I was curious why the the tragedy of 17 July, 1944 happened. That it happened just five weeks after the D-Day invasion of Normandy, which in the first 24 hours left 19,000 dead and wounded on both sides, and two weeks after the United States Navy invaded Saipan in the central Pacific, which over the next month killed or wound another 66,000, was no coincidence. But even those horrors cannot detract from the anguish of 320 killed and 390 injured in a split second on an isolated pier in a Northern California backwater. The tragedy of Port Chicago was a mere drop of blood into a world wide abattoir, where on average 220 Americans were killed in combat each day. Still it is not enough to say it happened because during a war human life is cheap. The victims of Port Chicago and their families deserve the respect of an explanation. Why did what happened, happen?
It happened because of extraordinary geology. It took 3 million years for the the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers to carve a deep canyon to the sea. Then, just 10,000 years ago, the rising ocean filled the gorge creating 275 miles of nooks and crannies, lobes and outlets. For 400 years ocean going ships have sailed through the mile wide Golden Gate, slipping between the sentries of Angel and Alcatraz islands, then north beyond San Quentin Point, west through San Rafael Bay and passed the broad mouth of the Napa River, beyond San Pablo Bay and the Carquinez Strait, and passed Roe and Ryer Islands, thirty miles inland to a deep water port on the south shore of Suisin Bay, just nine miles from the mouth of the Sacramento - San Joaquin delta, that is the head of San Francisco Bay.
It happened because just after 5:00 p.m. on 10 July, 1926, a bolt of lightning set off fires in New Jersey that over the next three days set off 600,000 tons of World War One surplus explosives, destroying 200 buildings and killing 21 souls. Because of this multi-billion inflation adjusted dollar disaster, the U.S. Navy established a new west coast ammunition depot in the Nevada desert, forty miles south south-west of Lake Tahoe, far from most thunderstorms, in the isolated desert village of Hawthorne. After Pearl Harbor, the 5,000 employees at this facility assembled and shipped almost all of the explosives used in the Pacific, from Naval TNT (Trinitrotoluene) shells, Torpex (50% stronger than TNT) torpedoes and sea mines, and Marine Corps TNT mortar and artillery shells. The assembled mayhem was then shipped by rail 120 miles over the Sierra Nevada Mountains to Port Chicago, California..
It happened because in 1928 California was hit by a drought that would last until 1937. In response the state and federal governments approved large scale water projects, like the Shasta dam on the Sacramento River headwaters, and the Central Valley project on the upper San Joaquin River, and many smaller one, like the Contra Costa Canal, which diverted fresh water around the delta. In 1940 the canal construction reached the head of the San Francisco bay. This ensured potable water for the 1,700 residents of the little town of Port Chicago. Serviced by three railroad lines, it boasted 660 homes, three hotels, a small shopping district – even a movie theater. The canal also guaranteed water for the new naval base and dock on the water front a mile and a half to the north.
It happened because in 1922 Annapolis graduate Merrill Talmadge Kinne resigned from the United States Navy. In his seven years of service, he had risen to the rank of commander, and was being groomed as a staff officer. But the Washington Naval treaty signed that year required the scrapping of 30 combat ships under construction or planned, and cutting the existing U.S. fleet from 774 to 365 ships. Seeing this contraction, the 28 year old Merrill traded in his uniform for a business suit. He remained in the Naval Reserve but did not go to sea again until he was called back in 1941. Now a 48 year old, Captain Merrill quietly commanded a supply transport for two years, until April of 1944, when he was given the command of Port Chicago. He had no training in handling munitions, and at 50 had spent just nine years in uniform, but 19 years selling men's clothing
It happened because until 1932 African-Americans were not accepted into the Navy, because, as one report insisted “The enlistment of Negros...leads to disruptive and undermining conditions....” Pearl Harbor and a Presidential order broke through the racism, but African-Americans were still not allowed to serve on combat vessels because they had “poor eyesight”.
So all 1,400 stevedores loading explosives at Port Chicago were black. Racism forced these men to walk half a mile to use a “colored” toilet. Because there was just one commissary building, blacks had to wait outside until all whites had finished their meals. They were provided no public transport off the base, and even if they walked the mile and a half, they could not even enter the movie house at the town of Port Chicago. No wonder they described the base as a “slave labor camp”.
Institutional racism encouraged the white officers to discount enlisted men's suggestions for safety or efficiency. Even when the supervising white U.S. Coast Guard Commander Paul Cronk warned that working conditions at Port Chicago were “ripe for disaster”, he was ignored. As a protest, and to protect his own men, he withdrew his crew from the base. The stevedores had no such option.
