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Port Chicago, site of a World War II home front tragedy, is a classroom today

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The bombs erupted along Pier No. 1, thousands of them, about 30 miles northeast of San Francisco. And 66 years later, you can still spot a few twisted hunks of metal near water's edge, an American flag snapping in the wind overhead.

This is Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial, the newest unit in the national park system and the scene of the bloodiest 20th century California war story that millions of Californians have never heard. It covers just 5 acres, surrounded by a military base, between Suisun Bay and the blond hills of Contra Costa County.

"You won't see much of anything," the Rev. Diana McDaniel, president of the Friends of Port Chicago, tells first-time visitors. "But you'll feel something."

The biggest home-front disaster of World War II happened here. Followed by the largest mass mutiny trial in U.S. Navy history. Which paved the way for the integration of the American military and, many say, the emergence of the American civil rights movement in the 1950s. In other words, Port Chicago's first full-time rangers may not have much to show when they welcome visitors, but they have plenty to tell.

The core of the story is always July 17, 1944. It was a Monday. The U.S. was more than two years into World War II, and Port Chicago was where the Navy took munitions off railroad cars and loaded them onto ships bound for the Pacific.

Out along the port's long, bending pier, which had just been expanded to accommodate two ships at a time, the Quinault (sometimes spelled Quinalt) Victory glided in about 6 p.m. The new ship, ready for loading, moored on the pier's seaward side, facing upstream.

On the land side, facing downstream, loomed the E.A. Bryan, a 440-foot-long Liberty ship that had been in port for four days of around-the-clock loading. Like most Liberty ships, it had five cargo holds, each about four stories deep. The ship was mostly full, with five days left to finish the job. Most of the loading had gone smoothly, investigators found later, except for a few problems with the steam-powered winches that lifted munitions into the ships.

The base was eight miles down the Sacramento River from Pittsburg, seven miles upriver from Martinez and 11/2 miles from the tiny town of Port Chicago. It had rail connections and plenty of land, well-separated from population centers in case anything major went wrong. Through more than a year and a half of hastily handling 280,000 tons of ammunition and explosives onto 78 ships, nothing had.

But Port Chicago was ready to blow, in more ways than one.

About 1,400 enlisted men did the most dangerous work. Some were volunteers. Some were draftees. All were black, barred from most other jobs by segregationist policies that prevailed in the Navy and throughout American society. Their morale, the Navy acknowledged later, was "extremely low."

Irvin G. Lowery, now an 86-year-old retired state official in Columbus, Ohio, arrived in Port Chicago in the spring of '44 as a 19-year-old petty officer. In Ohio, "There were no black people working for the telephone company, no black people working for the electric company, no black people working for the gas company. And they didn't drive school buses or street cars," he told me in a telephone interview. "That's the way the world was then. So when you look at going into a segregated Navy, that was normal."

Sleeping in barracks about half a mile from the dock, most of these men served as stevedores, working around the clock in three shifts, filling westbound ships with bullets and bombs under the supervision of about 70 commissioned officers, all white. (The historical details in this article, unless otherwise attributed, are drawn from now-public Navy documents and "The Port Chicago Mutiny," a 1989 book by Robert L. Allen.)

Exhorted by officers to work quickly, the enlisted troops rolled bombs down ramps and stacked ammunition on pallets or loaded it into nets. Then winches hoisted the ordnance off the pier and into the hatches. Although commercial stevedores at nearby Mare Island averaged 8.7 tons per hatch per hour, the officers at Port Chicago set a target of 10. The men usually averaged 8.2.

And most of them were learning on the job. As a later Navy review found, the Navy offered little or no training to Port Chicago's men, had no written guidelines on how to load munitions, and sometimes violated Coast Guard instructions because they ate up too much time. Officers offered rewards to the fastest crews, may have bet on tonnage results and brushed off safety concerns by explaining that the troops were packing mostly munitions without fuses or detonators.

"We were in that war to win," said Tad Shay, a park ranger who splits his time among Port Chicago and three other sites. "Nothing was going to stop us. It was go, go, go."

By 10 p.m. July 17, more than 100 men were aboard the Quinault Victory, rigging the new ship and expecting to start loading bombs at midnight.

