America was swept into World War II on December 7, 1941. Once the United States had entered the war, hundreds of thousands of black Americans served in the armed forces.
As war in the Pacific expanded, the Naval Ammunition Depot at Mare Island, California, was unable to keep up with the demand for ammunition. Port Chicago, California, located thirty-five miles north of San Francisco, proved an ideal place for the Navy to expand its munitions facilities.
Construction at Port Chicago began in 1942. By 1944, expansion and improvements to the pier could support the loading of two ships simultaneously. African-American Navy personnel units were assigned to the dangerous work at Port Chicago. Reflecting the racial segregation of the day, the officers of these units were white. The officers and men had received some training in cargo handling, but not in loading munitions. The bulk of their experience came from hands-on experience. Loading went on around the clock. The Navy ordered that proper regulations for working with munitions be followed. However, due to tight schedules at the new facility, deviations from these safety standards occurred. A sense of competition developed for the most tonnage loaded in an eight-hour shift. Since it helped to speed loading, competition was often encouraged.
On the evening of July 17, 1944, the empty merchant ship SS Quinault Victory was prepared for loading on her maiden voyage. The SS E.A. Bryan, another merchant ship, had just returned from her first voyage and was loading across the platform from the Quinault Victory. The holds were packed with high explosive and incendiary bombs, depth charges, and ammunition—4,606 tons of ammunition in all. There were sixteen rail cars on the pier with another 429 tons. Working in the area were 320 cargo handlers, crewmen and sailors.
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. The E.A. Bryan and the structures around the pier were completely disintegrated. A pillar of fire and smoke stretched over two miles into the sky above Port Chicago. The largest remaining pieces of the 7,200- ton ship were the size of a suitcase. A plane flying at 9,000 feet reported seeing chunks of white hot metal “as big as a house” flying past. The shattered Quinault Victory was spun into the air. Witnesses reported seeing a 200-foot column on which rode the bow of the ship, its mast still attached. Its remains crashed back into the bay 500 feet away.
All 320 men on duty that night were killed instantly. The blast smashed buildings and rail cars near the pier and damaged every building in Port Chicago. People on the base and in town were sent flying or were sprayed with splinters of glass and other debris. The air filled with the sharp cracks and dull thuds of smoldering metal and unexploded shells as they showered back to earth as far as two miles away. The blast caused damage forty-eight miles across the bay in San Francisco.
Navy personnel quickly responded to the disaster. Men risked their lives to put out fires that threatened nearby munitions cars. Local emergency crews and civilians rushed to help. In addition to those killed, there had been 390 wounded. These people were evacuated and treated, and those who remained were left with the gruesome task of cleaning up.
Less than a month after the worst home-front disaster of World War II, Port Chicago was again moving munitions to the troops in the Pacific. The men of Port Chicago were vital to the success of the war. And yet they were often forgotten. Of the 320 men killed in the explosion, 202 had been the African-American enlisted men who were assigned the dangerous duty of loading the ships. The explosion at Port Chicago accounted for fifteen percent of all the African-American casualties of World War II.
The Armed Forces were a mirror of American society at the time, reflecting the cooperation and dedication of a country. For many people, the explosion on July 17, 1944, became a symbol of what was wrong with American society. The consequences of the explosion would begin to reshape the way the navy and society thought about our social standards. More importantly, the explosion illustrated the need to prevent another tragedy like this one.
The tremendous danger and importance of the work, while not always recognized by the public, was always present in the minds of the men of Port Chicago. The Marines, Coast Guard and civilian employees had known of the danger, but none knew it as vividly as the Merchant Marine crew and the Naval Armed Guard of the ships and the men serving on the loading docks.
In 1944, the Navy did not have a clear definition of how munitions should best be loaded. Men of the ordnance battalions did the dangerous work on the piers at Port Chicago and at other navy facilities. These men, like their officers, had received very little training in cargo handling, let alone in working with high explosives.
Coast Guard instructions, published in 1943, were often violated since it was felt that they were neither safe nor fast enough for Port Chicago’s specific circumstances. The men on the pier experimented with and developed new procedures which they hoped would be safer and faster.
After the explosion, the Navy would institute a number of changes in munitions-handling procedures. Formalized training would be an important element, and certification would be required before a loader was allowed on the docks. The munitions themselves would be redesigned for safety while loading.
The ramifications of the explosion at Port Chicago would also lead people to examine their society. Resentment was growing about the policies of racial segregation throughout the nation. The navy had opened its ranks to African Americans in 1942, but men served in segregated units supervised by white officers, and opportunities for advancement were extremely limited. The men assigned to the ordnance battalion were African American.
The explosion had shaken all of the men, but especially those surviving men who worked on the pier. Of the 320 men killed, almost 2/3 were African Americans from the ordnance battalion. What had been minor grievances and problems before the explosion began to boil as apprehension about returning to the piers intensified. On August 9th, less than one month after the explosion, the surviving men—who had experienced the horror—were to begin loading munitions, this time at Mare Island. They told their officers that they would obey any other order, but not that one.
Of the 328 men of the ordnance battalion, 258 African-American sailors refused to load ammunition. In the end, 208 faced summary courts-martial and were sentenced to bad conduct discharges and the forfeit of three months’ pay for disobeying orders. The remaining fifty were singled out for general courts martial on the grounds of mutiny. The sentences could have been death but, after a trial which a 1994 review had reported as having strong racial overtones, they received sentences of between eight and fifteen years at hard labor. Soon after the war, in January 1946, all of the men were given clemency. On December 23, 1999, President William Clinton pardoned Freddie Meeks of Los Angeles, one of the few members of the original 50 who was still living.
The explosion and the later mutiny proceedings would help to illustrate the costs of racial discrimination and to fuel public criticism. By 1945, as the Navy worked toward desegregation, some mixed units appeared. When President Harry Truman called for the Armed Forces to be desegregated in 1948, the navy could honestly say that what happened at Port Chicago had been a very important step in that process.
The Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial is administered by the National Park Service and the United States Navy. It honors the memory of those who gave their lives and those who were injured in the explosion on July 17, 1944, recognizes those who served at the magazine, and commemorates the role of the facility during World War II.
1. A second ammunition facility was constructed at Port Chicago when there was already one at Mare Island because
a. Mare Island had closed.b. the demand for ammunition was growing.c. black and white ammunition loaders had to be separated.d. the military needed a place to train ammunition loaders.
2. Where was Port Chicago located?
a. a short distance from Chicago, Illinoisb. San Francisco, Californiac. north of San Francisco, Californiad. Mare Island, California
3. Workers at Port Chicago aided in the war effort by performing the dangerous task of
a. loading battle-bound ships with ammunition.b. making ammunition.c. confronting issues of military segregation.d. repairing battle-worn ships.
4. The disaster at Port Chicago did not occur because the men were
a. inadequately trained.b.racing and competing to get the job done.c. trying desperately to defend against enemy attack.d.experimenting with alternative methods of loading.
5.The disaster did not help to spark a/an
a. improvement in training.b. redesigning of munitions.c. desegregation of the military.d. stoppage in ship loading.
6.The Port Chicago Naval Magazine Explosion was
a. the worst home front disaster of World War II.b. avoidable.c. a catalyst for change.d. all of the above.
7. Do you think that the fifty survivors of Port Chicago were right to refuse to load ammunition onto ships at Mare Island even under the threat of imprisonment? Explain your answer.
8. In what way did this tragedy affect race relations in the United States?