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Robert Allen discusses his book "The Port Chicago Mutiny"

BROADCAST: May. 12, 1989 | DURATION: 00:52:44


On July 17, 1944, there was a huge explosion at Port Chicago in California. Of the 320 men on duty at the pier that died, 202 of them were Black. Robert Allen's book, "The Port Chicago Mutiny: The Story of the Largest Mass Mutiny Trial in U.S. Naval History," covers the story of poor working conditions, the explosion, work stoppage, the trial and the outcome. There is an excerpt of Joe Small, recalling what happened, when he was a sailor present there.


Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.


Studs Terkel July 17th, 1944. It happened. An explosion. The worst home front disaster of World War II. Yet hardly reported except in some papers of the Black press, the Chicago Defender for one. It was called the Port Chicago disaster and out of it came a trial called the Port Chicago mutiny and thanks to Robert Allen, the sociologist who taught sociology at San Jose State and Mills College, and for a number of years editor of "The Black Scholar", journal of essays and reflections on Black life. Thanks to Robert Allen, the man named Joseph Small whom I was able to find thanks to you, Mr. Allen, who is considered the ringleader. He was the leader of sailors, Black sailors who said "stop, we cannot do this loading". Let's start at the beginning. Port Chicago and the time. Port Chicago is where, and what was it?

Robert Allen Well, Port Chicago is, was, and still is a naval ammunition facility not anywhere near Chicago but actually out in California just north of San Francisco, about 35 miles or so. It was the main naval ammunition facility during World War II for shipping supplies out to the U.S. forces in the Pacific. But like all naval facilities at that time, it was a Jim Crow base. All of the men actually loading the ammunition onto the ships were Black draftees and enlistees. All the officers were white. What happened there was that on, as you mentioned, on July 17, 1944 there was this terrible explosion. Actually, in the weeks and months before that, there had been complaints from the men, the Black draftees, about the working conditions there, the

Studs Terkel They were loading.

Robert Allen They were loading. None of them had been trained for this work. In fact none of the officers had been trained either. So there had been complaints from the men about the unsafe working conditions as well as, of course, the fact that it was a Jim Crow base. The Longshoreman's Union had at one point offered to come in and train the men in proper loading procedures.

Studs Terkel This calls, this

Robert Allen The Navy refused--

Studs Terkel Pardon me. Professor Allen, this calls for a special skill, does it not? This is known, when you say ammunition, meaning what?

Robert Allen Meaning everything from small arms ammunition to projectiles of all types up to blockbusters weighing 5000 pounds. Two and a half ton.

Studs Terkel Now, this calls for a special skill,

Robert Allen Right, yes.

Studs Terkel That's why the longshoremen had men trained specifically for this work.

Robert Allen Yes, for example, they had to operate the winches on the booms for lifting loads from the pier onto and into the holes of the ship. The men had not been trained in operating this machinery. The Longshoreman's Union would not let a man do that kind of work without months, if not years of experience in handling loads that were not dangerous. And here these men were basically being thrown into this work without training and handling the most powerful explosions known, explosives known at that time. So it was just an incredible situation. Not only were they forced to do this without proper training, but the work divisions. The men were organized into a dozen or so work divisions there at the base. The work divisions were forced to compete against each other, to race against each other actually, in trying to see which division could load the most tonnage during any given period of work--

Studs Terkel The officers, these white officers, would make bets, you know, they--

Robert Allen Right.

Studs Terkel They would compete. That is, their crew of Black sailors, the loaders, would have contests who can do it faster.

Robert Allen The officers, right. The officers would bet on which--whether one division or another would put on a greater tonnage that day. So you can imagine, I mean this is just an incredible situation to be taking place there. There have been complaints from the men about the conditions. And then in July there was a terrible explosion. One ship, the E.A. Bryan, which was a Liberty ship--

Studs Terkel There There

Robert Allen There were 2 ships tied up at the pier at that time. One of them was called the E.A. Bryan and it was almost fully loaded with something like 5000 tons of explosives of all kinds. Another ship called the Quinault Victory had just pulled into the pier that afternoon. It was scheduled to begin loading. Something went wrong on the pier. To this day they do not know what went wrong. Something went wrong and there was this terrible blast where these 5000 tons of ammunition went off like one huge bomb. In fact it was the most powerful manmade explosion up until that time. The only more powerful explosion were the bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki the following year. The base was complete--the ships were just obliterated. The E.A. Bryan, they never even found any large pieces of it. The Quinault Victory, the new ship that had just been tied up, was broken into several pieces and scattered over a half mile radius. Three hundred and twenty men simply disappeared. Everybody who was on the pier or within a mile of the pier was killed.

Studs Terkel Of the 320 men, 202 were these Black loaders.

Robert Allen Right.

Studs Terkel Sailors.

Robert Allen Right. The others were members of the crews of the 2 ships who were white and some of them--there were some white civilian personnel and the Marine guards working

Studs Terkel The town itself, the town was called Port

Robert Allen The little town--

Studs Terkel What happened to the town?

