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'King of Calypso' Harry Belafonte Was WWII Sailor

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Singer, songwriter, actor and social activist Harry Belafonte was in the Navy during World War II, dropping out of high school in New York City to enlist and contribute to the war effort from 1944 to 1945.

At the time, the military services were segregated. Belafonte, a Jamaican American, was assigned to Port Chicago, California, 35 miles from San Francisco. 

A sailor poses for a photo.
Harry Belafonte
Harry Belafonte poses for a photo in his Navy uniform in 1944 or 1945.
Photo By: Navy
VIRIN: 450110-O-D0439-001

During World War II, Black service members were not normally assigned to frontline fighting units. Rather, they were assigned mostly to supporting specialties. His job was to load military ships bound for the Pacific theater. 

Just before Belafonte arrived in Port Chicago, California, a massive explosion took place, involving military ships loaded with ammunition. About 320 people were killed — two-thirds of them Black sailors.

"It was the worst homefront disaster of World War II, but almost no one knows about it or what followed," he said.

After the tragedy, Black sailors refused to load ammunition under the same unsafe, segregated conditions that were said to have sparked the explosion. It became known as the Port Chicago mutiny. Fifty of the sailors were convicted of mutiny and sentenced to prison. Most were not released until months after the war ended.

Broken poles and debris litter an outdoor area.
Ammunition Explosion
A photo at Naval Magazine, Port Chicago, Calif., shows the damage that resulted from an ammunition explosion on July 17, 1944.
Photo By: Navy
VIRIN: 440717-O-D0439-001

"The Port Chicago mutiny was one of America's ugliest miscarriages of justice, the largest mass trial in naval history, and a national disgrace," Belafonte said. He credited television producer Ted Turner and his staff with having the courage to put the story on television.

In 1994, the Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial was dedicated to the lives lost in the disaster.

Once he completed his service in 1945, Belafonte returned to New York City. He used his GI Bill benefits to pay for his classes at The New School Dramatic Workshop, alongside future actors Marlon Brando and Belafonte's lifelong friend Sidney Poitier.

To supplement his income while attending acting classes, Belafonte sang at nightclubs at times backed by the music legends that included jazz musicians Charlie Parker, Max Roach and Miles Davis.

Three men stand in front of a crowd; the Lincoln Memorial is in the background.
March on Washington
From left: actor Sidney Poitier, singer Harry Belafonte and actor Charlton Heston participate in the 1963 March on Washington, Aug. 28, 1963.
Photo By: Rowland Scherman, National Archives
VIRIN: 630110-O-D0439-001

Later, he developed an interest in folk music. With guitarist and friend Millard Thomas, Belafonte made his debut at The Village Vanguard, a legendary jazz club in New York City. In 1953, he signed a contract with RCA Victor, recording regularly for the label until 1974.

Belafonte also performed during the so-called Rat Pack-era in Las Vegas. He and pianist Liberace, musician and singer Ray Vasquez, and singer Sammy Davis Jr. were featured at the Sands Hotel and Casino and the Dunes Hotel.

Belafonte's first widely released single, which became his signature audience participation song in virtually all of his live performances, was "Matilda," recorded on April 27, 1953. His breakthrough album "Calypso" (1956) became the first long-playing record in the world to sell over 1 million copies within a year.

A man dressed in a costume sings.
Belafonte Sings
Harry Belafonte sings on Broadway in New York City in 1954.
Photo By: Carl Van Vechten, Library of Congress
VIRIN: 540110-O-D0439-001

The album introduced American audiences to calypso music and Belafonte was dubbed the King of Calypso.

Besides calypso, Belafonte recorded blues, folk, gospel, show tunes and American standards. 

Belafonte was an early supporter of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s and one of Martin Luther King Jr.'s friends. Throughout his career, he has been an advocate for political and humanitarian causes, such as the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. 

He has also starred in several films, most notably "Carmen Jones" (1954), "Island in the Sun" (1957), and "Odds Against Tomorrow" (1959).

A man smiles.
Smiling Belafonte
Harry Belafonte is photographed at a 2011 party hosted by Vanity Fair magazine. The event celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.
Photo By: Courtesy of David Shankbone
VIRIN: 110110-O-D0439-001

From Feb. 5-9, 1968, Belafonte guest hosted "The Tonight Show," substituting for Johnny Carson. Among his guests were King and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.

Belafonte, born March 1, 1927, in New York City, is now 94.

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