At precisely 10:18 pm on July 17, 1944 an Army Air Force pilot flying at 9,000 feet saw pieces of white hot metal, some as large as a house, fly straight up past him. The plane was not flying over a war zone. It was cruising above the San Francisco Bay area directly above Port Chicago on the southern banks of Suisun Bay. The plane and its crew narrowly avoided becoming additional casualties in the worst domestic loss of life and property in America during World War II. Below them a pier with two ships, a railroad locomotive, and more than 350 men—80% of them Black U.S. Navy ammunition loaders were virtually vaporized in an explosion equal to the power of 2,000 tons of TNT—the equivalent of a small atomic weapon.
Port Chicago, about 30 miles north of San Francisco, was a busy place. To keep up with munitions demand in the Pacific Theater, it was developed into a munitions facility when the Naval Ammunition Depot at Mare Island could not fully supply the war effort. By the summer of 1944, expansion of the Port Chicago facility allowed for loading two ships at once around the clock.
Locomotives brought trainloads of munitions—everything from small arms ammunition, to Naval ordinance, to aircraft bombs of all sizes—to the dockside, each box car crammed to capacity with explosives. The trains waited on sidings separated by concrete blast walls for safety until they were ready to roll onto the pier. There were berths for two cargo ships, one on each side.
The box cars were unloaded by hand by all-Black gangs of ammunition loaders under the direct supervision of Black petty officers and largely inexperienced white junior officers. Separate gangs worked transferring the munitions to the two docked ships, hoisted aboard in cargo nets by winch and crane. Loading operations continued in shifts around the clock. It took an average of four days labor to fill each ship, but with more ships in the bay awaiting a berth, the men were driven to speed up operations both by aggressive petty officers and by offers of rewards in speed loading competition. Corners were cut.
The use of exclusively Black labor gangs for ammunition loading and other dangerous and unpleasant duties was a product of a culture of rigid segregation in the Navy. Historically Blacks had served in all enlisted capacities and on shipboard from the birth of the Navy through World War I. In some eras, particularly under sail, they often represent up to 25% of personnel on some ships. Then Jim Crow went to sea. In the ‘20’s Blacks were limited to duties as cooks, messmates, and stewards. Old time seamen were “allowed” to remain until retirement, but in fact most were forced out before that by hostile officers and crews. Then attempts were made to replace even the cooks and stewards with Filipinos.
After Pearl Harbor the enormous manpower needs of the Navy made it reluctantly return to recruiting Blacks. They used Ships Cook Dorie Miller who won the Navy Cross for manning a machine gun against attacking Japanese planes that day as a poster boy for recruitment in Black neighborhoods. But except for mess duty and servile functions, they were still generally restricted from sea duty and confined to general service ashore in segregated units under white officers.
The Navy had a system for sorting sailors by fitness ratings based on intelligence tests, education, physical fitness, psychological evaluation, age, and discipline records. Blacks assigned duty as ammunition handlers were drawn from a pool of the bottom 60% of recruits and The Navy’s General Classification Test (GCT) results for the enlisted men at Port Chicago averaged 31, putting them in the lowest twelfth of the Navy. Supervising petty officers there also had below average ratings on average because the best and most effective ones were quickly transferred to other duties. The Navy would later use the excuse that this “substandard” force was incompetent and irresponsible. Even if true, it begs the question of why the Navy enforced a system that purposefully selected just such men for the dangerous duty.
On the day of the explosion two ships were docked. The Liberty ship, SS E.A. Bryan, after four days of loading, had about 4,600 tons of ammunition and explosives on board, about 40% of its capacity. A gang with men 98 was loading her. On the other side of the dock the Victory ship SS Quinault Victory preparing its maiden voyage was being rigged to receive cargo by a 102 man gang, but one which was made up largely of new and inexperienced men.Black work gangs unload a box car of aerial bombs by hand at Port Chicago. There was intense pressure to speed up operations to meet the needs of the war in the Pacific Theater.
The Bryan already had on board or being loaded 1,000-pound bombs in No. 3 hold, 40 mm shells in No. 5 hold and fragmentation cluster bombs in No. 4 hold, 650 lb. Incendiary bombs— with live fuses installed—were being loaded carefully one at a time into No. 1 hold—a hold with a winch brake that had recently been inoperative and may still have been so. A boxcar delivery containing a new airborne anti-submarine depth charge, the Mark 47 armed with 252 lbs. of torpex explosives, was being loaded into No. 2 hold. The torpex charges were more sensitive than TNT to external shock and container dents.
Also, on the dock were on three parallel rail spurs, were a steam locomotive and sixteen rail cars holding about 430 short tons of explosives.
