The Port Chicago 50 Disaster, mutiny, and the fight for civil rights

Steve Sheinkin

Book - 2014

Presents an account of the 1944 civil rights protest involving hundreds of African-American Navy servicemen who were unjustly charged with mutiny for refusing to work in unsafe conditions after the deadly Port Chicago explosion.

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New York : Roaring Brook Press 2014.
Main Author
Steve Sheinkin (-)
First edtion
Physical Description
200 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
Includes bibliographical references (page 191) and index.
  • First hero
  • The policy
  • Port Chicago
  • Work and liberty
  • The lawyer
  • Hot cargo
  • The explosion
  • The inquiry
  • Column left
  • Prison barge
  • The fifty
  • Treasure Island
  • Prosecution
  • Joe Small
  • The verdict
  • Hard labor
  • Small goes to sea
  • Epilogue: Civil rights heroes.
Review by New York Times Review

FOR THE PAST 20 years there has been a cassette tape in our car with a title along the lines of "Teach Yourself Morse Code." While not exactly riveting material, this is possibly the first nonfiction audiobook I can remember listening to, and it's a perfect example of why nonfiction works well in the format. The human voice lends life to words on a page. The tonal subtleties of a skilled narrator can captivate listeners with a commitment that readers of the written word must bring to a text on their own. Steve Sheinkin's "The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights" and Candace Fleming's "The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion and the Fall of Imperial Russia" are excellent works in their own right, but both books gain a layer of engagement through vibrant spoken narrations. There is warmth and urgency in the actor Dominic Hoffman's reading of "The Port Chicago 50," the story of a group of African-American sailors who had enlisted in the United States Navy and were court-martialed for mutiny in September 1944. After a disastrous explosion on the job they had refused to load bombs, dangerous work in which their white counterparts were not required to participate. Sheinkin is gifted at making nonfiction read like a fictional account - when he brings in Thurgood Marshall as a seemingly unconnected minor character, the reader knows it makes narrative sense for Marshall to turn up later in an instrumental plot role. The inevitability of the racism in this story is a bitter truth, and time and again, as I listened to "The Port Chicago 50" in the car with my teenage daughter, we had to pause the recording to discuss history and politics both past and current. Simultaneously sharing a story with other readers is a pleasure directly connected to reading aloud. Hoffman's narration of this important and forgotten step forward in the battle for civil rights is superb; never melodramatic or disrespectful, he conveys a range of voices, including an imitation of Franklin Roosevelt that even my British-born daughter recognized. One of the effects of hearing a book read aloud by a disembodied voice is that you can't help feeling that the narrator, as the storyteller, has the authority of the author. The voice I associate with "The Port Chicago 50" is not Sheinkin's: It's Hoffman's. Similarly, the actress Kimberly Farr's voice now feels to me the right one to associate with Candace Fleming's detailed and accessible portrait of the doomed Romanov autocracy in the early 20th century. "The Port Chicago 50" is a man's tale, indeed an African-American man's tale, appropriately and skilfully voiced by an AfricanAmerican man. Farr's warm, straight-shooting, clear-voiced interpretation of "The Family Romanov" breathes immediacy into Fleming's narrative. But is there any reason Fleming's story of political and social turmoil in czarist Russia should be voiced by a white American woman, other than that's what the author is? It's easy to overlook how our expectations for any given narration inform how we receive and interpret the audio recording of a printed book. Fleming's "The Family Romanov" deals gracefully with the meaty history of the Russian Revolution by framing it biographically, as a family portrait. By no means does the focus rest entirely on the Romanovs: Innocuous episodes in the royal family's daily routine are contrasted throughout the book with the documented lives of less fortunate Russian peasants, workers and intellectuals. This turns the book into a pageant of contrasts: The intimate, claustrophobic, obscenely wealthy and often faintly idiotic mind-set of Imperial Russia's royal family is counterbalanced with the broad-thinking, frustrated, poverty-stricken and intellectually challenging mind-set of Russia's lower classes. Farr's confiding narration is both lucid and confident, growing subtly and appropriately grimmer toward the end. I felt that the supporting voices that narrate the sidebars, though adding texture to the overall listening experience, were so heavily accented they were often difficult to understand. BOTH "THE FAMILY ROMANOV" and "The Port Chicago 50" - and probably other nonfiction audiobooks as well - would benefit from a booklet or web link dedicated to the supplementary material left out of the audio editions. As a visual reader and an amateur historian, I longed for the pictures and references included in the printed versions. Sheinkin's book, in particular, is a wholly different experience without its plentiful illustrations (photographs and facsimiles appear on almost every third page of text). I found myself wondering repeatedly, as I listened to Hoffman's moving and masterly narration, where the lengthy direct quotations were coming from. Sheinkin tells you in his source note in the printed version, but not in the audiobook; 20 pages of references are not included in the audio version, and Fleming's missing printed references are even more detailed. Is this a loss to the reader? I want to put the question out there without making a judgment call. The listener should bear in mind that an audiobook isn't a compromise; it's an option. The reading performance exists as an art form in its own right, and adds nuance, accessibility and immediacy to a text. ELIZABETH WEIN is the author, most recently, of "Rose Under Fire" and "Code Name Verity."