Robert Allen The little town of Port Chicago had a population about 1200, a mile and a half away, was heavily damaged. In fact 90 percent of the buildings, houses, and businesses in the town were heavily damaged by the blast. The barracks where the men lived were some--a mile away, and they were shattered by the blast. One of the things I collect is some photographs that show the tremendous destruction that had taken place including boxcars which were put in protective revetments. These are huge barricades where the boxcars were kept before being loaded onto the ships. And these were to prevent, protect them from explosions. But the shock wave was so powerful that it crushed these railroad boxcars even in the protective revetments. That's how powerful this blast was. Some 390 men were kill--were wounded, injured in the explosion. And, as I said, the town itself was very heavily damaged. It was the worst home front disaster during all of World War II and most people have never heard of it.

Studs Terkel Never heard of it. And if I remember right, what you say in this book, the book is called "The Port Chicago Mutiny" and Warner Brothers are the publishers, Warner Books I should say, pardon me. Warner Books are the publishers, but coming back to the explosion before that. The men themselves became aware of these dangers, were they not? There was talk about this, was there not?

Robert Allen Oh yes. Right. Right. In fact, in my research I came across a letter that had been written by a group of men the year before, 1943, a group of the Black sailors. A letter saying that- talking about the discrimination and the conditions at Port Chicago and asking for help. I don't know exactly who they expected to help them. And in any case apparently no one did. But clearly the men themselves were concerned about the conditions there and wanted to try to get some changes made, but nothing was done before this terrible explosion.

Studs Terkel In fact, early in the book you have a conversation as recalled by a man named Joe Small. We'll hear a lot about Joe Small, who's one of the heroes of this book. If there is a central figure, it is he. A man, thanks to you, I got to see for the book on the Good War called "The Good War". And he's recorded conversation with a young lieutenant named Delucchi, a white lieutenant. He says "Aren't we pushing too hard?" I said. He looked- kind of looked at his watch and asked, "You think you can lift 30 by 15?" Thirty, 30 whatever it is, tons.

Robert Allen Tons.

Studs Terkel "Sure," said Joe Small, recalling it. "If the place doesn't blow up, some day it will. "If it does," said the lieutenant to Joe Small, "neither you nor I will be around to know about it." And broke out in one of his belly laughs. So there was this casual talk going.

Robert Allen Right. Right. Yeah. There was an incident where a man recounted to me going to his commanding officer and again asking, "Can't these bombs explode? Aren't we really in a dangerous situation here?" And the officer said, "Well, look, as long as it doesn't have the detonator in the head of it, there's no danger." Well, clearly there was danger because we had- the explosion took place.

Studs Terkel Now when the explosion took place, and it's quite a description as told by the various survivors, witnesses, many of whom were these Black loaders who are not onboard these ships, who are in their barracks.

Robert Allen Right. A mile away from the site of the explosion.

Studs Terkel How much, how much part of the day was this going on? It was a pretty good pace set. Was it at night too?

Robert Allen They worked around the clock.

Studs Terkel Around the clock!

Robert Allen In 3 shifts, 24 hours a day.

Studs Terkel Oh, it was around the clock?

Robert Allen Right.

Studs Terkel So these guys were off,

Robert Allen Yeah the explosion took place at about 10:20p.m. at night. So there was a group of men who were off duty in the barracks. And what happened was when the- many of the injuries were- many men were injured by flying glass. In fact, several men were blinded--

Studs Terkel The men in the barracks.

Robert Allen In the barracks.

Studs Terkel How far away were they?

Robert Allen They were about a mile away

Studs Terkel A mile away. So they were blown out of their beds?

Robert Allen They were blown out of their beds. Right. What happened was that when the blast took place, there was first a flash and your- I guess your instinctual response is to turn towards the flash, which is a mistake because what that meant is just as they turned the shock wave hit the windows, blew in the windows, smashed the whole building up, and many men were blinded as well as being injured in other ways by the flying glass and the collapsing buildings. Nevertheless there was really- there was no panic. The men pulled themselves together, got themselves organized to take care of those who were injured, and then went down to the piers to find out what had happened.

Studs Terkel Some, by the way, some thought it was a Japanese

Robert Allen They thought it was a Japanese attack. Right. Right. That was the general impression at first because they couldn't imagine that, what else could it have been? You know, it must have been a Japanese attack. But, in fact, men jumped in their trucks and went down to the piers to see what had happened. There was no loading pier, no ships, nothing. It had all

Studs Terkel Well, the pier disappeared

Robert Allen The pier disappeared completely. This was a 1200 foot loading pier. Two huge ships the size of football fields or larger. We're talking about big ships here. These are not rowboats. These are Liberty ships and people who remember World War II will remember that these were the main ships that were used for supplying the U.S. forces. Big ships, completely destroyed in this blast.

Studs Terkel And so now we come to an inquiry as to what was it about, who or what was responsible? And now the survivors are talking as well as the officers.

