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Thoughts for This Veteran’s Day 11/11/11

At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, the First World War came to an end.

The Armistice was signed for the War to End All Wars, but peace was built on a shoddy foundation, and war returned, nastier than ever. The end of the Second World War brought the United Nations and the promise of rational negotiation and eternal peace. Instead the nuclear era introduced the tense decades of the Cold War, flaring up in brutal regional wars in Korea, Vietnam, and throughout Africa and Central and South America. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall brought optimism for a peaceful, democratic world. This was shattered by the terrorist tactics of a new enemy without borders to attack or a government to negotiate with. A cowardly enemy that cheers when children blow up children or when unarmed soldiers are murdered on their home base.

The human heart yearns for peace but is drawn to war. We can argue about it and say it shouldn’t be this way, but it is.

That’s why our armed services are vital. Our veterans have repelled the forces of Fascism, Totalitarianism, and Communism, and for this we owe them our eternal gratitude. Our active servicemen and servicewomen are currently fighting the forces of Islamic Terrorism, and for this we owe them our active support and appreciation.

On this 11th day of the 11th month of the 11th year of the new millenium, we thank the members of our armed services, past and present, for protecting our lives, our homes, and our freedom. May God bless you in your efforts.

Book Beat – Remembering You by Tricia Goyer

I’ve always enjoyed Tricia Goyer’s novels for her moving stories and comprehensive World War II historical research, so I jumped at the chance to read her newest novel, Remembering You.

Ava Andrews’s career as a TV morning show producer is in trouble. When she’s asked to accompany her Grandpa Jack on a European tour of his unit’s World War II battlefields, she sees the chance to rescue her career with a heartwarming series of veteran features—and to revive her relationship with her grandfather. However, Grandpa Jack is less than thrilled that Ava brought her recording equipment, and Ava is less than thrilled that her grandfather’s war buddy, “Grand-Paul,” brought his grandson Dennis. Ava’s first love. As they trek through France, Belgium, Germany, and Austria, tensions flare and secrets are revealed. Can Ava save her career, and can she repair the relationships with her grandfather and Dennis?

Remembering You takes you on a scenic tour of Europe with secrets, history, romance, and tension around every bend. History lovers will appreciate Tricia Goyer’s research and detail, and story lovers will delight in four fascinating characters with clashing goals. I highly recommend this novel.

Port Chicago – Desegregation of the Navy

Damage at US Naval Magazine, Port Chicago from 17 July 1944 explosion. (US Naval History and Heritage Command)

Damage at US Naval Magazine, Port Chicago from 17 July 1944 explosion. (US Naval History and Heritage Command)

In the worst Home Front disaster of World War II, an explosion at the Naval Magazine in Port Chicago, California on July 17, 1944 killed 320 men, of whom 202 were black. The tragedy was followed by a work stoppage and a controversial mutiny trial. This sent ripples of change through the segregated armed forces.

These events are included in my third novel, Blue Skies Tomorrow. Previous blog posts discussed the situation in the armed forces and at Port Chicago, the explosion, the work stoppage, and the mutiny trial. Today’s post looks at the change that resulted.

Public Outrage

The explosion and mutiny trial were heavily publicized, at the Navy’s request. While the purpose was to discourage further insubordination in the ranks, the publicity backfired, exposing the segregated and discriminatory practices in the Navy. A great outcry went up in the black community, but many whites were appalled as well.

Further Discord

The difficult and humiliating conditions for blacks in the armed forces caused more strife and violence. On July 31, 1944, 75 black members of the 1320th Army Engineers refused to work on an airfield on Oahu. They were arrested and convicted of mutiny on February 1, 1945. Christmas Eve and Day on Guam were marked by an ugly race riot that killed one black and one white Marine. Forty-three blacks were court-martialed and sentenced; no whites were arrested. And in March 1945, one thousand black Seabees at Port Hueneme, California engaged in a two-day hunger strike to protest discrimination.

Proponents of Change

James V. Forrestal, US Secretary of the Navy (US Navy photo)

James V. Forrestal, US Secretary of the Navy (US Navy photo)

The black sailor had a friend in the new Secretary of the Navy, James V. Forrestal, who had been appointed by the president on May 19, 1944 after the death of Frank Knox. Forrestal found that Admiral Ernest King, Chief of Naval Operations and Commander-in-Chief of the United States Fleet, believed that integration was right and necessary. In March 1945, Forrestal asked Lester Granger of the National Urban League to serve as his advisor. Forrestal liked Granger’s tactics. Rather than arguing for desegregation in the name of fairness and rights, Granger argued that desegregation increased security, production, and administrative efficiency.

Gradual Changes

Ironically, on August 9, 1944, the same day the survivors of the Port Chicago Explosion refused to load ammunition, Forrestal informed the commanders of 25 fleet auxiliary ships that they would be assigned black sailors, to be fully integrated on their crews. In this experimental change, the black sailors were found to be accepted and efficient members of the crews. As a result, all auxiliary ships were fully integrated as of March 6, 1945.

Crew of destroyer escort USS Mason, the first US warship with a predominately black enlisted crew; Boston Navy Yard, 30 March 1944 (US Naval History and Heritage Command)

Crew of destroyer escort USS Mason, the first US warship with a predominately black enlisted crew; Boston Navy Yard, 30 March 1944 (US Naval History and Heritage Command)

In January 1945, a pamphlet went out to naval officers, encouraging ratings and promotions be made for blacks on the same basis as for whites. The pamphlet also warned against the use of racial epithets.

In response to the Port Chicago incident, on February 21, 1945, the Navy limited blacks working at ammunition depots to no more than 30 percent of the work force. An argument that proved effective was that dispersing blacks prevented collective action like riots and strikes.

