A Fight To Restore Honor

It has been half a century since the Navy depot at Port Chicago, Calif., was scared by a tragic munitions explosion. Currently, new efforts are under way to pardon the black sailors convicted of mutiny over the incident. CBS News Correspondent Richard Schlesinger reports.

Port Chicago was the scene of the worst home front disaster in World War II. It was an explosion so huge the Navy produced its own film about what happened.

In 1944, about 6,000 tons of explosives blew up at the Navy weapons depot in Port Chicago, Calif., just outside Oakland, killing 320, injuring 390, changing the lives of 50 other men forever.

The government investigated and tried to close the book on the incident but some survivors insist there is more to the story.

"Thank God that we was on the first shift," says Fred Meeks, who was there the day of the blast.

Meeks was lucky. It was the sailors on the next shift who were killed in the blast. Meeks had one of the most dangerous jobs on the base. He loaded the ships with bombs. But the bombs weren't in boxes -- they were carried by hand.

That's how it worked at Port Chicago. When it came to the dirty work of loading bombs, it was always the same rush and always the same race.

Meeks says there were no white sailors loading bombs -- only black sailors. After the explosion, white sailors were given 30-day leaves for R&R. But Meeks and his black co-workers were ordered back to work. Fifty of them, including Meeks, refused.

"We was the only ones handling that ammunition. Why should we go back and risk another explosion?" said Meeks.

Meeks and the others all received a court-martial and were convicted of mutiny. But 54 years later, there's still an argument about the case.

It's a fact that the 'Port Chicago 50' refused orders during a time of war, but the men say it was not mutiny. They say they were being forced into an extraordinarily dangerous situation with no chance to recover from the trauma of what happened, solely because they were black.

"The white chain of command viewed their lives as less valuable because they were black," says California Rep. George Miller.

Congressman Miller fought to get a memorial built at Port Chicago for the men who were killed. Now he wants pardons for the men who were convicted.

"Many people have equated their actions of refusing to go back in as cowardice, as opposed to maybe a great deal of courage about upholding a principle in this country of equal treatment, equal protection under the law," says Miller.

"You know, sometimes you have some pride. And you decide you just done had enough," says Meeks.

In 1993 Navy Investigators concluded the mutiny charges were not motivated by racism and the work stoppage was not about combating racism. The Navy says the men refused to work because they were afraid.

But in that same report, the Navy concedes that racial prejudice was responsiblfor the posting of Afro-American enlisted personnel to the most hazardous duty at Port Chicago.

That concession is important to the men trying to clear their names and leave a legacy, not as cowards but as victims of a system condemned by history.

Reported By Richard Schlesinger