Undercurrents: Explosion at Port Chicago Reverberates Throughout the Years

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Thursday July 23, 2009 - 09:53:00 AM

I probably first heard the term “Port Chicago” from a 1982 article by now-UC Berkeley professor Robert Allen and researcher-historian Peter Vogel about “the Port Chicago disaster and mutiny” in The Black Scholar magazine. I did not finish the article at the time. I was interested in all things African-American history in those days, and certainly would have been drawn to the subject of a Black naval mutiny. I’m sure I lost interest when I found that the “Port Chicago Mutiny” mentioned in the Allen-Vogel article was not a mutiny in the sense of the Bounty mutiny or a slave revolt-Black sailors taking over a ship from its white officers at gunpoint-but was more of a work stoppage, and, further, that it had occurred during World War II. I was born just a few years after V-J Day and grew up inundated with the subject. World War II was my parents’ war-or so I thought-and I was of a generation that sought desperately to separate ourselves from our parents and leap over them to a more distant past. 

I also had no idea at the time I briefly looked at the original Allen-Vogel article that Port Chicago had been so close, just up the road from Oakland on Suisuin Bay, between Martinez and Pittsburg. I probably thought it was located somewhere up on the Great Lakes. The name Port Chicago had gone out of local use by the time I was coming up and so I never heard of it, the town of that name abandoned and swallowed up into the post-war Naval complex. 

Mr. Allen put the Port Chicago story into a book-"The Port Chicago Mutiny"-in 1993, but I did not get around to reading it until 2004, when I was doing a story for the Daily Planet on the 60th anniversary commemoration of the event. In that story ("Local Residents Remember Port Chicago Mutiny,” I wrote: 

“Sixty years ago, at 10:18 on the night of July 17, 1944, a massive munitions explosion rocked the wartime naval loading dock at Port Chicago, on Suisun Bay just north of Martinez. The blast was felt throughout the Bay Area, shaking the ground like an earthquake in cities like Berkeley and Oakland. 

“In his 1989 book The Port Chicago Mutiny …, Bay Area historian Robert Allen described the explosion: ‘Loaded with some 4,600 tons of ammunition and high explosives...the [munitions ship] E.A. Bryan was literally blown to bits. ... The [munitions ship] Quinalt Victory was lifted clear out of the water by the blast, turned around, and broken into pieces. ... [A] Coast Guard fire barge was blown two hundred yards upriver and sunk. The locomotive and [munitions-filled] boxcars disintegrated into hot fragments flying through the air. The 1,200-foot-long wooden pier simply disappeared. Everyone on the pier and aboard the two ships and the fire barge was killed instantly-320 men, 202 of them were black enlisted men [who had been engaged in loading bombs and shells onto the two ships]. ... Another 390 military personnel and civilians were injured, including 233 black enlisted men. ... The explosive force of the blast was equivalent to five kilotons of TNT, on the same order of magnitude as the atomic bomb that would be dropped on Hiroshima just over a year later.’ 

“The two ships were being loaded with munitions by units of segregated black sailors who were commanded by white officers. 

“Three weeks later, black naval personnel survivors of the Port Chicago disaster were ordered to return to their munitions-loading duties at Mare Island near Vallejo. Some 250 refused, citing their fear of unsafe work conditions that they believed caused the Port Chicago explosions. Some 200 were given dishonorable discharges from the Navy, but 50 were singled out and convicted of mutiny in a widely-publicized court-martial on Treasure Island. In the meantime, a Naval Court of Inquiry had absolved Naval officers of any wrongdoing in the Port Chicago explosions themselves.” ("The Port Chicago Mutiny” was out of print at the time of the 2004 article, but has since been republished.) 

I learned from Mr. Allen’s book not only the details of the blast and the mutiny and court-martial that followed, but I also learned how close the tragedy was to my own family. During the war my father was a civilian worker at Mare Island, though what type of work he did there, I never knew. My father never talked about the experience with me, nor about Port Chicago, and by 2004 he was deceased, and so I could not ask him. 

My cousin, Betty Reid Soskin, does talk about those years and one night at her home in Richmond, she told me how she and her husband, Mel, held a party at their Berkeley home the night before the explosion, at which many of the sailors assigned to Port Chicago attended. She and Mel felt the blast the next night, of course-the shock waves traveled as far away as Nevada-and she told me that for the longest she could never read the list of names of those who died in the blast, since she knew that some of them must have been at the party, dancing and having so much fun, and she could not handle putting the two memories together. For several years, that has been my most vivid image of Port Chicago, experiencing in obliquely and from a distance, like listening to the background radiation still present in the universe that emanated from the Big Blast that created it all. 

Now I have another, more bright, and therefore more poignant and painful. 

