On July 17, 1944, a violent explosion at California's Port Chicago Naval Magazine shattered a pier, sent a ship flying, blew out windows near San Francisco Bay, and sent tremors as far away as Boulder City, Nevada. Oddly, the blast was not the result of an enemy attack. A ship loaded up with artillery mysteriously exploded, igniting over 5,000 tons of munitions and killing 320 workers.
Although no one knows for certain what caused the blast, working conditions at Port Chicago Naval Magazine were unsafe. African-American sailors, barred from active naval duty because of segregation, were never trained to handle artillery, yet white officers pressured them to load ships quickly. In fact more than 250 sailors refused to return to work after the explosion, citing these dangerous working conditions. Most of those sailors yielded to the navy's orders and went back to loading ammunition at other bases. But the 50 who stood their ground were charged with mutiny and put on trial.
The Port Chicago disaster and its aftermath set the stage for desegregation of the military and improved safety at Naval ports. Legislation introduced in Congress last July by Rep. George Miller (D-CA) would make this memorial site a full unit of the National Park System, so that the story of Port Chicago can be told in more detail. NPCA has worked closely with members of Congress to move this important legislation forward.
If You Go
The memorial is located on Concord Naval Weapons Station, which is still an active military base. Reservations are required at least two weeks before your visit and can be made at 925.228.8860.
Did You Know?
It is official! Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial is now the 392nd unit of the park service. The park service administered the site for years as an "affiliated area." On October 28, 2009 President Obama signed the "Defense Authorization Act," legislation that transfers the current memorial and additional acreage to the National Park Service and provides for the creation of a new visitor center.
"The addition of Port Chicago demonstrates a commitment to make America’s best idea even better—more relevant to Americans, more expressive of our nation’s history, and more representative of our diversity," said National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis.