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Sunday, January 19, 2014

Port Chicago Explosion: The Largest WWII Homeland Disaster

On my previous post I discussed Operation Crossroads and included a controversial photo of an atomic bomb test cake.  A reader named Shirley Wilson, a professional cake designer from San Francisco, linked the plight of the sailors in an incident to the Montford Point Marines. I posted a portion of her comment and asked my readers if they knew about the incident in question. 

Some of my scholarly viewers automatically answered to themselves "Port Chicago."

Similarly, other scholarly viewers collectively shared a blank response. The incident was not publicized and was buried for over fifty years. It took investigations and testimonials to uncover this homeland disaster that became both a civil and human rights case. There now is a Port Chicago Naval Magazine Memorial.  So if you Googled and asked for help, or a lifeline, I will understand, because I myself didn't know about the case. Here is the fascinating story of Port Chicago...

Port Chicago Explosion: The Largest WWII Homeland Disaster

Port Chicago Naval Magazine was a segregated naval base located 40 miles east of San Francisco, CA. Black men were required to load ammunition and bombs onto ships. Ships were headed out to Pacific Rim troops during World War II. The Allies were desperate to stop the Japanese and other Axis powers that were raging massive destruction.

After World War I, the Navy excluded African Americans and replaced them with Filipinos. In 1932, the Navy permitted Blacks, but only in menial positions and of course, not as officers. Port Chicago had 1,400 Black enlisted men, 71 officers, 106 Marine Guards and 230 civilian employees. (

It was critical to load the Liberty and Victory ships 24 hours around the clock. Tragically, pressure was on to quickly dispatch munitions without any regard for safety or specialty training. It was reported that the enlisted men even waged contests to increase their output. The Black men toiled long hours and worked without facial masks to protect them from toxic dust. Furthermore, their supervisors were White officers who harbored discriminatory attitudes towards them. Navy survivor Morris Soublet* reported being called "boy" and the group of Negro men as "you people."

Can you imagine working in not only a hostile work environment, but employed around highly combustible materials, with no instruction on how to properly handle the munitions, and commanded to move quickly? The Black enlistees had some fears about working with the materials but blocked them out after the officers told them they would be safe "because the bombs did not have detonators on them." Clearly all these elements were a dangerous recipe for disaster. 

The E. A. Bryan had been moored at Port Chicago for four days, taking on ammunition and explosives night and day. Some 98 men of Division Three were hard at work loading the Bryan, and by 10:00 p.m. on 17th July the ship was loaded with some 4,600 tons of munitions including 1,780 tons of high explosives. ( also states:

In addition to the enlisted men present, there were nine Navy officers, 67 members of the crews of the two ships along with an Armed Guard detail of 29 men, five crew members of a Coast Guard fire barge, a Marine sentry and a number of civilian employees. The pier was congested with men, equipment, a locomotive, 16 railroad boxcars, and about 430 tons of bombs and projectiles waiting to be loaded. 

On that fateful day in July 17, 1944, a powerful explosion occurred and it registered 3.4 Richter scale. In fact, people that survived in the area and miles beyond thought an earthquake occurred. A large mushroom like cloud appeared and .an airplane pilot flying reported seeing debris pass by the size of a house. The blast was felt 200 miles away. Windows were shattered and structures in the town of Port Chicago were damaged. The death toll was 320 men (200 Black), and 390 Military and civilians injured. (233 Black). Property damage was 12 million dollars, a staggering sum at the time.

The grim task of recovering bodies, attending funerals and memorials took place immediately after the tragedy. Amazingly enough, the White officers were praised and allowed leave, but the Black enlisted men were not. Surviving Black enlistees were sent to load another ship. The workers refused to work in such hazardous conditions. What happened next became the largest Naval mutiny trial in history, known as the Port Chicago Mutiny.

The Port Chicago Explosion is known as the largest WWII Homeland Disaster. Conspiracy theorists point to classified documents and describe the "mushroom cloud" that appeared; individuals involved in the creation of these bombs referred to subsequent explosions as "Port Chicago-like" explosions. 

What feelings do you have when you look at some of these pictures? What would you do if you were an enlisted man? Please share this post and don't forget to sign up to be notified for future posts.(Or subscribe via "Feedly")

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Next up: "Port Chicago Mutiny"
Port Chicago Naval Magazine Memorial 


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