Robert Routh | Interview 1 | May 21, 1978

Oral History Center, UC Berkeley

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0:00 - “Join the Navy, and see the world”: Choosing to volunteer for the Navy / Loading ammunition

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Keywords: 1942; ammunition dump; boxcars; civilians; enlist; family farm; Mare Island Naval Shipyard; Memphis, Tennessee; Navy; recruiter; Robert Smalls; stevedore

Subjects: Community and Identity Port Chicago World War II

5:26 - Expectations of service versus reality

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Keywords: grievances; military culture; Naval rating; racial violence; recreation; segregation; stevedore; trade skills; Vallejo, California riots, 1942

Subjects: Community and Identity Port Chicago World War II

12:13 - Mare Island facilities and conditions

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Keywords: barge; barracks; conditions; military leave & liberty; Naval rating; Port Chicago, California; ranks; table of organization and equipment; TO&E; transportation issues

Subjects: Community and Identity Port Chicago World War II

17:16 - Description of work atmosphere at Port Chicago

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Keywords: Port Chicago Naval Magazine; race relations; shift work; stevedore; work description

Subjects: Community and Identity Port Chicago World War II

19:38 - Navy buying out Port Chicago town / Keeping up with friends

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Keywords: 1967; Concord, California; eminent domain; Percy Robinson; personal relationships

Subjects: Community and Identity Port Chicago World War II

22:19 - Moving from Mare Island to Port Chicago / Description of environments and work

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Keywords: 1944; calling cadence; commendations; positivity; productivity; skilled labor; training; winch operators; work description

Subjects: Community and Identity Port Chicago World War II

27:00 - Concept of danger / Cause of the explosion / Training details

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Keywords: accident; danger; desensitized; Naval rating; promotion; rank; sabotage; training; winch operators

Subjects: Community and Identity Port Chicago World War II

31:20 - The day of the Port Chicago Explosion and Routh's subsequent vision loss

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Keywords: base structure; blind; casualties; depression; explosion; medical; military leave & liberty; personal injury; wreckage

Subjects: Community and Identity Port Chicago World War II

37:38 - Growing vision damage / Wronged by the VA

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Keywords: assaulted; blind; compensation; diagnosis; hospital; malpractice; medical negligence; mugged; personal injury; robbery; VA; Veterans Affairs

Subjects: Community and Identity Port Chicago World War II

43:35 - Redressing VA mistreatment

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Keywords: 1946; appeal; benefits; blind; Boston, Massachusetts; compensation; DAV; diagnosis; Disability American Veterans; scar tissue

Subjects: Community and Identity Port Chicago World War II

49:18 - Seeking education and the freedom of choice

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Keywords: 1947; education; employment; high school dropout; Los Angeles City College; Los Angeles, California; Massachusetts; mobility; Pepperdine University; Perkins Institute for the Blind; personal independence; Price Vista Brass Manufacturing Company; vocational rehabilitation; vocational training

Subjects: Community and Identity Port Chicago World War II

55:33 - Becoming a VA benefit counselor / Remembering Port Chicago peers

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Keywords: 1974; Blinded Veterans Association; Jesse Jones; Percy Robinson; VA; Veterans Affairs

Subjects: Community and Identity Port Chicago World War II

59:35 - "Go on brothers": Learning of the men who received summary courts martial / Competitive work standards

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Keywords: commendations; construction battalion; grievances; hospital; lack of communication; medical; mutineers; Navy "E" Award; relegated jobs; Seabees; segregation; skilled labor; volunteer

Subjects: Community and Identity Port Chicago World War II

65:24 - Petition on working condition grievances / Lack of jobs for black sailors

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Keywords: 1943; boot camp; education; grievances; Joe Louis vs. Billy Conn; Naval rating; Navy policy; officers; petition; rank; segregation

Subjects: Community and Identity Port Chicago World War II

70:36 - Knowledge of the trial / Port Chicago Naval Magazine's military value / Patriotism and morale

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Keywords: Admiral Wright; ammunition dump; band; chain of command; disposition; military culture; mood; morale; music; recreation; trial

Subjects: Community and Identity Port Chicago World War II

76:20 - How people came to join the Navy during World War II

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Keywords: 1942; career plans; education; enlist; patriotism; race; recruiting; skilled labor; social progress; transferable skills

Subjects: Community and Identity Port Chicago World War II

79:55 - Training at Great Lakes, Illinois / Seabees rebuilding Port Chicago Naval Magazine

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Keywords: boot camp; Naval rating; Naval Station Great Lakes; Port Chicago Naval Magazine; rebuild; Seabees; segregation; skilled labor; training

Subjects: Community and Identity Port Chicago World War II

82:40 - Port Chicago Naval Magazine becomes Concord Naval Weapon Station

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Keywords: civilians; Concord, California; eminent domain; Port Chicago, California; regrets; repercussions

Subjects: Community and Identity Port Chicago World War II

87:19 - Details of life at Port Chicago / Anguish over accusations and public reaction

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Keywords: base structure; chain of command; documentation; leadership; officers; race relations; reputation; service contributions; social progress; tragedy

Subjects: Community and Identity Port Chicago World War II

94:38 - Night of the explosion / Reflection and gratitude

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Keywords: ammunition; base structure; camaraderie; commendations; David Moss; evacuation; explosion; medical; personal injury; pride; reflection; sabotage

Subjects: Community and Identity Port Chicago World War II


ALLEN: What I wanted to ask about was your experiences at Port Chicago. How did you come to get into the Navy in the first place?

ROUTH: Well, that was kind of an unusual thing for me, Mr. Allen. As much as I had decided that I was going to volunteer for the Army, I had grown up on the farm until I was about, well, thirteen years old, and knew a lot about animals and especially horses; so therefore, I wanted to volunteer and get into the Army cavalry. And on the day that I went down to volunteer, the Army recruiting office was closed -- I guess they closed at 5:00 and we got there shortly after 1:005:00, my father and I -- , and I peered around the corner and the Navy was standing wide open. I put the question to the young man's desk, "Will the Army open up any more today?" I guess I was maybe thirty yards away from him when I shouted out the question. He waved to me and said, "Come down here." [laughs]

ALLEN: What city was this it?

ROUTH: This was in Memphis, Tennessee.

ALLEN: So, you were born and raised in Memphis?

ROUTH: I was born on a farm in Macon, Tennessee. By the way, the farm is still in the family. There are two adjacent farms. My aunt lives on one and my uncle, who died in 1954, owned the other farm; but his wife is alive and still stayed in the place, and I have two first cousins that will inherit if they should survive this aunt of mine. But the farm is still there and going strong, and a 2:00lot changes -- you know, with the electric and the toilet inside the house now.

ALLEN: Well, that is wonderful.

ROUTH: So when I put the question to the sailor, "Will the Army open up any more today," he asked me, "What did I want?" I said, "Well, I was trying to volunteer for the Army." So, he called my father and I, and sat us down and told us about the merits of the Navy and when I walked out, I walked out with the paperwork to get notarized to sign for the Navy.

ALLEN: What year was that again?

ROUTH: That was July of 1942. I was the 552nd negro to volunteer for the Navy serving at Camp Morrow, which later became Camp Robert Small at Great Lakes, named for I guess some WWI Army officer, who was a hero or something.


