Teacher Voice

Race and Tragedy on the Home Front: The Forgotten Port Chicago Disaster

Stories like the one captured in the ABMC’s “Race and Tragedy on the Home Front” activity are critical to the development of a broad understanding of wartime social dynamics for United States History students.

When I instructed this lesson, I found that students were most engaged and impacted by the individual accounts of Port Chicago survivors located in the lesson materials as well as the available resources from Dr. Robert L. Allen, author of "The Port Chicago Mutiny.” There was less familiarity with other well-known World War II stories, such as Messman 3rd Class Doris Miller’s. I de-emphasized the time spent on the initial image analysis and offered expanded opportunities for the students to grapple with the primary source material provided in the station-based Activity Two.

In building the background knowledge for the lesson, I attempted to draw three connections. First, I wanted to ensure that students understood the geography of the Port Chicago Disaster, so I utilized Google Earth to map out Port Chicago and Mare Island. Secondly, I emphasized the scale of the massive war munitions effort by illustrating what industrial contributions were made locally. Finally, the distinction between military branches regarding the race issue was a key question that came up often. The legacy of African-American units in World War I (ex. Harlem Hellfighters), the contributions of famous units in World War II (ex. Tuskegee Airmen), and President Truman’s Executive Order #9981 are all worth addressing at some point in the lesson.

If delivered in the context of other home front examples in which the United States attempted to reconcile its domestic treatment of Americans in contrast with its liberator identity abroad, learners can see the key question for this lesson through a broader lens. In particular, I used the story of Jimmie Kanaya, whose parents were interned as part of Executive Order #9066, despite their son serving as an active duty Army Medic. Significant primary source material exists on the ambiguous role and treatment of indigenous Americans, women, and conscientious objectors.