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Largest Homeland Disaster During WWII

On the evening of July 17, 1944, residents in the San Francisco east bay area were jolted awake by a massive explosion that lit up the night sky. At Port Chicago Naval Magazine, 320 men were instantly killed when the munitions ships they were loading with ammunition for the Pacific theater troops blew up. On October 28th, 2009, Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial became the 392nd unit of the National Park Service.

Documentary: Into Forgetfulness

Please enjoy this educational and informative documentary about the Port Chicago Disaster. You may watch the video in high-definition by clicking on the "HD" at the bottom right of the video (after video starts) and then selecting "Broadband".

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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.

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10 minutes, 40 seconds

A documentary about the Port Chicago disaster.


Podcast-The Port Chicago 50: An Oral History

Original Podcast Link (no longer valid):
Transcript: Download Word Document

In 1995 Dan Collison spoke with five survivors of the blast about what really happened. (20 minutes) Credit: Long Haul Productions.

The story of the worst stateside disaster during World War II, at Port Chicago, an ammunition dump for the navy just north of San Francisco. Black workers were assigned to load ammo onto ships under such unsafe conditions that on July 17, 1944, two ships blew up, killing 320 men. When 50 survivors of the blast refused to return to work under the same unsafe conditions, they were court-martialed and sentenced to up to 15 years of hard labor. There have been many attempts to clear the names of these fifty men, including one in 1944 by then-civil rights attorney Thurgood Marshall.


78th Anniversary - Commemoration

Archived from July 16th, 2022
On July 16th, 2022, a commemoration event was held at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial. Here, you can view clips from the event.

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It is an honor to stand here today on this hallowed ground and reflect on the profound significance of the events that took place 78 years ago. I know some of you are quite familiar with this story. While many of you may be hearing it for the first time. Together, let's revisit the details. Much of this history is not pleasant.

It contains truths that are inconvenient for some and uncomfortable for others. But it is vital that we shine a bright light on these aspects of the past. For they hold lessons that are crucial to forging a new path for the future. As World War Two raged throughout Europe, the U.S. Navy had already identified the need for an additional munitions shipping depot on the West Coast.

Prior to the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor on December 7th of 1941. Port Chicago Naval Magazine was formally authorized in February 1942, selected as an ideal location for constructing a new large munitions loading base. This was due to its deep water ports, which is still utilized by the US Army today and also its relative isolation from the surrounding population centers.

Although the small town of Port Chicago was approximately one and a half miles away. With construction completed in November of 1942, Port Chicago Naval Magazine quickly became a vital link in the delivery chain of ordnance to American forces in the Pacific Theater. The original pier was soon widened so that two ships could be loaded simultaneously. Greatly increasing the output of tonnage from the base.

However, all branches of the armed forces were segregated at this time. Although racially integrated forces did fight in the Revolutionary War, the official U.S. military policy of racial segregation was established in the War of 1812. Since then, with a few notable exceptions, such as the Army's famous Buffalo Soldier, Cavalry and infantry units. Up until the start of World War Two, African American soldiers traditionally served as the laborers and menial workers of the American military machine.

Even as the Army Air Corps began to experiment with training black pilots who would become the lauded Tuskegee Airmen, the Navy was particularly insistent on maintaining segregated roles within their ranks. Black Navy enlisted men were trained in separate service schools and were not considered qualified or capable of performing higher level tasks. Here at Fort Chicago, black sailors were assigned to handle munitions working around the clock, unloading arriving missiles, ammunition and bombs from railcars into and out of storage magazines, and then reloading them back onto cargo ships.

White commanding officers oversaw the work and directed the loading operations, but all of the sailors who directly handled the ordnance were black. It was hard work, very physically challenging, especially in the summer heat, and it was also extremely dangerous. Sailors were told that they were handling inactive munitions that lacked detonators, but in reality they were loading bombs equipped with warheads.

The sailors at Port Chicago were performing the same type of work as civilian stevedores who were highly trained and experienced. But the Navy did not see fit to provide their sailors with any formal instruction in munitions loading or any safety training on how to properly handle sensitive ordnance. To make matters worse, many of the white junior officers overseeing the loading operations, emphasized speed above all else.

Going so far as to race various crews against each other and insisting that they had to maintain loading speeds at an even faster rate than the professional professional civilian stevedores. The patriotic, dedicated Port Chicago sailors complied with these orders and loaded the Navy ships at an impressive pace., but many of them, as well as some outside observers, knew that this situation was a disaster.

Just waiting to happen.

