If you believe that spirits linger in locations where large numbers of men have perished suddenly—not all of them battlefields—then Port Chicago, Calif., qualifies as haunted ground. It’s not much today, an industrial community on Suisun Bay, where the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta meets San Francisco Bay, much of it gathered along either side of the fences that enclose Military Ocean Terminal Concord. Between the bare brown hills and the bleak waterfront, it never was much—though a local booster optimistically changed its name during the Great Depression from Bay Point to Port Chicago.

It came to life—and death—during World War II, as it became an important port for the shipment of munitions to support the island-slogging combat across the Pacific. Handling explosives in bulk was a job that ranked high on no one’s list of contributions to the war effort. Accordingly, the task fell to servicemen the U.S. Navy had only grudgingly admitted to its ranks: black sailors. The men who worked around the clock to load the Liberty freighters—manhandling the incendiary clusters, depth charges, 500- and 1,000-pound bombs, fragmentation clusters, 40mm antiaircraft projectiles and many tons of smokeless powder into the dark holds with creaky winches and cargo nets—knew it was important to hurry the ammo and explosives to troops in the Pacific. They also knew theirs was dirty, tedious and mortally dangerous work.

The munitions rolled into Port Chicago in railroad boxcars, mostly from a naval weapons depot in Nevada. Three tracks extended onto the 1,200-foot pier, and the men loaded munitions directly from the boxcars into the ships’ holds. Working in eight-hour shifts, “divisions” of some 100 men were assigned to load each of the freighters tied to the pier, at a rate of about 8 tons of munitions per hatch per hour. Their white officers reportedly placed bets on which crews could load the explosives fastest. The crews were ordinary enlisted men, hastily trained, and minor mishaps were not unusual.

On the cool dark night of July 17, 1944, though, something major went wrong. Sixteen freight cars containing 429 tons of cargo sat on the pier, which was flanked by two new Liberty ships, E.A. Bryan and Quinault Victory (which just hours earlier had taken on fuel oil). Ninety-eight enlisted men of Port Chicago’s 3rd Division were loading the former, while 102 enlisted men of the 6th Division were rigging the latter for loading. Various others were present during the loading procedure, including the division officers, 29 armed guards, a Marine sentry and a train crew, along with 67 officers and crewmen aboard the two freighters.

The men had already stowed some 4,600 tons of munitions aboard E.A. Bryan when, at 2218 hours, witnesses reported hearing “a metallic sound and rending timbers.” Seconds later a major explosion sent a pillar of fiery gases skyward. Following that were a few seconds of minor explosions and flames. Then the entire loading area went up in one massive blast: The pier, both ships, the locomotive and railcars, a nearby Coast Guard fireboat, all the cargo and 320 men all but vanished. Some 390 others, servicemen and civilians alike, were injured, mostly by flying glass shards and other debris as the blast wrecked nearly every building in Port Chicago. Smoke, gases and debris rose above 12,000 feet. The crew of an Army Air Forces plane cruising at 9,000 feet reported seeing pieces of glowing metal, some as large as a house, fly up past them. The blast was heard for 200 miles. The shock wave was felt in Nevada. Unexploded shells landed miles away.

Of the 320 people killed instantly, 202 were black sailors. Only 51 of the known dead were identifiable; the rest were classified as missing.

Weeks after the explosion 258 enlisted men at the nearby Mare Island Naval Shipyard refused orders to resume loading munitions aboard ships. Most were fined and, at war’s end, given bad-conduct discharges. But 50 sailors, deemed the ringleaders, were charged with mutiny, court-martialed, found guilty and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in prison. After the war the Navy granted the men clemency and released them.

The National Park Service maintains a tidy half-acre memorial [www.nps.gov/poch] on the site of the Port Chicago disaster, with explanatory plaques and some mocked-up 500-pound bombs. But the memorial lies inside the perimeter of Military Ocean Terminal Concord, an active base, and is accessible only through advance reservation.

The town of Port Chicago is a phantom; what remained and was rebuilt after the explosion the Navy purchased and leveled in 1968. The 1940s Port Chicago highway, a narrow concrete-slab two-laner, still runs along the water east and west of the site, but it stops abruptly at the terminal’s perimeter fences. Just offshore, breaking the surface of Suisun Bay, are the blackened stubs of pier pilings—perches for gulls and the only tangible remains from that suddenly fatal summer night.

 

Originally published in the November 2013 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.