Robert Allen Right. The Navy convened a- what they call a court of inquiry to investigate the causes of the explosion. But this was held in secret. In fact, the men who worked at the- on the base, none of them knew this was taking place except a handful who were called to testify. It's very strange that none of the men who actually worked on the ship on the shift before the explosion, none of them were called to testify about what might have gone wrong. In fact, out of 125 witnesses who were called to testify, as far as I can determine, only 5 of those were Black men. And remember it was mainly Black men who were actually loading the ships who were there, who would have known what went wrong. No one who- there was no one from the- at the time of the explosion there, no one survived who was close enough to see what had happened because everybody on the pier or in the immediate environment was killed. Nevertheless this naval court of inquiry investigated. Then they looked at various things. Was it sabotage? They decided no, it wasn't sabotage. Maybe it was a defect in one of the bombs or some of the equipment and no, they decided it wasn't. Although, in fact, there was testimony that some of the machinery, the winches that were used to load bombs onto the ship, two of- several of them had malfunctioned and, in fact, one of them that had malfunctioned the brake had failed and there was no evidence that it had ever been repaired. Now these are what they call steam winches and you can- you can operate them as long as there's pressure and you don't actually need the brake. But if the steam pressure fails, then the only way to keep a load from dropping onto the pier or into the ship is to have the brake functional. And yet this brake had not been repaired. But they ruled that out too. And then basically, like, with the conclusion they came to was that it was careless handling on the part of the Black men. That is, somebody dropped something. Somebody made a mistake that one, one, that some of the Black man somehow carelessly handled a bomb and that this was the cause of the initial explosion that set off the terrible blast. In other words, the men who died in the explosion were basically blamed for the- as the causes, the cause of the explosion.

Studs Terkel So we do know there was a speed up because there was the contest [unintelligible]--

Robert Allen There was the racing and competition--

Studs Terkel We do know that it called for a certain skill that the Longshoreman's Union wanted to have civilian guys who knew this was their craft.

Robert Allen Right.

Studs Terkel Who specifically were trained for loading ammunition, unloading ammunition, and they were rejected. That was rejected by the Navy. And so it left two young guys, of course these were kids. They were 20, 21--

Robert Allen Younger, younger. These we call- we say we talk about men here but basically we talk about teenagers, boys, we talk 16, 17, 18, 19 years old. Joe Small at 22 was one of the oldest of the- of these young men. We're talking about teenagers.

Studs Terkel So now we have, and you are going through files now, and--

Robert Allen Right.

Studs Terkel Robert Allen, I should point out that my guest is Robert Allen, who is editor of a number of years of the magazine "The Black Scholar" and taught sociology and ethnic studies at San Jose and at Mills College on the West Coast and his book is called "The Port Chicago Mutiny". We'll come to mutiny in a moment. And it's the largest- the largest mass mutiny and trial in U.S. naval history as well as the greatest home front disaster in U.S. military history. [pause in recording]. So the scapegoats that- those responsible for their carelessness were- a good number of them were dead. They were dead. They were all dead. They were all

Robert Allen So they couldn't defend themselves, right? I mean, so they were a very convenient scapegoat. But anyway the surviving ammunition, they didn't even know this investigation was going on. I mean, it was held in secret, they never learned about. In fact, they didn't know about it until I came and told them about it some 40

Studs Terkel some You mean some survivors that were in the barracks at the

Robert Allen Right. Right. They were- at the base at that time, there was something like 1400 workers and the surviving ammunition loaders. After this terrible disaster many of them, by the way, worked afterwards to clean up the base and so on. And that must have been a horrible experience, too, because they were just, I mean, they had just lost 200 of their friends in this terrible explosion. They only found, I think something like 50 bodies that were intact enough to identify. I mean, you're talking about men who were literally blown apart. So they're working, picking up bits and pieces of the bodies of their friends after the terrible explosion. Cleaning up the base, repairing it and some. Anyway, and they never knew what happened, what went wrong. How could this have happened? They talked among themselves, they talked among themselves about it, but they had no idea what could have caused this terrible explosion. All they know is that something went wrong and that those terrible- those bombs that they were told were not dangerous were in fact fatally dangerous and had killed 320 men. Anyway, 2 weeks later, 2 and a half weeks later, these men were ordered to go back to work under the same officers and the same conditions.

Studs Terkel Let me get this now. Here these guys who are afraid to begin with of the dangers that were quite potent were there. And we spoke of that offhand dialogue, bring the lieutenant and Joe Small, and now they were told to go back to the same- there's no time off there--

Robert Allen No time, no. They didn't get any kind of survivor's leave. It was customary at that time if the men in wartime had survived some terrible disaster like this. There was what they call survivor's leave, 30 days leave to go and visit your families and get yourself together.

Studs Terkel That is a matter of custom. Yeah.

Robert Allen But these men were not given any, any survivor's leave. They were basically put on hold for a short time and then ordered back to work under the same conditions, the same

Studs Terkel Were they ordered back to work at the same base or was there another one?

Robert Allen No, Port Chicago was still being repaired. They were then shipped to a base called Mare Island, oh about 20 miles away.

Studs Terkel Vallejo.

Robert Allen Near Vallejo, California.

Studs Terkel Vallejo. And that's another ammunition

Robert Allen Another smaller ammunition

Studs Terkel That's where they were shipped--

Robert Allen Right.

Studs Terkel And- and they were pretty much [chuckling], now we come to the question, they're going to load again?

Robert Allen Right. Right. That's exactly what happened.