ALLEN: He was a black hero during the Civil War, I believe. The story is that he captured a confederate vessel and took it up to the union lines. It's quite a story. So you went to Camp Small then for boot training? What was that?

ROUTH: That was July 9, 1942, and we graduated in September. So I took my boot, and my nine-day leave and went home and then was shipped to Mare Island to an ammunition depot. We served there for probably three months before the barracks 4:00were completed over on the Vallejo side. We took the ferry every morning to work on the ammunition dump there -- and that was also shipping and receiving ammunition. We did similar type work there that they did at Port Chicago, but mainly the civilian stevedores handed much of the work at Mare Island.

ALLEN: Oh, is that so? Had they given you any training or preparation for the ammunition handling?

ROUTH: No. The ammunition handling basically were our ammunition shipped from the factory to be stored in magazines, and then awaiting shipment overseas; some of the ammunition was actually made right there at Mare Island, and we did have 5:00some of the force who worked in some of those production shells. But basically, as I say, we unloaded boxcars, or loaded boxcars, and shipped out a lot of stuff from there to be sent down to Frisco and Oakland to be shipped out of there.

ALLEN: Had you expected that that was where you would be? What had been your interest in going into the service, to the Navy?

ROUTH: Well, the advertisement was "Join the Navy, and see the world." [laughs] The sailor that was on recruiting duty, by the way, was a black gentleman, and talked about the merits of the Navy and that basically most of the naval personnel could be and were taught trades. These were, then, things that you 6:00could do once you returned to civilian life; and so, that's what I thought that I would be able to do was to learn a trade. But at great lengths, they only took in so many men -- and I guess probably those that got the highest grades on the aptitude test. Some of those who got the highest grades were sent to various schools, cooks and bakers. At that time, they were not using too many of us for the better ratings, such as electricians, carpenters, and this kind of thing. So I wasn't one of those, and so they shipped us out here to the West coast on a huge troop train, I guess probably twenty-eight to thirty cars. And we had three destinations -- Port Hueneme, Mare Island, and Port Chicago. And I had never 7:00heard of any of those places.

ALLEN: How did you feel about it once you were at Mare Island and realized what you would be doing?

ROUTH: Well, that really made be somewhat unhappy at the beginning because there was the story of the picture of Dorie Miller and what he had done at Pearl Harbor; so we really thought that we would be serving in some capacity aboard ships. We were reduced to stevedores. There were a lot of complaints, but we were powerless to do anything about this. So the complaints were just verbal and nothing else. However, you might have in your research, ran across stories of a 8:00riot that was held at Vallejo in 1942 -- Christmas time.

ALLEN: I heard a mention of it, but I haven't met anyone who knows anything about it. Do you have any memory of what happened there?

ROUTH: Well, it appeared that the thing that precipitated the riot was a sailor who, I suppose got a little inebriated, and got involved with a civilian police officer. And in the little area where we were isolated up there, or segregated... the word quickly spread that a police officer was beating up another black sailor. And then that particular night, several cars were overturned and plate glass windows broken out of some of the stores. And the 9:00word quickly spread back to the base that there was a riot going on in town, and so it quickly then entered the base. They broke out more windows -- they were beating up any whites they could find. The marines were brought out from Mare Island to try to help bring peace again. The next day or so, the thing flared up again. So what they then did was they restricted all of us to the base and prevented other blacks -- like men who were up at Camp Stoneman, a lot of blacks were up there -- they prevented them from coming in to rest there. It was quite 10:00awful. I don't think anybody was killed in the riot; there was a lot of damage, and at that time, there was no really recreation facilities there. They had built a recreation hall, but a pool table is about the only thing. But they brought in basketballs and boxing gloves and they quickly changed the method of rating personnel and got people reorganized and brought about other activities, and brought in girls for the first time for dances, and so forth.

So all of this -- because we were all young blacks, I guess the average age probably twenty-one, twenty-two. To have this many men with not very much to do recreation wise, leaving us to our own devices in a segregated town, see. So-- for example, to make the base more military on off hour duties they had us 11:00practicing drills and things like this, and got a band organized. And then inspections were held every Friday, and flag raising ceremonies, and... really kind of made the base much more military than it had been up to that point. And here again, if they shipped out the so-called leaders [laughs], nobody was court martialed out of that. It was rather bad. For, I guess, four or five days there, there was no work going on the base except for those who were assigned to the mess hall; and at that time, I was assigned to the mess hall in the scullery 12:00division. This is where the Navy cleans its dishes.

ALLEN: Do you recall that at Mare Island before they built the barracks there, that the men were -- the black enlisted men were put on some kind of barge or ship.

ROUTH: Yes, I was one of those. This was an old river boat of the paddle wheel type, with the propeller -- rotary type propeller. We dubbed the vessel the USS Neversail, you know [laughs]. And we had two decks of bunks built, so it was really just used as a residence for us, really. I guess they probably could 13:00accommodate about 300-400 enlisted men and offices, and that's where we were. This was in September. We were housed there until after Thanksgiving. The first week in November, a couple of weeks or so before the riot, we were all in the barracks on the land.

ALLEN: How did the men feel about the conditions at Mare Island, and later at Port Chicago? Were there many grievances or complaints?

ROUTH: Well, the work conditions at Mare Island quickly improved, as I said 14:00before, after the riot. They gave us more ranks, third class, second class ranks, and elevated more people quickly, from second class seaman, to first class seaman, which gave you a little bit more money and additional ranks, and additional authority on the part of blacks, and they got rid of some of the worst officers. They shipped those out. The work conditions wasn't bad; they were better at Mare Island than they were at Port Chicago, inasmuch as Port Chicago was even worse from the standpoint that we were out there in an area that was more isolated than Mare Island and nothing to do. They did put in some recreation facilities there: bowling alleys, swimming, this kind of thing -- 15:00which was a brand new building by the time I got there. And they instituted a practice of taking busloads for liberty parties into Oakland, Berkeley and San Francisco, and at no charge to the men. But it was an awful place to get out of, from the standpoint of transportation even. It was just a work area.

ALLEN: What was that little town of Port Chicago itself like -- did you ever go in there?

ROUTH: It was just a one street place, a few beer taverns and things like that. So they didn't want blacks there at all.

ALLEN: Oh that was the townspeople --

ROUTH: The townspeople didn't care for blacks; and nobody hardly went in there, anyway. As I said, it was no other civilians there -- not even black civilians 16:00working on the base itself. All the civilian force that was working there were white, and then you found a few blacks in Pittsburg -- which you had Camp Stoneman there and black soldiers there. But really, to have more contact with blacks you have to go into places like Vallejo, Oakland, Berkeley, San Francisco, or Sacramento; but to try to get to those places from where we were, well, there were few buses, see. So really wasn't very much for you to do. Idle time on your hands, and so forth, sort of leads to legitimate complaints. We had no blacks above the rank of first class on the base. No Chief petty officers 17:00that were black at all. Not even in the mess department

ALLEN: You went to Port Chicago then in April 1944?


ALLEN: What was the relations like between the black enlisted men and the officers -- the white officers?

ROUTH: Well, it was civil. There was no real hostility, you know, from one to the other. We had to work, as I said, one of the things that led to high production was... no ship meant no work, so the faster we got a ship out of there, the fact you were doing nothing again.