In addition to the loading crews a total of 67 officers and crew of the two ships were at their stations, and various support personnel were present including the three-man civilian train crew and a Marine sentry, nine supervising Navy officers, and 29 armed guards watched over the procedure. A Coast Guard fire barge with a crew of five was also docked at the pier.
Several ships and boats stood near-by in the harbor and the port facilities teemed with other men on duty even this late at night.
At shortly after 10:15 witnesses ashore recalled hearing a “metallic sound and rending timbers, such as made by a falling boom.” That was followed by an explosion on the pier and a flash fire. Five to seven seconds later a huge explosion engulfed the pier. From an enormous fireball rose a mushroom shaped cloud that eventually reached 30,000 feet. The shock wave leveled buildings near the pier and sent a mini-tidal wave 30 feet high rolling across the bay. Concussion from the blast shattered windows in a radius of several miles and it could be felt in San Francisco. Seismographs at the University of California at Berkeley recorded the two shock waves traveling through the ground, determining the second, larger event to be equivalent to an earthquake measuring 3.4 on the Richter Scale.
Shrapnel-like debris was scattered over a wide area and more that had been blasted high into the air including large burning parts, continued to fall for some time. Every boat and ship in the harbor sustained some damage as did most of the buildings of the port.The disaster made headlines in the Bay area and around the country.
The E. A. Bryan was virtually vaporized. Very little of its wreckage was ever found indicating that the explosion centered on or next to her. The Quinalt Victory was lifted clear out of the water by the blast, turned around and broken into pieces and the largest piece which remained was a 65-foot section of the keel, its propeller attached, which protruded from the bay at low tide, 1,000 feet from its original position. The 12 ton locomotive on the pier was also atomized.
All 320 of the men on duty at the pier died instantly, and 390 civilians and military personnel were injured, many seriously. Among the dead were all five Coast Guard personnel posted aboard the fire barge. Blacks accounted 202 dead and 233 injured, which was 15% of all African-American naval casualties during World War II.
Survivors ashore, many of them injured themselves and including men from other loading gangs, rushed to the pier where they struggled to contain the fire and then began the grim search for bodies. There were none to be found, at least intact. One of the Black searchers later recalled:
I was there the next morning. We went back to the dock. Man, it was awful; that was a sight. You’d see a shoe with a foot in it, and then you’d remember how you’d joked about who was gonna be the first one out of the hold. You’d see a head floating across the water—just the head—or an arm. Bodies... just awful.
200 Back sailors volunteered to remain at the base and help with the clean-up operation. The rest, at least those not hospitalized, but including many wounded, were temporarily transferred elsewhere.
Given the total devastation and lack of surviving witnesses, a Navy investigation could never determine an exact cause of the disaster, although the possibility of a faulty boom on the Bryan was suspected by some. So was careless handling by the loaders. Investigators dismissed the possibility that poor training and leadership, speed-ups, and the notorious speed loading contests could have contributed.
The Navy asked Congress to give each victim’s family $5,000. Representative John E. Rankin (D-Mississippi) insisted the amount be reduced to $2,000 when he learned most of the dead were Black.
By August the surviving Port Chicago ammunition loaders, augmented by new and largely untrained recruits, were transferred to the large Mares Island facility. Because of embarrassing publicity, a new system was put in place of rotating between segregated Black and white gangs for around-the-clock loading duty. On August 8 when men from the Port Chicago unit were ordered to the USS Sangay with naval mines and other munitions 328 men said they were afraid and that they would not load munitions under the same officers and conditions as before. The mass work stoppage would have been called a strike if the workers had been civilians.
But the Navy had another word for it—mutiny.Admiral Carleton H. Wright, Commander, of the 12 Naval District was determined to make a draconian example of the the Black "mutineers" who refused to continue hazardous duty under the same officers and conditions that led to the Port Chicago explosion.
After refusing for two days 258 men were arrested and confined to a brig barge designed to accommodate 75. On August 11 they were marched to a field where they were lectured on their duty by Admiral Carleton H. Wright, who threatened them with execution by firing squad for mutiny in time of war. The men were told to separate themselves into groups—those who would promise to obey orders, and those who would not. Led by Seaman First Class Joseph Randolph “Joe” Small a group of 44 refused to obey every order. They were marched back to the brig. The next day six more sailors refused to report to duty and were also arrested.