Studs Terkel With no change in whatever they--

Robert Allen No change, no. Same officers, they were kept in their same units under the same officers. Now these were the very same officers that have been racing them in against each other, betting on the outcomes of the amount of time--

Studs Terkel Suppose we hear Joe Small's voice now, picking up at that moment. But perhaps you'll describe Joe Small and how he became, more or less, the natural born leader.

Robert Allen Joe Small, he was drafted into the service in 1943, at that time living in New Jersey. He was about 20 some odd years old and a very intelligent young man, very bright but not schooled. Most of these men in fact were unschooled, they hadn't gone beyond elementary school. But a very intelligent young man, a truck driver, and after he'd come into the service and been working at Port Chicago he very quickly became recognized both by the men and the officers as a potential leader. In fact, one of the officers told him that if he had been older he might have been selected to be a petty officer. There were some Black petty officers.

Studs Terkel I'm going to ask you about the petty officers. Now the petty officers, that's a special group now, with a petty officer?

Robert Allen Many, many of the petty officers were Black men, but they were not particularly liked by the rank and file because it was their job basically to be the straw bosses or, as they were called sometimes, the slave drivers to whip the men into line and to get them out to work and to make sure everything was done properly and in--

Studs Terkel But the men looked to Joe Small rather to them?

Robert Allen To them, right. Because Joe Small, the men knew the Joe Small would speak up for them. If something were wrong, he would speak out about it. He basically was the men's representative. If he had- if there'd been a union there he would have been the union leader.

Studs Terkel And also he's the one- he's in the Navy, right? But he counted cadence. He's the one who counted cadence.

Robert Allen Right. Even the- even the officers recognized that this man was a leader and he was assigned a call cadence. He marched outside- outside of ranks. If there- if there could have been Black officers there, he probably would have been selected to be an officer. But of course that was impossible then.

Studs Terkel Suppose we hear Joe Small. Now, he was talking to me. Thanks to you, Robert Allen, I got to see him in that town in New Jersey. Somerset, New Jersey. He's the deacon of a church. Now he's a middle aged man and he was driving a bus for this particular church taking people to various events, religious events. He also, the part of Small we have to recognize, was a remarkably skilled craftsman, what he could pick up. He was the winch operator, that called for skill. He could almost everything mechanically. When I met him, he was a contractor but in- really independent. He would not work with the syndicate boys or anything and he could fix anything.

Robert Allen All right.

Studs Terkel Now he's remembering this. He's a middle aged man now--

Robert Allen Well, actually, in his 60s now.

Studs Terkel In his 60s and I saw him when? Four, 5 years ago at about 55, he was. And it was coffee, his wife, coffee and some cakes and I asked him about two weeks after the explosion. We pick up with his voice.

Joe Small It went on for about 10 days I guess. If I can relate correctly now, about 10 days. Then it was about 2 weeks after the explosion that they asked us to return to duty. They didn't say--

Studs Terkel To return to duty loading ammunition.

Joe Small That's right. They didn't say as much. They posted a notice on the barracks wall that all divisions will muster that next morning in front of the barracks at 07:00 hours. And we complied with it. We were there and the petty officers took over, called us to attention, gave the order "Right face. Forward march." And everybody- it was about 200, 200 men. We marched off toward the parade ground. Let me see if I can lay this out for you. At the end of the street there was immense open area and it was referred to as the parade ground. At the entrance to the parade ground there was a platform and a lieutenant were standing on this platform. So as we approached the platform we got the command "Halt". So we halted. And he said a few words in reference to our obligations to the Navy as sailors and our obligations to the country as Americans. And he said now we are going back to work. And he gave the order "Forward march". Well, we had about 100 feet to march before we had to either turn right or left. He gave the command "Column left". And at that command everybody stopped dead in their tracks. Everybody stopped as one. So he said "I command you", no he said "will you go back to work?" Nobody answered. Then he called me. "Small, Joseph Small! Front and center." So I walked up to [unintelligible]. I was already outside the ranks because I was calling cadence for the men. I marched up the side, across the front, came to a halt, made a left turn, and stood right in front of him. And he asked me, "Small, will you return to duty?" And I said no. And as I said that, someone back in the ranks said, "If Small don't go, we won't go either." So that put me in the front of it. Then he turned the men back over to the petty officers and they marched us back to the barracks. The next thing we heard, we were going to be tried by a general court-martial for mutiny.

Studs Terkel And so he dramatically recalls that moment. "Column left" means they go to the docks--

Robert Allen Right.

Studs Terkel To do the loading again of the ammunition.

Robert Allen That's correct.

Studs Terkel No safety precautions further were taken since the explosion. Exactly

Robert Allen Nothing had changed. Nope. They were at another base. It's true, but they were under the same officers, the conditions were the same, nothing had really changed. And the men knew this and so understandably there had been talk among the men beforehand about the conditions, about- under which they were forced to work. But there was no conspiracy. The Navy tried to present this as a conspiracy organized by Joe Small, a mutinous conspiracy they called it. But there had been nothing of the sort. The men had talked as anyone would talk, if you and I had been there and been involved and we would've been talking about what went wrong. What's the- what's the situation? But what happened is when the "column left" order was given and the men at that point realized that they were being in fact ordered to go back to the docks to load ammunition, there was a general- the men balked. That was a- they stopped. If it had happened in civilian life we would have said, well, that was a wildcat strike. Everybody would have recognized it and the people would've understood that because of those conditions that was not unjustified. But in the Navy there is no such thing as a strike. So the men were branded as mutineers.

