The Port Chicago 50

by Steve Sheinkin
First sentence: “He was gathering dirty laundry when the bombs started falling.”
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Content: There’s some disturbing moments, not only violence, but also racism. I was made uncomfortable by it (which I think was the point). There is also about four censored f-bombs. Sheinkin is masterful at simplifying data  without being simplistic, so I think this is suitable for 5th grade on up. It’s in the Middle Grade History section at the bookstore.

During the summer of 1944, on a little-known port in the San Francisco Bay where Navy ships were loaded with ammunition, an enormous explosion happened. So large that it killed more than 300 men were killed, the pier and the docked ship were obliterated, and men in the barracks were injured, some severely.

It sounds like a tragedy, but nothing too serious. Except for this fact: of the 320 men who were killed, 202 of them were African American men who had signed up for the Navy and had been relegated to the dangerous job of loading the ammunition. The way the Navy worked in 1944 was that the white men got to serve on the ships; the black ones were segregated out and assigned the menial tasks the white sailors didn’t want.

But it gets better. The men who survived the blast were shuttled to a nearby port, and even though they were suffering trauma from the blast (who wouldn’t be), the were ordered to go back to loading the ships. Fifty sailors flat out refused orders. So they were put on trial for mutiny. And convicted. Even though there was never any plot to defy their superiors or take over the base. They just were tired of being treated differently than the white sailors and wanted to know why.

Some good came out of this: because the Secretary of the Navy was a (mostly) reasonable man (and because Eleanor Roosevelt got involved) the Navy (and soon after the rest of the military) was one of the first places that was desegregated in the country.  But, was the price of being convicted mutineers and spending 16 months in jail too high?

Sheinkin doesn’t whitewash anything that happened during those months and years surrounding the Port Chicago 50 trial. He lets the Naval officers stand for themselves (and any reasonable person would see that they were IDIOTS. Or maybe that was just me), and lets the trial transcripts stand for themselves. Thurgood Marshall even got involved, trying to get the government and the military (the officers of which come off as a bunch of racists; I was going to use a stronger word, but changed my mind) to exonerate these men for being human. Sheinkin pointed out that this was the first event on the long path of the Civil Rights movement, which was something I didn’t know, and something we don’t often remember in history books.

It’s extremely well-written and as intriguing as Sheinkin’s other works. He’s a masterful history writer, and knows just how to make things interesting and informative without being dry.

Excellent.

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3 thoughts on “The Port Chicago 50

  1. Thank you for reviewing this book. I'll put it on my TBR list asap. I live just minutes from Port Chicago and grew up knowing this story but not many people in American know it. Now they will. Great review.

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  2. Thanks for bringing this to my attention, because I doubt very much that I would have come across it myself, and it sounds powerful. I think my son would enjoy it as a break from his steady diet of sci-fi.

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