During August all 258 men—those who agreed to obey future orders and those who refused—were closely interrogated by Navy officers in an attempt to discover the “ring leaders.” Many men were coerced into signing statements drafted by the officers that did not correspond to their actual accounts. Others refused to sign anything. All 250 were brought before court martial and convicted of disobeying orders. They suffered three months loss of pay, reduction in rank where applicable, and those not held as witnesses or defendants in the upcoming mutiny trial were split into smaller groups and shipped out to various places in the Pacific Theater where they were assigned to menial duties like policing cigarette butts at island bases. When they concluded their tours, they were all given bad conduct discharges which precluded them from ever receiving veterans’ benefits.
Thurgood Marshall, Chief Counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), assisted the defense of the 50 men charged with mutiny and the appeals that followed. He also led a public protest campaign that gained the support of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
The fate of the so-called Port Chicago 50 was worse. A court martial trial for mutiny and conspiracy to disobey orders began at the Marine base at Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay on September 14. All 50 men pled not guilty. A lengthy and acrimonious trial attracted national attention. Thurgood Marshall, Chief Counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), sat in on the proceedings, interviewed the defendants, and consulted with defense lawyers. In well publicized press conferences, he insisted that the men had been improperly charged with mutiny and conspiracy when at most each might be guilty of individual insubordination, and then broadly attacked the Navy’s system of segregated job assignments and the shoddy training and safety procedures of the service.
On October 24, Admiral Osterhaus and the other six members of the court deliberated for 80 minutes and found all 50 defendants guilty of mutiny. Each man was reduced in rank to Seaman Apprentice and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor to be followed by dishonorable discharge. The men were held under guard while their sentences were passed to Admiral Wright for review. On November 15, Wright reduced the sentences for 40 of the men: 24 were given 12 years, 11 were given 10 years and the five youngest sailors were given eight-year sentences. The full 15-year sentences remained in place for ten of the men including Joe Small and another alleged “ringleader” Ollie Green. In late November, the 50 men were transferred to the Federal Correctional Institution on Terminal Island in San Pedro Bay near the Port of Los Angeles.
The convictions and harsh sentences caused an uproar in the Black community. Naval enlistments plummeted. Marshall and the NAACP planed a massive public campaign in support of an appeal effort. Petitions began to circulate, collecting thousands of names of citizens who demanded a reversal of the mutiny verdict. Protest meetings were held and powerful people in sympathy to the cause were asked to bring pressure to bear, not the least of who was Eleanor Roosevelt who sent Navy Secretary James Forrestal a copy of NAACPs Mutiny pamphlet in April 1945, asking him to take special care in this case. The Secretary ordered Admiral Wright to reconvene the court martial with instructions to disregard the hearsay testimony. Admiral Osterhaus once again called the court to session for deliberation and on June 12 the court reaffirmed each of the mutiny convictions and sentences. Admiral Wright stuck by his reduced sentences.
After the War ended in August, the Navy Department reduced each man’s sentence by one year. This did not appease continued public outcry. In an October report to the Secretary, Captain Harold Stassen, future Governor of Minnesota and perennial Republican presidential candidate, recommended that the Navy reduce the sentences to just two years for men with good conduct records and three years for the rest, with credit for time served.
Ob January 6, 1946 the Navy announced that 47 of the 50 men were being released. They were paroled to active duty aboard Navy vessels in the Pacific Theater, where the men were assigned menial duties associated with post-war base details. Two of the 50 prisoners remained in the prison hospital for additional months recuperating from injuries, and one was not released because of a bad conduct record.Fred Meeks, last survivor of the Port Chicago 50 was 90 years old when he was finally pardoned by President Bill Clinton.
But the bitter after taste lingered. The Navy suffered a string of embarrassing incidents caused by its segregationist policies and poor treatment of Black sailors. It finally pushed the Navy into reluctantly ending segregation in units and by assignment. It took well into the post-war years, before the new policy was fully implemented.
As for Port Chicago, it was rebuilt and returned to service. Atomic weapons were shipped from there for post-war testing in the South Pacific. It shipped tons of munitions to Korea, Vietnam, Persian Gulf, Iraq, and Afghanistan Wars. Since the Vietnam War the railroad lines leading to the docks have been the frequent site of protests and civil disobedience. In response the Navy has annexed much of the City of Port Chicago and built a virtual fortress with high walls that severed a major coastal highway.The Port Chicago National Memorial, located just outside of Concord on the grounds of the Concord Naval Weapons Station, is the third least visited National Park/Memorial in the Country. The Navy severely restricts access citing security concerns because of years of anti-war protests that attempted to block rail lines to the loading docks that fed conflicts from Vietnam to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
And, if you are ever allowed to visit, somewhere near ground zero of the explosion is the Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial was dedicated in 1994 to the lives lost in the explosion.