Studs Terkel What's interesting about that, Professor Allen, is that the prosecutor, a man named Lieutenant Commander James Coakley compared it to a strike--

Robert Allen He did.

Studs Terkel Without realizing that he was saying, if they were civilians and it was a strike, it would simply called a wildcat strike. Exactly.

Robert Allen Exactly. Right. I thought that was one of the ironies in the court-martial afterwards was that that language came up but was quickly suppressed and instead is presented as a mutiny.

Studs Terkel So now we come to court-martial now--

Robert Allen Well, what happened before the court martial, I'll just say that a little bit, is that the work stoppage involved some 328 men. We're talking about a large- in fact 3 work divisions or together basically balked at going back to work. But these men were then shipped off, put onto a prison barge sitting out in San Pablo Bay which is a part of San Francisco Bay, a barge that was designed to accommodate 75 men. Some 258, actually, were put on this barge. I mean, it was like being packed in on the slave ships. And they were locked up there for several days during which time the Navy threatened and cajoled them and so on and tried to intimidate the men. Eventually what the Navy did was to single out 50 of these men, charge them with being the leaders of this so-called mutiny. And in particular Joe Small as the leader because what happened is that on the barge, on the prison barge there had been- it was a very tense situation. The men didn't know what was going to happen. There were some fights. There was some discussion about, well, some of the men wanted to go back to work. Others would say, well, we don't give a--we don't care what's happening, we're going to stick it out no matter what. There was dissension. So Joe Small, in fact, called a meeting on the barge and told the men "look we can't have this, we've got to stick together, we've got to be cool in this situation because if people get out of hand it's only going to make it worse for all of us". And basically he called a meeting to try to keep, to get the men to keep order and to keep themselves together--

Studs Terkel He said follow every order--

Robert Allen Right.

Studs Terkel Except the one that called for loading the ammunition.

Robert Allen And that's what the men, in fact, did. They were not disorderly. They were not riotous. They were- they were very orderly. They did everything that was ordered of them to do except to go back to loading ammunition. And it's not even certain from the trial transcript that all of them were given an order to load ammunition. In fact it seems likely that most of them were never directly ordered to load ammunition. Nevertheless 50 of these men were singled out and charged with mutiny. Now this seems incredible to me because how could they have- be charged with mutiny? At most, and this was pointed out by the defense and by Thurgood Marshall, at most they can only be guilty of disobeying an order.

Studs Terkel We'll come to Thurgood Marshall in a moment. He was in the NAACP. He eventually sent Thurgood Marshall there as the lawyer for the defendants for the sailors. It was a remarkable experience for Thurgood Marshall some years before he was appointed to Supreme Court, and before that there was an admiral who spoke to them, Admiral Wright. Admiral Wright made a speech to these men and he warned them--what the speech is, just part of it as Robert Allen gets it down on the transcript, "Just in case you don't know who I am, my name is Admiral Wright and I am the commandant of the Twelfth Naval district. They tell me some of you men want to go to sea. I believe that's a lie. I don't believe any of you have enough guts to go to sea. I handled ammunition for approximately 30 years and I'm still here. I have a healthy respect for ammunition. Anybody who doesn't is crazy. But I want to remind you men that mutinous conduct in time of war carries the death sentence and the hazards of facing a firing squad are far greater than the hazards of handling ammunition." So he could be described as a no nonsense Admiral.

Robert Allen Hard-liner, right.

Studs Terkel Yes. And so--

Robert Allen So this is what the men were faced with, this threat. The death threat here made by the Admiral. They thought that if they were going to be charged with mutiny, they were probably going to be facing a firing squad.

Studs Terkel Here we're talking about kids now. We're talking about 17, 18, 19-year-old kids.

Robert Allen Right. Right. So in any case there were, 50 of them were singled out and charged, were in fact charged with mutiny. The other men, the other 208--

Studs Terkel Among them, of course, was Joe Small.

Robert Allen Joe Small, right. The other 208 who were involved in this initial resistance were given lesser what they called a summary court-martial. But these men, the 208, were later called upon to testify against the 50 men at the court-martial trial. So in effect the men who had initially engaged in this resistance together were broken up into two groups, and one group was forced to testify against the other in the mutiny trial.

Studs Terkel Robert Allen is my guest and "Port Chicago Mutiny" is the book. It's, it's gripping. It's almost right out of transcript and it's thanks to the perseverance and investigative, in this case scholarship as well as journalism. Robert Allen, we have the case just [apparent that or comment?] an old friend of mine, Richard Durham, [might open?] the WPA writer's days. Dick was a correspondent for The Chicago Defender in 1944 and during World War II. And Dick is the one who first told me about the Port Chicago mutiny which I never heard. And he was going to cover it for- in fact he did, I think, for the Defender. [pause in recording]. And now the trial, the court-martial. Mutiny, the charge against 50 of the Black sailors who refused to load any more ammunition that led to the death of 200 to 320 sailors altogether just 2 weeks before.

