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The Port Chicago Vigil: 50 Years On


August 11, 2016
Gar Smith / Environmentalists Against War

Fifty years ago, on August 6, 1966, I was arrested for stopping a napalm truck at the Concord Naval Weapons Station. Here is a retelling of that tale.

Special to Environmentalists Against War



BERKELEY, Calif. (August 9, 2016) -- Fifty years ago, on August 6, 1966, I was arrested for stopping a napalm truck at the Concord Naval Weapons Station. Here is a retelling of that tale:

When the first troop train attempted to move Viet Nam-bound soldiers through Berkeley, I was grouped with other members of the Vietnam Day Committee, standing in the middle of the tracks, holding part of a long banner that read: "Stop the War Machine."

Contrary to our naïve expectations, the train didn't stop and I barely got off the tracks in time. The train rolled right over our banner. We folded it up the next day and mailed it to President Lyndon Johnson, along with a note of protest against the war and the wanton endangerment of civilian protesters.

That night, I personally called the president of the railroad company at his home. He offered no apologies. Instead, he informed me that the protesters had broken Federal law -- specifically statutes that prohibited "disruption" of trains carrying either USPS mail or "war material."

The Pentagon only made one other attempt to move troops by rail through the East Bay. After that attempt brought out even larger crowds of protesters, Washington abandoned the program.

Marching to Port Chicago
Following that success, members of the Vietnam Day Committee began to look for other ways to demonstrate growing public opposition to the US war in Viet Nam. The weapons station at Port Chicago seemed a perfect target. After all, this was where 90% of the bombs and napalm were stored before being shipped across the Pacific to be dropped on peasant villages.

In 1965, at an early planning meeting in Berkeley, two attendees (who may well have been agents provocateurs) suggested that the best approach would be to plant explosives along the railway to blow up the tracks. "After all," one proposed, "isn't our ultimate goal to 'derail' the war effort?"

The proposal was approaching consensus and seemed certain to pass. But having recently benefited from the experience of participating the Free Speech Movement (and serving some jail time for my beliefs), I felt I couldn't remain silent, even though I was clearly in the minority. I spoke up to oppose that tactic.

Remembering Free Speech Movement activist Mario Savio's passionate speeches (which demonstrated the transcendental power of a well-reasoned argument), I mustered all of my rhetorical skills. I argued that resorting to violence would put us in the same camp as the Pentagon and such an act would surely be used by the government to tarnish the entire peace movement.

To my great relief, it was decided that the Port Chicago Vigil would remain nonviolent. We would stand in front of the gates and attempt to block any weapons trucks that approached.

Like Brian Willson and his friends -- protesting another US war two decades later -- we were determined to place our bodies between the munitions bunkers and the ships waiting at the waterfront. The vigil was set to open on the first weekend of August 1965, with a public demonstration between Hiroshima Day and Nagasaki Day.

Standing at the Gate;
Halting the War Machine

I was the first to be arrested. The Friday before the first large weekend demonstration, I caught a ride to the base and took up a position just outside a roadway guarded by an armed sentry.

The young soldier on duty asked about my intentions. When I told him I planned to nonviolently block any weapons trucks that moved down the road, he told me: "If you try to do that, if you cross that painted line, I will have to shoot you."

I told him that I was unarmed and nonviolent and represented no threat to life. I told him there was no need to use his rifle and that I hoped, if it came to that, he would not shoot.

Eventually, a truck loaded with napalm bombs moved up the road. With my full concentration on the approaching vehicle, I began to march forward to meet the roaring truck. I tried to put the prospect of being perforated by an M-16 out of my mind and moved forward in something like a trance.

It came as a shock when my mind suddenly refocused and I found myself standing, still intact, with my body six inches away from the metal grill of the massive truck -- stopped dead in the roadway.

Hot Gandhi! Nonviolence worked! I had "put my body on the line" and literally stopped the war. (Or, more accurately, I had momentarily disrupted the schedule of one truck- sized part of the Pentagon's war-machine. But, still, it felt immensely empowering.)

Busted, Cuffed, and Jailed
Instead of being shot, I was arrested and turned over to the Contra Costa police who applied handcuffs and shuffled me into the backseat of a patrol car.

It was uncomfortable sitting with handcuffed wrists bent behind my back so, as the police car sped down the highway, I shuffled around in the backseat like Houdini until my cuffed arms were resting comfortably in my lap.

When the arresting officers opened the back door, they were not amused. "How did you do that!" they yelled.

I was brusquely perp-walked upstairs and tossed into a cell with about 12 other men.

Shortly after the police disappeared down the hall, one of the cell's residents -- a thin young man with short hair and a blond goatee -- approached with the classic welcoming line: "What are you in for?"