ALLEN: In the loading work itself, was there any rivalry or competition?

ROUTH: No. Because the method of arranging the work detail was around the clock when the ship was there. So my division would be assigned for a week to work the 4-12 watch. Then we would be relieved by the 12-8 watch, etc. So there wasn't no need for any rivalry thing at all. The ship wouldn't stay in very long because the productivity went along very rapidly -- with young men, as you know, it's fairly easy to stimulate them to work. It was kind of play. A lot of banter from 19:00dockside to ship side and specially from the-- I was a winch operator with the, "heads up in the hold down there, you logheads!" You know. [laughs] (Interruption)

After the explosion of '44, for the protection of everybody the best thing to do is to buy it up and move out the civilians and erect military housing and so forth in the town, which they did.

ALLEN: That would have been in '67 then. Would you say there was a lot of complaining about that?

ROUTH: Oh yes. People didn't want to move; they didn't want to sell their 20:00properties and stuff like that.

ALLEN: Did you know any of the people that lived in Port Chicago or what became of them?

ROUTH: No, I met only about three fellows and I haven't had any contact with any of them except for Mr. Robinson, here. It was just an accident that one day we were talking about it, and I learned that he was there; but I've tried to locate several people haven't been able to do so. I guess people die out. One of the fellows that I continue to have contact with, when I lost my sight, I lived in Philadelphia and I visited him up until he died in about 1959, 1960. I tried to locate his wife... I was in Philadelphia in 1976, and she had moved and didn't 21:00leave a forwarding address. Now, I did get a card from her this past Christmas. We re-established contact.

ALLEN: What was his name?

ROUTH: His name was Jesse Jones. Now Jesse was a very fortunate individual in this sense he had in a fight. He was from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania -- and in a fight several years before he went into the Navy, he was stabbed in his right eye; well, he lost that eye to the point where that eye was enucleated. But he had perfect vision in the other eye. So he remained in the Navy until the war was over. As I said, I visited with him several times after -- I got off the service, I went to Tennessee, home. And then in '46, I moved to Massachusetts. 22:00So Pennsylvania was just a few hours ride on the train, and I would go down to -- it was quite comfortable to be around people that you had served with.

ALLEN: You said that you were a winch operator at Port Chicago, what kind of training did you get for that -- how did you come to be a winch operator?

ROUTH: Well, I told a lie. I told you at Vallejo we had established military drills. Well, I've always been kind of a devil so I learned to call cadence, so we're out there drilling and I was calling cadence and our senior officer came out and wanted to talk to us, so they were taking the names of all who could do 23:00storekeeper, carpentry, and operate winches. So when they got to winches, so I stuck up my hand on an impulse. Little did I know that some of those personnel would be shipped to Port Chicago -- and this was in February of 1944. So when I found out what had happened, I went to the chaplain, to the commander of the base, everything trying to get out of this shipment; with no success, of course. So, when I got up to Port Chicago, I was fortunate enough to be assigned to a division that had no personnel, practically. So there was this winch school up there, and I went over and talked with the gentlemen that was teaching the 24:00classes over there; and after learning that he'd graduated a class or two ahead of me, I put the question and told him about this big lie, and could he help me or would he help me. And of course, he did. I had about two weeks there, waiting for personnel to be shipped in. And so -- then the during this interim period, I was at the school every day. So when the division was fully complemented with its personnel, I was assigned to hold number four. I stepped over to those controls like a veteran. [laughs]

ALLEN: But they had not actually verified whether you were a winch operator or not then before you got there.

ROUTH: No. And this wasn't done with any of the other personnel. They sent seventy of us up there to increase the base up there. As I said, there were 25:00carpenters, winch operators, and storekeepers. The storekeeper was the individual who would keep record of the tonnage that was going over -- going in each hold and amounts and so forth. Of course, carpenters had to prepare the vessel to receive the ammunition, as well as then to secure it. As you might know, a ship can really go up to maybe a forty-five degree roll and still right itself -- so you don't want any of this cargo to move about. So, we would be, shall we say, shipping sixteen-inch projectiles -- which is a huge thing, it's in excess of six feet tall and huge depths. So when you get this stuff down in 26:00there, and it was a pleasure to see these young men, man, be able to secure that stuff down in those holds, see. An iron ship, but there it sits, and they get down there with this lumber and power equipment, saws, and so forth. And it was a lot of play and pleasure too. I guess one of the reasons why you indicated that there was such a movement afoot to get those court martials reduced, or lifted completely, was the Navy had decorated the base several times for its productivity up there; it was quite high. So the officers -- in spite of this desolate place we were in -- had managed to keep the personnel, the morale, fairly high.

ALLEN: How did the men feel about the danger of the work itself?


ROUTH: I don't think that anybody took this serious. They knew that this was explosive stuff. But nobody had ever seen any of it go off. So therefore, they never really felt that it was really that dangerous -- because from time to time, you would have accidents. For example, once I saw the noses on two sixteen-inch projectiles bent, which was just a cap. That cap would be removed; before that, shell would be fired, and the fuse then would be attached. So then, naturally, when you see something like that, and nothing happens, maybe it shakes you up momentarily but or you would have say a net of five-inch 28:00projectiles that drop and fall all the way down and of course nothing again happens. So really, there wasn't that apprehension among the crews. And those of us that I had contact with after the explosion really felt that it was sabotage -- as opposed to that it was an accident that brought this explosion about. Have you learned what did actually happen?

ALLEN: Well, the Navy itself never found out. They had a court of inquiry that investigated the explosion. They considered sabotage; but the conclusion they came to was that it was either a defect in one of the bombs that caused it to go off, or that it was rough handling by the work crews, and that there was some kind of an accident.


ROUTH: Well, the crew down there was an experienced crew that was doing the work. And one of the reasons why they (interruption)

ALLEN: I was interested in-- in the car you were talking about the work of being a winch operator, how that was set up. You had had training on the steam winches.

ROUTH: As I started to tell you before we were interrupted that I was fortunate enough to be in a division that was just being formed, and so taking my problem that I couldn't operator a winch over to the instructor -- who graduated a couple of companies ahead of mine -- , I literally put the question: "Hey, I've 30:00lied to get up here now I don't know how to operate a winch, will you help me?" Of course, the gentlemen acquiesced. In about ten days before the division that I was assigned to was formed, after practicing five, six hours a day -- they didn't have many students in. So he was glad to have a student, and I was glad that the school was there. So that then was how I became a winch operator. By the way that the seventy of us that was sent to Port Chicago, we all were supposed to have been experts in our fields. And we were promised after ninety days to be promoted to third class and they were awarding winch operators with the rank of motor machinist. So I got hurt on the seventeenth of July, and my 31:00rank was coming up the first of August.

ALLEN: What was it like on the seventeenth of July?

ROUTH: Well, the seventeenth of July was a beautiful day. It was a hot day. The thing that made Port Chicago such a bad place to live: we had very few trees around the place, so to come up with nothing else around the place and see these forsaken barracks just standing out here in the wilderness with a fence around it; the dock sides were well over a mile away from the barracks themselves... It 32:00was a kind of a strange place to be and to see. So this was a Monday, very hot.

