On July 17, 1944, one of the worst disasters to befall the American military during World War II occurred. It didn’t occur in Europe or the Pacific, however. It took place on US soil.
The events leading up to this calamity and its aftermath permanently shaped the United States military.
Learn more about the Port Chicago Disaster, and the lasting changes it brought about on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
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The town of Port Chicago is located on the Suisun estuary which flows into the north end of San Francisco Bay.
About a mile from the town was located one of the primary munitions facilities for the United State’s Pacific Theater, the Port Chicago Naval Magazine, later renamed the Concord Naval Weapons Station.
During World War II, the facility served as an armaments depot for munitions that were going to support the war in the Pacific. Bombs, bullets, shells, mines, torpedoes, and all manner explosives were sent here from production facilities from around the country.
At Port Chicago, they would be loaded onto ships and sent to ships thousands of miles away.
In the 1940s, the loading and unloading of ships were mostly a time-consuming and manual process. It wasn’t like today where everything is in shipping containers and they can be loaded and unloaded without anyone even touching them.
In 1944, there were at least two ships being loaded 24 hours a day at Port Chicago.
The work done at Port Chicago was hard physical labor that was both dangerous and important to the war effort.
Because there weren’t enough civilian dock workers to load the naval ships, the Navy had to take over the task and assign sailors to do the work.
When the United State entered the war, the military was still racially segregated. Black soldiers were not allowed to serve on most ships in the US Navy.
The assignment given to many black enlisted men in the navy was to work at naval yards loading and unloading supplies.
At Port Chicago, all of the enlisted men who were doing the dangerous work of loading explosives were black. All of the officers who oversaw the operation were white.
Moreover, the men assigned as officers were not the Navy’s best. Those officers were out in the Pacific or had other duties which were perceived to be more important.
The commander of the base was Captain Merrill Kinne?. He served in the Navy in the First World War and had left the service 20 years earlier before returning to service. Likewise, the other officers at Port Chicago were mostly older men who were reservists and had no experience in the handling of munitions.
The safety regulations were poor to non-existent. Moreover, many of the cranes which were used to move munitions on and off of ships were in poor condition.
The events of concern began on July 13, 1944, when a Liberty Ship named the SS E. A. Bryan arrived at the dock. Its cargo hold was empty, but it had a full load of fuel oil for its trip across the Pacific. It held 5,292 barrels of fuel oil.
For four days the ship was carefully loaded with munitions. Into its cargo hold were loaded 1,000-pound bombs, 40mm shells, fragmentation cluster bombs, and 650-pound incendiary bombs. The incendiary bombs were considered live with their fuses installed.
A total of 4,600 tons of munitions had been loaded onto the SS E.A. Bryan by the evening of July 17.
On the other side of the pier was docked a Victory ship known as the SS Quinault Victory. It arrived on the morning of July 17. Its cargo holds were empty, but it had been filled with fuel, and it was being prepared for loading after it docked.
Between the two ships on the pier were 16 boxcars loaded with explosives. In particular, there were 430 tons of munitions in the train cars, including depth charges made of torpex, which is an explosive 50% more powerful than TNT, and more unstable.
No one is quite sure exactly what happened, but at 10:18 pm there was a loud crash. The sound was reported as sounding like metal and timber falling down. It was probably a crane or one of the booms which collapsed.
There was then the sound of an explosion and fire. About five to seven seconds later, there was a massive explosion that destroyed the entire facility.
It was one of the largest explosions in history up until that point.
Pilots in the air at the time saw the fireball go 3 miles into the air. The bast was felt in Boulder City, Nevada, 430 miles away. There was damage done to buildings in San Francisco 48 miles away. Debris landed over 2 miles away, and the plane which witnessed it said it saw white-hot debris shooting past it at an altitude of 7,000 feet.
A Coast Guard fireboat was thrown 600 feet or 180 meters away, where it sank.
There were 320 men on the pier when the explosion occurred. All of them died instantly. Two-thirds of the dead were African American enlisted men who were working on the dock.
