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The Military Law Task Force congratulates the families of the Philadelphia 15 in their victory against an 80-year-old injustice. On June 16, the U.S. Navy announced a “correction to the records” of 15 former sailors who’d been immediately discharged in 1940 after they told the press about racial and other injustice aboard their ship, the U.S.S. Philadelphia. The “Undesirable” discharge issued to the 15, the equivalent of today’s OTH (Other Than Honorable) discharge, precluded them from veterans’ benefits or even treatment at VA hospitals–though at the time, the 15  wrote that any punishment “could not possibly surpass the mental cruelty inflicted upon us on this ship.”

The sailors, who’d enlisted as part of the “Double V for Victory” campaign– against fascism abroad and racism at home– wrote to the Pittsburgh  Courier that instead of being trained like any other sailor, they’d been quickly trained as “messmen” and ordered to clean up after white sailors and officers. In their letter of October 5, 1940,  they added that they “sincerely hope to discourage any other colored troops from joining the Navy and making the same mistake we did. All they would become is sea-going bell hops, chambermaids and dishwashers.” As the New York Times noted in its coverage of the Navy’s “correction“, the unjust discharges were but one instance of numerous anti-Black actions by the military during the “Good War,” World War II.

As an organization acutely aware of the U.S. military’s long history of white supremacy, MLTF applauds the work of Larry Ponder, whose father and uncle were among the 15, and who mounted an appeal to get all the discharges upgraded. We also applaud  attorney Elizabeth Kristen, who before she assisted the Ponder family helped 96-year old Nelson Henry Jr, secure an honorable discharge to replace the discriminatory “blue” one he received in 1945 along with 48,000 other Army vets, most of them Black.

The Military Law Task Force decries the continuing use by the armed services of Other Than Honorable, Bad Conduct and Dishonorable discharges to retaliate against non-white and other dissenting members of the military.  We also decry the continuing injustice, as yet unrectified, of the mutiny charges of fifty African-American members or the Navy at Port Chicago who refused  to unload munitions in dangerous conditions.