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Mutiny and Racial Injustice : The President should expunge the convictions of black sailors in World War II incident

July 10, 1994

President Clinton has an opportunity to right a racial wrong that lingers from the days of the segregated military during World War II. Next Sunday marks the 50th anniversary of an accidental explosion that killed 320 servicemen loading ammunition for the Pacific theater on a dock at Port Chicago in Concord, Calif. On July 17 the National Park Service will dedicate a memorial to the dead and injured at the site.

But there is much more to the story. Most of the dead were black sailors, working in segregated units and usually given the most menial and dangerous tasks in those days. When their unit was ordered back to loading live shells two weeks after the deadly blast, 258 black sailors refused, calling the conditions unsafe and their training inadequate. They were convicted at courts-martial, 50 of them for mutiny and sentenced to 15-year prison terms.

After the war, the secretary of the Navy commuted their sentences to 16 months and the men ultimately were given honorable discharges; some continued to serve in the military. And, indeed, the case became a turning point for civil rights and was a key factor in President Harry S. Truman's historic decision to order the desegregation of the armed forces in 1948.

Yet the convictions still blot the records of the men, many of whom are still alive. After a lengthy review, Secretary of the Navy John H. Dalton upheld the convictions last Jan. 6. He admitted the black seamen had been assigned the hazardous ammunition work because of their race but denied that prejudice played a role in their courts-martial.

That is an unsatisfactory finale to the painful Port Chicago episode. Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein and Reps. George Miller, Ronald V. Dellums, Pete Stark and Nancy Pelosi, all of California, have asked President Clinton to expunge the convictions. We agree.

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