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [November 16, 2014]
Review by Booklist Review

The award-winning author of Bomb (2012) returns with another compelling American history narrative. This time Sheinkin takes on the Port Chicago 50, a group of African American sailors who were court-martialed and convicted of mutiny when they refused to continue loading ammunition after experiencing a terrifying accidental explosion that destroyed the entire port. Tracing the history of racial discrimination in the U.S. armed forces, Sheinkin describes the U.S. Navy's long-standing policy of restricting duties for African American servicemen, the unfair treatment the divisions received at the segregated Port Chicago facility, and the dangerous working conditions facing the sailors there, including a lack of training on how to properly handle explosives, and competitions that encouraged reckless practices. Sheinkin's narrative shines as he recounts the frustrating court-martial trial that resulted in a guilty verdict for all 50 men, which still stands today despite repeated attempts to exonerate the sailors. Photos, reproductions of primary documents, and direct quotes from the sailors themselves flesh-out this account of a little-known piece of civil rights history.--Hunter, Sarah Copyright 2014 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

An explosion that killed nearly 300 soldiers in Port Chicago, Calif., during World War II played an essential role in the battle for civil rights, especially in the desegregation of the military. Sheinkin explores the lives of the segregated African-Americans affected by the explosion and their attempts to secure adequate workplace protection despite facing court martial and imprisonment. Narrator Hoffman has a deep and slightly raspy voice that makes his narration enjoyable. His commanding tone is a perfect match for the author's prose: his words are strongly projected but also concisely uttered. Hoffman deliberate narration creates tension in this production that is geared toward younger listeners. Ages 10-14. A Roaring Brook hardcover. (Jan.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by School Library Journal Review

Gr 7 Up-In the summer of 1944, 50 sailors, all of them African American, were tried and convicted of mutiny by the U.S. Navy. They had refused to follow a direct order of loading dangerous rockets and munitions on ships bound for battle in the Pacific after an enormous explosion had killed more than 300 of their fellow sailors and other civilians working on the dock. At the heart of this story is the rampant racism that permeated the military at all levels, leaving minority sailors and soldiers to do the drudge work almost exclusively while their white counterparts served on the front lines. Through extensive research, Sheinkin effectively re-creates both the tense atmosphere at Port Chicago before and after the disaster as well as the events that led to the men's refusal of this one particular order that they felt put them directly in harm's way. Much of the tension in this account stems from the growing frustration that readers are meant to feel as bigotry and discrimination are encountered at every turn and at every level of the military. There is a wealth of primary-source material here, including interviews with the convicted sailors, court records, photographs, and other documents, all of which come together to tell a story that clearly had a huge impact on race relations in the military. This is a story that remains largely unknown to many Americans, and is one of the many from World War II about segregation and race that is important to explore with students. Abundant black-and-white photos, extensive source notes, and a thorough bibliography are included.-Jody Kopple, Shady Hill School, Cambridge, MA (c) Copyright 2014. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Horn Book Review

Sheinkin follows Bomb (rev. 11/12) with an account of another aspect of the Second World War, stemming from an incident that seems small in scope but whose ramifications would go on to profoundly change the armed forces and the freedom of African Americans to serve their country. The Port Chicago 50 was a group of navy recruits at Port Chicago in California doing one of the few service jobs available to black sailors at the beginning of the war: loading bombs and ammunition onto battleships. "All the officers standing on the pier and giving orders were white. All the sailors handling explosives were black." When, as seems inevitable given the shoddy safety practices, there was an explosion that left more than three hundred dead, fifty men refused to go back to work, occasioning a trial for mutiny. Sheinkin focuses the events through the experience of Joe Small, who led the protest against the dangerous and unequal working conditions, but the narrative loses momentum as it tries to move between Small's experience and its larger causes and effects. Still, this is an unusual entry point for the study of World War II and the nascent civil rights movement. Photographs are helpful, and documentation is thorough. Picture credits and index not seen. roger sutton (c) Copyright 2014. The Horn Book, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright The Horn Book, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