On this particular day, I had liberty, but I decided I would wash my clothes and catch up with some letter writing. And along about 1:00 or so in the afternoon, I felt very depressed and I don't know why; it was just a feeling of ennui that just seemed to permeate my whole spirit. And I walked into the head, and I must have reflected this in my face because one of my shipmates -- a lad from New York -- took a look at my face as I came in. He was the only one in the head, and said, "What's the matter, man?" And I couldn't answer him. And he said, "Why don't you just take a cry?" When he said that, the tears just gushed forth. So 33:00after this cry, I felt a heck of a lot better; but little did I know, some ten hours later, that I was to be in such a holocaust. When taps was sounding that evening, I put my writing gear away and went to wash up and put on my Noxzema -- being a teenager I had some of those blemishes on my face. I came back. I was lying on my bunk. It would usually take about twenty minutes to quiet the troops down after lights out. And shortly after probably 10:20 -- Navy time would be 34:002200 -- , this tremendous explosive sound. And I was looking to my right -- I had my head pillowed on my arm, looking away from the explosion. As I quickly jumped to look to see that was going on, a second explosion, and all these tremendous beautiful flashes in the sky. That's when the flying glass hit my face and entered my eyes. It did it in such a strange way, inasmuch as I never felt any pain from it, you know. It lacerated the left eye so badly that it was 35:00taken out that night, and the right one had a laceration -- just one laceration in the eye itself that traveled across part of the pupil and cornea allowing the vitreous fluid to drain, which left me with split vision in that eye. They were able to put a suture in there. And of course, sutures leave permanent scar tissue, and from the scar tissue, eventually this caused the sight to leave me completely. It was a strange thing inasmuch as we only had three enlisted men who had eye injuries. And I was the only one that lost both eyes.

ALLEN: In your division -- or?

ROUTH: In the whole camp. One of the things that caused the casualties to be as 36:00few as they were, the barracks that received the brunt were prefab barracks, and the men dockside were killed were housed in those barracks. The barracks that were put up prior to WWII met the earthquake standards and they just stood there; they rocked, but they stood. But the casualties might have been much greater. Of course we certainly would not want to see them any larger than what they were. I guess we had about 120 killed. You probably been able to verify this by now from reading the casualty list.

ALLEN: Well, yea, there were 323 in all. About 230 were enlisted men I think 37:00another 390 were injured. There was military and civilian casualties.

ROUTH: What I was getting at though, we didn't have an awful lot of us that had to be hospitalized; they were treated with first aid. Of this number that was injured I think it was only half dozen or so that was hospitalized.

ALLEN: So what happened then? You had the split vision in the right eye?

ROUTH: In the right eye. Anything beyond three feet was double for me. I was sent to Philadelphia Naval Hospital for rehabilitation. Nobody knew the meaning 38:00of the word back there. So the eye doctor in charge experimented with me with a contact lens -- and instead of trying to carry the experiment on after I was fitted for this unit, to see how it was going to last and so forth, I got a fitted unit, custom made unit one day and was released from service the next. As long as I could wear the unit, I could see twenty-twenty from that eye. But in those days, the contact lens was a plastic unit that fitted inside the full contour of the eye with a solution -- and this acted as a buffer between the 39:00cornea and the unit itself. This solution prevented irritation and so forth. But at that time, nobody had ever worn one of the things over eight or nine hours a day. But you had to train yourself to wear the thing; so an hour or two a day. When I used it, the vision was so blurred after I took it out that I got to the place where I just stopped using it altogether. But for all practical purposes when I come out of the service well it just left me handicapped to the point where I could have been considered legally blind then.

ALLEN: So your vision continued to deteriorate, then?


ROUTH: Well, the vision deteriorated, and the thing that hastened the thing -- I was robbed one night, and in resisting the robbery, I was wearing some glasses that I had purchased which helped the vision. They broke the glass in my eye, and that then hastened the vision. So this added additional problems. There's a veterans administration in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where the VA office was housed at that time. Placed me in the lowest category that they could legally put me in by way of compensation. They paid me actually forty dollars for the injury and forty-one dollars for what was referred to as the statutory loss of the left eye. Since the left eye was enucleated the night I was injured. So 41:00forty-one dollars was paid for what was referred to as a statutory loss. And I got no compensation for the right eye because these people down there knew I was black and they looked upon the contact lens as having the eye completely restored -- and therefore, gave me no compensation for this eye. Since when I was wounded with this attempted robbery, I gave Lieutenant Colonel, the doctor that operated on me that night -- such a bad time that before I was released 42:00from the hospital he shook his finger in my face, I could still feel at it now, an angry finger being pointed at me -- by the way, he was from your Georgia state -- indicating that the loss of this right eye was strictly misconduct on my part and he would see to it that I would not receive any veterans benefit compensation. But this also led to what I was telling you earlier that since I had had just an eighth grade education, that then I was determined to find a way for the veterans administration to sponsor my stay outside of the south until this wrong was righted. I prayed about this every night and I believed it was just a question of time before the Veterans Administration would see that they 43:00had wronged me. I wrote a letter to then General Bradley, who was the administrator of the VA. He sent my letter back to Murfreesboro, where they turned me down again. And of course when I went to Boston -- I was in Boston from September to December before I got some of this wrong righted.

ALLEN: What year was that?

ROUTH: 1946. And the VA there boosted me from $97.20 to $124.80. And at that time, the minimum 100% was $138, so I didn't feel too badly. But the little bit I know that I deserved a much higher spot and the way the real wrong was finally 44:00redressed. I had found a home away from the school in Roxbury, Massachusetts. I would go up there on weekends, and on this particular Sunday night, I was going back by cab as I generally went if the people that I rented from couldn't take me back. And just a chance question on the part of the driver, who introduced himself as Charlie, asked me about my blindness and asked me if I was willing to talk about it and I told him, "yes." And so, he asked me if I was satisfied with the VA. I told him no. So he asked, then, after hearing my story when could I get out of school. I said, anytime I like. He said well I'm off on Wednesdays 45:00and if I could meet him Downtown Boston at Boylston and Tremont he would take me to see a man that would assist me. I often think, suppose I had been a black militant and hated whitey -- since the driver was a white man. Now he was asking me to meet him and I had never seen him before. But sure enough he took me to a member of DAV, a Mr. Paul Sullivan, who had heard my story and got very, very angry. A big Irishman and said that he was going to "fix it that day, goddamn it!" [laughs] But after an hour he came back, and said that it was going to be more difficult than he thought; but I could come back and be assured that he would not rest until he got me much more money.


Now this was April of '47; after getting that rebuttal from the rating board, he then set out to get evidence that he eventually took to the appeals board in Washington, DC. And he did a very thorough job inasmuch as took my diagnosis to a board of ophthalmologists. And these men independently -- the three of them -- independent of each other indicated that the scar tissue certainly would have had its toll, and would eventually put the eye out. It was just a question of time. They were naturally unable to predict how long I would have had some 47:00vision, but on the strength of this evidence, on August twenty-ninth, the appeals board Washington DC granted them that made it the full 100% for the loss of vision. Now to illustrate what this meant -- and I really didn't know until many years later, until I guess 1972, but -- the lowest 100% that we have in the VA -- and the VA ratings are indicated alphabetically A-B-C- and the first 100% is paragraph "J". This gentleman was able to get me in paragraph N. At that time this meant $318 a month. As I got married and got a family, and this through minimum 48:00increases; when my last child was born, this was raised to the magnificent sum of $475 by 1962. So you can see at that time, that this was a little greater than subsistence level. But beginning with 1965, the VA -- for the first time -- gave a meaningful increase in compensation. For example I went from $514 a month to $607. From '67, '68, '69, each increase for people in the category that I'm in has been $100 a year or better. Today I'm getting $1319 a month. So I feel sorry for the many, many of us who succumbed during this interim period, who had 49:00to exist on this level. But Congress today now really looks after the more serious handicapped in the manner that they should have at the close of WWII.