Robert Allen Now the- keep in mind the explosion was in July. The work stoppage was in August. The 50 men were on trial for mutiny for their lives in September. This, again, is incredible to me. Usually when you have a case of this nature, takes months if not years before it finally gets to trial. But this trial, this was rushed right ahead. The men were put on trial immediately at the Treasure Island Naval Base which sits in the middle of San Francisco Bay. The press was invited in to cover it. There were photographs of these 50 Black men. Tremendous coverage of it, which was very curious because previous military trials you didn't see this kind of coverage. Why was that so? I think what had happened was that in the aftermath of the explosion the- the- the specific cause was never identified. And in particular, the whole role of the officers in that they're- they're responsibility for this explosion was never made public. But they were concerned because after all, the officers were in fact responsible for the the working conditions, the rushing, the competition itself. But with these 50 Black men now being put on trial being charged with mutiny, focusing attention on them effectively turned public attention to them, as these Black men somehow they have something to do with this terrible disaster. It was their negligence. It was their carelessness and now they have mutinied. So this was blown up in the- in the papers and in the press and these 50 Black men were presented as traitors, as cowards, as mutineers, and as also probably had something to do with the explosion itself.

Studs Terkel Ironically enough, though that was publicized, we know nothing, very little about the explosion except the Black press and I believe the left wing press at the time. That was--

Robert Allen Very little coverage--

Studs Terkel So the explosion itself was hardly covered, but the trial

Robert Allen The trial- the trial was a show trial. Exactly. And the trial, these 50 men were put on trial. The trial lasted some 6 weeks. All of the men testified on their own behalf. Basically the men said that they were- there was- they had not conspired with anyone, that they were afraid of going back to work under those conditions, that each man decided that he would not go back. But most of them, in fact, pointed out that they were- they were never directly ordered to go back to work. They were simply singled out by their officers and accused of being mutineers, accused

Studs Terkel Now comes the trial. There is, when you have a court-martial there, there's- who are the judges here? These are members--

Robert Allen This is a military trial. So the court, the jury so to speak, consists of senior naval officers. The- the judge and the jury are one and the same. And there were 7 officers, senior white naval officers. In fact, several of them were called out of retirement basically to sit on this- sit in on this trial--

Studs Terkel So the prosecution headed by someone named Lieutenant Commander

Robert Allen James Frank Coakley who was- had been a civilian attorney

Studs Terkel And their defense was conducted. Someone was assigned

Robert Allen Right. And again, a naval

Studs Terkel Like a public defender in

Robert Allen In effect, yes. Right.

Studs Terkel And so enter, now the NAACP hears about it. Enter a lawyer named Thurgood Marshall.

Robert Allen Thurgood Marshall was at that time the special counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in New York and he had, in fact, intervened in a number of cases on the behalf of Black military men who had run afoul of military law in which there was some discrimination, racial discrimination involved. The local chap- chapter, the NAACP in San Francisco, had called him in on this case because they said "this is incredible, these men are being railroaded". And Marshall came out and sat in on the trial for several days. But he could not represent the men at that time because it was a military trial and they were being defended by naval lieutenants.

Studs Terkel So the trial is going, following a certain course now--

Robert Allen Right.

Studs Terkel It's pretty well-decided these guys are going to be found guilty.

Robert Allen Yeah. What happened was, in fact, after the testimony was presented, when the court retired to consider its verdict these 7 senior naval officers, they deliberated for all of 80 minutes over lunch, which as Thurgood Marshall pointed out meant that they, that worked out to about a minute and a half per defendant. So that gives you some idea of the quality of justice that was being rendered

Studs Terkel But there was one interesting, Ali Green was one of the defendants, a young kid, a loader, and they ask him things and he's answering as best he can. And then, "Anything further to say?" they asked. It was a matter of course. Then he says "I've got a couple of things to say, sir," Green responded, surprising everyone because he was so shy, I guess, and scared--

Robert Allen They didn't expect him to say anything.

Studs Terkel He was scared stiff. He says, "The reason I was afraid to go down and load ammunition, them officers were racing each division to see who put on the most tonnage. And I know the way they was handling ammunition, it was liable to go off again." And the courtroom waited in stunned silence. They didn't expect this testimony. It was not even part of the defense to sign--

Robert Allen No.

Studs Terkel That- that their naval attorney had in mind. And Green goes on to say, "We didn't work fast at that time. They wanted to put us in the brig and when the exec, executive officer, came down on the docks they wanted us to slow up. That's exactly the way. Put it on fast. We didn't put it on fast. They wanted to put us in the brig. That is my reason for not going down there." And of course this is a stunner.

Robert Allen Nobody picked up on that. In fact, throughout the trial they had never- there was never any testimony about the working conditions or the racial discrimination. They didn't want that brought up at all.

Studs Terkel Now did the union, I'm interested about the Longshoreman's Union, who were willing to, you know, for what the civilian pay was at the time, to do the job. [There was guilt?] Did they, were they ever invited to testify?

Robert Allen Not at all. No. No. But they later became involved along with many other organizations in the campaign to try to get the men released after they were convicted for mutiny.

