Tuesday, October 30, 2012

"The Color of War" by James Campbell (2012)

By May of 1944 the war in the Pacific had gone from the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor; in December of 1941; to a chain of island invasions, which forced the Japanese to adopt a defensive posture in the face of an ever tightening noose as our Navy and Marines advanced towards Japan itself. But, between that time, and our later victory, 2 events would occur; one, involving African-American sailors would be held up as an immediate example of the freedom lacking here at home, even as we fought for it overseas; while the other event, the explosion of several fully laden LST’s in the West Loch of Pearl Harbor, would be hushed up for 16 years.

On May 21st, 1944 an explosion occurred aboard LST-353, igniting all of its cargo of ammunition, bombs and fuel. The burning shrapnel landed on other fully loaded LST’s causing them to explode as well. Hundreds of lives were lost, along with thousands of tons of supplies bound for Saipan. The continued spread of the disaster actually caused our Navy to sink some of the other vessels before those, too, caught fire.  The battle for Saipan, which would occur on July 18th, was the last major stepping stone in our conquest of the Pacific. In fact, that battle was so decisive a victory for the United States that Tojo; and his entire cabinet; resigned the following day.
Against this backdrop, author James Campbell has juxtaposed the disaster which occurred at Port Chicago, located just 25 miles from San Francisco, as an example of how we were fighting not only Germany and Japan in this war; we were also fighting ourselves here at home. That disaster; on the same day as the Marines were taking Saipan; was the direct result of an Armed Forces which was still racially segregated even as we fought for freedom abroad. And, since the crews loading the ammunition ships were all African-American, someone was going to pay for the accident, even as the events in Hawaii just 8 weeks earlier were being hushed up.

The result of the Port Chicago disaster was the largest mutiny trial in the history of the Armed Forces, as the African-American sailors refused; rightfully so; to resume their work. As would be shown at their trial, these men had been working without any of the specified safety measures outlined in any of the manuals concerning the loading of explosives. Inert explosives are dangerous enough to handle; as are fuses; which are never to be stored in the same space as the explosives. That is, unless you were working at Port Chicago, where the rules simply didn’t apply.

The author follows the lives of several of the men charged with Mutiny; a crime punishable by death; from the days prior to their enlistments, and on through the events at Port Chicago. His coverage of the Court Martial; at which future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall would act as their Chief Counsel, having been supplied by the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund; is one of the most fascinating portions of the book. Charged with Mutiny and facing the Death Penalty, these 50 men, along with their Defense Team, would break new ground in the courtroom, and that victory would ultimately be a part of a greater one, when President Truman finally desegregated the military in 1947. That decision caused a rift in the Democratic Party which would never heal, and those repercussions still affect us today. The story of the Court of Inquiry is equally as fascinating, as its conclusions should have exonerated the men altogether.
All of this is played out against the Battle of Saipan, being fought by primarily white troops, who were winning the war by using the very supplies which were shipped to them via the men loading them at Port Chicago. The vast difference in their experiences, while ostensibly fighting for the same cause, makes for a remarkable contrast.

Backed up by 100 pages of notes arranged chapter by chapter; along with an extensive 20 page bibliography; the author has blown life into every page of this book. It will stand as a true and accurate account of not only the Port Chicago Incident, but also as a reminder of a time when fighting for freedom didn’t always guarantee freedom here at home. And, if the only thing new is the history you don’t know, then this book may also stand as a warning about repeating some of the mistakes of our past.

This Just In - Kings Highway and Hurricane Sandy

This is my old neighborhood in Brooklyn , New York yesterday, before the full force of Hurricane Sandy arrived. Through the magic of you tube I am able to go back and walk the streets, getting a bit of a feel for what is going on there. I'm hoping power stays on for everyone, but pulling especially hard for zip code 11229 where this video was shot. Located less than 1 mile from Sheepshead Bay and Brighton Beach, the area was on the lip of the mandatory evacuation zones. I hope everyone there is safe, dry and warm.

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