By Allison Joyce, Centennial Volunteer Ambassador, Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial
On Veterans Day last week Ranger Stephanie and I posted a Snapchat video from Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial and it got my gears turning.
Port Chicago Naval Magazine is the second least visited unit of the National Park Service. The first is Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve which is in Alaska and literally only accessible by plane. Of course, Port Chicago is located on an active military base so non-government-employee visitors over the age of 18, must clear a background check. That means trips need to be planned at least two weeks in advance. That’s assuming there’s not an unexpected shutdown of the base which the military has been known to do with little or no warning to our NPS staff.
Alright fine: there’s a bit of an accessibility barrier.
But the story of what happened at Port Chicago Naval Magazine surpasses its physical boundaries. It is integral to understanding the on-going story of civil rights in this nation. The events at Port Chicago led to the desegregation of our military – the first branch of the federal government to be desegregated. The story helps us understand an America that won WWII by fighting to dismantle discrimination abroad and continued to support institutional discrimination within our own borders. Taking into account recent events, it’s imperative that we as Americans have this double standard in mind.
“Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” – George Santayana
It’s not right to say that Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial’s publicity problem is just that getting there requires planning. How many of us have been to the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr. met his untimely end? How many of us have actually been to Stonewall, Manzanar, or the fields where Cesar Chavez’s grassroots movement took hold? And yet we know these stories. The vast majority of Americans don’t know the story of Port Chicago and that’s not something we can pin on accessibility of the National Memorial. Even without seeing these places with our own eyes, we can try to understand the things that happened there.
Of course, the places themselves are crucial to our historical narrative and one of the most precious gifts our government has, and will hopefully continue to give us. The sites themselves guarantee preservation of the reminders of our struggle and where they led us – where we have yet to go.
Port Chicago Naval Magazine is not unique in being a civil rights story that many Americans don’t know. Nor is it the only National Park Service unit that many Americans haven’t heard of. But being at this intersection of anonymity is actually a lucky place for Port Chicago to be. There’s nowhere to go but up! We have federal protection, a staff (however thinly spread), and funding (however slight).
Now it is time to clue my informed and interested reader in. You’ll see that it’s an extremely complex story and keeping it simple while including all the separate elements is a challenge. Without further ado, here’s my crack at telling the story of Port Chicago Naval Magazine:
Early 1940s: a racially segregated America gets involved in WWII. The United States military doesn’t know quite what to do with African American enlistees and many are trained for combat but do not end up in those positions. Some are trained as sailors and wind up in the San Francisco Bay Area receiving train cars packed with bombs and missiles and transferring them to the bellies of huge ships that are bound for the Pacific. *Note: these men were trained as sailors, not munitions handlers but are handling live bombs and missiles. If your spidey senses are tingling because this sounds like a recipe for trouble, you’re on to something.*
In 1942 construction begins on Port Chicago Naval Magazine to accommodate America’s spasm-ing need to ship more bombs to the front lines and by 1944, two ships can be loaded at once. At Port Chicago, there’s a real sense of urgency to load the ships as quickly as possible to get them out to the men on the front lines. And because it’s 1944, the general demographic is black men doing the actual loading and white men commanding them. The atmosphere is reportedly competitive and rushed. White commanders are making bets with each other and racing their “teams” to incentivize loading ammunition as quickly as possible. There are recommendations from the Coast Guard that the loading practices are unsafe that go unheeded.
On July 17th, 1944, the E.A . Bryan and Quinault Victory ships are docked at Port Chicago and being loaded. At 10:18 pm, two explosions occur within seconds of each other. The E.A. Bryan is eviscerated (that means the explosion is so devastating that the ship disappears: the largest remaining piece was the size of a suitcase). The shock wave of the explosion is felt 40 miles away, and there is a debris cloud that rises 12,000 feet into the air.
Directly after the explosion, survivors rush to the bay to recover the injured and in many cases find only body parts. All 320 men who were working at the time of the explosion were killed. 202 of them were African American. Only 30 bodies were intact enough to be identified. Port Chicago is the grave site of 290 Americans, making the explosions the largest home front disaster of WWII.
Unfortunately, the tragedy doesn’t end there. Just three weeks after the explosion, surviving African American sailors were ordered to return to work loading munitions – the very work that they had seen just days before directly lead to the deaths of hundreds of men. The white officers were granted the customary 30 days break after the tragedy.
258 men refused initially to continue to loading munitions but after disciplinary action by the military, 208 returned to the shipyards. The 50 who did not were charged with mutiny, defined by dictionary.com as “revolt or rebellion against constituted authority, especially by sailors against their officers.” Those 50 men did not “revolt or rebel” they simply refused to return to work in conditions that were clearly dangerous.
There was a trial of the so-called “Port Chicago 50” that future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall attended at the age of 36. Marshall spoke out about the base’s unsafe practices that the Navy had been alerted to prior to the explosion and chosen to ignore. Despite all this, the Port Chicago 50 were convicted of Mutiny and sentenced to 8-15 years in prison. They were given clemency after the war ended but never exonerated. And because all 258 men who refused to work at any point received dishonorable discharge, none of them or their descendants received any veteran benefits.
Lately, my small universe has been inundated with stories and images from a very much divided and hurting world. In the wake of the charged racial relations coming to light at universities around the country, the terrorist attacks in Paris and many other places, and plenty of other injustices going on, it can be hard to want to hear a story like Port Chicago’s. Not only are there sad stories circulating anywhere you look – we’re berated at every turn for how we think and talk about them. Which is good! It means that we’re being critical with each other and ourselves and that is the only way progress is made. But in all honesty, it tires me out.
The question that Stephanie must deliberate over daily, as the only dedicated Ranger at Port Chicago, is “How do we make Port Chicago a positive story?” When I was confronted with that question I was reminded of what Ranger Betty Reid Soskin has said to me about the fact that some stories are hard to tell and hear because they are painful stories. And not telling our painful stories like Port Chicago doesn’t make them go away, they are a part of our history for better, for worse, forever.
It’s our challenge and opportunity as the National Park Service to help incorporate the story of Port Chicago into the narrative of our country.
Today, the Friends of Port Chicago and some faithful allies in Congress (including Senators Boxer and Feinstein and Congressman DeSaulnier) have brought the exoneration of the Port Chicago 50 to the National forefront again. There are plans being made in conjunction with East Bay Regional Parks for a Visitor Center that is off the base and therefore much more accessible.
Efforts like these are crucial for us to spread the word of Port Chicago and the tragedy that occurred there. We owe it to the victims and survivors to ensure they are remembered as heroes and that their story is not forgotten.
Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial. Photo: NPS
Allison Joyce, Centennial Volunteer Ambassador, firstname.lastname@example.org
Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site, John Muir National Historic Site, Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial, Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park