“The Shot Heard ‘Round the World” at Concord, Massachusetts in 1775 led to the deaths of eight Americans and increased the already heavy tensions between the colonists and the British as the Revolutionary War approached. Most Americans learned about it in elementary school.
Fast-forward to another blast not found in school textbooks. This one happened 169 years later near another Concord: the Concord Naval Weapons Station at Port Chicago, on the other side of the continent in California.
A massive explosion on July 17, 1944 – felt 200 miles away in Nevada – killed 320 U.S. sailors including 202 African Americans who worked in segregated units loading the ordnance onto ships. The tragedy represented the worst loss of life on the U.S. homeland during World War II. Roughly, 400 others suffered wounds.
The explosions completely obliterated the Liberty Ship SS E.A. Bryan. The stern of the SS Quinault Victory landed 500 feet from where it had berthed, the rest of it scattered around the port. The 1,200-foot-long pier, a locomotive, boxcars, and numerous buildings – blown to smithereens.
The catastrophe bared to the nation the prevailing racism and oppression in the military, becoming another defining moment in American history, and stoking another rebellion.
White officers ordered the surviving African American sailors to resume handling the bombs and shells at nearby Mare Island less than a month after the explosion. These sailors – 258 of them – refused to return to work without improved training and safer working conditions.
Threatened with execution for committing an act of mutiny during wartime, 208 went back to work on the promises of lighter sentences. The 50 who refused to return found themselves tried and convicted in military court. Sentenced to 15 years of hard labor, most received clemency about two years later.
The publicity the Navy sought for the trial ultimately backfired. Intended to preempt future potentially mutinous acts and discord, it instead unmasked the racial discrimination and put its practices under a public microscope. Thurgood Marshall of the NCAAP and later a Supreme Court Justice came to observe the two-week-long trial in September 1944, at Treasure Island in the San Francisco Bay.
Even before the trial, though, the wheels of change had begun to turn, albeit slowly. On the very day the Port Chicago survivors refused to work – August 9, 1944 – Navy Secretary James Forrestal assigned African American sailors as regular crewmembers to a fleet of auxiliary ships in one of the first acts of integration in the Navy. It worked so well that within seven months, African Americans served on all auxiliary ships. Additionally, the Navy also capped African Americans handling ordnance at 30 percent of the crew at the bases. In 1948, President Truman signed Executive Order 9881 desegregating the U.S. military.
Since then, efforts to define and describe what transpired at Port Chicago include books, memorials, and memorial events. Last year, the Oral History Center of UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library released a series of digitized interviews with survivors, for use at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial.
In 1999, one of the 50 – Fred Meeks – was pardoned by President Clinton. A bill to exonerate the Port Chicago 50, authored by Rep. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord), passed in the House of Representatives in July 2019 and included in the National Defense Authorization Act requesting review and favorable determination by the Secretary of the Navy.
Descendants of the victims and survivors agree: the wrongs exposed by the Port Chicago explosions cannot be forgotten or repeated.
“The Shot Heard ‘Round the World” made history because of the impact it had leading up to the American Revolution. The Port Chicago explosion – a blast felt all the way to Nevada – made history in a different way. It compelled the military – and the nation – to search its collective soul.
The Port Chicago explosion has another little known but significant tie to history. Captain William S. Parsons, head of Ordnance for the Manhattan Project, led a team of scientists and engineers to the site to study ‘the effects of the detonation.”
In a 1948 address on “Problems and Prospects in Atomic Energy,” Parsons acknowledged that the data from Port Chicago enabled his team to make their first realistic estimates of blast damage from an atomic explosion. Before July 1944, the best available data was from the Halifax explosion at Nova Scotia, Canada on December 6, 1917. Some 1800 people were killed and 9,000 were injured when a munitions ship collided with another ship. Tragic as it was, the data from that disaster could not be used in the research and development of the atomic bomb because there was no way to determine how much damage was caused by the explosives versus how much resulted from the vulnerability of the city, which was struck by a blizzard within hours of the explosion.
The Port Chicago explosion, on the other hand, yielded useful information. The insight gained from that data was reliable because, as Parsons noted in the first of several memos reporting their findings, “. . . Port Chicago was designed for large explosions.” In his post-war speech to the Naval War College, Rear Admiral Parsons explained that “The Naval magazine at Port Chicago had built-in protection against large explosions. With some luck, this protection was effective in preventing any secondary explosions or fires.”
Though trained as Experimental Officer at Annapolis and instrumental in the development of the proximity fuze, Parsons is best known as the Navy captain who armed the Little Boy bomb as the Enola Gay flew to Hiroshima. Parsons made many significant contributions to the war and to nuclear history. In addition to leading the design, production and delivery of the first nuclear bombs, he was one of the few people to witness or participate in at least five of the first six nuclear detonations, including the Trinity Test. He organised and directed Operation Crossroads, the spectacular tests of atomic weapons against naval ships conducted in the Bikini Atoll (Marshall Islands) in July 1946. The first “atomic admiral” later advocated for the creation of the Nevada Proving Ground. As Director of Atomic Defense in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations and Deputy Chief of the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project, Parsons served as an advisor to the Atomic Energy Commission, helping to shape U.S. nuclear policy.
His Preliminary Memorandum on Port Chicago Disaster is available online from atomicarchives.com: https://www.atomicarchive.com/resources/documents/manhattan-project/port-chicago.html
His 1948 speech to the Naval War College can be accessed at Parsons, W. S. (1948) “Problems and Prospects in Atomic Energy,” Naval War College Review: Vol. 1 : No. 3 , Article 2. Available at: https://digital-commons.usnwc.edu/nwc-review/vol1/iss3/2
Thank you for the detailed information Daisy!
You’re quite welcome. There’s plenty more where this came from! For example, it is a little known secret that the USS Baltimore (CA-68), which was the flagship for President Franklin Roosevelt’s July 1944 cruise to Hawaii for the Honolulu Conference, was anchored at the nearby Mare Island Naval Shipyard, along with the other ships in the COMINCH fleet, from July 6th to July 17th, 1944. The fleet departed Mare Island within hours of the massive explosion at Port Chicago. This information is from the Mare Island War Diary for July 17, 1944, accessible via Fold3.com. Photos of the USS Baltimore at Mare Island on July 16, 1944 are obtainable from Navsource, http://www.navsource.org/archives/04/068/04068.htm.
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Daisy, Jeff Jardine here from CalVet. Can you give me a call at 916-539-6826 re: Mare Island and the USS Baltimore? Thanks!