In fact, this explosion by itself was responsible for 15% of all of the African American deaths in the Second World War.
I have done a previous episode on the Halifax Harbor explosion during World War I. This explosion wasn’t quite as large, but it was too far away. The biggest difference and the reason why the fatalities were lower is that there were no civilians on the military base.
There were 250 other injuries at the base, and of the men who were killed only 51 were ever identified.
An inquiry was launched only four days after the explosion, and the ruling was that it was probably the fault of one of the enlisted men. Nothing was mentioned about the poor safety conditions and the lack of training.
The surviving men who weren’t on duty were kept in their barracks at nearby military bases. Then most of them were assigned to the nearby Mare Island Navy Yard. On August 8, the USS Sangay was docked and it was to be loaded with explosives.
328 men were assembled before loading was to began. When they were given the orders “Column left” and “Forward March” to begin loading the munitions, every man in the unit refused to move forward.
They refused to load munitions on the ships with the same officers and same conditions as before.
They had gone on strike.
…or rather they would have gone on strike if they were civilians. Because they were soldiers, it was considered a mutiny.
Eventually, 70 men agreed to work, but the remaining 258 men, all African Americans, refused to load explosives unless the working conditions changed. They were all put in the brig…or a ship which served as a brig, because they didn’t have anything to hold that many people.
The men were eventually given a speech by Admiral Carleton Wright who was the commander of the San Francisco Naval District. He told them of the men dying across the Pacific and that while loading munitions was dangerous, being convicted of mutiny was punishable by death during a time of war.
Of the 258 men, 208 agreed to return to work. They were court marshaled and found guilty of disobeying an order and were docked three month’s pay. Almost all of these 208 men were reassigned to do menial tasks at various bases around the Pacific and were given bad conduct discharges after the war.
The remaining 50 men, however, were brought up on charges of mutiny. In particular, they were charged with “a deliberate purpose and intent to override superior military authority”.
All 50 of the men, known as the Port Chicago 50 at this point, pleaded not guilty. Their argument was that they didn’t try to take over command, which is what normally happens during a mutiny, they just refused to work.
A few of the 50 were assigned as cooks and weren’t supposed to be loading munition and one had a broken wrist and couldn’t physically do it.
It also turned out that few of the men were actually ordered to work. They were just asked if they would work, which is a totally different thing.
Eventually, the court marshall delivered their verdict and all 50 men were found guilty of mutiny. The recommended sentence was a reduction in rank, 15 years of hard labor, and a dishonorable discharge.
Admiral Wright reduced the sentence of 40 of the men to 12 to 8 years.
In the audience at the trial was a young attorney by the name of Thurgood Marshall. He began planning an appeal of the case, and the NAACP began a campaign to bring the verdict to the attention of the public.
It eventually got the attention of Eleanor Roosevelt to brought it up to the Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal.
He ordered a second court marshall, which came to the exact same verdict in June 1945.
Only a few months later, however, the war was over. The example they wanted to set for other seamen loading ships wasn’t necessary anymore.
In September, sentences were reduced, and then in January, 47 of the 50 men were released. The 47 men were assigned to duties around the Pacific. Of the remaining three, 2 were in prison hospitals, and one was kept in prison for bad behavior.
Almost all of the men were later discharged “under honorable conditions”.
The Port Chicago Disaster helped drive change for full integration of the US military after the war.
For decades, there has been a push by members of Congress for a full presidential pardon for all 50 of the men found guilty of mutiny. To date, only one of the men, Freddie Meeks, was given a pardon. He was one of the last surviving men and he was pardoned by President Clinton in 1999.
In 1994, the Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial was inaugurated and became part of the National Park Service. It remains one of the least visited sites in the park service, simply because so few people are aware of the Port Chicago Disaster and the events that followed.
However, more people should be aware of what happened at Port Chicago. Not only was it the most significant homefront event of the war, but it was a pivotal moment in the United States struggle for civil rights.
The Associate Producers of Everything Everywhere Daily are Peter Bennett & Thor Thomsen.
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