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Port Chicago disaster

The Port Chicago disaster occurred on July 17, 1944, when the cargo hold of the S.S. E.A. Bryan exploded at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine in Port Chicago, California. 320 sailors and civilians were killed in the explosion, and more than 400 others were injured. Most of the dead and injured were African-American recruits.

The town of Port Chicago, California, is located on Suisun Bay in the estuary of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers. It is connected to the Pacific Ocean via San Francisco Bay, and was the site of a U. S. Navy munitions depot. Bombs, shells, mines, and other explosive ordinance devices were transferred from railcars to ships, whence they would be moved to locations in the Pacific Theater (of war).

On July 17, 1944, a merchant ship docked at Port Chicago, the S.S. Quinault Victory, was being prepared to take on cargo. Another merchant ship, the S.S. E.A. Bryan, was loading across the platform from it, its holds in the process of being loaded with almost five thousand tons of high explosives, bombs, depth charges, and ammunition. On the pier were sixteen rail cars with over 450 more tons of explosives.

At 10:18PM, an explosion rang from the pier and a fire was started. Six seconds later, a more powerful explosion as the entire contents of the S.S. E.A. Bryan simultaneously detonated, destroying the pier and much of the surrounding town and area with an explosive force felt as far as Boulder City, Nevada. Chunks of metal and wood were flung thousands of feet into the air, and windows in the surrounding town were shattered causing many injuries.

The 320 sailors on duty were killed instantly, 390 others were injured. Navy personnel worked quickly to contain the fires and to prevent other explosions from occurring. The town was evacuated.

After the fires had been contained, the gruesome task of cleaning up remained -- body parts and corpses littered the bay and port. Less than a month later, these same sailors involved in the cleanup of their colleagues were themselves asked to resume the dangerous task of ammunition loading.

202 of the deaths from the explosion were African-Americans, and the accident accounted for 15% of all African-American casualties in World War II. The prevalence of using almost exclusively African-Americans for dangerous jobs like loading ammunitions was resented by the sailors, and the safety conditions which had lead to the explosion had not been rectified. Of the 320 African-American sailors in the ordinance battalion, 258 refused to load any ammunition, in what was later branded the Port Chicago mutiny. It was seen as underscoring the tense race relations in the armed forces at the time.

208 sailors were convicted in summary court martials, and received bad conduct discharges. The remaining 50 were found guilty of mutiny in a subsequent court martial, and were sentenced to eight and 15 years of hard labor, although they eventually received clemency in 1946. In 1999, President Bill Clinton granted a pardon to Freddie Meeks, one of the remaining survivors of the 50 court-martialed sailors.

The cause of the explosion at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine was never determined, although it was attributed to some sort of mistake in the loading of the torpedoes and other ordnance into the ship, which was notably difficult work, especially under rushed conditions.

One journalist, Peter Vogel, maintains the explosion was caused by a nuclear bomb, based on the discovery of a supposed Los Alamos document from 1944 which contains the line, "Ball of fire mushroom out at 18,000 ft in typical Port Chicago fashion" in the description of a hypothetical atomic weapon. [1]

However during the development of the first atomic weapons, it was common for Manhattan Project workers to use comparative explosions such as the one which happened at Port Chicago in order to give relative estimates on damage and explosive behavior, and for Vogel's theory to be true, all previous Manhattan Project historiography — which indicates that there would not have been enough enriched uranium or plutonium to construct an atomic bomb by July 1944 — would have to be incorrect, and all references to such a plan would have had to be systematically eliminated from documents and kept deeply secret for the many decades which have since passed. Though many of the former Manhattan Project scientists became very opposed to atomic weapons in their later years, none ever indicated any knowledge relating to crime of this scale. Furthermore the atomic bomb which detonated over Hiroshima produced many residual health effects on the survivors, none of which have ever been observed in Port Chicago survivors and city residents.

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Last updated: 10-16-2005 00:43:27
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