CONTRA COSTA COUNTY, CA (August 19, 2022) — There have been efforts on behalf of the Port Chicago 50 ever since Eleanor Roosevelt and Thurgood Marshall took up their cause in the 1940s. But Jason Felisbret, whose uncle was killed in the explosion, is “cautiously optimistic” about success this time for those convicted of mutiny.
The U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution last month seeking public exoneration for the 50 Black sailors who refused to work after the July 17, 1944, accident at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine.
In the then racially segregated Navy, many white sailors were granted leave but the Black men were ordered back to the docks after the munition explosion killed 320 and injured another 390.
“This would be tremendous, and it would go a long way toward helping the family members actually come to some sort of closure on this issue,” Felisbret said of the exoneration proposal. “It should be a badge of honor that our relatives served in a war effort, but there’s this stain on their memories that we would absolutely like removed.”
“Fulfilling our nation’s founding promise of equality and justice for all requires confronting our past and working to right historical injustices,” said Rep. Mark DeSaulnier of Concord, who spearheaded the measure along with Rep. Barbara Lee of Oakland.
The House vote came just days before a July 16 ceremony in Concord marking the 78th anniversary of the worst home-front disaster of WWII. As part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the proposal directs the secretary of the Navy to publicly exonerate the men.
According to DeSaulnier’s office, the Senate’s version of the NDAA does not include any provisions on the Port Chicago 50. “A conference will be convened to resolve the differences between the two bills,” said press secretary Mairead Glowacki, who noted that the House has included the plan in three NDAAS since 2019.
Getting the word out
The Navy granted the 50 clemency after WWII, and President Bill Clinton signed a pardon in 1999 for Frederick Meeks. Felisbret believes the key to full exoneration is telling – and retelling – the sailors’ story. That’s why he joined the board for the Friends of the Port Chicago National Memorial.
“We exist as a partner with the National Park Service with two overall objectives: the first being to share the story to gain awareness and the second is to gain full exoneration for the full 50,” he said. “The best way to do that is to make sure people are aware of the story – our elected officials and the masses.”
To that end, the New Jersey resident took to the stage last month before a production of Dennis Rowe’s “Port Chicago 50” in SoHo. “I briefly spoke about this effort in Congress and asked people in the audience to write their Congressmen, write their senators – see if we can get more hands to help share the story.”
Felisbret attended the play with 11 other relatives of Seaman Second Class John B. Felisbret, who was “about 17” when he died at Port Chicago. The sailor’s sister, Mary Elizabeth Garrett, is Jason Felisbret’s mother.
Garrett, now 85, told family members the Port Chicago story in the early 2000s.
“She bought 20 copies of Robert L. Allen’s book, ‘The Port Chicago Mutiny,’ and gave them to all the nieces and nephews. With the book, she included pictures of her brother Junie – that was her nickname for him.”
In addition to Allen’s book and Rowe’s play, the tragedy has been depicted in an episode of the TV show “JAG,” a documentary narrated by Danny Glover and a TV film produced by Morgan Freeman.
Recognition at gravesite
The U.S. Congress began looking into the case in the 1990s, led by East Bay Rep. George Miller. In 2009, President Barack Obama signed an NDAA that established the Concord memorial as part of the National Park Service.
According to the Friends’ website, the memorial “commemorates the historical significance of the Port Chicago disaster and its impact on African-American history and the United States Armed Services.”
Taking it one step further, the Friends are working to get a Port Chicago plaque at Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Bruno. Felisbret, who has experience as a voiceover artist, recorded an audio version of Allen’s book to benefit the foundation’s efforts.
“I’ve visited the headstones in Golden Gate Cemetery, and there is no context – just ‘Unknown Sailor’ with a date. But at this time, we know who they are,” said Felisbret.
Bev Britton graduated with a degree in journalism from the University of North Dakota and moved to the Bay Area with her soon-to-be husband Jim in 1986. She was features editor at the Contra Costa Times in Walnut Creek before becoming managing editor of the Contra Costa Sun in Lafayette in 1995. She retired from newsrooms in 2001, but an ad for the Clayton Pioneer drew her back in. The family moved to Lake Wildwood in the Gold Country a few years ago - but working at the Pioneer keeps her in touch with her old neighborhoods in Concord and Clayton.