On the night of July 17, 1944, two ships were docked here at the loading pier at Port Chicago. The Liberty Ship SSEA Bryan had been there for four days and was almost loaded to full capacity with ordnance, including shells, cluster bombs, depth charges, 1000 pound bombs and sensitive incendiary bombs. The victory ship. S.S. Colonel Victory had arrived earlier that day and was being rigged for loading due to begin at midnight.

16 railcars sat on the pier containing additional explosives. In all the munitions on the pier and in the ship contained the equivalent of approximately 2000 short tons of TNT. At approximately 10:18 p.m., a tremendous explosion occurred, followed seconds later by a much larger blast that reverberated throughout the East Bay, illuminating the night sky with a fireball, approximately three miles in diameter.

The force of the accompanying shockwave was felt for 40 miles, shattering windows as far away as San Francisco. Pieces of glowing hot metal and burning ordinance were sent hurtling over 12,000 feet into the air before raining down on the base and surrounding communities. Seismographs at the University of California, Berkeley registered the shockwaves traveling through the ground, measuring the second blast as a 3.4 on the Richter scale as if it were an earthquake.

All 320 men working on or near the pier that day died instantly. They included 202 African-American enlisted personnel working as loaders. Nine of their officers. .64 U.S. Maritime Service members who were crewmen on the E.A. Bryan and the Quinault victory. 33 members of the U.S. Navy armed Guard. Three civilian Navy workers and three civilian contractors. Five Coast Guard fire boat crewmen.

And the Marine on guard duty that night. The E.A. Bryant was complete destroyed, and the Quinault victory was blown out of the water, torn into sections that were thrown in several directions. The pier, along with the boxcars, locomotive rails and cargo, were blasted into pieces. And today, these pilings are what remains. The Coast Guard fire boat was thrown 600 feet upriver where it sank.

Now, the rest of the base, including the barracks where many surviving sailors were thrown out of their beds by the explosion, was severely damaged, as was the nearby town of Port Chicago. 90% of the small communities homes sustained damage, along with almost all of its businesses. Although no one outside of this immediate pier area was killed. 390 civilians and military personnel were injured, many of them seriously.

Now, as you can imagine, the aftermath of the explosion was horrific for all involved. Surviving personnel had the gruesome task of cleaning up and starting the process of rebuilding the base. Out of the 320 men who were lost. Only 51 could be identified. Corpses and body parts littered the bay, and the port. Survivors were in a state of shock, traumatized by the disaster and completely on edge.

They did not know exactly what had caused the explosion, and that created an extreme amount of anxiety. Incredibly, the Naval Court of inquiry investigating the cause of the explosion would lay the bulk of the blame at the feet of the black enlisted sailors who lost their lives, stating that they were, quote, neither temperamentally or intellectually capable of handling high explosives, unquote, and that, quote, rough and careless handling of the explosives had likely caused the explosion.

Even in the midst of tragedy, the Navy's ingrained discriminatory practices held fast. White officers were granted 30 days survivors leave, which is given out to sailors who survived a serious incident where their friends or shipmates had died and were then transferred to other duty. Black sailors, however, were not granted this leave. Not even those who had been hospitalized with injuries.

Instead, they were transferred to the naval barracks in Vallejo, near Merritt Island. And three weeks later, on August 9th, the fourth, eighth and second divisions were ordered to fall in for work as they reached the junction, where they were then ordered to turn left down to a ferry to reach the ammunition loading dock. The entire divisions of men sat cold.

They were terrified to return to doing the same dangerous work that had gotten their friends killed. Loading munitions in a robust and unsafe manner without any changes in protocol or procedures. This work stoppage forced the Navy to quickly try to contract civilian stevedores in order to continue to load the ships. Out of 328 men in the three divisions, 258 of them refused to handle munitions and were imprisoned for three days. After being then threatened with death by firing squad for refusing to follow an order during wartime, which the Navy considered mutinous conduct.,

208 of them yielded, and after serving out their time, received bad conduct discharges. However, 50 men, including enlisted man Joe Small, who served as a spokesman for the sailors and was subsequently accused of being a ringleader of the work stoppage, continued to refuse to load munitions.

They were all court-martialed and tried in the largest mass mutiny trial in U.S. naval history. This trial made headlines across the country and was thoroughly covered by several nationally circulated black newspapers, as well as the local San Francisco press. The Navy was determined to argue that the work stoppage was a conspiracy among the men and therefore constituted mutiny.

