While two titles do not qualify as a trend, I’d say Sheinkin has a knack for bringing under-the-radar stories from WWII to life and light. After his scientists-and-spies thriller depicting the race to build or steal the world’s first nuclear weapon, Sheinkin revisits the wartime Forties in The Port Chicago 50, about the Port Chicago explosion (also bomb-related!) and the remarkable fallout that forced the US Navy to confront the systemic racism within its ranks.
To tell the story from the perspectives of the Port Chicago 50, a group of black sailors who boycotted their unsafe and segregated work conditions, Sheinkin trawled through court documents and scores of interviews to stitch together this uniquely personal account.
“We had expectations to go to sea on a big Navy ship,” recalled Spencer Sikes, still a teenager when he enlisted. Instead, to keep the Navy segregated, black sailors ended up at Port Chicago in California, where the officers giving orders were white and the crews handling the bombs were black. Worse, the men were expected to load explosives onto Pacific-bound ships without any prior training; the officers made a game out of betting on which crews could load the fastest. The pressure was so bad, Sikes was convinced he’d perish on the pier and never see his mother again.
His fear was not unfounded. After two consecutive explosions rocked the pier, killing 320 sailors, most of them African-American, and wounded 390 more, the Navy commanded the surviving men to resume loading munitions under the same conditions without making a single reform.
Fifty men refused to cooperate, stating they would obey any order but this one. For this, they were threatened by their superior officers, then imprisoned and charged with mutiny. After a month-long trial, all fifty were found guilty. The arguments presented by the prosecution, which Sheinkin included as dialogue from the trial, underscored the sham charade of justice they received.
Nevertheless, despite major flaws in their case against the Port Chicago 50, the US Navy wouldn’t back down or admit wrongdoing. This high profile case did attract enough attention–especially among African-Americans– to make the Secretary of the Navy quietly reconsider the Navy’s stance on segregation in the ranks. Ships’ crews began to become more integrated. Munition loading teams started to incorporate white seamen.
Meanwhile, civil rights advocates like Thurgood Marshall and Lester Grange and even Eleanor Roosevelt (in her own quiet way) called for the release of the Port Chicago 50. After the desegregation of naval ships and the end of the war, the men were finally freed, but remained convicted mutineers on record.
Although Sheinkin accidentally stumbled upon this story while researching material for his first book, it’s clear from his writing that the Port Chicago incident is something he cares deeply about. Sheinkin keeps a tight focus on the explosion and its aftermath, pulling back only to provide historical and then-contemporary examples of racism towards black servicemen from both military personnel and civilians. However, he does insert himself into the narration on occasion to ask rhetorical questions or drive home a point.
“Naval leaders were ignoring one essential point,” Sheinkin wrote, before making a conclusion that should be obvious to any modern reader. “Segregation was discrimination.”
A minor quibble, but this felt so unnecessary. Sheinkin does such a wonderful job showing this point through his research and reporting that any extra shock and outrage he was hoping to induce through style felt forced. The story he found was riveting enough on its own; my mouth was agape in indignation from the get-go.