On July 17, 1944, at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine 30 miles northeast of San Francisco, an explosion--the largest man-made explosion in history to that point--killed more than 300 men, leading to the largest mass trial in United States history. "[B]efore Brown v. Board of Education or Truman's executive order, before Rosa Parks or Jackie Robinson--before any of this, there was Port Chicago." At Port Chicago, Navy ships were loaded with bombs and ammunition. All of the officers were white, and all of the sailors handling the dangerous explosives were black, with no training in how to do their jobs. When the huge explosion flattened the base, 320 men were killed, 202 of them black sailors who had been loading the ammunition. When it came time to resume work, 50 black sailors refused to work under the unsafe conditions on the segregated base and were charged with mutiny, with the possibility of execution. In this thoroughly researched and well-documented drama, Sheinkin lets the participants tell the story, masterfully lacing the narrative with extensive quotations drawn from oral histories, information from trial transcripts and archival photographs. The event, little known today, is brought to life and placed in historical context, with Eleanor Roosevelt, Thurgood Marshall and Jackie Robinson figuring in the story. An important chapter in the civil rights movement, presenting 50 new heroes. (source notes, bibliography, acknowledgments, picture credits) (Nonfiction. 10-14)]] Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

FIRST HERO HE WAS GATHERING dirty laundry when the bombs started falling. It was early on the morning of December 7, 1941, at the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and Mess Attendant Dorie Miller had just gone on duty aboard the battleship USS West Virginia . A six-foot-three, 225-pound Texan, Miller was the ship's heavyweight boxing champ. But his everyday duties were somewhat less challenging. As one of the ship's African American mess attendants, he cooked and cleaned for the white sailors. Miller was below deck, picking up clothes, when the first torpedo slammed into the side of the West Virginia . Sirens shrieked and a voice roared over the loudspeaker: "Japanese are attacking! All hands, General Quarters!" Miller ran to his assigned battle station, an ammunition magazine--and saw it had already been blown apart. He raced up to the deck and looked up at a bright blue sky streaked with enemy planes and falling bombs. Japan's massive attack had taken the base by surprise, and thunderous explosions were rocking American ships all over the harbor. Two direct hits cracked through the deck of the West Virginia , sending flames and shrapnel flying. Amid the smoke and chaos, an officer saw Miller and shouted for him to help move the wounded. Miller began lifting men, carrying them farther from the spreading fires. Then he spotted a dead gunner beside an anti-aircraft machine gun. He'd never been instructed in the operation of this weapon. But he'd seen it used. That was enough. Jumping behind the gun, Miller tilted the barrel up and took aim at a Japanese plane. "It wasn't hard," he'd later say. "I just pulled the trigger, and she worked fine." As Miller blasted away, downing at least one enemy airplane, several more torpedoes blew gaping holes in the side of the West Virginia . The ship listed sharply to the left as it took on water. The captain, who lay dying of a belly wound, ordered, "Abandon ship!" Sailors started climbing over the edge of the ship, leaping into the water. Miller scrambled around the burning, tilting deck, helping wounded crewmembers escape the sinking ship before jumping to safety himself. * * * After the battle, an officer who had witnessed Miller's bravery recommended him for the Navy Cross, the highest decoration given by the Navy. "For distinguished devotion to duty," declared Miller's official Navy Cross citation, "extraordinary courage and disregard for his own personal safety during the attack on the Fleet in Pearl Harbor." In early 1942, soon after the United States had entered World War II, Admiral Chester Nimitz personally pinned the medal to Miller's chest. "This marks the first time in this conflict that such high tribute has been made in the Pacific Fleet to a member of his race," Nimitz declared. "I'm sure that the future will see others similarly honored for brave acts." And then Dorie Miller, one of the first American heroes of World War II, went back to collecting laundry. He was still just a mess attendant. It was the only position open to black men in the United States Navy. Text copyright © 2014 by Steve Sheinkin Excerpted from The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights by Steve Sheinkin All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.