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Sunday, December 02, 2001

Port Chicago explosions revisited

Sabine Goerke-Shrode

Majority of those killed were black Navy recruits

One of the largest stateside military disasters of World War II took place on Solano County’s doorstep, at the Port Chicago Naval Munitions base.

On the evening of July 17, 1944, shortly before 10:30 p.m., two explosions, seconds apart, lit up the night sky. The column of fire and smoke rose more than two miles high and was visible all across Suisun Bay.

During the summer of 1944, the battle in the Pacific was heating up. Like several other naval bases along the West Coast, Port Chicago served as an ammunition loading facility. The base boasted the first pier in U.S. history to be built for loading and shipping ammunition overseas.

At the time, the Navy, like all the Armed Forces, was segregated. More than 1 million African Americans served in the Armed Forces, hoping to support their country on the front lines. Most of them ended up in menial jobs, unable to rise in rank, and often forced to work under degrading circumstances.

Black Navy recruits who had graduated from strictly segregated boot camps came to Port Chicago expecting to get their first ship duty. Instead, their duties included loading ammunition and explosives onto transport ships in three round-the-clock seven-hour shifts.

More than 1,400 enlisted black sailors worked under the command of 71 white officers at Port Chicago in the summer of 1944.

Carl Tuggle remembers, “I guess I was what you would call ‘the boxcar loader.’ We didn’t have titles at the time.” The men loaded “ammunitions from 40 millimeters on up, to two 2,000-pound bombs.”

Working conditions were hazardous. Officers did not have experience in handling ammunition and were unable to train their troops appropriately. In fact, most of the enlisted sailors were not even made aware of the dangers of their job. Those who voiced their concerns of the possibility of an explosion were ignored.

Even basic security measures, such as wearing gloves to prevent heavy explosives from dropping, were not followed. Carl Tuggle recalled, “If you wanted to wear gloves, you purchased them. That was the only way you had gloves to wear and to use while you were working. At night we were provided clothing to keep us from the elements on the dock because it was cold, but otherwise we supplied everything ourselves.”

On July 17, the Liberty ship Quinault Victory arrived at Port Chicago, after a refueling stop at Martinez. It docked next to the E.A. Bryan. Crews immediately began to prepare both ships for loading procedures that night. The Bryan already carried 4,200 tons of ammunition and bombs, but needed another 4,300 to finish loading that day.

Shortly before 10:30 p.m., there was fairly small and localized explosion. Seconds later, the second blast lifted the Quinault Victory clear out of the water, turned her around and ripped the ship to pieces. The blast incinerated the E.A. Bryan completely.

The explosions could be felt all over the base. While all the men working on the docks were instantly killed, many of those elsewhere on the base were severely injured. In all, 320 men died, 202 of whom were black. Another 390 men were injured, 233 of them black.

Cyril Sheppard remembered being in the barracks and settling down for the night: “I was reading a letter from home. Suddenly there were two explosions. The first one knocked me clean off ... I found myself flying toward the wall. I just threw my hands up like this, then I hit the wall. The next one came right behind that, Phoom! Knocked me back on the other side. Men were screaming, the lights went out and glass was flying all over the place.”

When the men finally reached the waterfront, the railroads, the docks and the ships had disappeared. A section of the Quinault’s keel protruded out of the water more than a 1,000 feet away from its original mooring place.

Firefighting units and emergency personnel arrived from the base and from surrounding towns to help with rescue and cleanup operations.

In the days after, a Naval Court of Inquiry tried to determine the cause of the explosion. While the court found that most officers in charge had had no previous training or experience in shiploading, handling ammunition or commanding enlisted men, all were acquitted of wrongdoing. The blame was placed on the black enlisted men that had died in the explosion. Throughout the whole investigation, only five black sailors were actually allowed to testify. The official cause of the explosion was never established.

The black seamen had to return to their work immediately, without being granted medical leave or counseling, unlike the assistance their officers received.

Only weeks later, on August 9, some 300 of these seamen were ordered back to loading ammunition at the Mare Island Naval facility. Most of them refused the order, arguing that they still had not received any training and that loading equipment was similarly poor, as it had been at Port Chicago.

More than 250 men were arrested and taken prisoner on a barge. They were charged with mutiny, punishable by death during wartime. Their officers pressured them to return to work instead. Nearly 200 agreed to do so, only to be thrown into jail.

The other 50 men were brought to trial in September. The trial attracted nationwide attention. By then it had become clear to many observers that the defense was unable to stem the racial injustice which had occurred throughout this event.

One of the observers was young Thurgood Marshall, later to become Supreme Court Justice. After the 50 were found guilty of mutiny, court martialed, and sentenced to prison terms of between eight and 15 years, Marshall took on the defense in the case on behalf of the NAACP. Eventually, President Roosevelt agreed to release the men under a general amnesty and time served, but did not overturn their conviction of mutiny.