Port Chicago: Tragedy and Travesty

[We were about to board the California Zephyr in Sacramento for the beginning of our Grand Genealogy Journey. But first, for the occasion of the third edition of the Carnival of African-American Genealogy, let's backtrack in time and distance. The theme of the Carnival is "They served with honor~In Memoriam~African-Americans in the Military, 1914-1953."  Here, we follow the route of the train back to the story of black sailors, the names of some known but to God. The east-bound Zephyr passes Suisun Bay on its route from its origin in Emeryville, California, to Sacramento. On Suisun Bay in Contra Costa County, not far from the Zephyr's present route, there once was a little town called Port Chicago.]

Port Chicago, Contra Costa County, California, had been known as Bay Point until 1931, when its local business leaders renamed it Port Chicago.  They apparently believed that a new name might herald a new future for the Depression-struck town.  They couldn’t have had any idea what was to come.

Just a decade after Bay Point became Port Chicago, the United States entered World War II following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  The West Coast naturally became the logistics points for the war in the Pacific, with many Naval installations along the length of California.

One such installation was Naval Ammunitions Depot Mare Island, near Vallejo, California.  But the tempo of the Pacific war was so great that by mid-1942, the Mare Island facility had run out of capacity for storing and shipping munitions. The Navy turned to the town of Port Chicago to build another munitions handling depot.  As a Navy rteport later said, “Port Chicago was remote from industrial activities, in a sparsely settled area, had deep tide water along the northern boundary, and was served by two transcontinental railways. There was room for further expansion.”

The U.S. Naval Magazine Port Chicago was completed in May 1944.  It had a ship-loading pier that could handle two ships at a time, designed so that explosive munitions  could be handled directly from rail cars onto deep-water ships.

Although the design was 1944 state of the art, the handling of munitions still had to be done by human beings.  It was extremely hazardous work. As the Navy later admitted, its personnel had “no clear definition” how best to handle the task.  The men doing the actual work were almost all African-Americans; the officers directing the work were all white. Neither the laborers or the officers had received adequate training in this dangerous endeavor.   Compounding the situation at Port Chicago was a lack of adequate houisng and recreational facilities.

To improve morale and to speed the work, the officers encouraged competitions between loading crews to see  who could transfer the most bombs in the shortest time. These competitions increased the hazards, since shortcuts wre often taken with what few safety regulations there were.

On the night of July 17, 1944, two merchant ships, the E.A. Bryan and the Quinault Victory, being loaded at Port Chicago.  According to the Navy’s official history, the two ships held a total of 4,606 tons of “high explosive and incendiary bombs, depth charges, and ammunition.”  More than 400 tons of munitions remained aboard railcars on the pier.

The Navy’s history recounts that:

At 10:18 p.m., a hollow ring and the sound of splintering wood erupted from the pier, followed by an explosion that ripped apart the night sky. Witnesses said that a brilliant white flash shot into the air, accompanied by a loud, sharp report. A column of smoke billowed from the pier, and fire glowed orange and yellow. Flashing like fireworks, smaller explosions went off in the cloud as it rose. Within six seconds, a deeper explosion erupted as the contents of the E.A. Bryan detonated in one massive explosion. The seismic shock wave was felt as far away as Boulder City, Nevada.

Port Chicago Damage

A report from the Associated Press the next day said that “almost every house in the little town of Port Chicago was wrecked.” The AP described the Bryan as “literally shredded;” indeed, the biggest piece of the massive ship intact was no larger than a suitcase.

The Navy’s official investigation  by a Court of Inquiry found that smoke and gases from the explosion reached 12,000 feet into the sky.   This fact has led to some speculation that Port Chicago was secretly handling atomic weapons.  There has been no credible evidence produced yet that such was the case.

More Port Chi Damage

In the end, 320 men–202 of them African-Americans–were killed and nearly 400, mostly African-Americans, were injured.  The tragic incident accounted for 15% of all African-American casualties in World War II.

The Findings of Fact and Opinion of the Naval Court of Inquiry is a mixed bag.  On the one hand,  the Court concluded that the dead and wounded “were killed or injured in line of duty and not as a result of their own misconduct.” [This is an important legal finding in military law which allowed the surviving members and the survivors of the deceased to receive proper government benefits].

The Findings of Fact also set forth the following problems on the Navy’s part:

a. A general failure to foresee and prepare for the tremendous increase in explosives shipments.

b. A failure to assemble and train the officers and crew for their specialized duties prior to the time they were required for actual loading.

c. A failure to provide initially the collateral equipment so necessary for morale.

d. A failure to provide an adequate number of competent petty officers or even personnel of petty officer caliber.

But then the Court seems to take a different direction, stating that

[T]he officers at Port Chicago have realized for a long time the necessity for great effort on their part because of the poor quality of the personnel with which they had to work. They worked loyally, conscientiously, intelligently, and effectively to make themselves competent officers and to solve the problem of loading ships safely with the men provided.

. . .

[T]he enlisted personnel [meaning the black sailors] comprising the ordnance battalions at Port Chicago were poor material for training in the handling and loading of munitions, and required an unusual amount of close supervision while actually engaged in this work.

. . .

[A] very sustained and vigorous effort was made to train these men in the proper handling of munitions. Despite this, there was a considerable history of rough and careless handling by individuals. . . .

