A massive explosion rocked the pier at Port Chicago, California a little after 10:15pm on July 17, 1944. Three ships were destroyed as 5,000 tons of munitions detonated unexpectedly. People as far away as Nevada heard the explosion because of its massive energy, and damages extended out almost 50 miles. The force of the blast crushed boxcars waiting to be unloaded. The explosion left more than 300 sailors dead and almost 400 wounded. Most of those who died were African American enlisted men. The disaster and its aftermath highlighted racial inequalities in the American armed forces. Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial honors those who lost their lives in the explosion and tells the story of what happened there and the fateful events that followed, which played a role in the racial desegregation of the American military.
Built in 1942, Port Chicago was one of two facilities near San Francisco designed to help move ammunition from shore to ship. On the July evening when the explosion took place, sailors were using cranes to load munitions from boxcars into two ships: the SS E.A. Bryan and the SS Quinault Victory. These ships, a Liberty-class ship and Victory-class ship, were large, quickly produced vessels designed to transport cargo. Following American entry into World War II in 1941, the need for munitions in the Pacific theatre grew, so ships like the Bryan and the Victory transported ammunition from shore-based depot locations to sites closer to battle. The disastrous Port Chicago explosion essentially vaporized the 7,200-ton SS E.A. Bryan despite its size and tore the SS Quinault Victory to pieces.
Port Chicago was a major weapons distribution center where this dangerous cargo needed to be loaded into waiting transport ships without delay. Even though the explosion obliterated the pier, the remaining bombs and gunpowder held in magazines near the loading dock at the port were needed urgently for the war effort. Less than a month after the disaster, the Navy assigned the stevedores, many of whom had witnessed the explosion and all of whom certainly saw its aftermath, to resume the transfer and loading of munitions from anther nearby facility. At Port Chicago, as elsewhere in the Navy, the officers were white; those who loaded the ships were mostly black. At the time of the explosion, almost two-thirds of those killed were black stevedores. The orders to return to work took on strong racial overtones--especially as white officers received additional time off. Roughly, 250 black sailors refused to work, which led to their being locked up for insubordination. Of these, 50 received courts martial for inciting mutiny by encouraging their fellow sailors to disobey orders, a serious crime that could result in execution.
The courts martial for the 50 accused of mutiny and the disciplinary proceedings for the approximately 200 other sailors called attention to the racial inequalities in the nation’s armed forces. The stevedores were uniformly black, and the ensuing court sessions revealed that the training they received was wholly inadequate for the extremely dangerous tasks they performed. In fact, there were no regulations for the safe handling of ordinance during its loading and unloading until after the tragedy at Port Chicago. In the aftermath, the military made changes to regulations and to the design of munitions to make them inherently safer to handle. The greatest good to come out of the largest wartime disaster to occur in the United States during the Second World War, though, was a push toward the desegregation of all branches of the military.
Fighting for liberty overseas highlighted the inequality of training, opportunities for service, and treatment of black soldiers, sailors, and airmen. The stevedores at Port Chicago did not receive proper training, and they were treated as game pieces by white officers who reportedly designed competitions in loading techniques to increase the speed with which munitions could be unloaded from railcars and placed into the holds of waiting ships. The disregard for personal safety of black enlisted soldiers reached quite broadly—they were told that weapons loaded at Port Chicago were to be armed (and therefore able to explode) only upon arrival in the Pacific. Perhaps because of the clear break between the values for which America fought overseas and what happened at Port Chicago, press interest in the courts martial was intense. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) participated, sending Thurgood Marshall who frequently addressed the press. Despite the efforts of the later Supreme Court justice, all 50 of those accused of mutiny received convictions. President Clinton pardoned one of the “Port Chicago 50,” Freddie Meeks, in 1999.
Even though a series of convictions followed the disaster at Port Chicago, the incident was one of a handful that contributed to the decision of the Navy to begin desegregated service in 1945. President Truman desegregated all of the armed forces three years later when he signed Executive Order 9981 that mandated “equality of treatment and opportunity for all those who serve in our country’s defense.” The sacrifices of the hundreds who died in the explosion at Port Chicago and participated in the events that occurred after the tragedy are not forgotten. Visitors to Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial can view the memorial that commemorates the tragedy and learn about its impact. Remnants of the pier where the explosion happened, wayside exhibits, and photographs of the area before and after the explosion tell the history of the event in detail.
Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Monument, a unit of the National Park System, is located off Port Chicago Highway, near Concord, CA. Access to the memorial is through Military Ocean Terminal Concord, an active military facility, and is currently heavily restricted. Visitors must be citizens of the United States or resident aliens. Advance reservations for a guided tour are required to visit the memorial. Reservations must be made two weeks in advance by calling 925-228-8860. Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial is closed Sunday through Tuesday, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day as well as when required by military operations. Guided tours are available at 10:00am and 1:30pm Wednesday through Saturday. Visitors will be driven to the memorial by a shuttle provided by the National Park Service. Information, including details on how to register to visit the memorial, is available on the National Park Service Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial website or by calling 925-228-8860.
Port Chicago is also featured in the National Park Service World War II in the San Francisco Bay Area Travel Itinerary.