Into Forgetfulness

Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial


In our lives, there are moments…events…usually lasting a very short time, that result in irreversible change.

As a people, we have a need to memorialize these events so that future generations will know and remember.

July 17th, 1944, at 10:17 pm, a peaceful, quiet California summer night thousands of miles from the fighting of World War II, an event took place. In one explosive moment, 320 men vanished. And in the rubble, the way the military and America treated its citizens, began to change.

Most of the black sailors stationed at Port Chicago had enlisted hoping to fight the enemy. Unable to serve on the front lines, they found themselves doing dangerous manual labor.

Munitions manufactured around the country would arrive at Port Chicago daily by train. As a transit site, not a storage site, the cargo had to be unloaded as rapidly as possible. It was the job of the black enlisted sailors to manually transfer the munitions from the rail cars to large cargo ships. With war raging in the Pacific, victory depended on rapid delivery of munitions, and the sailors of Port Chicago were proud of their crucial link in the delivery process.

Ignoring standard safety practices, two ships were loaded at one pier. The work proceeded 24 hours a day. All the sailors handling cargo were black. All the officers in charge were white. Competition was encouraged by the officers. Loading rates for each division were posted. Loading rates for each division were posted, and incentives were awarded.

Slower divisions were shamed and threatened. Officers and sailors cut corners to save time. Many people warned: the fast pace of the work, the huge volume of munitions being moved, loading two ships on one pier, and the lack of proper training, proper safety procedures, would lead to disaster.

Two explosions, 6 seconds apart, ignited the night sky with a column of fire and steel rising 2 miles. The first blast was fairly small. The second, incinerated two ships, the pier, 16 rail cars…320 men.

The survivors were in shock. Friends had disappeared without a trace. Next time…it would be them. On August 9th, 300 black sailors were ordered back to work loading munitions. Continued lack of training, unsafe working conditions, lack of any official explanation. Everyone believed another explosion would happen.

The benefits of Navy life no longer outweighed the extreme danger of the work.” Any order but that…” “Any order but that…”

After a peaceful confrontation, over 250 black sailors were arrested. The sailors were given the opportunity to put the so-called uprising behind them and return to work. About 200 reluctantly agreed but were instead thrown in the brig. The 50 remaining black enlisted sailors who refused to load munitions were charged with mutiny-- In time of war, punishable by death.

On October 24th, 1944, the specially convened military court found all 50 men guilty of mutiny as charged.

All were sentenced 8 to 15 years in prison, and dishonorable discharge from the Navy.

Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial was established to honor the courage and commitment of the sailors, Marines, National Guardsmen, Merchant Marines, and civilians killed and injured in the largest homeland disaster during WWII.

The Memorial recognizes the critical role they and the survivors of the explosion played in the winning of the War in the Pacific. The explosion and its aftermath was a major catalyst that helped persuade the U.S. Military to begin the long journey to racial justice and equality.

Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial will ensure the story of these brave men is not lost into forgetfulness.


A documentary about the Port Chicago disaster.


10 minutes, 40 seconds

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