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Veterans Honor Victims of WWII Blast

August 14, 1999|From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — A group of black World War II veterans on Friday remembered colleagues lost in an ammunition explosion 55 years ago and urged President Clinton to clear the names of 50 black sailors court-martialed after the tragedy.

"We're going to give those men and their survivors the due that they deserve," said John Lawrence, an aide to Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), who is one of the lawmakers leading the pardon effort.

"Mr. President, please hear us," said veteran Yale Lewis of Washington.

The black sailors were court-martialed for mutiny for refusing to return to the loading docks after the July 1944 blast at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine near San Francisco killed 320 men--202 of them African American. More than 390 were injured. It lifted two transport ships completely out of the water, destroying them, and blew out windows 20 miles away. It sent up a plume of flame visible for 35 miles.

The World War II Black Navy Veterans of Great Lakes, which held a wreath-laying ceremony for the sailors Friday, is the latest group to call for the pardons.

Last month, the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People passed a resolution asking Clinton to pardon the sailors.

Two of the men who were convicted and imprisoned are known to be alive. Supporters have asked for a speedy review because one of the two, Freddie Meeks, 79, of Los Angeles, is in failing health.

White House officials said Friday that the matter is under review.

"It's being considered under the usual process at the Justice Department, and obviously the president will give careful consideration to that," said White House spokesman Barry Toiv.

Two-thirds of those killed were members of the all-black loading crews that stacked bombs and other explosives aboard Navy ships.

The explosion was the worst domestic loss of life in World War II.

A 1994 Navy legal review concluded that the black seamen had faced racial prejudice, but it found no grounds to overturn their courts-martial.

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