It happened because sixteen at a time the rail cars packed with explosives from Hawthorne were pushed on three parallel rail spurs onto the 90 foot wide, 1, 200 foot long pier. Each “division” of 100 stevedores unloaded the cars by hand, transferred the ammunition to cargo nets, which a boom winch lowered down a hatch into one of the ship's 5 holds and re-packed them by hand.
Competition between divisions were encouraged, the goal being ten tons per hour, but the average speed being closer to seven. Running totals for each division were posted on chalk boards, with junior officers wagering on the results. Safety was not entirely ignored, just mostly.
On the land side were 27 barricaded sidings where 203 rail cars could be safely “parked” until they were needed. The administrative buildings were a mile inland, including 4 navy enlisted (black) and one marine (white) barracks. During its first year of operation, 39 ships were loaded at Port Chicago with 115,000 tons of high explosives. Command was on target to more than double that amount for 1944.
It happened because on 17 July the SS E. A. Bryon was preparing to start her second voyage, which meant she had already earned the $1.5 million invested in building her.
Her keel, number 2761, had been laid down on 11 February, 1944 at the Kaiser Permanente Shipyard Number Two, in Richmond, California - less than 20 miles from Port Chicago. Eighteen 24 hour work days later she hit the water, and just eight days after that she went into service.
Named after a popular president of Washington State University, she was one of 2,700 “Ugly Ducklings” built during the war. Each "Liberty Ship" was 441 feet long and 28 feet wide, with three holds forward of the central island and two toward the stern. Her best speed was barely 11 knots. And at 8:15 the morning of 17 July, 1944, she tied up on the land side of the Port Chicago pier, and at ten that morning started taking on cargo.
It happened because by night fall the number five (stern) hold of the Byron was stuffed with 40mm cannon shells. Her number four hold held 462 tons of fragmentation and cluster bombs. The Byron's number three hold (midships) contained 525 tons of 1,000 pound bombs. The number two hold held 565 tons of Mark 47 Torpex air dropped sea mines. And the number one (bow) hold was still being loaded with “live” 660 pound incendiary bombs.
Still less than half full, at 10:00 p.m. the Byron contained 3,600 tons of high explosives. There were another 1,000 tons waiting to be unloaded from the rail cars when, at eighteen minutes and forty-four seconds after ten, the S.S. Byron blew up.
Seismographs in Berkeley recorded the explosion at that moment, as a 3.4 on the Richter scale. The 25 million pound Byron, her cargo, her crew, most of the pier, the box cars sitting on it, the steam locomotives moving rail cars, and 320 human beings were all vaporized. A 66 foot deep, 300 feet wide and 700 foot long crater was carved into the sea bed beneath where the Byron had floated an instant before.
A larger cargo ship, S.S. "Quinalt Victory", which was waiting to be loaded on the bay side of the wharf, was lifted out of the water by the explosion, torn in half, and its stern left floating 500 yards into Suisin Bay (above). A Coast Guard fire boat stationed at the end of the wharf was thrown 600 feet and destroyed..
Three thousand feet from the center of the blast, the Roe Island lighthouse (above) was shattered by the blast wave moments before a 30 foot tidal wave shoved the entire structure 40 feet up the beach.
Commercial pilots at 9,000 feet reported house sized hull fragments of the ships flying past their plane. A mile and a half south of the base every home in Port Chicago was damaged.
The northern wall of the crowded movie theater (above) buckled as if punched by a giant fist and the ceiling fell - but none of the 192 white patrons were injured.
Debris fell two miles away. Forty miles away the fireball 3 miles in diameter was clearly visible. People 200 miles away heard the blast. The explosion was comparable in size to that which would occur one year and three weeks later over Hiroshima, Japan.
Three weeks and one day later, on August 8, 1944. 328 African-American stevedore survivors at Port Chicago refused to load another Liberty Ship, the USS Sangay, unless their officers were replaced and safety procedures were improved. Eventually 208 men were reassigned to menial duties until finally issued a dishonorable discharge. Another 50 were convicted of mutiny and sentenced to hard labor. After the end of the war the fifty were released and given a “general discharge under honorable circumstances”.
The irrational disparity of punishments made no more sense than the reasons some lived while others died in the explosion. Within a few months, a Navy review board offered lessons learned, and last on their list of suggestions, was: “The inadvisability of employing 100% colored ordnance battalions to handle and load ammunition was amply demonstrated.” It wasn't much as a lesson, and the language invited misunderstanding and false justification. But for the victims, each distanced now from the blast by space and time, the explanation of the tragedy at Port Chicago was pure farce and insult. And surely we can do better than that, three quarters of a century later.