During World War II, getting munitions (bullets, grenades, cannon shells, bombs, depth charges, etc.) to the troops in the Pacific Theater was crucial. Due to the nature of the explosives, most ports along the west coast were not allowed or equipped to handle them. One of the main ports used for loading munitions on ships was the Naval Ammunition Depot at Mare Island, California, located at the northeast corner of San Pablo Bay, just across the Napa River from Vallejo, all part of the San Francisco Bay area.
However, the Naval facility at Mare Island was not able to keep up with the demand for munitions. After some investigation, the Navy decided to build a facility Port Chicago, about 9 miles from Mare Island on the south side of Suisun Bay and 30 miles northeast of Oakland. When the facility at Port Chicago was built, it was designed to allow for the loading of two ships at the same time instead of the single ship loading at Mare Island.
At the time, the Navy used mostly black personnel to load the munitions on the ships, largely because of the danger involved. The demands of getting munitions loaded as fast as possible also led to following what few safety precautions were in place at the time.
On this day, July 17, 1944, two merchant ships were docked at Port Chicago to be loaded with munitions for the war in the Pacific. The merchant ship, SS Quinault Victory had about 4,600 tons of munitions loaded by nightfall, only about half of what the ship could carry. At the same time, the merchant ship SS E.A. Bryan had pulled into port that day and was just beginning to be loaded with munitions. Besides the munitions in the warehouses, there was about 400 tons of munitions waiting on nearby railroad cars.
At 10:18pm, two units of black Navy and contract personnel were busy loading the ships with another two units of black Navy personnel due to arrive in about an hour to help as loading was taking place 24 hours a day, when a series of massive explosions rocked the entire area.
The blasts were so intense that it shattered every window and blew open every door in the homes and businesses in Port Chicago and residents of the town were knocked off their feet. The blasts were felt as far away as Oakland, San Francisco and Nevada, and measured 3.4 on the Richter scale hundreds of miles away. A pilot flying at 9,000 feet above reported pieces of metal flying skyward past his plane. Some buildings in Oakland and San Francisco were damaged by the blasts. Over 300 personnel, almost all black, were on or close to the pier and killed instantly by the explosion.
In an official memorandum, Navy Captain W. S. Parsons reported:
“S.S. E. A. BRYAN fragmented and widely distributed.
“S.S. QUINALT VICTORY torn in large pieces and moved about a ship’s length into the stream.
‘Pier – no evidence of pier or piling remaining within 400 feet of detonation. Beyond 400 feet, pier remains, but is torn from piling back to 700 feet.”
When the facility was repaired and rebuilt, over 200 black Navy personnel were reported to have mutinied when they refused to show up to work to load munitions onto ships. A number of them were court martialed and given dishonorable discharges, but the rest returned to work after the threat of being court martialed. However, the segregated practices of the US military, especially the Navy, was investigated, resulting in a number of civil rights changes.
At first, a number of sources blamed the Japanese and sabotage for the explosions but there was never any proof to support the claims.
A number of conspiracy theorists claim that the explosion was so intense that it was a small nuclear blast and that the military had used Port Chicago and the black personnel as Guinea pigs for a nuclear test. However, I do not buy into the nuclear explosion theory for several reasons.
One – there was no significant radiation detected anywhere in the area after the explosion.
Two – there are no reports of radiation sickness in the area after the explosion
Three – My dad served aboard the US Navy’s largest munitions ship in the Pacific from 1943 to when World War II ended. When they were loaded with munitions, his ship was not allowed to travel within 30+ miles of the fleet or allowed into any port. The ship traveled with two destroyer escorts that kept a distance from his ship, generally just visible on the horizon. The reason was due to the impact of the ship getting hit by a torpedo or bomb as it could sink a ship as far away as 20 or more miles. This is consistent with the reports following the explosion at Port Chicago.
Incidentally, I have one of the ship’s flags that is stamped Mare Island 1943 that flew at several key battles in the Pacific. It was presented to my dad by the ship’s captain after the war was over and they were mothballing the ship. It is one of my prized possessions.
Sources for the above includes: Port Chicago Disaster; Port Chicago Disaster – July 17, 1944; Port Chicago Explosion, 1944; War, ‘Mutiny’ and Civil Rights: Remembering Port Chicago; Port Chicago Disaster Exposed Racism in Military: Helped Launch Civil Rights Movement; Memorandum on Port Chicago Disaster; Commemorating the Port Chicago Naval Magazine Disaster of 1944: Remembering the Racial Injustices of the ‘Good War’ in Contemporary America; Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial California; World War II Homefront Era: 1940s: The Port Chicago Incident; Port Chicago Mutiny (1944); The Great WWII Port Chicago Disaster – A Nuclear Blast?