H.R. 3111 - Land and Memorial Bills
Mr. Chairman, thank you for the opportunity to present the views of the Department of the Interior on H.R. 3111, a bill to provide for the administration of Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial as a unit of the National Park System, and for other purposes.
The Department supports H.R. 3111. By authorizing the National Park Service to administer the Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial, enactment of this legislation would confirm in statute the operational practice that currently exists under agency agreement, and it would provide for a designation that we believe is wholly appropriate for a national memorial that commemorates one of the most significant events that occurred on American soil during World War II. The legislation would also help ensure long-term protection for the memorial and associated artifacts as well as increased opportunities for education and interpretation.
Port Chicago Naval Magazine, in the eastern San Francisco Bay Area on Suisun Bay, was the ammunition loading area that was the site of the worst home-front loss of life during World War II. On July 17, 1944, 11 million pounds of ammunitions detonated causing an explosion that killed 320 men and injured another 390. Of the 320 dead, 202 were African-American enlisted men who had the highly dangerous job of transferring ammunition from rail cars to ships without adequate training for the task at hand. After participating in the grim cleanup of the blast site, picking up body parts and other material, surviving African-American enlisted men were transferred to Vallejo in order to load ammunition at the Mare Island Ammunition Depot. Fearful of another explosion, 258 men in three divisions refused to return to the docks to load ammunition on to ships unless they received safety training. Those men were confined to a barge and faced court-martial, dishonorable discharge, and forfeiture of three months’ pay. After being told by an admiral that “mutinous conduct in time of war carries the death sentence, and the hazards of facing a firing squad are far greater than the hazards of handling ammunition,” all but 50 of the men indicated that they would go back to work.
The 50 men were tried for mutiny, found guilty, and sentenced to 8 to 15 years in prison followed by dishonorable discharge. The other 208 men who initially joined the work stoppage were given summary courts martial and each sentenced to bad conduct discharge and three months forfeiture in pay. In 1946, after the end of World War II, the Port Chicago men were released from prison and discharged from the Navy “under honorable conditions,” but the mutiny convictions still stand. The incident provided a major impetus for ending race-based assignments in the Navy in 1946 and for President Truman’s order to integrate all the Armed Forces in 1948.
In 1992, Congress recognized this national tragedy and its transformative aftermath. Public Law 102-562 established Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial “…to commemorate the role of the facility during World War II, to recognize those who served at the facility, and to honor the memory of those who gave their lives and were injured in the explosion on July 17, 1944.” The law directed the Secretary of the Interior, with the concurrence of the Secretary of Defense, to place a marker at the site of the explosion, and to enter into an agreement with the Secretary of the Navy to provide for public access to the memorial.
The memorial, located at the site of Port Chicago Naval Magazine’s historic docks in what is now the Concord Naval Weapons Station, was dedicated in 1994. The National Park Service was given the honor of designing and constructing the memorial and, since its completion, the National Park Service has maintained the memorial, held an annual commemoration event and conducted limited public tours. In 2004, the National Park Service, the Navy, and the Army (which leases the base from the Navy) finalized a written agreement providing for National Park Service-managed public access to the memorial with limitations required at a base that is still an active ordnance loading facility.
Port Chicago is an “affiliated area” of the National Park Service, a status which is normally provided for sites that are owned and operated by other entities but are given technical assistance by the National Park Service. The Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial has more in common with units of the National Park System than affiliated areas because it is maintained, made accessible to visitors, and interpreted by the National Park Service. The National Park Service spends about $35,000 annually from the budgets of nearby park units to maintain and interpret the memorial, operate van tours, and organize a yearly commemoration of the accident. H.R. 3111 would give Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial the status in law that fits the actual role that the National Park Service plays in managing the memorial.
H.R. 3111 would also allow the transfer of administrative jurisdiction of the memorial and associated property from the Department of Defense to the National Park Service if the Secretary of Defense determines that the property is excess to the needs of the military. This property consists of approximately five acres: one acre that includes the memorial and approximately four acres of the cultural landscape associated with the explosion, which includes two railroad box cars used to move explosives to the ships and two earthen revetments constructed for protection of the boxcars. The National Park Service currently interprets this historic setting for visitors to the memorial.
In addition, the legislation would authorize the National Park Service to enter into an agreement with the City of Concord, which is adjacent to the inland portion of the weapons station, to establish an administrative/interpretive center in an existing building that would serve as an orientation point for visitors and provide parking, office space, and storage for the Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial museum collection. An interpretive center would enable users to view the collection and learn about the memorial and the story it represents even during periods when there is no access to the memorial itself due to shipment of weapons. The National Park Service and the City of Concord have been in discussion about a building that could be used for this purpose in conjunction with changes resulting from a base-closing decision covering the inland part of the weapons station.
Finally, the bill includes “sense of Congress” language encouraging the Department of Defense and the Department of the Interior to work together to address repairs to the memorial. We are pleased to report that the repairs necessitated by storm damage in 2006 are under way, and that both Departments have a better understanding of how to achieve more timely repairs in the future.
Net operating cost increases associated with H.R. 3111 are estimated to be $145,000 annually. There would be no land acquisition costs, and developmental costs associated with establishing a visitor center and administrative offices within an existing building owned by the City of Concord would be minimal.
Mr. Chairman, that concludes my testimony. I would be pleased to answer any questions you or the other members of the subcommittee may have.