CONCORD, CA – Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar today toured Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial, the site of a tragic munitions explosion that killed more than 300 mostly African American sailors during World War II and the first addition to the National Park System under President Obama.
“Port Chicago tells us a great deal about America during the World War II era,” Salazar said. “It reminds us that we not only needed to fight for freedom on the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific but also here at home where so many of our citizens were being denied the full benefits of freedom and justice.”
“Future generations of Americans now have the opportunity to visit and learn from the historic events that took place at Port Chicago during WWII,” said Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), who led efforts in Congress to create the Port Chicago memorial and recognize the events that occurred there. “And I thank Secretary Salazar for drawing attention today to this important piece of our civil rights history. The munitions detonation at Port Chicago, the so-called mutiny, and the subsequent legal cases are a significant part of our nation's struggle for civil rights and rightly helped lead to the desegregation of the US Navy.”
“By expanding public access to the Port Chicago National Memorial, we allow future generations to pay tribute to those who served the United States, paid the ultimate sacrifice and helped push our country to desegregate the armed forces,” said Senator Barbara Boxer.
Congressman Miller, Senator Boxer, and Senator Dianne Feinstein championed legislation to designate the memorial and the five acres that encompass the Port Chicago Naval Magazine blast site as an official unit of the National Park Service. The legislation was enacted as part of the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2009, which President Obama signed into law on March 30, 2009.
On July 17, 1944, crews at the magazine in the San Francisco Bay area were loading two Pacific-bound naval vessels with active munitions when the explosives ignited in a terrific series of blasts. Felt throughout the area, the explosions broke windows as far away as San Francisco, hurled debris in the air, obliterated both ships, and killed everyone at the waterfront. To this day, because of the tragedy, ignition sources for bombs and guns are loaded separately on carriers.
The disaster caused the greatest loss of life on the home front during World War II. Three hundred twenty men died, and almost 400 others were injured. Of the 320 killed, 202 were African Americans.
In the nation's then-segregated military, enlisted and drafted African Americans could work in kitchens, cooking meals for fellow servicemen, or as stevedores, loading and unloading ships. The stevedores at Port Chicago lacked training and thought they were handling inactive munitions. In reality, they were working at top speed to load bombs equipped with warheads.
After the explosion, African American survivors were sent to a nearby base to resume loading ships for the war effort. Many refused to continue their work without safety training, and the U.S. Navy charged 50 of these men with “conspiring to make mutiny.” They were tried, convicted, and imprisoned. After the war, they were released, granted clemency, allowed to complete their military service, and given honorable discharges. Only one was ever pardoned.
Thurgood Marshall, Chief Consul for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, attended the trial and took advantage of the occasion it presented to speak with journalists several times about racial discrimination in the armed forces. The Navy began to integrate its regiments in June 1945. Desegregation of the entire U.S. military came in 1948.
Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial is part of the Army's Military Ocean Terminal Concord base and has restricted access. Reservations are required and must be made at least two weeks prior to your visit to the Memorial. Reservations information can be found on the National Park Service website at http://www.nps.gov/poch/index.htm.