On the night of July 17, 1944, sailor Freddie Meeks was on leave from his post as a munitions loader at the Port Chicago naval base near Concord, Calif., when the sky lighted up more brightly than any fireworks display. Meeks' constant nightmare had come true but, in some ways, the worst was yet to come.
That night, two huge explosions at what was then the West Coast's largest munitions depot destroyed two ships and killed 320 men, including 202 black sailors. It was the deadliest stateside disaster of World War II.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 02, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 2 inches; 95 words Type of Material: Correction
Freddie Meeks -- A caption that ran with the obituary of Port Chicago veteran Freddie Meeks in the June 21 California section called him a naval cadet and said the image of him in Navy attire posing with his wife was taken in 1942. In fact, the year the photo was taken is not known; Meeks was drafted in 1943. Also, the obituary erred in stating that a discharge "under honorable conditions" was a step short of a dishonorable discharge. It is one step below an honorable discharge and two steps above a dishonorable discharge.
Only black sailors -- most of them, like Meeks, fresh from boot camp -- were assigned the deadly duty of loading ammunition into ships bound for the Pacific theater. They had no special training for the hazardous duty. Their superiors told them there was no special danger, claiming that the ammunition, which ranged from rifle rounds to 2,000-pound "blockbuster" shells, was not live.
After the blasts, which left body parts strewn across a large area, the white sailors were sent home on extended leaves to recover from the trauma.
The black sailors were sent back to the docks.
Meeks was among 258 who refused to resume loading munitions until safety conditions were improved. He was among 50 who ultimately were convicted of mutiny and sentenced to prison terms as long as 15 years.
Their sentences were later reduced, but the men spent the rest of their lives under the pall of injustice.
Only Meeks, who died Thursday at age 83, ever saw his honor restored. He was pardoned by President Clinton on Christmas Eve 1999.
On that joyous day, the heavy burden of shame Meeks had been carrying for more than 50 years was lifted.
"I hope that all of America knows about it," he said of the tragedy at Port Chicago. "It's something that's been in the closet for so long."
Meeks, who had been in poor health for the last decade, died at the West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs Healthcare Center from complications of diabetes, heart failure and gangrene.
He is survived by his wife of 62 years, Eleanor; a daughter, Cheryl Jackson, of Los Angeles; two sons, Daryl of Los Angeles and Brian of Denver; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
Funeral services will be held at 10 a.m. Thursday at Bethesda Temple Apostolic Church in Los Angeles.
For more than four decades after the war, the only family member who knew of Meeks' role in the Port Chicago incident was his wife. He was terse when his children asked about his war experiences, and he lied about his record on job applications.
Port Chicago, on the south side of Suisun Bay, about 30 miles northeast of San Francisco, was authorized as the site for a munitions depot after the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. The first munitions ship to be loaded there sailed a year and a day later.
Meeks, a native of Natchez, Miss., arrived at Port Chicago in December 1943. He joined an all-black crew that worked around the clock to fill Navy carriers with explosives. Speed was rewarded; crews that took too long on the job found their liberty cut.
Some sailors lifted the ammunition with winches, some rolled it and others stacked it. Meeks found himself at the receiving end of a ramp that delivered grease-coated bombs into the hot belly of a ship. All night long he heard the sounds of bombs knocking against bombs. Sometimes he couldn't catch them because they slid down the ramp so fast.
"And that would almost give you a heart attack," Meeks recalled in a 1999 interview with National Public Radio. "And so we used to ask sometimes ... 'Say, is it any danger, this ammunition?' " The officers would say, " 'Oh, no, don't worry about it, it's safe, it's not live.... They don't have no detonators in them.' "
At 10 o'clock on the night of the explosion, the Quinalt Victory was being prepared for its maiden voyage. An older ship, the E.A. Bryan, was already loaded with 4,600 tons of ammunition and explosives, including 40-millimeter shells, fragmentation cluster bombs, depth bombs and 650-pound incendiary bombs.
"These latter bombs," historian Robert L. Allen wrote in his 1989 book, "The Port Chicago Mutiny," "had their activating mechanisms, or fuses, installed. Considered especially dangerous -- 'hot cargo' -- they were being loaded gingerly, one bomb at a time."
An officer noticed "that the men were having some difficulty getting the bombs out of the boxcar because they were wedged in so tightly," Allen wrote.
The cause of the calamity that struck at 10:18 p.m. would never be determined. But there were two explosions, about five seconds apart, that tore apart the Quinalt Victory and the Bryan. The second blast was the more powerful. Measuring the equivalent of a magnitude 3.4 quake, it shattered windows 35 miles away.
When Port Chicago blew apart, Meeks was in the midst of a three-day liberty in Oakland, his reward for having worked an exceptionally long shift. Despite orders, he did not return to base immediately. That landed him in the brig for a few days.