Chances are you’ve never heard of the Port Chicago disaster. Yet it was the worst catastrophe on the US home front during World War II. It was the single deadliest incident on the mainland during the war, and remains one of the worst calamities to ever hit the San Francisco Bay Area.
Yet today, it largely lives on only in the memories of long-time locals who actually heard the blast, and, as we’ll see, civil rights historians.
Until its brief moment of infamy, Port Chicago was just another one of the small railroad towns lining the Sacramento River a few miles up from where it empties into San Francisco Bay. Its population was never more than a few thousand, most of whom commuted to jobs in the factories and refineries of towns like Martinez, Pittsburg, and Antioch. It had been home to a small Naval facility during World War I, but even this was dwarfed by nearby bases like Vallejo’s Mare Island Naval Shipyard and Pittsburg’s Camp Stoneman.
Port Chicago’s brief moment in the sun came during World War II. Shortly after the war started, the Navy realized it needed more wharf capacity to handle munitions bound for the Pacific Theater. Port Chicago, with excellent rail and road access, deep water channel, and relative isolation from major population centers, fit the bill perfectly.
By December 1942, Port Chicago was home to the first pier designed exclusively for loading munitions. Unfortunately, more care was given to physical design than work conditions. The Navy decided that civilian longshoremen were too expensive and far too attentive to pettifoggery like safety and work conditions. Instead, the Navy turned to the cheapest labor they could find: African American enlisted seamen.
Like the rest of the armed forces, the Navy was strictly segregated. Black seamen were restricted to the least desired naval duty: labor battalions. Port Chicago was a perfect post for them, the Navy figured. Needless to say, the officers were all white and opportunities for promotion were non-existent. It was a perfect recipe for rotten morale.
Port Chicago was a hard-labor base with a single rule: Get the Ammo Out. Ships were loaded on 24 hours a day, seven days a week at a breakneck pace. Yet no one really know what the hell they were doing. The Navy didn’t have an ordnance loading manual. Instead, they relied on one put out by the Interstate Commerce Commission, which was really intended for loading small amounts at a much more leisurely pace.
The enlisted men had no experience in handling explosives, and the officers were no better. Local longshoreman offered to train the men, but the Navy never responded. In normal settings, a winch operator was never allowed to handle munitions without years of experience loading less hazardous loads. At Port Chicago, they went at it with little more than a quick rundown on what lever did what.
The Navy did have safety rules, but they were never posted in the barracks because the base captain didn’t think the men could understand them. As for the Coast Guard rep who was supposed to oversee the loading—well, that was too confusing too.
The result? Lots of jokes about who would be the first one out of the hold. With a goal of loading 10 tons per hatch per hour, there were enough bombs and explosives being dropped and rolled to give any newcomer the heebie-jeebies. There just wasn’t time to be careful.
Something was bound to happen.
And it did, on July 17, 1944 at 10:18pm.
The Liberty ship EA Bryan had been taking on munitions since the 13th. By the evening of the 17th, her five cargo holds (each as deep as a four-story building) were half full. She held about 4,600 tons of ordnance, including depth charges, 5,000-pound bombs, and 650-pound incendiary bombs. These last one were especially dangerous; unlike most bombs, they were shipped with the fuses and detonators intact—very carefully. On the other side of the pier was the Quinalt Victory, which was in the process of being rigged for loading. As usual, the pier was jammed with men, locomotives, boxcars, and 430 tons of bombs.
At 10:18pm, there was a small explosion, followed seven seconds later by an enormous blast—the biggest human-made explosion in history up to that time.
It was like the world’s biggest fireworks show. A huge column of smoke, flame, and sparks rose above the depot. The flash was seen in San Francisco, 35 miles away, and windows were broken as far away as Berkeley. The explosion was heard and felt throughout the entire Bay Area. Many people mistook it for an earthquake. Seismographs as far away as Nevada detected it and gave it a 3.4 on the Richter scale.
Fortunately, the Navy’s foresight it picking a relatively isolated town paid off. Port Chicago took the brunt of the explosion. Virtually every building in town was damaged, including the theater, where a wall buckled during a bombing sequence in a movie called China. No locals were killed, but 119 were injured.
As for the depot … there wasn’t much left. The 1,200-foot long pier was gone, just matchsticks and kindling wood. No piece of the 12-ton locomotive on the pier was ever found, and only a few pieces of the EA Bryan would be recovered. The Quinalt Victory had been blown out of the water, spun 180 degrees, and dropped back in, hopelessly wrecked. A nearby Coast Guard barge and been thrown 200 yards up the river and sunk. Buildings on the base proper a mile away were heavily damaged. And all 320 men who had the misfortune to be on the pier were killed. Only 51 bodies and body parts were ever recovered and identified.
No one at the base was killed, although 390 were injured. After the blast, things were relatively calm. The men reacted according to their training, applying first aid, fighting fires, and so on. One group even managed to extinguish a boxcar fire that if left unchecked, could have triggered a further string of explosions.
Clean-up was no fun. On sailor recalled, “Man, it was awful; that was a sight. You’d see a shoe with a foot in it and then you would remember how you’d joked about who was gonna be the first one out of the hold.” Of the 320 dead, 202 were black enlisted men. Combined with the injured back at the base, this accounted for 20 percent of the black casualties of the war.
The surviving seaman refused to resume loading munitions a few weeks later. As one put it, “I’ve got a chance over there with the enemy—but I ain’t got a chance in that hold.” Fifty were later convicted of mutiny. This lead to a civil rights case that is responsible for the explosion’s slim historical legacy.
The exact cause of the explosion was never determined. A court of inquiry determined the possible causes, in order of decreasing probability, to be: 1) a super-sensitive element detonating during normal handling; 2) detonation due to careless or rough handling; 3) failure of a loading boom; 4) the locomotive colliding with a boxcar; 5) an accident involving the mooring lines of the Quinalt Victory; and 6) sabotage.
There was no direct evidence of sabotage, but the court noted, “It cannot be ignored as a possibility.” Conspiracy theorists later claimed that the explosion was in fact nuclear, detonated by the government to test the effectiveness of delivering the atomic bomb by ship. This theory, however, is short on evidence and long on absurdity.
Port Chicago was repaired and rebuilt after the explosion, although the government compensation didn’t cover the cost of the repairs to many buildings. A Mississippi congressman successfully lobbied to reduce the compensation limit from $5,000 per household to $3,000 when he discovered that families of the dead seaman would also be eligible for these monies.
Today, the town of Port Chicago itself has long since been forgotten. The Navy bought it out and razed it in 1968. The base, renamed the Concord Naval Weapons Station, swallowed up the town site. The street grid pattern remains visible, but the town name itself lives on only in the name of a street, and a few war protests. You’d think that the site of the biggest non-nuclear human-made explosion in U.S. history would merit something better.
Both images: Public Domain