Lost in the crowd ... a strange turn in a still-evolving historical record ...
Traveled to Monterey on an assignment as a presenter at the National Conference of Public Historians, with mixed feelings.
Firstly, I'm surely not an historian, but simply a survivor of the era of 1941-1945 memorialized by the Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park -- a primary source sharing personal history. That's an odd role to fill since audiences have no idea what to expect of me -- and I have no idea about the "Rules of Engagement," and that makes a considerable difference.
There were probably 1000 conferees, all in meeting rooms scattered throughout the Monterey Convention Center, and all "of a world" that is alien to me, but reminiscent of the years of my marriage to Bill Soskin. I don't think that I ever made my peace with the world of the Academy, so there was some dissonance present in the mix.
The day before leaving for Monterey I'd received an answer to a mystery that I've been living with for some years, and it colored my experience considerably.
If you'll check that little search bar at the top left side of the screen above the banner, enter the words Port Chicago, and you'll bring up (among other posts) this photo of a burial ceremony which shows 8 caskets with mourners standing around looking appropriately grim. I'd never understood why those caskets weren't flag-draped as all such rites would demand in Armed Forces burials. I've made a real poser of the question, and was frustrated over several years when no answers were ever forthcoming. I'd (wrongly) assumed that this may have been ultimate proof that those "mutineers" could not have ever had a fair trial since the Navy did not accord them the honor even in death. I'd suspected that they were buried as dockworkers, and not as Navy men at all. The social climate of the times in which we were living supported such speculations.
Last week there came in the mails from my friend, Careth Bomar Reid, and the owner of the E.F. Joseph photo collection, a packet containing several photos -- among them a copy of the (long assumed) Port Chicago burial rites, but the packet was dated January 21, 1944, 7 months before the tragic explosion at Port Chicago and the 320 lost lives. The Port Chicago explosion occurred at 10:47 pm on the evening of July 17, of that same year. There were no flags on these caskets because the graveside ceremony was not Armed Forces, but civilian! Those caskets held the remains of 8 African Americans who'd met death in some awful industrial accident in Kaiser Shipyard #3, or, perhaps in some kind of racial unrest ...
The mystery has deepened.
How do we know those remains were from blacks? Because the identifying marks are that the floral wreathes have inscribed across them, "Kaiser Permanente Shipyard 3," and, "Boilermakers A-36" -- the name of the African American segregated Jim Crow Labor Union that had been my employer in those days. The Union officials pictured were those for whom I'd worked in 1942-43.
Also, the Port Chicago remains were gathered into 22 caskets and buried as Unknowns in the Colored Section of the federal cemetery at San Bruno, according to recorded history of the times. I'd always assumed that the 8 showing were only a portion of that larger number which were off-scene.
This is a second tragedy, long forgotten among the untold stories of WWII.
I'm attempting to re-connect with an AFL-CIO Union archivist and historian with whom I've exchanged information in the past, in the hope of learning more.
More to come ...