemption.

We are still the best hope for the entire world, but it will take all of us to remain so.

Photo:  Day of Remembrance, July 2009, visiting survivors of the Mutiny Trials.

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