ALLEN: Could you tell me a little bit about your process to get an education after Port Chicago? We talked about it a little bit earlier. Could you describe that?

ROUTH: Well as I told you, I had to find a way to get out of Tennessee. And I'm just glad that I had the many problems that I had, because had I not had these problems, I probably would have stayed in Tennessee. There were my parents and my friends and other relatives did not want to see me go so far from home again, and so choosing a vocational thing that led me to Massachusetts, where I went to Perkins Institute for the Blind. And I really didn't want to go back to 50:00Tennessee again, so I got vocational training and some typing skills and some braille while at Perkins. I was there for twenty-seven months, and in the Fall of '49, the VA by this time had opened a rehabilitation center at Hines Illinois where they could accommodate eight students -- which was, at this point, headed by a blinded veteran who had been a former school teacher and who organized a skill of mobility that was using the long cane. When I got out of there after sixteen weeks of training, I knew then I didn't have to go back to Tennessee, because with the knowledge and skill of the use of the cane, it gives a blind person mobility and mobility gives you, then, freedom of choice. This meant that 51:00I learned how to ride public conveyances, and this kind of thing. So, I quickly made my plans to come to Los Angeles all by myself. And I've been living here with the exception of four years ever since then. But a gentleman from the VA called me in September 1950. I moved out here March 1950, got married July 1950; but my wife had done back to Massachusetts to go to school, to complete her education.

ALLEN: You had met in Massachusetts?

ROUTH: Mhm. So, I was sitting in my room and got this phone call from the VA and the gentlemen welcomed me to California and asked me if I was interested in working. And I quickly said yes. And he made arrangements to then get this job out at Price Vistas Brass Manufacturing Company in San Fernando Valley. And 52:00after the Korean War got started, I lost my job by way of lay off in August 1951. And so, another blinded veteran came to my aid and persuaded me to go to college. I told him I would laugh in his face, because he knew that I had only completed the eighth grade; but this gentleman quickly cast his derision aside and said that he was going to Occidental College. He only had an eighth grade education. I appeared to be as bright as he was, and he would help me get the general education development test -- and if I passed that, I would then get into Los Angeles City College. And after a battle with the VA, he was able to do this. And I entered Los Angeles City College in September '52, undertaking a 53:00course of study in real estate and insurance. But having this big gap of not going to high school -- my counselor urged that when and where I could substitute an academic subject for a business course, to do so. So I completed Los Angeles City College with seventy-two units, which this then gave me the confidence that I badly needed and the education that I had never had before. So this really was a godsend; but the thing that led me to take this particular course. The VA indicated that they would not permit me to take any course that I 54:00couldn't finish within two years or four semesters. So I had to choose something that I thought I could do, and I did. But the thing that really was a blessing in disguise was following the counselor in taking these academic courses, for by 1971 -- when the VA had a vocational rehabilitation program for all of the people who had never been fully rehabilitated from WWII, Korea and the Vietnam era -- , here then was the real blessing. For when I went to Pepperdine University, they accepted sixty-four of the seventy-two units as undergraduate credits, and I undertook then a course of sociology. This is how I got the undergraduate 55:00degree, and I've never been to high school [laughs]. But I was a good student, now. I finished seventy-two units at LA City College with a 3.07 average, which really surprised everybody including me.

ALLEN: When did you go to join the Veteran's Administration staff?

ROUTH: A little flavor here. With the problems that the VA were having with the bottle necks and the checks in '72, '73... it was finally decided that VA would hire some veterans benefit counselors, or "vet reps", and put them on the campus 56:00to try to iron out some of the difficulties that they were having and speeding up the educational allotment checks. And the Blinded Veterans Association -- which is an organization that was founded in 1945 strictly just to assist blinded veterans, operated by blinded veterans for blinded veterans -- requested that the VA consider hiring some blinded veterans to act in the capacity of veterans benefit counselors. This was 1974, and the VA said yes. And here again, that I was a lucky individual. I put my request in after our president had told us that WWII individuals were far too old or they couldn't pass physicals; I was 57:00able to pass the physical and got hired after being accepted by the local VA here. The national office also then said yes. So I completed the master academic requirement in December '74 and was hired actually on December sixth of '74 in order to report on January sixth, '75 as a veteran benefit counselor on a temporary 700 appointment -- where I've been there ever since.

ALLEN: After the explosion, did you have any contact with any of the other men in Port Chicago, or were you immediately separated from that entire group?

ROUTH: No. Only one of the men that was wounded with me that I continued some 58:00contact with, and this was the gentlemen by the name of Jesse Jones (who is now deceased). But from '46 up until he passed in 1959-1960, I continued contact -- both visits and phone calls and letters to this gentlemen. I'm sorry that I haven't been able to find others. It was kind of a pleasure to accidentally be talking one night in a men's group and to learn that Mr. Robinson was one of the gentlemen that had been stationed up there. I didn't know him up there.

ALLEN: But you and he have been members of the same parish for a number of years?

ROUTH: Several years, with neither of us knowing. The men's group meets once a 59:00month every Wednesday night, and that's hosted on a round-robin basis. And one night over a glass of sherry, just got to talking and a chance remark on my part led him to reveal that he was one of the 150 or so who received the summary court martials up there.

ALLEN: Did you hear of that at the time it happened, that some of the men refused to go back to work?

ROUTH: Yes. Yes. At that time, several of the fellows visited me in the hospital. See, we were taken from Port Chicago over to Mare Island Naval Hospital. I might have had a little more of my vision, maybe; it took two hours 60:00to check the draw bridge between Crockett, California and Vallejo before they would permit any traffic across the bridge. And, here again, this may have been a godsend during that two-hour interim: the hospital staff was altered and brought in because they didn't know how great the casualties were and how many people would naturally be hospitalized so that people were rounded up and brought in. They were on standby when we arrived in the buses from Port Chicago by police escort. I guess half a dozen of my colleagues visited me up until I was sent from Mare Island Naval Hospital to Philadelphia Naval Hospital, which lasted from July seventeenth until the first week or so in September of '44.


ALLEN: I see. So you were still there then at the time of the work stoppage.

ROUTH: Yes. And the contact was there.

ALLEN: Were you surprised by that? Or what was your reaction?

