Thursday, April 10, 2014

"The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights "

Just hanging out with my buddy Steve Sheinkin.

            I don’t think I’ve ever read so many nonfiction books back to back.  My first thought after reading five informational texts in a row is that informational texts have gotten so much better than they were when I was a child.  I have had misgivings with a few, like “The President has Been Shot!” and The Horrible, Miserable, Middle Ages, but overwhelmingly the caliber of nonfiction texts has risen.  When I was a child, I don’t remember reading much nonfiction, except for the textbooks I was forced to read.  The author of my final nonfiction text blog actually used to be a textbook writer.  He is currently atoning for that past life by making incredible nonfiction books.

     Newbery Honor Winner Steve Sheinkin’s newest book, The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights (Published 2014), begins with the story of Dorie Miller.  Dorie Miller was a cook in the Navy, stationed in Pearl Harbor.  On December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Dorie Miller saw an anti-aircraft machine gun that was unattended because the gunner was dead.  Dorie Miller had never used the weapon before, but he got behind the gun and started shooting at Japanese planes.  He was able to shoot down at least one Japanese plane.  In May of 1942, Dorie Miller was given 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’”(p.2).  After Pearl Harbor, Dorie was not promoted.  In fact, Dorie went back to being a cook and a mess attendant, because it was the only job African Americans were allowed to have in the Navy.

  The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights is not a story about Dorie Miller.  Steve Sheinkin uses this anecdote to illustrate for the reader the kind of segregation that occurred in our armed forces during this time.  This is not simply a story of one man, but a story about all men and segregation and Civil Rights.  After the story of Dorie Miller, Steve Sheinkin explains what the military was like during the 1940s.  All branches of the military were segregated, and African Americans in the Navy were only allowed to hold the same job that Dorie Miller did—a mess attendant.  The Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox, said that, “segregation and racism were deeply rooted facts of line in American society.  These problems were not created by the military and were not the military’s problems to solve”(p.10).  The idea that segregation was simply a way of life permeated the armed forces.  Black leaders and Civil Rights workers began to rebel against this, and the Navy changed its policy towards black sailors.  After this policy was changed, “Black men could serve as sailors, but they’d be limited to low ranks; and they still could not serve aboard ships at sea, except as mess attendants”(p.11).  Very little had actually changed for these men who were willing to die for their country.

            Enter the men at Port Chicago in Great Lakes, Illinois.  These men signed up under the Navy’s new policy, and were excited at the chance to help the war effort.  When they showed up, they realized how segregated the Navy really was, with separate dormitories, separate lunch lines, and separate job duties.  At Port Chicago, white seamen were in charge of the black seamen.  The black seamen were made to load and unload bombs of all types, without ever having been trained on how to handle explosives.  Only black men were made to do this work.  Their white bosses would make bets to see which division could load the most explosives in one day.  Sometimes explosives banged against the ship, and sometimes they fell, in this race to be the team with the most explosives loaded. The men did it, without complaint, until July 17, 1944.  That night, there were two explosions on the base.  All the men working on the ships involved were killed.  320 men died that night; 202 of them were black.  There is no hard evidence to show what happened.  The reader, though, is left to wonder if the fact that these men were given zero training had anything to do with the explosion.

            After the explosion, the men at Port Chicago were given a few weeks to mourn the loss of so many of their fellow seamen.  Then, one day, they were told to go to the shipyard where they knew they were going to have to do it all over again.  Joe Small was a black seaman that the others looked up to, and he felt, “I realized that I had to work.  I wasn’t trying to shirk work.  But to go back to work under the same conditions with no improvements, no changes, the same group of officers that we had”(p.77).  The men wanted to work, but they knew that nothing had changed, and so they made the same decision as Joe Small, which was “I was not going back to the same work under the same conditions, under the same men.  And that was that”(p.77).  Several hundred men decided not to go back to work until something changed.  They knew that it was unfair that only black men had to do this work, and that they had to do it with no training.

            After the decision of so many men to not continue to work, Admiral Carleton Wright showed up at the base and told the men that if they refused to work, they would all be charged with mutiny—the sentence of which could be the death penalty.  Out of the 258 men who had refused to work for three days, 208 of them went back to work.  50 men stayed and were put in front of a military tribunal charged with mutiny.  According to the Navy definition, to be considered mutiny, the men had to have, “an unlawful opposition or resistance to or defiance of superior military authority, with a deliberate purpose to usurp, subvert, or override such authority”(p.94-95).  All these men wanted was to be treated equally.  There was no intention of mutiny in their actions.  Regardless, all 50 men were convicted of mutiny and sentenced to 15 years in prison.  They were eventually released, but to this day, every single conviction stands.

