Seventy-Five Years After the Port Chicago Disaster, Congressman DeSaulnier Passes Effort to Exonerate the Port Chicago 50

July 12, 2019
Press Release

Washington, DC – Today, Congressman Mark DeSaulnier (CA-11) successfully passed a measure that directs the Secretary of the United States Navy to publicly exonerate the Port Chicago 50. The effort was included in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), H.R. 2500, which passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 220-to-197. The passage of the effort comes almost seventy-five years to the day after the devastating explosion at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine in Concord, California on July 17, 1944 that led to 50 sailors being unjustly convicted of mutiny.

“I cannot think of a more fitting tribute on the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Port Chicago disaster than to finally honor the Port Chicago 50 with exoneration,” said Congressman DeSaulnier. “For far too long the names of these brave men have been tarnished by our history of racial discrimination, but today we are righting a wrong and giving the Port Chicago 50 the respect they deserved so many years ago. This momentous occasion could not have been made possible without the help of the Friends of Port Chicago, former Congressman George Miller, Professor John Lawrence at the University of California Washington Center, Congresswoman Barbara Lee, and committed members of our community. I thank them all for their steadfast determination in helping correct this past injustice and setting our nation on a path of healing.”

After experiencing segregation in the Navy, 435 African American munitions sailors, who were not properly trained or supported by the Navy, were killed or injured when a cargo vessel exploded as they were loading munitions. This incident accounted for more than 15 percent of all African American Naval casualties during WWII and was the deadliest home front disaster during the war. When 50 of these men understandably refused to return to the unsafe working conditions that killed their fellow sailors without additional supports or training, they were discriminately charged and convicted of mutiny.

“How wonderful! As we prepare to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Port Chicago catastrophe, the House's passage of the exoneration provision is an historic and welcome step. We congratulate Rep. DeSaulnier for his determined leadership and will work to ensure the Senate includes this amendment in the final bill,” said Rev. Diana McDaniel, President of The Friends of Port Chicago National Memorial.

“Members of the veterans community are very pleased with House passage of the Port Chicago exoneration language. Restoring the good names and reputations of these 50 sailors from World War II is overdue but most appropriate, and we salute Rep. DeSaulnier for leading the effort, ” said Stephen Noetzel, San Francisco Veterans Affairs Commission former Chair

“As the daughter of a veteran, I am deeply grateful to our men and women in uniform, who make tremendous sacrifices in service to this nation. I am also proud to join with Rep. DeSaulnier in acknowledging the historic passage of this amendment that recognizes a dark moment in the history of our military and our nation. The 50 African American sailors at Port Chicago, who boldly stood against discrimination and refused to return to unsafe work conditions, should be remembered as heroes. The charges of mutiny levied against these service members was wrong. These brave men should be honored, not only for their pivotal role in the World War II home front effort but also for their courage in the face of injustice. The Port Chicago tragedy is another reminder of our nation’s history in devaluing black lives, and I proud to stand with Rep. DeSaulnier in the passage of this amendment to right this wrong, recognize the historic specter of discrimination and racism in the armed forces, and honor these men and their service,” said Congresswoman Barbara Lee.

Since coming to Congress, Congressman DeSaulnier has actively been working to seek justice for the Port Chicago 50. He included a provision in a prior NDAA that required the Navy to investigate the circumstances surrounding the treatment of sailors at Port Chicago, which led to the Navy acknowledging the injustice that was served to the Port Chicago 50. DeSaulnier has also called upon the Smithsonian Institution to include information about the Port Chicago 50 in the new National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Also included in this year’s NDAA was a measure authored by Congressman DeSaulnier to improve financial transparency for America’s veterans. Servicemembers leaving the military often receive separation pay to facilitate their reentrance into civilian life. However, many veterans discover too late that their disability benefits can be reduced or withheld by the federal government until the full amount of their separation payment is recouped. DeSaulnier’s measure would require a study of the number of veterans who are impacted by this discrepancy and how much money has been withheld from servicemembers.