On the evening of July 17, 1944, residents in the San Francisco east bay area were jolted awake by a massive explosion that cracked windows and lit up the night sky.
At Port Chicago Naval Magazine, 320 men were instantly killed when two ships being loaded with ammunition for the Pacific theater troops blew up. It was WWII's worst home front disaster.
The majority of the deaths were African American sailors working for the racially segregated military.
Soon after the disaster, surviving ordnance battalion personnel were transferred from Port Chicago to Mare Island Naval Weapons Station.
There, the Sailors were again assigned to ordnance-loading duties, under similar conditions they had encountered at Port Chicago. Still severely shaken by their experiences, the men approached their tasks with a high degree of uneasiness. On 9 August, 328 ordnance battalion Sailors refused to carry out their duties unless safety conditions were improved.
Following appeals by their officers, 70 men agreed to stand down and carry on with their work. On 10 August, Rear Admiral Carleton H. Wright, commander of the Twelfth Naval District, addressed the remaining 258 Sailors, warned them that their actions would be construed as mutiny, and made them aware of the severe consequences of such an action. Ultimately, 50 men—later known as the “Port Chicago 50”—stood their ground.
The 208 men who returned to duty received summary courts-martial for refusal to obey orders and were sentenced to forfeiture of three months' pay. The remaining 50 Sailors were charged with disobedience of a lawful order and mutiny.
Future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, at the time the NAACP chief counsel, had attended many of the court’s sessions and appealed the Sailors’ conviction with the Navy judge advocate general.
Into the 1990s, the 50 Sailors and their descendants repeatedly appealed to Congress and the Navy to have their names and records cleared.
Recognition finally occurred: On 17 July 1994, the Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial was dedicated to those lost in the disaster.
Freddie Meeks, at the time thought to be the last-surviving known member of the “Port Chicago 50,” received a Presidential pardon in December 1999. However, complete exoneration of all 50 Sailors has not occurred to date.