ROUTH: Not really, because I'm sure had I been there I would have accepted the same type of attitude that was adopted by personnel, inasmuch as that ninety-nine percent of the personnel there was people who volunteered for the Navy -- not until fall of '43 did the Navy ever draft. It had always been a branch of the service that got its full complement of needed personnel by way of volunteers. And these people had to be of good character, and be able to pass physicals; that was stringent inasmuch as color blindness was a thing that would cause the Navy to turn you down. So you had to have recommendations. And this is 62:00the thing that the Navy still does today -- that you must get recommendations. They check these recommendations out; it isn't just a question of putting some names down. They actually want letters from these people. They follow through on them. So with us feeling this way, we felt that what we were doing was far beneath Navy personnel, inasmuch as they didn't have white personnel doing this work -- unless they were doing in some skilled capacity, other than the actual stevedore type of labor at the lowest level. So we felt that this kind of thing that they had placed -- the position they had places us in was strictly a way of letting blacks into the Navy and getting optimum service at the cheapest dollar.


ALLEN: So you were not at all surprised then, or dismayed, when you learned that the men had refused to go back there?

ROUTH: On the contrary, I was thrilled. I said, "Go on brothers." [laughs] And I needed something to lift my morale at that point, and little did I know at that point that I was going to be as bad off as I was, because... I was fortunate to have a full captain in the Navy to operate on me. And a captain in the Navy goes from Captain to Admiral, so you can see that this is at a very high level of skill. So, my doctor was one of those people who was the best and who came to see me every morning, and he, too, then brought some of this news. It was the talk of the coast. Because when the base was destroyed, they brought in the CBs [construction battalion]; 64:00and the CBs worked around the clock to get the base ready to continue its badly needed work. And, of course, here is one of the things that was -- as I started to relate that I felt it was short sightedness on the part of the naval authorities never to attempt either at Mare Island or Port Chicago and, as far as I'm concerned, ever to assemble the personnel and address them from the standpoint of how important what we were doing really was. From time to time they send official out to Washington and give us the Navy “E” [award] for “Excellent Production”, but these people seeing us blacks would make these little cursory speeches and zap off they would go to what were really doing and how important 65:00it was, then some of the complaints would never really have been voiced.

ALLEN: Do you recall in 1943 a group of men in Port Chicago naval barracks drafted a petition which they then, well I found in NAACP files in New York, it was a petition setting forth some of the grievances that the men had about working conditions, and the racial conditions at Port Chicago, and indicating that they hoped that there would be a change in Navy policy. That was in Port Chicago in 1943 and you was still in Mare Island then, was there any similar kind of thing that occurred or did you ever hear of any effort to get the men to 66:00bring their complaints about the working conditions and racial conditions before either the naval authorities or outside civilian authorities.

ROUTH: No. I'm sorry that I didn't hear about this. In fact, this is the first time that I've heard about this now. But the men up there were -- this doesn't surprise me -- cause the men up there were of this caliber. And there was some nice find young men up there who were dedicated to do what we did, but also were thinkers. And any number of us were educated. I don't include myself in this particular bunch, but there were some college grads there and was glad to serve but these were the people who were revolutionary in their thoughts and so forth. 67:00Or if they hadn't been, they wouldn't have been Navy volunteers. To illustrate the point, that after the Joe Louis-Conn fight -- the first Joe Louis-Conn fight in June 1942 I believe it was, that you can see then how quickly the Navy opened its enlistment branch to seaman volunteers for the first time. And to show you how quickly this was filled by July the ninth there was 552, so you can see that we were really coming. When I left Great Lakes in September '42 there were three black camps there, who were, here again, we were always segregated with the exception of powers that be which were white. There were a few black chiefs at Camp Robert Small then, for these were men who had come up out of the so called 68:00black gangs when the vessels shipped over from sail to steam that blacks were used to shovel coal and shoveling coal they learned to be fire tenders and firemen rather and water tenders and machinists and so they assembled these men and brought them up to Great Lakes, Illinois in capacities that had to be filled there because here again, we had to have hot water and so forth, laundry service and all other things and naturally firemen had to fill these positions. So it was a pleasure to see some black chiefs.

ALLEN: So there were some old timers around then?


ROUTH: Yes, you could see the hash marks on their uniform, sixteen to twenty years' service.

ALLEN: What about Mare Island, Port Chicago, where there any of the old time guys around there? Black -- well there were no chiefs.

ROUTH: No. At Port Chicago nor at Mare Island. None of these places had any blacks. At the time of the explosion in '44 they had no blacks that held a rank higher than first class. And most of these that held the rank of first class were first class gunners. Now we didn't know anything about gunners but since we were assigned to naval ordinance it was fitting that these were the ranks that they chose. Now there were other of necessity ranks such as cooks and yeoman and here 70:00again you can see second and first class personnel holding these ranks and storekeepers. But other than these areas, we didn't have any second class electricians, didn't have no first class electricians. We did have one man who was second, but when they appointed him first class they switched his rank from second class electrician, since he was not really doing the work, over the first class gunnery.

ALLEN: You would have still been there the time of the mutiny trial began, that was in September '44.

ROUTH: Yes. Most decisively so. Most definitely.

ALLEN: Did you get any reports of the trial itself?

ROUTH: No not really until after the thing was a fait accompli. Naturally the 71:00stuff hit the papers and so forth. One of the main reasons I supposed that the harshness was meted out to the degree it was, that the base was commanded by a rank of captain. And after the explosion the admiral of the twelfth naval district come out and tried literally to persuade the men to go because Port Chicago was as far as importance went was the only naval port of this kind, that was dispatching badly needed ammunition to the Pacific. We shipped everything up there from M1 ammunition to 100-pound bomb to 200-pound blockbusters to 72:00sixteen-inch projectiles, warheads for torpedoes and even depth charges for submarines. We ran the gamut in as far as the type of munitions that were utilized in the Pacific. We had it all. So the base was really number one in importance.

ALLEN: You were shipping ammunition for all of the services was that right? It wasn't just for the Navy?

ROUTH: That's right. Yes indeed. These materials would naturally go from Port Chicago to Pearl Harbor to other points that were retaken by the United States and used out there.


ALLEN: How did you find the morale of the men at Port Chicago during the time you were there?

ROUTH: Surprisingly the morale at such a desolate place was good. Blacks find ways and means to entertain themselves. We played some ball and did some boxing, with them having the gumption to actually write a petition, and I'm glad to see 74:00that. We did have some high morale there. Here again after the riot down at Vallejo, California in '42, Port Chicago also adopted a policy of trying to keep the military attitude prevalent inasmuch as drills were held and flag raising ceremonies took place daily. As far as the bands getting out and playing the Stars Spangled Banner this kind of thing, was actually done. One of the men that conducted the band there I had been stationed with him when I was assigned to mess hall when I first got down to the USS Neversail was a gentlemen who was a 75:00first class musician, gray hair on his chest even. But he had been shipped up to the Port Chicago and given the rank of Chief. They made him Chief of boats, but with his musical skills he had the band in tip top shape and they did it every morning. It was a pleasure. When the flag ceremony took place wherever you were fared the flag pole at attention and actually saluted as the flag was being raised to the top of the staff. This really looked good to all who viewed it. Same thing would occur in the evening when the flag was lowered. It wasn't done by the band then but just the bugle. So once that bugle sounded you face the flag, stood at attention and saluted again. That gave a beautiful picture 76:00because even from the outside of the base as you would leave the base, you were walking, to see these blacks in their uniforms doing it, it was really a picturesque thing to see.

