"Everything here was just decimated," ranger Eric Stearns said one recent day, leading a small group toward the inscribed granite markers and the skeleton of a ruined pier. "I think the closest survivors were two guys who were about 1,000 yards away."
The Bryan was all but vaporized. The stern of the shattered Quinault Victory landed 500 feet from where it had been moored. In the Port Chicago movie theater, which was showing a war movie called "China," the north wall gave way — just as a grenade was exploding on the screen. (The Navy later razed the town.)
"It blew me across the room," Lowery said. "I was in the barracks, in a room with two guys, shooting the breeze when it happened, a window to my back."
Lowery worked in the recreational department as an instructor, organizing sports. Though some men first thought the Japanese had attacked, "we knew it was the ammunition blowing up…. We in the rec department had a pickup truck, and we were the first ones out of there with those who were injured," Lowery said.
"We loaded up as many guys as we could and drove them up to Pittsburg to the Army hospital there. Then we went back. Me and another guy did that all night," he said. "I found out a few days later there were splinters of glass in my back."
By reckoning of the Culver City-based Center for Land Use Interpretation, that blast at that time was "the most powerful manmade, non-nuclear explosion in history." Just 51 bodies were sufficiently intact to be identified. In all, 320 men were dead, including 202 black enlisted men; 390 more sailors and civilians were injured, including 233 black enlisted men.
When the sun came up the next day, "we picked up body parts," Lowery said. "What we found was generally gloves and shoes. The gloves and shoes held the parts together. I guess the rest disintegrated."
Four days after the blast, the Navy convened a court of inquiry to sort facts and assign blame. For more than a month, 125 witnesses testified, including Capt. Nelson H. Goss, whose command included Mare Island and Port Chicago. Goss acknowledged that a Coast Guard port director had warned him, "If you aren't careful, something's going to happen, and you'll be held responsible for it."
The Navy's court of three captains found neither Goss nor any other individual responsible for the blasts. Instead, the court's "finding of facts" concluded that it was an unavoidable accident — and that "these enlisted personnel were unreliable, emotional, lacked capacity to understand or remember orders or instructions, were particularly susceptible to mass psychology and moods, lacked mechanical aptitude, were suspicious of strange officers, disliked receiving orders of any kind, particularly from white officers or petty officers, and were inclined to look for and make an issue of discrimination."
This is the first half of the Port Chicago story. It's painful, but "it's our history," said Martha Lee, the National Park Service superintendent who oversees Port Chicago, Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, Calif., and two other sites. "And we can't pretend it didn't happen."
I took the tour along with a handful of others in late July. As we walked the blast site, Stearns punctuated the story by reading aloud witness accounts and showing declassified Navy photos.
One of the other visitors was Army Lt. Col. Chris Hart, commanding officer of the Military Ocean Terminal Concord, which surrounds the memorial. Hart, clean-shaven in fatigues and black beret, had taken this job only about a month before, but he had clearly read up on the site's history. As Stearns laid out the story, Hart occasionally added historical details.
In the days after the disaster, hundreds of Port Chicago's surviving enlisted men were evacuated from the base to Navy facilities elsewhere. When word was passed that some of the surviving officers had been granted a month's leave, many of the enlisted men hoped for a something similar, or different work assignments. Instead, they were ordered back to handling bombs.
Three weeks after the blast, officers sent 328 surviving enlisted men to load the San Gay at Mare Island. But when the order was given to march toward the ship, the men froze. Officers approached Seaman 1st Class Joseph R. Small, a 22-year-old enlisted man from New Jersey who operated a winch on the dock and called cadence when the men marched.
Interviewed for Allen's book decades later, Small recalled that an officer had called him front and center.
"He said, 'Small, are you going back to work?' And I told him, 'No, sir.' He asked why. I said I was afraid. Then somebody over in the ranks said, 'If Small don't go, we're not going either.' "
The Navy hired civilian stevedores to load the ship and marched 258 enlisted men, including Small, onto a barge, where they were held under guard for three days. During that time, Small called a meeting and urged the men to stick together. The men were marched to a baseball diamond, where Adm. Carleton Wright warned them that mutinous conduct in time of war could mean death by firing squad.
Most of the men relented — and were docked three months' pay and sentenced to bad-conduct discharges. That left 50 dissenters, who were charged with mutiny and court-martialed. After six weeks, 1,400 pages of testimony and 80 minutes of deliberation by the Navy's seven-officer court, all were found guilty. Despite protests from NAACP counsel Thurgood Marshall and others, the men were sentenced to eight to 15 years of imprisonment, to be followed by dishonorable discharges.