Freddie Meeks was one of the fortunate ones at the Port Chicago naval base, some 35 miles outside of San Francisco. A seaman second class, he happened to be off base when a huge explosion shattered the quiet of a July 1944 night. Apparently originating on the pier where powerful ammunition was loaded onto warships, the explosion blew out nearly every barracks window on the base, broke glass 12 miles away, and killed 320 men. It was the worst home-front disaster of World War II.

Port Chicago was an explosion waiting for a spark. Driven by wartime pressure and blatant racism, naval commanders assigned only black sailors the task of loading the live ammunition. With little training and few safety precautions, the men loaded the bombs down long chutes. The sound of the falling bombs, recalls Meeks, “was just terrible.”