"Protesting," I said.

"Us, too," he replied. "What about?"

"Protesting the war," I started to say. I didn't finish the sentence because I had just been sucker-punched in the face. The unexpected blow sent me flying backward, feet-in-the-air across the cell where I crashed into a metal trashcan. The next thing I knew, I was on a concrete floor surrounded by a world of flying fists and boots.

I would later discover that St. John, the man who attacked me, was the leader of a local band of neo-Nazis. They had been arrested for staging a violent pro-Aryan demonstration.

Recalling all those film clips I'd seen about voting-rights protestors being beaten in the South, I covered by head with my hands, tucked my knees to my chest and curled up in a nonviolent ball. Fortunately, St. John and his followers soon tired of the pummeling.

When I climbed back to my feet, St. John laid out "the rules." If I didn't want to suffer any more attacks, he explained, all I had to do was to agree to redirect some of my pocket money to provide his crew with a steady supply of Baby Ruth candy bars from the jail commissary.

When I refused, St. John looked taken aback. I could see that I was headed for another beating. It was at that point that I heard a voice from the other side of the cell.

"Hey man," the voice called out. "Care to join us for a round of cards?"

I looked up and saw four well-muscled African-American men seated at a table, playing poker. I thanked them for the invitation and crossed the cell to join them. From that point on, I never had any more problems with the pro-Aryans.

A Midnight Visit from the FBI
During the night the guards returned to the cell and called my name. I assumed I was being released but, instead, I was taken to a room where I found myself being interrogated by an FBI agent.

After a couple of disarming questions about the weather, Berkeley, and my family he ever-so-casually asked "Oh, and how does your mother feel about you trespassing on Federal property?" It was at that point that I clammed up and insisted on my right to speak to a lawyer.

I was released the next day but not in time to join the larger protest at the gates of the Weapons Station. Those protests saw several more that 20 people arrested, including Korean War veteran Tom Voorhees who had his leg broken by Naval security as they dragged him across the pavement. (Half of the arrests were dismissed after arraignment.)

The Trial of the Port Chicago Eight
My case was added to those of the seven people detained on Saturday. In addition to Tom Voorhees, those arrested included a divinity student, a youth minister, a housewife, a shoe salesman, a male model, and two student anti-war activists. We all eventually stood trial in San Francisco.

We might have been called the "Port Chicago Eight," but this was two years before the protests outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The trial began on January 1966, after 11 contentious pre-trial hearings that spanned five months.

We decided to insist on a jury trial. As I reported in an edition of the Guild Practitioner, "we felt we had been offered a unique opportunity to confront both the mass and the media with a legal offensive to match our militant disobedience."

A legal test of the legality of the war. The government did not want to see such a case brought to trial but our legal team -- Al Brotsky, Peter Franck, Gabe Werbner and James Heavey -- prevailed, winning a precedent-setting ruling from Judge William T. Sweigart that we were entitled to a jury trial.

The case lasted months and became the longest-running misdemeanor trial in the history of the Ninth US Federal Court. (I wrote an initial report for the trial for the Berkeley Barb and, as the trial went on, I continued to file stories.

As a result of what turned out to be a weekly reporting assignment, the Barb's editor, Max Scheer, invited me to become the paper's "peace beat" reporter. That was the moment that would steer me into a life-long career as a journalist.)

Just Tell Us, Did You Do It?
We Don't Want to Know Why You Did It

From the first day of our trial, we attempted to use the "defense of necessity" plea, claiming that we had broken the law in an attempt to prevent a greater evil -- i.e., the waging of an illegal war that was killing innocent civilians in Viet Nam.

Judge Lloyd Burke ruled that we could not offer this defense. He did, however, offer to let us make a personal statement at the end of defense arguments.

All seven of the defendants arrested in the group-protest were eventually acquitted when evidence showed that the Navy, in its zeal to arrest the protesters, had actually dragged seated demonstrators (who had "gone limp" as a form of passive resistance) across the public boundary line and onto the base.

My case was different since I was the only one who had walked across a painted line on my own power. It appeared certain that I would be going to jail for "criminal trespass" onto a military base. Fortunately, my lawyer was the redoubtable Al Brotsky.

"I'm a former Navy man," Brotsky told the judge, "and I know from experience that the Navy sometimes makes mistakes." Brotsky asked for the government to produce its blueprints outlining the base.

Sure enough, it turned out the US Navy had drawn the all-important white line delineating base property in the wrong place -- on public land.

So I left custody in the same way I entered custody. I walked.

Gar Smith is a veteran of the Free Speech Movement and a former member of the Port Chicago Vigil. He is the author of Nuclear Roulette (Chelsea Green 2012) and is co-founder of Environmentalists Against War.

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