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.

Friday, April 02, 2010

I thought it an ordinary request to participate in their Womens' History Month[Black History Month observance ...

It turned out to be far more.

After an eventful Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) trip across the bay (there had been a fire at the Montgomery Street station earlier that morning) that took what is normally a 20 minute ride -- over an hour and ten minutes of stop and start lurching to reach the Embarcadero Street terminal.  Here by arrangement a driver was to meet me for the short drive to the beautiful and historic Old Custom House on Battery Street in San Francisco where I was to give my presentation.

I was the guest (and honoree, as it turned out) of the US Customs & Immigration Field Office of the US Department of Homeland Security. 

Upon arrival (20 minutes late!) I was taken to a gathering place where the program was already in progress with an African drumming combo performing.  They were to bracket my talk at the beginning and end -- and by their presence it was obvious that this was no ordinary "Betty Talk on Rosie the Riveter Home Front Era of WWII." 

I was glad that I'd worn my dress uniform and gold earrings for this event, and that I'd arranged in advance to share the DVD, "Of Lost Conversations," as a part of my talk, something that I don't ordinarily include except during the orientations before a guided tour.

After a few introductory words the lights were dimmed and the familiar music with the image of the launching of the SS Robert S. Abbott (publisher of the Chicago Defender) came up.  I watched in the dark with the audience, looking at faces for signs of the ever-present surprise and power at the unfamiliar content.  For some reason when the photo appeared of those gathered at the burial of the Port Chicago victims I felt an involuntary sharp intake of breath.  It was a case of hiding in plain sight.  I'd never noticed it before but its impact was almost painful.  Though this was a solemn military burial rite -- the likes of which we've seen over the centuries -- something was missing.  There is a glaring omission in this photo, and I'd failed to pick it up before now.

The caskets are not flag draped. 

Four minutes and 21 seconds later the lights were turned up and -- as if the insight had not occurred -- I went on with my talk to an appreciative audience.  We had a round of questions and answers and shared two kinds of cake, and then it happened.  There was the presentation of a beautiful plaque with my name etched below the great Seal of the Department of Homeland Security in honor of the day.  It wasn't until then that I noticed that much planning had gone into the event.  The programs left at each seat had a reprint of the S.F. Chronicle's recent article on Port Chicago featuring my photo in full color.  Why hadn't I been aware of the importance of this assignment?  (I squirreled away several programs into my bag to impress my grandkids.)

Until the ride home with the commute traffic I wouldn't allow myself to think about that flash of whatever it was to rise to consciousness -- at least until there was time to figure out what it all meant.  For the time being there was the excruciatingly loud and dissonant noises of the train as it traveled through the tunnel under the Bay. There would be time when I'd gotten back to my cubicle at our administrative offices in Richmond to let it gnaw at my brain until some understanding was possible.

Was this significant?  The burial rites certainly preceded the mutiny trials, right?  Could it be that the absence of the ages-old traditional flag draping of the caskets of the fallen evidence of the Navy's refusal to accept these men as real Americans at the time?  Given the political climate in which those 302 men (220 of whom were African American) were lost in the tragic explosion --there was total segregation of the armed forces -- was this needed evidence that those men could never have been deemed worthy of a fair trial based on their being seen as lesser than ...?

Might this photograph form the basis of an appeal for exoneration for all those unfairly charged with mutiny for refusing to return to loading that ammunition until they could do so with relative safety?

After studying this photo for several days, I'm still wondering whether I'm reading more into this than is warranted ... or if that flash of insight after all these years is meaningful?

I'll ask those who are researching the events at Port Chicago on July 17, 1944 for guidance.  I wonder if anyone else had noticed the anomaly?