Port Chicago disaster
Infobox Military Conflict
conflict= Port Chicago Disaster
caption= Damage at the Port Chicago Pier after the
17 July, 1944explosion
July 17, 1944
Port Chicago Naval Magazine, Port Chicago, California
The Port Chicago disaster was a deadly
explosionthat took place on July 17 1944at the Port Chicago Naval Magazinein Port Chicago, California, in the United States. Ammunitionbeing loaded aboard cargo vessels bound for the war in the Pacific exploded, killing 320 sailors and civilians, and injuring more than 400 others. Most of the dead and injured were African American recruits, and the continuing unsafe conditions even after the disaster resulted in a number of servicemen refusing to work, known as the Port Chicago Mutiny, a month later.
The town of Port Chicago,
California, was located on Suisun Bayin the estuary of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers, connected to the Pacific Oceanvia San Francisco Bay. This was the site of a U. S. Navy munitionsdepot which was later renamed the Concord Naval Weapons Station.
Port Chicago Naval Magazine
Port Chicago Naval Magazinewas built in 1941 and 1942, shortly after the Pearl Harborattack at the beginning of World War II. Located just outside Pittsburg, California, Port Chicago was an ammunition storage facility where ships were equipped. Bombs, shells, mines, and other explosiveordnance devices were transferred from railcarsto ships, whence they would be moved to locations in the Pacific Theatre.
All the enlisted men acting as loaders at Port Chicago were African-Americans. [http://www.history.com/minisite.do?content_type=Minisite_Generic&content_type_id=582&display_order=8&mini_id=1071 History.com. Black History. "The Port Chicago Mutiny"] ] Their commanding officers were white.
The Port Chicago disaster
July 17 1944, a merchant shipdocked at Port Chicago, the SS "Quinault Victory", was being prepared to take on cargo. Another merchant ship, the SS "E.A. Bryan", was across the platform from it, in the process of being loaded with almost 5,000 tons of high explosives, bombs, depth charges, and ammunition. On the pierwere sixteen rail cars with over 450 more tons of explosives.
At 10:18 p.m., an explosion occurred on the pier and a fire started. Six seconds later, a more powerful explosion took place as the entire contents of the SS "E.A. Bryan" simultaneously detonated, destroying the pier and much of the surrounding town and area with an explosive force felt as far as
Las Vegas, Nevada, about 500 miles (800 km) away. Chunks of metaland woodwere flung thousands of feet into the air, and windows in the surrounding towns were shattered, causing many additional injuries.320 of the sailors on duty died instantly and 390 others were injured, many seriously. Of the deaths from the explosion, 202 were African Americans, and the accident accounted for 15 percent of all African American casualties in World War II. Naval personnel worked quickly to contain the fires and to prevent other explosions from occurring. The nearby town was evacuated.
The cause of the explosion at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine was never determined, although it was attributed to some sort of mistake in the loading of the
torpedoes and other ordnance into the ship, which was notoriously difficult work, especially under rushed conditions. The final Naval inquiry claimed it was impossible to determine the cause of the explosion.
The Port Chicago mutiny
After the fires had been contained, the gruesome task of cleaning up remained—body parts and corpses littered the bay and port. Less than a month later, these same sailors involved in the cleanup of their colleagues were themselves ordered to resume the dangerous task of ammunition loading. On
August 9 1944(three weeks after the disaster), 258 out of the 320 African-American sailors in the ordnance battalionrefused to load any ammunition, in what was later branded the "Port Chicago mutiny". It was seen as underscoring the tense race relations in the armed forcesat the time. Despite the clear questions about unsafe working conditions at the facility and the unequal treatment of African-American enlistees compared to their white commanding officers, the case went to court-martial.
The Port Chicago 50
Two hundred and eight sailors were convicted in summary
courts-martial, and received bad conduct discharges. The remaining 50 men, known today as The Port Chicago 50, were found guilty of mutinyin a subsequent court martial, and were sentenced to dishonorable discharges and prison sentences of 8 and 15 years of hard labor.
Future Supreme Court Justice
Thurgood Marshallsued the Navy on behalf of the 50 sailors. Although he was unable to get the convictions overturned, Marshall succeeded in winning clemencyfor the 50 sailors, but not until after the war in 1946. Freddie Meeks, one of the few remaining survivors of the 50 court-martialed sailors, petitioned for a Presidential pardon after a Congressional effort to have the convictions overturned was unsuccessful. In September 1999, Congressman George Miller (Democrat, CA 7th Dist) and 36 other members of Congress sent a letter to President Clinton requesting he grant the pardon. In December the same year, President Bill Clintonissued a pardon for Meeks.
Port Chicago today
, dedicated to the lives lost in the explosion and crediting the aftermath of the disaster as the first step toward "racial justice and equality" in the United States.
Incident in popular culture
The disaster was featured in a "
JAG" episode titled "" that aired in April 2002.
The story of the Port Chicago 50 was the subject of the 1999 Emmy-nominated TV film "Mutiny" written by James S. Henerson, directed by
Kevin Hookswith Morgan Freemanas one of three executive producers.
Five of the survivors of the disaster (including Meeks) were featured on the radio show
This American Life, in the episode "The Job That Takes Over Your Life", which originally aired 9/27/96.
Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial
Texas City Disaster
List of the largest artificial non-nuclear explosions
References and/or further reading
last = Allen
first = Robert L.
year = 2006
title = The Port Chicago Mutiny
location = Berkeley, CA
isbn = 9781597140287
oclc = 63179024
* [http://www.history.navy.mil/faqs/faq80-1.htm U.S. Navy version of the incident]
* [http://www.usmm.org/portchicago.html U.S. Maritime Service Veterans memorial page]
* [http://www.nps.gov/poch/ Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Monument] - National Park Service site
* [http://www.cccoe.k12.ca.us/pc The Port Chicago Disaster: A Resource for Students and Teachers]
* [http://www.talkinghistory.org/collison.html The Port Chicago 50: An Oral History by Dan Collison]
* [http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0181769/ Mutiny at IMDb]
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