The Horrific Port Chicago Explosion

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port-chicago-memorial

212 Young Black Sailors Were Blown to Bits in Horrific World War II Accidental Explosion!

The Port Chicago disaster was a deadly explosion that took place on July 17, 1944 at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine in Port Chicago, California, in the United States. Ammunition being 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 Explosion

The town of Port Chicago, California, was located on Suisun Bay in the estuary of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers, connected to the Pacific Ocean via San Francisco Bay. This was the site of a U. S. Navy munitions depot which was later renamed the Concord Naval Weapons Station. Bombs, shells, mines, and other explosive ordnance devices were transferred from railcars to ships, whence they would be moved to locations in the Pacific Theatre. On July 17, 1944, a merchant ship docked at Port Chicago, the SS Quinault Victory, was being prepared to take on cargo.

The aftermath of the Port Chicago Explosion
The aftermath of the Port Chicago Explosion

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 pier were 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 Boulder City, Nevada, about 500 miles (800 km) away. Chunks of metal and wood were flung thousands of feet into the air, and windows in the surrounding towns were shattered, causing many additional injuries. The 320 sailors on duty were killed instantly and 390 others were injured, many seriously. Naval personnel worked quickly to contain the fires and to prevent other explosions from occurring. The nearby town was evacuated.

The “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 asked to resume the dangerous task of ammunition loading. 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. The prevalence of using almost exclusively African Americans for dangerous jobs like loading ammunitions was resented by the sailors who felt that the safety conditions which had led to the explosion had not been rectified. On August 9, 1944 (three weeks after the disaster), 258 out of the 320 African-American sailors in the ordnance battalion refused 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 forces at the time.

Summary Courts-Martial

Two hundred and eight sailors were convicted in summary courts-martial, and received bad conduct discharges. The remaining 50 were found guilty of mutiny in a subsequent court martial, and were sentenced to 8 and 15 years of hard labor, although they eventually received clemency in 1946.

port chicago mutiny
The Navy defense team sits in front of the fifty accused stevedores during the trial on Treasure Island in 1944.

In 1999, President Bill Clinton granted a pardon to Freddie Meeks, one of the few remaining survivors of the 50 court-martialed sailors. 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.

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CDR (Ret.) Gregory Black

CDR (Ret.) Black, US Navy, is the founder and key contributor to this Diverse Military Veterans Network website. He is a minority military historian and is well-versed in military diversity. (If you are interested in writing or contributing to this website please contact us.)

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