Ninety-eight men were on and around the Bryan, which was as busy as a beehive. One crew stacked 40-millimeter shells into the No. 5 hold. Another maneuvered 1,000-pound bombs into the No. 3 hold. Another placed 2,000-pound depth bombs into the No. 2 hold. At the No. 1 hold, the men gingerly handled incendiary bombs, which weighed 650 pounds each and were called "hot cargo" because their fuses were installed.

By 10:15, the Bryan held 4,606 tons of ammunition and explosives. On the pier, nine officers stood among about 100 crewmembers, Marine guards, civilian workers and others. Sixteen railroad boxcars had rolled up, bearing another 429 tons of bombs and projectiles to be loaded.

Then, at 10:18 p.m., the first explosion occurred.

About five seconds later came the second, much bigger blast.

"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."

In Nevada, seismic devices jumped. In San Francisco, hotel windows shattered. On an Army Air Force plane 9,000 feet up, the pilot reported an aerial ring of fire three miles around. Also, he said, "there were pieces of metal that were white and orange in color, that went quite a ways above us. They were quite large. I would say they were as big as a house or a garage."

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.

"This is not 50 men on trial for mutiny," Marshall asserted. "This is the Navy on trial for its whole vicious policy toward Negroes. Negroes are not afraid of anything, any more than anyone else. Negroes in the Navy don't mind loading ammunition. They just want to know why they are the only ones doing the loading!"

By late November, the 50 mutineers were locked up on Terminal Island in Southern California. But their case had become a cause célèbre.

In late 1944, the Navy beefed up munitions training and safety measures and assigned white enlisted men to join the black enlisted men on the rebuilt Port Chicago pier. (A 1945 Navy Bureau of Ordnance report on lessons learned at Port Chicago prescribed that at ordnance stations, "the ratio of white to colored should be at least 70% to 30%.")

Within about a year of the war's end in 1945, the Navy became the first branch of the U.S. military to fully integrate. It also set free hundreds of imprisoned servicemen, including almost all of the Port Chicago mutineers, while letting the court-martial verdicts stand.

For years to follow, the civil rights movement rippled through American society. Marshall, still working for the NAACP, won the 1954 Supreme Court case that desegregated schools (Brown vs. Board of Education) and went on to become the first African American justice on that court. Lt. Com. James F. Coakley, who headed the mutiny prosecution, wound up prosecuting Black Panthers as district attorney of Alameda County in the 1960s.

But many Port Chicago survivors kept secret the carnage they'd seen and punishment they'd faced. Tracking them down, author Allen said, he found "an intense silence in many of these families. Most of them didn't talk about it at all."

On the blast's 50th anniversary in 1994, federal officials dedicated the Port Chicago memorial site and U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez) pressed Navy leaders to exonerate the convicted mutineers. They chose to let the verdict stand.

But in 1999 President Bill Clinton granted a pardon to one of the few surviving munitions-handlers, Freddie Meeks of Los Angeles. Then in late 2009 — after ownership of Port Chicago had passed from the Navy to the Army — Congress and President Obama gave Port Chicago status as a unit of the national park system.

It's still tricky to visit. You must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. You must give two weeks' notice, submit to an Army background check and be patient; military operations often force Port Chicago's closure for weeks on end. In all, just 793 visitors reached Port Chicago in the first seven months of 2010.

But the site's new status gives the park service a future claim on the land and has made possible the hiring of the memorial's first two full-time employees. Rangers are working with the East Bay Regional Park District and the city of Concord on plans for a more accessible visitor center. Those who visit in the next few years are likely to also glimpse the Navy's dwindling fleet of about 50 retired ships that have been idle in Suisun Bay for decades, another legacy of World War II.

"In my opinion," said the Army's Hart at the end of his tour of the Port Chicago memorial, "the military is not trying to bury an incident in our past, but to highlight it and the tremendous sacrifice that sailors and service members and their families made back then…. We continue to learn from our mistakes."

Meanwhile, Miller and Allen and many survivor families continue to call for exoneration of the sailors who disobeyed their orders. But their case has lost some urgency. As nearly as he can tell, Allen said, all 50 of those convicted in the Port Chicago mutiny are now dead.

chris.reynolds@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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