The National Parks Service for which Cousin Betty works as a ranger has been holding annual commemoration services at the blast site for years, and this year, on the 65th anniversary, she persuaded me to attend. 

The site where the Quinalt Victory was broken and the E.A. Bryan literally disintegrated is now a lonely wharf-point within the Concord Naval Weapons Station, sitting on a stretch of quiet water surrounded by vacant, yellow hills that seem millions of miles away from the nearby teeming highways and bustling cities and suburbs of west Contra Costa County. Where the loading dock once stood, with rail lines connecting the ships to wartime munitions plants, is an empty set of v-shaped pilings that run out into the lapping water and then, simply, stop, as if both all life and all time stops at that point. It is the most appropriate of memorials, saying, in its silence, that this is the ending, and nothing more can-or needs to be-said. 

Leading to the water and the pilings is a circle of paving stones and a small collection of memorials, aerial photos and drawings where you can see the configuration of the ships and loading docks and railways as they appeared both immediately before July 14, 1944 and immediately after, a series of plaques listing, simply, the names of the 320 who died. The site was built and maintained as a monument as an “affiliated unit” of the National Parks Service. But a bill by East Bay Congressmember George Miller passed the U.S. House of Representatives on July 15 of this year and is currently pending in the Senate to transfer the 5 acre site from the Defense Department to the Department of the Interior, making it an official part of the National Parks Service, with money to be appropriated for a visitor’s center and a park staff. The park is intended to be operated in coordination with the East Bay Regional Regional Parks Department and the Friends of Port Chicago, a group that has worked to keep the Port Chicago story alive. 

Unfortunately, while future visitors to the park will have the emotional experience of standing on the site of the 1944 tragedy and seeing the proposed exhibition of maps, photographs, memorabilia from survivors, and an “audio-tour with voices of survivors” as envisioned by the Friends of Port Chicago on their website, they will miss the experience that I and some 250 others had last weekend of actually attending a memorial with the last remaining blast survivors. 

Seven of them-William London and Carl Tuggle of Cincinnati, John White and T.J. Hart of Pittsburg, California, Oliver Walker of Baltimore, Sammy Davis of Oklahoma City, and DeWitt Jamison of Richmond-attended last weekend’s event, quiet, dignified, aging African-American men, two of them in wheelchairs, several of the rest arriving and leaving only with the help of walkers and the arms of younger family members. They have been attending the memorials over the past few years in steadily dwindling numbers, and they will soon have all passed beyond our reach. 

Still, the words of the survivors will live on. 

One of the more emotional moments of last weekend’s memorial came from readings of survivor’s words by student members of the Cougar Cadel Drumline Corps of Alameda, a nonprofit organization set up for Bay Area students to perform “in the Southern Drumline style.” One of the students recounted the testimony of Robert Routh, Jr.: 

“When taps sounded [on the night of July 17] I put away my gear where I had been writing. … I had been in my bunk a minute or two when all hell broke loose with the explosion. A humungous bang. I held my head with my pillow in my arm, looking in the opposite direction. When the first explosion came, I sat up and looked towards the dock. … At just about the time I looked up, then the second explosion occurred. I guess in the span of just seven or eight seconds, it was all over. But looking towards the dock brought about a devastating problem for me. Flying glass, compression, and so on lacerated my eyes and the left one was lacerated so badly that it was removed that night. The right one had a laceration that went across the eye and left me eventually with what was called split vision. … From that point, I was rendered as a blind person.” 

Robert Allen, who introduced the young readers, pointed out that they were only a few years younger than most of the African-American sailors who either died in or survived the Port Chicago blast. 

There is more to this story, far more than can be recounted in a single column. 

California State Senator Robert Wright, who spoke at the memorial, first heard stories of the Port Chicago disaster years afterwards from Mr. Routh while growing up in Southern California. Mr. Wright has become one of the steady advocates for remembrance and official recognition for the men of Port Chicago, including exoneration of those who were convicted of mutiny for refusing to load more ships until safety measures were put in place. Mr. Wright described a visit by the survivors the day before last weekend’s memorial to the Golden Gate National Cemetary in San Bruno where the Port Chicago military dead were buried, pointing out that they were in segregated, racially-separated graveplots. 

“We did not bury or have men serve together in 1944,” Mr. Wright said. 

The publicity surrounding the aftermath of the Port Chicago disaster, including the trials and convictions of the “mutineers,” including a spirited public defense by later-Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, was one of the catalysts for President Harry Truman’s order desegregating the military, one of the major events that led to the eventual breaking of Jim Crow racial segregation throughout the country. The events of the night of 17 July, 1944 on the shores of Suisuin Bay have been absent from their proper place in that history. But perhaps, at long last, we are beginning to correct that.