On the evening of July 17, 1944, a massive explosion rocked the naval munitions depot of Port Chicago in the San Francisco Bay Area. The blast set off the seismometers at the University of California’s Berkeley campus some 40 miles away, and hurled huge chunks of metal into the air, one of them striking an aircraft cruising at 9,000 feet. More than 300 personnel were killed and hundreds more were injured, most of them African American enlisted sailors.
This episode, far from the combat theaters of Asia or Europe, nonetheless proved to be a pivotal point in World War II history, because it set off a chain of events that shaped armed forces race relations for the rest of the century.
In “The Color of War: How One Battle Broke Japan and Another Changed America” (c2012, Crown Publishers, $30, ISBN 978-0-307-46121-6) historian James Campbell conjoins this story with the Battle of Saipan in June and July of 1944. Largely forgotten now, the capture of this island in the Marianas archipelago afforded the Allies a staging area from which to launch B-29 bomber strikes for the final push into the Japanese Empire. Among the bloodiest conflicts, with more than 3,000 American and 30,000 Japanese killed, it marked the first time that Negro (as they were then called in polite society) troops engaged an enemy force since World War I.
These men were called only as a last resort. Newly integrated in 1942, the U.S. Marines relegated its Black servicemen to the menial tasks of cargo handlers and ammo bearers. These menial duties were not without risk, however. A basic tenet of military logistics holds that cutting off the supply chain impedes a fighting unit’s effectiveness, and the Japanese were hell-bent on preventing the Marines from getting a foothold.
During the course of off-loading the essential supplies on the beach in Saipan, Pvt. Kenneth Tibbs was cut down by artillery fire, the first Black Marine to die in combat. As casualties mounted, commanders were forced to issue rifles to men of the 18th Depot Company, a unit that had not been trained as infantrymen, to shore up the holes in the front lines that had been depleted by the carnage across the beachhead.
By the time the island had been secured, less then a thousand Japanese troops survived out of a defense force of 32,000, a testament to a samurai ethos that prompted them to choose between going down fighting or committing suicide rather than enduring the shame of surrender. Immediately afterwards, Imperial Army General and Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tojo resigned, along with his entire cabinet.
The campaign of island-hopping the Pacific into Imperial Japan required massive amounts of ammunition and other ordinance from the industrial war chest in the continental United States. To fulfill these demands, a virtually all-White officer corps initiated fierce competition between the individual units of the all Black munitions handlers. The clear-cut racial divide between command staff and labor-bearing enlisted crews was aggravated by the fact that both groups had little or no training in the safe management of hazardous explosives.
On top of this, civilian experts from the stevedore’s union and the Coast Guard warned Navy brass about these dangerous work conditions, well in advance of this almost inevitable blast. The subsequent refusal after the blast by 50 of the surviving sailors to continue these hazardous loading practices led to a court-martial that became known as the Port Chicago Mutiny.
Despite the diligent efforts by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense and it’s chief counsel, Thurgood Marshall, all 50 defendants were found guilty, given dishonorable discharges, and sentenced to 15 years in prison. However, shortly after the war, they were granted clemency and released. (One was given a pardon by President William J. Clinton in 1999.)
Port Chicago and the trial in its aftermath raised the issue of ethics in a martial culture where following directives is part and parcel of the status quo. It highlighted specific situations in which military personnel are obligated to defy unlawful orders in unjust circumstances, as with the Vietnam War’s My Lai episode, or the Abu Ghraib prison abuses in Iraqi.
Another offshoot of the Port Chicago legacy is the theory, postulated by journalists and researchers that the explosion was the result of a deliberate detonation of a nuclear device to evaluate the effects of such a blast on human beings. Campbell covers this premise as well, noting that the components that vaporized Hiroshima had been transported by rail to Port Chicago before the final voyage to the South Pacific. Also cited are correspondence and documents from General Leslie R. Groves, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and other principle figures in the development of the atomic bomb.
James Campbell is a seasoned military historian whose previous tome, “The Ghost Mountain Boys,” covered the exploits of the 32nd Infantry Division during the New Guinea campaign from 1942 on ward.
During the course of his research, he uncovered the story of the 96th Engineer Battalion, an African American outfit that constructed airstrips, roads, and logistical structures essential to Douglas Mac Arthur’s push north from the South Pacific. This in turn, was the inspiration for The Color of War.
“The Color of War” stands as an example of “revisionist” history, demonstrating that the dark underbelly of human corruption manifests itself even in the pursuit of lofty goals.