A Silent Explosion

New legislation could put a forgotten naval site on the National Park System map.

By Amy Leinbach Marquis

On the night of July 17, 1944, Petty Officer Irvin Lowery was in his room relaxing with friends when a powerful explosion blasted him out of his chair. The window behind him shattered, and hundreds of pieces of glass cut into his back as he was slammed against the opposite wall. It was the largest, most violent explosion during World War II—but he survived; 320 of his colleagues weren’t as lucky.

The bloodshed didn’t happen overseas, and it wasn’t caused by a foreign enemy. The location was California’s Port Chicago Naval Magazine near the San Francisco Bay, where thousands of tons of ammunition exploded mysteriously. At that time, the military was segregated, and African-American seamen like Lowery were prohibited from serving in battle. Many of those men ended up in munitions plants, working under white officers who held contests to see whose team could load explosives onto ships the fastest. But the black seamen were never trained to handle artillery, and many had to purchase gloves and other basic safeguards themselves.

The explosion was felt as far away as Boulder City, Nevada—but the events that followed shook the entire country. More than 60 years later, a growing number of people would like to see the National Park Service start telling that story in more detail. Last July, Rep. George Miller (D-CA) took the first step by introducing legislation that would make Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial Site an official unit of the National Park System.

“I knew of the explosion from growing up in the town next door,” Miller says. “Teachers would often describe it to us in these spectacular terms. But no one ever discussed the aftermath.”

At the time of the explosion, Port Chicago was front-page news around the country. “But in the midst of war, new, dramatic headlines quickly replace yesterday’s stories,” says Robert Allen, PhD, historian, and author of The Port Chicago Mutiny. “Port Chicago soon faded from the news, and was in danger of being lost to memory. We need a national memorial so that all those who served and died at Port Chicago are remembered and honored for their service to the nation.”

While white officers at Port Chicago were flaunted as heroes, the Navy cast all blame on the African-Americans at the port—including those who perished. The black men who were hospitalized never received medical leave, and no one of color was allowed time to visit with friends and family.

About a week after the blast, the Navy assigned 258 black survivors to return to work loading ammunition at a new base. But 50 men refused, citing the unsafe working conditions. The U.S. Navy charged each of them with mutiny, put them on trial, and sentenced them to up to 15 years in prison; all of them were dishonorably discharged from the Navy. Thurgood Marshall, a budding civil rights lawyer at the time, was horrified by the military’s blatant racism, so he stepped in to file an appeal. Although he ultimately failed to clear the men’s names, he captured the nation’s attention long enough to put pressure on President Franklin Roosevelt to end the prison sentences in 1945. Other victories followed, including President Harry S. Truman’s order to desegregate the military in 1948, and the institution of proper training and safety features on Naval ports where soldiers handled munitions.

“The African Americans who challenged the status quo at Port Chicago really helped get the ball rolling for the broader civil rights movement,” says General Superintendent Martha Lee, who oversees three other national park units in the region. “I really see them as heroes.”

Port Chicago has been under Park Service management since 1992, but the site lacks Congressional funding—and it shows. A solitary memorial lists the names of those who died in the explosion, but there is little else for visitors to see. Because the Army owns the land, visitors need to make appointments in advance to tour the site. And while regional park staff offer basic tours, Congress doesn’t offer any funding to do so.

Miller’s legislation could help secure funding to repair the facility, build a visitor center, and hire educational rangers to work with school groups. The bill passed through the Natural Resources Committee, but had not yet reached the House floor at the time this issue went to print.

“If we want to work toward solving the complex issues of racial and social injustice, we need to educate ourselves about this shared history,” says Neal Desai, NPCA’s Bay Area Program Manager. “And that includes the story of Port Chicago.”

If the remaining survivors can share their experiences with the nation, old wounds might begin to heal. “After World War II, veterans generally didn’t talk about their experiences—but this story was a particularly dark cloud,” says Reverend Diana McDaniel, Irvin Lowery’s niece. “I think the Port Chicago survivors would feel a sense of relief to know their story is being told.”

Amy Leinbach Marquis

This article appears in the Winter 2008 issue.

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