ALLEN: You mentioned earlier that you had volunteered for the service in July '42 after you graduated from the eighth grade in June, you were at the age of seventeen? Was that a general thing amongst the guys in the area where you were of interested in the service or coming to--going into the service?

ROUTH: I suppose so. The first of my friends to go went into the service in February '42, and at that time the only blacks that were allowed in the service 77:00were coming in then by way of the steward's mates division. And he volunteered in February and then little by little the other guys either went the Navy or the armed services. So --

ALLEN: Was there an active recruiting thing by the services or was this simply at the initiative of the young black men themselves?

ROUTH: As far as I'm concerned, I don't think there was any attempt on the part of any of the service to actually go to high schools and other places to make an attempt to get blacks. I know they were doing this with whites but I never heard of it with any of the blacks. It was just a thing on the part of us that went I 78:00guess to get in there and help to prosecute the war. My father really tried to dissuade me not to go and where I got the spirit to really go, I don't really rightly know. But my rebuttal to him was that I felt that if he permitted me to go then I could have some hand in making this a better place for blacks to live in this country. I went so far as to say well that blacks were last to be hired during good times and the first to be fired in bad times and if you permitted me to go I can go and put in my twenty years and retire and at least I would always have an income. So my father only finished about the fifth grade himself. This kind 79:00of proposition was no match to him and his wit and so he reluctantly gave me permission to go.

ALLEN: So when you went in then it was both, your feeling at that time was to make a career of it?

ROUTH: Oh, most assuredly. Since I was going and interrupting my education, well, then, I believed this gentlemen when he told me that when you left the Navy you could have something that you could do in civilian life, but not until I told this big prevarication about being able to operate a winch did I really acquire some skill that I could have carried on with when I got out of service.

ALLEN: There was actually no real skills training at Great Lakes? What was the 80:00nature of the training there?

ROUTH: Well, as we were leaving Great Lakes they were at that point opening some schools there, electronic school, which really was not electronics per say. Radio, cooks, and bakers and later on they opened additional classes for blacks. But that was virtually all they had at that particular point. But before I graduated they actually had no schools existing at that point. They were just beginning as I said -- those people out of my division that went to cooks and baker or radio were -- you know, stayed right there. But by and large eighty percent, say ninety-five percent of all that graduated at that time were shipped out to Mare Island, Vallejo, not Vallejo, but Port Chicago or Port Hueneme.


ROUTH: Port Hueneme that's where the CB were located so that would have been guys going in to the construction battalion.

ROUTH: Well the forces that we were sending there were just on loan to the CBs and the Navy still has that policy now. But they weren't really using too many of us even in those days for this kind of thing.

ALLEN: Did the CBs who came up to rebuild Port Chicago, were these black CBs?

ROUTH: No. They were all white. Because keep in mind that the construction battalion, which CB stand for, this had to have expert personnel to get in there and do it. When I arrived at Port Chicago in April '42. They were in the process of building two new docks. And this was a very slow process, they had only civilians doing it. Driving the piles down into the bottom of the bay. It was a 82:00slow process. Well in a month's time, when those CBs came in, man they had the base ready--Because look we had to have a base. So the order of the president was that let nothing -- stop everything and get that base opened. 'Cause as I said even today it's the largest port for shipping ammunition in the country.

ALLEN: That's right. Yes. Do you know anything about Port Chicago today? What it's like there?

ROUTH: I've been threatening to go up there, but in 1967 when the -- during the Vietnam era war the Navy department decided through its powers of eminent domain 83:00to buy up the whole town I think in excess of 21 million dollars, you might want to verify the cost there, but I was listening to KFI, local radio station here, when one of the commentators did a brief thumb work sketch as to why the Navy did this because of the 1944 incident. So they felt it was a greater protection then to the civilians living there if they made the whole area a naval base. Rather than permit the civilians to live there. So I've been meaning to go up there and see it, and just never have gotten around to it.

ALLEN: Did you ever go into the town of Port Chicago while you were stationed there?


ROUTH: No. There was really no need, because the Tenth Division was on the second floor of the type of barracks we were housed in. And all the barracks were double-deckers. And standing out on the quarter deck from up there you could see from one end of the town to the next. And it was nothing. It was a strange thing to look at all this vast space. And very few trees, coming from a farm area and trees and wild life, this was really hard on me, to see so little foliage and all this dry stuff. Really it was a sad place to look at. 85:00Aesthetically speaking that is.

ALLEN: Still very much that way. I've been up there a couple of times.

ROUTH: Just take this back then thirty years ago.

ALLEN: The city of Concord has expanded. In fact the town of Port Chicago doesn't exist anymore that's all called Concord now. In fact Port Chicago itself, the base is no longer called Port Chicago but it's called the Concord Naval Weapon station. In my visits up there I can imagine what it must have been like back in that period. Just looking at the terrain around, that hill that went up behind the town, you recall. But it is still a desolate area.

ROUTH: Well as I said, fit that in the back drop then of the explosion had been 86:00really. Then you can see why those people who refused then. Well they said, "Ship us anywhere. We came to fight. Let us fight." This then was a privilege that was denied. And I'm sorry to be able to report this kind of dogmatic attitude on those people in charge. I hope that there is some contrition on those who, acting under orders, had to give the order. As I'm ashamed myself to as I said be able to report that these were the kind of conditions that our contribution was made, insofar as WWII was concerned. Maybe this was a vital part and the part that we had to play, but nevertheless I feel that it would 87:00have been much more pleasant if I had to tell you what a heroic thing I'd done.

ALLEN: This was part of the struggle too, I think. Was there -- as far as the quality of the officers there is concerned, I've gotten the impression that at least some of the officers there were sent there as reprimands, or perhaps they had had a run in with their superiors at some point along the way and punishment of that sort while you were there?

ROUTH: No not really. Maybe I'm not or wasn't skilled enough at that point or wise enough or sagacious enough to see that. But this wasn't a thing that I 88:00could detect even at Mare Island either. I'm sure that many of the officers privately voices the same kind of complaint that we did as enlisted men, that we were interested in fighting the war and certainly we didn't feel that what we were going really was getting that job done. The reason why I couch it in these terms on the part of the officers, since I indicated to you that from the captain down, or Admiral down, was it ever a time that these people didn't come up and try to dissipate some of this unrest by indicating why we were doing what 89:00we were doing. So therefore they themselves, I suppose, were not happy at doing what they were doing, but they weren't necessarily ready to have this disseminated in the part of rank and file. Otherwise they too would have joined the mutiny.

ALLEN: Do you recall who was lieutenant in charge of Division Ten?

ROUTH: No. I really don't. I'm really sorry because he was a very handsome young man and seemingly happy at doing what he was doing. A very pleasant fellow to look at. A big fellow, about 6'2" or 3" from Indiana. And he certainly didn't seem to have any animosity toward blacks. But if you do find out let me know as 90:00I would certainly like to look him up. The division leader was a guy by the name of Russo. I don't remember what his first name was, but Russo was a black from Louisiana, a big fellow and a very serious young man. Very handsome gentlemen, to see, especially in his dress uniform. So if you ever run across him, I'd like to look him up again, But he was the first fellow that I met when I was sent up there, to this place, under him we took turns. I told you, at the flag raising ceremony, we took turns, and this was done with dress blues. We'd stand out there in our dress blue and it really was nice to participate in. And to see 91:00Russo -- he stood well above most of us he too was a dude about 6'2" or 3". But as you can see Mr. Robinson and I don't request anything near that much height. But we were feisty. And could have made better sailors had the kind of attitude existed today. We quickly could have rose in rank because this is indicative of what we're doing now. We certainly had to have some kind of base to operate from, otherwise we would be just also-rans. And I don't think, by any stretch of the imagination, that you would make that kind of an assessment of what we do now.