Despite the best efforts of ACP attorney Thurgood Marshall, who consulted with the defense and drew widespread media attention to the lax safety practices in place at the base, all 50 men were convicted of mutiny and given prison sentences of 8 to 15 years. Marshall mounted a vigorous legal appeal, garnering even more public support and attention, particularly from the White House.

But it was to no avail. The convictions were upheld. After the war, the men were granted clemency, with most of them serving only 1 to 2 years in prison. And many, even ironically, finished out their enlistments on naval ships. However, their convictions still stand today. Despite the outcome of the Mutiny trial., the disgraceful working conditions, rampant racial discrimination and systemic injustices that the trial exposed, could no longer be ignored.

The Navy was forced to implement a more rigorous safety training program and to change the practice of having only black enlisted men load munitions. By February 1946, the Navy, which had been the most exclusionary and segregated branch of all of the armed forces, ironically became the first to officially eliminate all racial barriers in its ranks. And in 1948, President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981 ordering the complete racial integration of the armed forces.

This was a major advance in civil rights in our country, and it laid bare the inevitable question: If a large, traditional institution like the military could desegregate, then why couldn't other American institutions follow suit? Over the next two decades, with the Brown versus Board of Education Supreme Court decision galvanizing the civil rights movement, racial discrimination and segregation were declared unconstitutional.

Throughout many aspects of American life. Here at Port Chicago Naval Magazine, the base was rebuilt, as was the town of Chicago. But the Navy immediately planned for an expansion aiming to increase and secure their munitions storage capacity and create a wider buffer between their operations in nearby communities. After many years of discussion and protest, the Navy officially took over the town of Port Chicago in 1968, using eminent domain to buy it out and tear it down.

Their expanded facility became known as the Concord Naval Weapons Station, which continued to support U.S. war efforts during the Korean War., the Vietnam War and the Gulf War before its eventual closure in 2008. And now here we stand today, 78 years after the disaster. Looking back into the past and turning towards the future. This history continues to capture the hearts and minds of more people than ever before.

Our long held vision of creating a world class joint visitor center is finally taking off at the new "Thurgood Marshall Regional Park: Home of the Port Chicago 50". We... (Pause for applause and clapping)... that is definitely worth applause. We are thrilled to partner with the friends of Port Chicago and East Bay Regional Park District along with many other organizations. In beginning this exciting journey to elevate the Port Chicago story to new levels, As well,

our colleagues at Treasure Island Museum have been actively interpreting this story, and, this is news to many of you, have recently been able to identify the actual location of the Mutiny trial site. I want to acknowledge Walt Bilofsky, Vice president of the Treasure Island Museum Association, for his tenacious determination and inspire in detective work. It exemplifies just how much is still possible to discover about this history.

Clearly, the significant support for Chicago Naval Magazine is much larger than the memorial itself. This unthinkable disaster has continued to directly impact the lives of thousands of people, particularly the descendants of those who perished and those who lived through it. It has helped to reshape the very fabric of our country in ways we can now fully appreciate. in retrospect. The themes of loss, accountability and continued injustice continue to resonate with us.

And today, in the era of Black Lives Matter, they take on a renewed urgency. The National Park Service Honors this legacy by helping the American public form connections with this site, finding meaning and reflecting on the past and how it connects to the future. As we pay tribute today to the brave men of Port Chicago and the sacrifices that so many people made as a result of the disaster, we pledge to continue to elevate their stories, to spread the knowledge and understanding of this history, and to help prepare the next generation of Americans to thoughtfully and critically examine these issues that strike at the essence of who we are as a society.

Every day, we give our best in honoring this vitally important history. We will make sure that their heroism and sacrifices are never forgotten. Thank you.

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16 minutes, 38 seconds

This segment of the event is speaker Kelli English who is the Interpretation, Education and Outreach Division Manager. Event: 78th Anniversary of the Port Chicago Explosion. Event Date: July 16, 2022. Location: Port Chicago Memorial.


76th Anniversary - Virtual Commemoration

Archived from July 17th, 2020

On July 17th, 2020, the Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial held a virtual commemoration that "Premiered" live on Facebook, Youtube, and a fully-accessible media platform. This event was held in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent restricitons that prevented an in-person event to be held in a safe manner.

Whlle this 48-minute presentaton was created for this specific event, it is a timeless message that contains interviews and footage for those who want to learn more about the Port Chicago disaster and its impact on those who were affected.

You may access the archived footage at these links:

76th Anniversary- Virtual Commemoration

Youtube Premiere Link (High-res video with available captions)

Fully Accessible Player Link (CaptionSync Website -For those who need audio description)

Last updated: February 20, 2024

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