Studs Terkel So what finally happened? They were convicted

Robert Allen So they were convicted. This would have been in October 1944 after 80 minutes of deliberation by the court. They were convicted, all found guilty and given 15 years of hard labor. And then they were shipped off to a place called, appropriately enough, Terminal Island down in Southern California to begin serving their sentences. Meanwhile, word had gotten out that Thurgood Marshall had been involved. The Black press had covered the trial. A general campaign began to build to try to get these men released. Eleanor Roosevelt, many other people, prominent people got involved in this campaign saying that these men were unjustly accused and then unjustly convicted of mutiny. How could this- how could this be allowed? But the Navy never relented. It did, in fact, reduce the sentences for some of the men, some of the boys, the very youngest ones, the 17-year-olds. Their sentences were reduced to 8 years. But for most of the men like Joe Small, the sentence remained at 15 years. But over the next 2 years there was a massive campaign. Again people don't know about this, but I found copies of petitions signed by thousands of people, letters written, organizations had meetings throughout the country to try to get these men released, all to no avail. And then finally, 1946 and they have been in prison almost 2 years. The war is over. The Navy issues a general amnesty for all men who've been run afoul of military justice and so several hundreds of men were released including these 50 Port Chicago men. But instead of actually releasing them, allowing them to return to their families, they were instead divided into groups of four or five, put onto separate ships, naval vessels, and shipped out into the Pacific and told that they could not return to the mainland for a year.

Studs Terkel They were like the Flying Dutchman, you know, the ship Flying Dutchman. They had no port, They

Robert Allen no They had no port. Right.

Studs Terkel In fact, there were men like Hale. You know, the man without a

Robert Allen Right. They were- they were- they were exiled. That's--

Studs Terkel They were on these ships. They could not land.

Robert Allen They went back and forth from port to port. They were- they were in fact exiled. And then gradually they returned to the states. Returned, they were mustered out and returned to their

Studs Terkel But those adventures, you recount to some extent, and Joe Small did to me, too. His adventures are quite incredible [laughing] and colorful indeed. And how this Southern- big Southern guy is going to challenge him in a fight. And he becomes one of his best friends because this guy fought back, Joe Small weighing 145-50 pounds. Fighting back is--Black man fighting back. And they became very close friends.

Robert Allen Right.

Studs Terkel But [unintelligible]. But in the meantime let's come back to- to the windup. Finally.

Robert Allen Let me just point out one thing. One of the ironies though of this period of exile was that this was the first time the men experienced racial integration. This was the first time, in fact, they got to do what they thought they had signed up in the Navy to do from the very beginning which was to serve on ships but finally--

Studs Terkel Oh, they were actually what they enlisted for to begin with!

Robert Allen Right.

Studs Terkel Very fine ships [unintelligible] load

Robert Allen They're just [unintelligble] ships and by this time, 1946, the Navy has begun desegregation partly as a result of this Port Chicago resistance.

Studs Terkel One very interesting aspect Small told me that you have in your book, too, is that the white sailors who are now with them on those integrated ships got to like these guys and respect them very much--

Robert Allen Exactly.

Studs Terkel For the stand they took about not loading that ammunition again. And these guys began to respect these guys very much.

Robert Allen They did. That's true. But I think it's really ironic that this is- that it took this kind of action in this terrible experience for them finally to get to the situation of serving on ships in an integrated environment. In fact, the Navy began the process of desegregation exactly precisely because of the- the Port Chicago mutiny because the Navy recognized at that point that this was literally an explosive situation they had in the Jim Crow Navy. This could not continue. Immediately after the work stoppage they ordered two white work divisions to come in to begin loading at Port Chicago and over the course of the next year and a half, they began gradually desegregating all of their facilities.

Studs Terkel Now what finally- the discharge they got?

Robert Allen They were initially given dishonorable discharges, but by the time of actual release they were discharges under honorable conditions, which is somewhat less than a straight honorable discharge, but nevertheless they remain convicted mutineers. And, in fact, to this day the convictions still stand. And I think that's a great injustice because these men were actually heroes in the struggle against racism in the military. You know that we don't really recognize that. But during World War II, the Black community took the position that the struggle was a struggle on two fronts, against fascism abroad and against racism at home. And we have recognized the heroes in the struggle against fascism, but we have not recognized these men as heroes in the struggle

Studs Terkel By the way, the work they were doing loading that stuff was [chuckling], I mean, if only were there protection and it was tremendously important. You know, what they did- what they were doing at the time. You know--

Robert Allen Tremendous. That's no doubt.

Studs Terkel Should've been trained to do. Oh the civilian guys should've been there. Plus the fact that safety moves were never taken. So now we're talking to Robert Allen. We have to come to today. The move and also what happened to the guys, these 50 guys. "Port Chicago Mutiny" is Robert Allen's book and Warner Brothers, Warner Books I should say, the publishers of it and it's a remarkable tale of what you call unwritten history, unrecorded history. [pause in recording] And so we come to today, Professor Allen, today. Joe Small, they're middle aged men now, grandfathers. Joe Small, might I say, is strong but mild mannered, easy. His two boys are in the Navy, I think.

