Port Chicago disaster exposed racism in military; helped launch civil rights movement
7/16/2014 By Lisa P. White – Contra Costa Times
CONCORD — Seventy years ago today, a horrific explosion at the Port Chicago Naval munitions base claimed hundreds of lives. It also laid bare the ugly truth about racism in the United States military during World War II.
The subsequent mutiny trial and convictions of 50 African-American sailors who refused to resume loading ammunition under working conditions they believed were unsafe helped set the stage for the modern Civil Rights Movement.
Although the Port Chicago disaster was the war’s deadliest home-front accident, many Americans still are unfamiliar with the tragedy and its legacy. Port Chicago hasn’t been recorded in most history books or memorialized as a “date which will live in infamy.” Although there is a National Park Service memorial at the still active Military Ocean Terminal Concord, it won’t be open for the 70th anniversary because the Army is loading live ammunition there this summer.
Yet, for the few remaining survivors and families of the 202 African-American victims and the convicted mutineers, Port Chicago stands as a testament to courage, an indictment of injustice and a monument to resistance.
“The (survivors) that I talked to want people to know that they did their best in a poor situation, they did their best to help win the war,” said Rev. Diana McDaniel, board president of the Friends of Port Chicago National Memorial. “They were patriotic and proud of America and they wanted to go fight … but they got stuck loading munitions and they knew it was important.”
About 10:18 p.m. July 17, 1944, two explosions in rapid succession shook the Naval munitions base on Suisun Bay. Fire and smoke shot up two miles in the air above the base, and the blast was felt over a huge area, including as far away as Boulder City, Nev., near Las Vegas.
In an instant, 320 men were simply obliterated — most of their bodies too ripped apart to be identified. The blast shattered windows in the barracks a mile from the pier, raining glass and debris down on off-duty sailors. In the nearby town of Port Chicago, the explosion damaged buildings and injured residents. A total of 390 people were wounded that night.
Chaos, confusion and fear gripped the darkened naval base. Some sailors believed the Japanese had bombed them, but others quickly concluded there had been an explosion at the pier where the SS E.A. Bryan sat loaded with about 4,600 tons of bombs, ammunition and depth charges. An additional 429 tons of munitions, packed onto 16 railroad cars, waited on the pier to be transferred into the holds of the SS Quinault Victory also docked there.
Enlisted men and officers who rushed to the waterfront found a nightmarish scene — the pier was gone, and the E.A. Bryan had been reduced to pieces. The Quinault Victory’s stern had landed upside down in the water 500 feet away.
US Minorities Civil Rights Timeline 1863-1963 (ProPresObama.org Civil Rights Timelines ™)
US Minorities Civil Rights Timeline 1964-2009 (ProPresObama.org Civil Rights Timelines ™)