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Port Chicago, site of a World War II home front tragedy, is a classroom today

A munitions explosion near San Francisco killed 320 people, injured 390 more and became a pivot point for civil rights. The site, a national memorial, is open for instruction.

September 05, 2010|By Christopher Reynolds | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Ninety-eight men were on and around the Bryan, which was as busy as a beehive. One crew stacked 40-millimeter shells into the No. 5 hold. Another maneuvered 1,000-pound bombs into the No. 3 hold. Another placed 2,000-pound depth bombs into the No. 2 hold. At the No. 1 hold, the men gingerly handled incendiary bombs, which weighed 650 pounds each and were called "hot cargo" because their fuses were installed.

By 10:15, the Bryan held 4,606 tons of ammunition and explosives. On the pier, nine officers stood among about 100 crewmembers, Marine guards, civilian workers and others. Sixteen railroad boxcars had rolled up, bearing another 429 tons of bombs and projectiles to be loaded.

Then, at 10:18 p.m., the first explosion occurred.

About five seconds later came the second, much bigger blast.

"Everything here was just decimated," ranger Eric Stearns said one recent day, leading a small group toward the inscribed granite markers and the skeleton of a ruined pier. "I think the closest survivors were two guys who were about 1,000 yards away."

In Nevada, seismic devices jumped. In San Francisco, hotel windows shattered. On an Army Air Force plane 9,000 feet up, the pilot reported an aerial ring of fire three miles around. Also, he said, "there were pieces of metal that were white and orange in color, that went quite a ways above us. They were quite large. I would say they were as big as a house or a garage."

The Bryan was all but vaporized. The stern of the shattered Quinault Victory landed 500 feet from where it had been moored. In the Port Chicago movie theater, which was showing a war movie called "China," the north wall gave way — just as a grenade was exploding on the screen. (The Navy later razed the town.)

"It blew me across the room," Lowery said. "I was in the barracks, in a room with two guys, shooting the breeze when it happened, a window to my back."

Lowery worked in the recreational department as an instructor, organizing sports. Though some men first thought the Japanese had attacked, "we knew it was the ammunition blowing up…. We in the rec department had a pickup truck, and we were the first ones out of there with those who were injured," Lowery said.

"We loaded up as many guys as we could and drove them up to Pittsburg to the Army hospital there. Then we went back. Me and another guy did that all night," he said. "I found out a few days later there were splinters of glass in my back."

By reckoning of the Culver City-based Center for Land Use Interpretation, that blast at that time was "the most powerful manmade, non-nuclear explosion in history." Just 51 bodies were sufficiently intact to be identified. In all, 320 men were dead, including 202 black enlisted men; 390 more sailors and civilians were injured, including 233 black enlisted men.

When the sun came up the next day, "we picked up body parts," Lowery said. "What we found was generally gloves and shoes. The gloves and shoes held the parts together. I guess the rest disintegrated."

Four days after the blast, the Navy convened a court of inquiry to sort facts and assign blame. For more than a month, 125 witnesses testified, including Capt. Nelson H. Goss, whose command included Mare Island and Port Chicago. Goss acknowledged that a Coast Guard port director had warned him, "If you aren't careful, something's going to happen, and you'll be held responsible for it."

The Navy's court of three captains found neither Goss nor any other individual responsible for the blasts. Instead, the court's "finding of facts" concluded that it was an unavoidable accident — and that "these enlisted personnel were unreliable, emotional, lacked capacity to understand or remember orders or instructions, were particularly susceptible to mass psychology and moods, lacked mechanical aptitude, were suspicious of strange officers, disliked receiving orders of any kind, particularly from white officers or petty officers, and were inclined to look for and make an issue of discrimination."

This is the first half of the Port Chicago story. It's painful, but "it's our history," said Martha Lee, the National Park Service superintendent who oversees Port Chicago, Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, Calif., and two other sites. "And we can't pretend it didn't happen."

I took the tour along with a handful of others in late July. As we walked the blast site, Stearns punctuated the story by reading aloud witness accounts and showing declassified Navy photos.

One of the other visitors was Army Lt. Col. Chris Hart, commanding officer of the Military Ocean Terminal Concord, which surrounds the memorial. Hart, clean-shaven in fatigues and black beret, had taken this job only about a month before, but he had clearly read up on the site's history. As Stearns laid out the story, Hart occasionally added historical details.

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