Robert Allen That's right. He is- it's amazing to me, but he is not a bitter man at all. I would have- I would have been very embittered by this experience, but he's not a bitter man. He's a very forgiving man and in fact two of his sons, as you pointed out, served in the Navy with his blessing. He is a man who serv- who survives basically by his hands. His work. He's- he's- he's done contracting work, a fix-it man and so on.

Studs Terkel Pardon me. The house I was visiting when I saw him in Somerset is one he built practically with

Robert Allen his He

Studs Terkel Even at the moment it was still in the process of being rebuilt by him.

Robert Allen Yes.

Studs Terkel Sorry.

Robert Allen But I only- of the 50 men, I could only locate 10 of them and I suspect most of the others are dead because, this as we talked about, 40 years later now. These men will be in their 60s, some of them maybe even in their 70s, and the mortality rate among Black men is such that they are probably most of them deceased. I was lucky to find these 10, 9 of whom I interviewed. And it's very interesting and very moving to talk with them because I was the first person to come along and ask them about what happened at Port Chicago. I was the first- it was the first opportunity they'd had to talk to anyone about it. And I think it was very important for them to share their experiences and to finally help to get out the whole story of what had happened at Port Chicago. Because what I realized in doing my research was that when I looked at the records, the trial transcript of the documents of the Navy and so on, the written documents are basically the Navy's case against these men. If I wanted their stories, I had to find some of the survivors to interview them. And it took me several years to do that. But I did finally succeed and because of that I feel I was able, in the book, to present the full story of what had happened there, particularly the story from the men's point of view, the Black enlisted men's point of view. A point of view which usually is not written into the history textbooks.

Studs Terkel Of these survivors, Small of course, he's free and talking. He wants to talk about it, it's there. He doesn't hesitate. Was there hesitancy about it? Was there still an overhanging fear?

Robert Allen Yeah. There's still a cloud for- for some of the men. They are still officially convicted mutineers. One man when I went to interview, he agreed to the interview but when I showed up at his front door instead of inviting me inside, he took me outside, closed the door, and took me down the street to a neighbor's to be interviewed. After the interview I asked him, "Well, was there some problem?" And he said, "Well, you know, I have- I have a 21-year old-son. I've never told him about what happened at Port Chicago and I'm not really sure I still want him to know." There was an added- there was a feeling of still that somehow what had happened, he wasn't sure if he really felt good about it. He's a convicted mutineer. Other men, the attitude was quite the contrary. One man told me, "Well, you know, we were just a group of ordinary Black men, but we stood up to the biggest baddest Navy in the world and we stuck together throughout the whole thing." There was a sense of pride in what they had done, but none of the men knew that as a result of their action, their resistance, that that was key to the beginning of the desegregation of the Navy. None of them knew that until I came along and told them what was the outcome of their resistance effort.

Studs Terkel That one guy didn't even tell his son.

Robert Allen No.

Studs Terkel He still hangs. Now is there a move for the- that's what recompense is, to redress of some grievance? Honorable Discharge at last.

Robert Allen I would like to see that happen now. I am in touch with the naval authorities, with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund because I think that the only way that justice can be rendered at this point is to reverse these convictions entirely, clear the men's names, give them any back pay that they were due, and make sure that they are eligible for any and all benefits to which they are entitled.

Studs Terkel Yeah. Toward the end of the book, Robert Allen, has your own analysis, it's called a social psychological analysis, which in itself is fascinating too. Does there has to be- that hangover doesn't it? Not for Joe Small, who is so innately strong and, as he would say, a Christian. Very much so. But the morale of the resisters is the one thing that- that impresses me so much. It moves me in the reading of it. And the sticking together, that was a thing.

Robert Allen I call this one example of the hidden heritage of struggle against racism. We're all familiar with the big, well-publicized campaigns but, you know, throughout our history there have been these spontaneous acts of resistance against racism by individuals or by groups, like in this case these 50 men or the larger group who refused to go back to work. But this is a hidden. It's a heritage that we don't know about. It's been suppressed, but I think it's very important to bring it to light and that's what I've tried to do in this book.

Studs Terkel And you have indeed. It's called "The Port Chicago Mutiny". Robert L. Allen is my guest and the author of it. [unintelligible] editor. That's where I first came across, aside from talking to Dick Durham, the late Dick Durham my friend, who was covering it for the Chicago Defender and I was thinking about this book I was working on on World War II. I said, you got to have something! And I come across the magazine which you edited, it was your piece on Joe Small and the Port Chicago mutiny. It was thanks to you that I got to see Joe Small. You know how we could end this? Somewhere reading the book when Small was this young guy and maybe they were visiting town and they saw some girls, some young women and one of them was playing Mahalia Jackson. You know I think they're playing "You've Got The Whole World In Your Hands". I thought, maybe, "Keep Your Hand On The Plow". "Hold On."

Studs Terkel "

Robert Allen Hold on.

Studs Terkel Might be which is also as we know, keep your eye on the prize.

Robert Allen Right.

Studs Terkel Hold on. That might be, perhaps, a musical coda for this and I thank you very much for a number of reasons.

Robert Allen Thank you so much for inviting me to be here.

Music [music playing - "Hold Me"