ALLEN: I think that pretty much covers the general questions I have. Is there anything else that I haven't mentioned that you would like to bring up?

ROUTH: Not really. I'm just so thrilled to find that you're doing it. As soon as I found your item. As I said, I came home that day and looked in the phone directory to try to find an Allen. 'Cause I would have called you that night. I got the local San Francisco operator information, we tried to find you. And the one number that I did find that I thought might have been yours, got no answer, so I wrote you a letter that night.

ALLEN: Well, I'm sure glad you did.

ROUTH: I've been so thrilled to see that a story now can be documented and put 93:00in some kind of perspective for posterity for people to see and so forth. Like I said I am ashamed that these kind of conditions existed and I'm glad that I have lived long enough now to see that the path of the nation now has changed to the degree that they have. But to find that....and I lost dear friends up there, because they were transferred from Vallejo up there with me. These were kind of young blacks that made the conditions tolerable because of their attitude and ready to joke and make you glad to be alive and now to know that three to four 94:00seconds their lives were just snuffed out. And then to have their memory besmirched with --how dare you to refuse -- there was nothing said about this, the tragic loss of life. Where was the reporters there then, writing about that? These people must have, also being skilled as they were, had to have some concern -- not only about the destruction of the base -- but the large --

ROUTH: The night was one of those unbelievable things inasmuch as it was a full moon, and the moon was as bright as it could be. And it was one of the things that when the explosion occurred I was trying to think of something comical derisive to say to the boys on the PA system. "Now hear this, quiet about the 95:00deck." And the explosion was the answer. When the explosion occurred -- I, too, felt like running. In fact I leaped off of my top bunk down to do just that, when the thought hit me, that we were told if you were ever in a bombing raid to crawl under something. So I then crawled under the bunk below me -- which was this gentleman that I just told you, David Moss, was my good buddy and we were stationed at Mare Island together. I crawled under his side. When I felt it was safe to come out, I come out calling to him. And somebody shouted to me as I hollered, "Moss, Moss, come and get me, man, I can't see." And somebody said, 96:00"That damn Bob Routh over there, he's always playing."

And then the enormity of what I was saying struck me full, and I started crying. "No, no I'm not joking. Come and get me, I can't see." And people couldn't believe -- because, in a sense, the full moon being as bright as day, and up there with this empty waste land as Port Chicago as it looks today -- it was just incredible. Though the lights were out, you could still literally see, and I couldn't. "I'm not playing this time. Come and get me take me to the sick bay." Somebody say, "Well the sick bay is blown up." I said "Oh, Lord. Get me anyway, they must be evacuating the injured to some hospital." It was that kind of thing. When Moss came to visit me, we got to talking about this, and then he 97:00began to describe that the shells.

And this is the reason why I believe that this had to be sabotage. For example, now there was -- and you may be able to verify this -- I'm told that some of the ammunition was found six miles away. Now, to get that kind of trajectory, you've got to have some height. And this stuff did not explode, then, when it hit the ground. Why in the hell did it explode then, if it fell from ship top side down below deck? As I said, I’m no expert in explosives, but, now what was being loaded? Let’s take a look at that: you had five inch shells, and one 98:00hundred-pound bombs on a ship that was almost ready to go out. So now, if that stuff now gets that kind of trajectory to be found that far away, and Moss said this stuff was falling all around him. But hell, then we had to have some other kind of thing to ignite that explosion.

The ship that came in that night was due in the afternoon. The personnel that would have been working on that was in the movie. Some of the personnel that had to go down and tie up the ship and get it ready for loading had to be called out of the movie. So when a ship comes in to be loaded, it takes a good eight hours just to get the ship ready; hatchways must be opened, and booms set, and dunnage put down in the holds...and the carpenters got to go to work before you can start putting ammunition down on an iron vessel. You've got to have some wood 99:00down there. All this certainly would have taken time. But, as we indicated earlier that this is an isolated base, bus transportation was very, very minimal.

Now the captain and part of his crew had already come in after 8:00 in the evening, and they had gone. I believe that that would be a place to look for a possible connection to some kind of point of sabotage. To wit, most captains stayed aboard their vessels until loading actually got under way, because they were interested in seeing how things were going, and so forth. But I'm told that that captain was long since gone. Now, I haven't been able to verify that, but this was one of the things I talked about with those who came to visit me from bedside. Obviously we were interested in what happened, how it happened.


ALLEN: I'll tell you one thing: one of the fellows, Waldrop in Washington DC; I forget what work division he was in -- it wasn't ten -- but he also thought it was sabotage. He told me that the security at the base at Port Chicago was very bad, in this sense. He says that whites could come on to that base without proper security clearance. They could come on and drive around and he said in fact the very day of the explosion, he had observed a sedan full of white civilians, come on to the base and were driving around up there. And he didn't know what they were doing, but several other men noticed it, and were struck by the fact that here were these white civilians driving around on the base. So he 101:00said, in his opinion, the security was a very serious problem, simply because of the racial situation -- that is, if you're black you couldn't come on the base without proper clearance, but whites could. And he thought also that this was evidence again that something was amiss, and that it might have been sabotage.

ROUTH: I have never been able to account for this depression that hit me, but let's... dwell on this a little bit, by way of ammunition and how it was responds. Now, the base was laid out in this way -- and I don't know whether the other interviewees that you talked about, made this discussion about the topography of the base. To disguise the base from air, magazines were located 102:00underground. Railroad tracks ran through the base along in front of these magazines. And the magazines were built facing each other with the railroad tracks running in between -- with earth pulled up over them, with air ducts going down in. And that was all you could tell, away from the area, that there was a magazine; and there were concrete platforms, steel doors, closed them in.

So, now, with the kind of thing that I described to you earlier -- everything from M-1 rifle shells to 2000 pound block busters. With as much force as -- and 103:00windows were broken out fifty miles away. The thing was heard 150 miles away, so obviously this was a tremendous explosion. But why is it, then, that none of these magazines— if one magazine went off, it would have really destroyed the whole area. When I say area, I meant for miles around inasmuch as the stuff that was there; with magazines facing each other, it would have gone off like sitting ducks. One right down the line. A chain reaction. So that's what I'm saying then, that we had to have some foreign force times with which to do it. I will believe that until somebody in there can show me otherwise. No accidents are in my view. Personnel down there was experienced. As I said, in spite of what took place 104:00when we refused to go back to work and so forth, we also took pride in what we did. We were good personnel. Interesting what we did. There was no play down there. It was -- the incredible thing is to find this youthful personnel being able to do what we did. In checking -- see what the Navy said that we were doing up there, by way of what we did. They weren't passing out those commendations for naught. What peeves me if that they treated us in the manner in which they did. And that's the thing that irks and crawls into my craw and makes me want to regurgitate.

[End of Interview]