And then the Court tacks yet again in a different direction:

[I]n the months immediately preceding the explosion real progress had been made toward a better training program for officers and men. This work had been retarded by a lack of competent senior officers.

So the Court seemed to walk a tightrope between blaming the white officers and blaming the African-American sailors.  The Court, however, did note that “the behavior of the officers and men after the explosion was exemplary and reflects credit on them and on their commanding officer,” and also concluded that “the explosions and the consequent destruction of property, death and personal injuries were not due to the fault, negligence or inefficiency of any person in the naval service or connected therewith or any other person.”

The surviving sailors were reassigned to other bases, many to the depot at Mare Island, which the Port Chicago facility had been built to supplement.  They were assigned to other duties.

But that’s not the end of the story.

Just weeks after the Port Chicago explosion, three hundred of the “poor quality” enlisted sailors were ordered to resume loading munitions and explosives at Mare Island.   More than 250 of them refused the order.  They made it clear that they had not received any more training than before and stated that they  were prepared to follow any order except one to load explosives.

The men were accused of mutiny, which at that time carried the death penalty.  In the face of that circumstance, all but fifty returned to work.  These fifty were put on trial in the largest mass criminal proceeding in U.S. military history and the very first U.S. mutiny trial.

The trial was held on Yerba Buena Island in the middle of San Francisco Bay.  Thurgood Marshall, then chief counsel of the NAACP attended the trial as an observer. According to the Oakland Tribune of October 11, 1944, Marshall praised the Navy officers who were the defense attorneys, but asserted that the prosecutor was “prejudiced” especially against “Southern Negroes.”

The trial ended on October 25, 1944, but the verdict and sentence weren’t announced until three weeks later.  All fifty were convicted of mutiny and sentenced to various terms ranging from eight to fifteen years in prison, with dishonorable discharges from the Navy.

The longest term actually served by any of the men was 17 months.

For years after the explosion, the Government paid claims to those people who lost their houses or businesses in the town of Port Chicago.  Nothing was done for the surviving sailors who were imprisoned.

In 1967, the Congress effectively put an end to the claims process by essentially allowing the Navy to exercise eminent domain over the affected area. With that act, Port Chicago, California ceased to exist.

A number of individuals and groups called for a review of the trial of the fifty men convicted and finally, in 1994, the Navy conducted the review.  It concluded that the verdict was just because military personnel cannot pick and choose which orders to obey.

In 1999, the President of the United States pardoned the last known survivor of the Fifty, Freddie Meeks of Los Angeles, then eighty years old.  He died in 2003.

In the early 1990s, Congress authorized a memorial to the dead on the Port Chicago site.  In October 2009, the President designated the Port Chicago Naval Magazine National memorial as a unit of the National Park Service.

The Port Chicago Dead

Missing/Presumed Dead

US Navy. Press and Radio Release. “Commanding Officer Praises Negro Personnel Who Served at Port Chicago After Explosion Monday Night.” 20 Jul. 1944.

The Port Chicago National Memorial

Photo Credits: U.S. Naval Historical Center

Craig

10 Responses to “Port Chicago: Tragedy and Travesty”

  • Craig, thanks for sharing this compelling story. How fascinating, and yes, how very tragic, on both immediate and far-reaching levels.

  • DearMYRTLE says:

    Craig, thank-you for taking the time to explain this tragic incident. This is such a sad story when the men worked with full faith and integrity. Glad the truth has come to light.

  • Craig,

    Great story, as usual.

    Congratulations on MyHeritage.com Top 100 Recognition!
    Visiting all 100 takes some time. Thanks for what you do!

    Bill ;-)

    http://drbilltellsancestorstories.blogspot.com/
    Author of “Back to the Homeplace”
    and “13 Ways to Tell Your Ancestor Stories”

  • Enjoyed your retelling of the story. I have extensive files on Port Chicago, if you are interested in pursuing the larger history further.

  • Joan says:

    Craig,
    What an absolutely fascinating story. Thanks for sharing this bit of history with us.

  • J says:

    Craig,

    Thanks you for sharing this historical event. Honor them you did – great story!

  • Carol says:

    Extremely interesting story, photos are amazing. Thank for the time it took to prepare it. I learned something, and I appreciate your efforts.

  • Mavis says:

    Craig,

    Thanks for sharing this story. I had never heard of it until now. It’s very compelling and fascinating.

  • WILLIAM says:

    Yes, I was sad about what happened to these black sailors. I know how they felt seeing as I was a black man stationed at Naval Weapons Base Concord in 1975 during the Vietnam War. I was in the US Coast Guard. I attended explosive loading supervisor school there and supervised the loading and unloading of munitions. When I explained to the VA that I had been traumatized and was in fear for my life watching training films of the devastation of 1944 and feeling like this could happen to me, the way the Navy tried these men for treason for refusing to return to these unsafe work conditions. As recently as 1973, 8 box cars left Port Chicago and arrived in the Roseville rail yard and an explosion happened. Many theories: brakes, metal sparks . . . . Your article brought back that old feeling. It saddens me that all those lives were lost.

  • Craig says:

    Thanks, William for sharing your story with us. And thank you for your brave service! Hopefully someone is listening.


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