The Color of War
Reviewer: C. Peter Chen
Review Date: 14 Jul 2012
Full Title: The Color of War: How One Battle Broke Japan and Another Changed America
While the United States billed the war against the Axis powers as a crusade against tyranny, within its borders, the Americans oppressed groups of their fellow citizens based on the color of their skin. Considered not intelligent enough to be a soldier in a war fought with modern equipment and sophisticated tactics, most African-Americans served in racially-segregated rear echelon units as manual laborers. At the Port Chicago ammunition depot in California, United States, African-American stevedores loaded ammunition onto ships for delivery to, among other places, the island of Saipan in the Mariana Islands where the largest battle yet in the Pacific War was raging. Lacking proper training and pushed to their physical limits, disaster struck as ammunition detonated, killing many. In the aftermath of the explosion, a small group of African-Americans refused to work, fearing another accident. Instead of punishing them for insubordination, a court martial tried them for the much more serious crime of mutiny, intending to make an example in order to keep African-American servicemen in line. In The Color of War, author James Campbell told this battle that took place on the American home front.
Campbell devoted the first half of the book telling the often tough upbringing of the African-Americans who would soon gather at Port Chicago. Though they were among the first African-Americans to be accepted into the United States Marine Corps, being trained as riflemen before all else just like their Caucasian comrades, it did not surprise them as they were treated like second class trainees just like they were treated as second class citizens in the civilian world. Upon earning their "eagle, globe, and anchor" emblem which made them Marines, they found themselves shipped to places such as Port Chicago to perform menial labor. At Port Chicago, the men loaded bombs onto ships destined for the front lines, some not realizing they lacked the appropriate skills to do so while others slowly got the feeling that their Caucasian officers competed with one another to see whose dock workers could load more tonnage at the end of each day, thus overlooking some safety concerns. Campbell told of the aftermath of the 1944 Port Chicago disaster with skill, vividly describing the destruction of the port and the thoughts of those who had direct contact with the area. When the African-Americans became scapegoats, I felt as enraged as what the men must have felt. As the officers decided to try those who refused to continue their stevedore work until safety conditions improved, for the crime of mutiny, I could only shake my head in disbelief that merely 70 years ago the people of this country could be so petty, so bigoted, and so accepting of such injustice. The author did a good job not only telling the history but also stirring my emotions. Perhaps not so neutral in his stance, he pushed forth the understanding of the history of African-Americans in US military service just a bit further nevertheless.
Interweaved with the Port Chicago development, Campbell also told of the battle on Saipan. While this great battle no doubt increased the burden on the port back on the home front, I felt the author failed in making a concrete connection between the two events. What I got as I went through this book was the feeling that there were two parallel storylines going on at the same time without intersecting each other. His efforts describing the Mariana Islands campaign, which in itself demanded a book twice the size as The Color of War, was thus relatively superficial, feeling like great diversions that added little to the main theme of the book surrounding the African-American Marines.
Campbell's extended epilogue detailing the lives of the main cast of characters after the war and the evolution of the United States military in terms of racial integration was most fascinating and very much appreciated. The inclusion of the conspiracy theory that the Port Chicago explosion was actually nuclear in nature was yet another diversion, but a fun one at that, and in fact I felt the epilogue was indeed the best place for such diversions.
I had reviewed this title in its audio book format. I had previously enjoyed other books read by Stephen Hoye, and I felt that he did a fine job with this title as well.
People not of European descent had faced difficulties throughout different periods in American history, and prejudices, though greatly reduced, continues to this day. The Color of War provided a glimpse of the role of racism in American policy during WW2, and served as a good complement to other titles on race relations in the United States.
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James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy, 23 Feb 1945