            While reading books for my blogs, I place sticky notes on interesting passages and things that stick with me.  Oftentimes, I will write a little note to remind myself what I was thinking.  While reading this book, I had more “wow” and “really?” sticky notes than I ever have before.  There were so many aspects of this story that were completely unknown to me.  For starters, before listening to Steve Sheinkin speak about the Port Chicago 50, I had never even heard of this incident.  Everyone knows about Martin Luther King, Jr. and his speech.  All children are taught about Rosa Parks and her refusal to move.  But how many people know about the treatment of blacks in the military at this time?  How many people had even heard of this incident before Steve Sheinkin helped bring it to light? These 50 men were all convicted of mutiny in a trial whose outcome was predetermined—the Admiral in charge was overheard saying that he would find them all guilty.  These men were convicted mutineers their entire lives because they stood up against segregation and discrimination in their jobs.  They deserve much more than a book, but thankfully they have at least that now.

            One of my “wow” sticky notes was when I read, “The military even segregated its blood supply.  Military leaders knew there was no difference between the blood of black and white men.  They knew it was a waste of time and money to store two separate blood supplies.  But that was the tradition, and no one in power wanted to challenge it”(p.18).  It completely baffles me that the military would waste so much money just to be racist.  The biggest thing I noticed, time and time again, was that no one who had any power would do anything.  Like the Secretary of the Navy said in the quote I mentioned above, everyone just said that it was the way things were and that was that.  There was no changing it.  Even President Roosevelt was aware of the case, but he let the Navy handle the case on their own.  All of these men wanted to work and fight alongside their fellow Americans, and they were denied that privilege all because of their race. 

            I also did not realize how far back this military policy went.  In 1775, George Washington “told recruiters to stop signing up black soldiers…  slave owners objected that arming African Americans could leave to slave rebellions, and Washington agreed not to accept more black soldiers”(p.7).  The founding father of our country capitulated to pressure from others.  The commanding officer at Captain Nelson Gross, was quoted as saying, “’Most of the men obtainable from these races do not compare favorably with those of the white race’”(p.23).  I should have realized that racism in the public would obviously transfer to the military, but I was unaware how deep and far-reaching this racism went.  The status quo is not always the best way to go, and that is the only real excuse that I have discerned from the men of power in this book.

            I appreciate Steve Sheinkin taking this seemingly obscure case about 50 men in the 1940s and creating a well-researched, exciting narrative.  The book reads like a story, using literary techniques like foreshadowing when he says, “And it was to these same qualities that officers would point when they accused Joe Small of leading the largest mutiny in the history of the United States Navy”(p.15).  Steve Sheinkin leads the reader into the story by making it a great piece of literature.  The opening anecdote about Dorie Miller is characteristic of Steve Sheinkin—he gives you the most interesting information he can to pull you into the story, and then he doesn’t let go of the reader until it is finished.  He creates a nonfiction book that is exciting and gives a face to men who have been largely ignored in history.  I sincerely hope he continues to create more books about little-known events that had far-reaching effects in history.

            When it comes to research, I can’t help but think of the speech I heard from Steve Sheinkin.  I went a conference where he was speaking, and he started talking about his research process.  He pulled up the word document where he collected his research.  The word document was over three-hundred pages long, almost twice as long as the actual story.  He takes his research seriously, as you expect a former textbook writer would.  He interviewed survivors where he could, and even received a copy of the entire court case from the government, thanks to the Freedom of Information Act.  For a little known event, he was able to comb through many different, books, articles, pamphlets, oral histories, and even U.S. Navy Records to create a complete story.  I especially like that he used the oral histories—it adds to the sense that he is giving these men a voice; one they never had before.

            If you have never read Steve Sheinkin before, he is a must-read for any history lover.  I think that high school kids will devour books like The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights and Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—The World’sMost Dangerous Weapon (a Newbery Honor winner) and will find history fascinating again.  A textbook leaves out so much in history—Steve Sheinkin is doing his part to help fill in the holes. 
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