Specialist training schools had quietly been integrating since 1943, simply due to the inefficiency of maintaining separate schools. In June 1945, all Navy training camps were desegregated, with recruits sent to the nearest facility regardless of race. In July 1945, the Navy opened submarine and aviation pilot training to blacks as well.

Strides were made within the Navy for black women as well. In October 1944, the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) opened recruitment for black women, and in March 1945, the Navy Nurse Corps was also opened to blacks.

Lt. (j.g.) Harriet Ida Pickens (left) and Ens. Frances Wills close a suitcase after graduating from the Naval Reserve Midshipmen’s School (WR) at Northampton, MA, 21 December 1944. They were the Navy’s first African-American WAVES officers and graduated with the Northampton school’s final class. (U.S. Navy Photograph)

Lt. (j.g.) Harriet Ida Pickens (left) and Ens. Frances Wills close a suitcase after graduating from the Naval Reserve Midshipmen’s School (WR) at Northampton, MA, 21 December 1944. They were the Navy’s first African-American WAVES officers and graduated with the Northampton school’s final class. (U.S. Navy Photograph)

Results

Progress in the Navy was slow but significant. By the end of the war, 5.3 percent of naval personnel were black, double the prewar percentage but still less than half the percentage of the population. Only 60 black officers served in the Navy, up from zero before the war. Seventy black women served as WAVES, and four black women served in the Navy Nurse Corps. Before the war, blacks were only allowed to serve as steward’s mates. By the end of the war, blacks held 67 different ratings but 40 percent still served as steward’s mates.

Brochure about ratings in the US Navy, WWII

Brochure about ratings in the US Navy, WWII

Full Integration

Work continued in the Navy after the war. On February 27, 1946, without fanfare, the Bureau of Naval Personnel issued Circular Letter 48-46 which prohibited all segregation in assignments, ratings, ranks, ships, facilities, and housing. Not until 1948 were the rest of the armed forces completely integrated. While the Navy had been the most segregated service before the war, it became the first integrated service. The events surrounding the Port Chicago Explosion played a significant role in these landmark changes.

Sources:

MacGregor, Morris J. Jr. Integration of the Armed Forces 1940-1965. Washington DC: Center of Military History, United States Army, 1985. On U.S. Army Center of Military History website. Accessed 25 June 2019.

Allen, Robert L. The Port Chicago Mutiny. Berkeley CA: Heyday Books, 2006.

Book Beat – A Quaker Christmas

Do you love Christmas but find the stress of the season overwhelming? I sure do. Christmas novella collections offer a sweet remedy – short, uplifting stories to refresh your love of the holiday but without demanding too much time.
A Quaker Christmas offers four such stories, each following a nineteenth-century Quaker woman.

In A Crossroad to Love by Lauralee Bliss, Mary Hall helps at her parents inn, but is disturbed by their newest guest, Silas Jones, who mocks the faith of the Friends. And yet he’s so attractive. A lame horse and a family emergency prolong Silas’s stay, and Mary learns the cause of Silas’s animosity – but can she help him find healing?

In Simple Gifts by Ramona Cecil, young widow Lucinda Hughes is blessed by her former husband’s best friend, Will Davis, who quietly watches over her. But Will’s growing love for Lucinda is checked by her diminishing faith and the concerns of family. Can Lucinda see behind Will’s quiet facade to see his worth, and can her faith be renewed?

Pirate of My Heart by Rachael Phillips was my favorite of the lot, mostly because of Phillips’s trademark humor. Keturah Wilkes wears a red shawl. Good Quaker girls do not wear bright colors. Keturah chases her shawl into the river and is rescued by handsome boatman Henry Mangun. Just as Keturah bucks the traditions of her family, Henry bucks his family’s traditions – the traditions of river pirates. Will Henry break free? Will Keturah be dazzled by Henry’s dashing older brother? Or will she see Henry’s worth?

Equally Yoked by Claire Sanders tells of Susanna Griffith, who is not a Quaker but has just married into the Friends faith. When her husband is away from the farm, Susanna finds herself involved with her in-laws’ Underground Railroad activity. Susanna must decide whether to adopt her new family’s ways and risk everything to help an escaped slave.

The four stories were each satisfying. A light thread linked the stories. My only gripe about the collection is that the stories were not arranged in chronological order – why? – so that the linking thread was more difficult to see. However, the collection was as delightful and refreshing as the gingerbread cookies the four women share.

Port Chicago – the Mutiny Trial

 

Buildings damaged by the explosion at the US Naval Magazine, Port Chicago on 17 July 1944 (US Naval History and Heritage Command)

Buildings damaged by the explosion at the US Naval Magazine, Port Chicago on 17 July 1944 (US Naval History and Heritage Command)

In the worst Home Front disaster of World War II, an explosion at the Naval Magazine in Port Chicago, California on July 17, 1944 killed 320 men, of whom 202 were black. The tragedy was followed by a work stoppage and a controversial mutiny trial. This sent ripples of change through the segregated armed forces.

These events are included in my novel Blue Skies Tomorrow. Previous blog posts discussed the situation in the armed forces and at Port Chicago, the explosion, and the work stoppage. Today’s post covers the mutiny trial, and next week we’ll look at the aftermath.

Mutiny Trial

On August 9, 1944, 258 survivors of the explosion refused to load ammunition at Mare Island Naval Depot in Vallejo, California. After the threat of a charge of mutiny on August 11, fifty of these men still refused to load ammunition and were charged with mutiny.

A General Court Martial was convened by Adm. Carleton Wright, commander of the 12th Naval District, with a seven-member court led by Rear Adm. Hugo Osterhaus to act as judge and jury. The prosecution was led by Lt. Cdr. James Coakley. The defense team was led by Lt. Gerald Veltmann and consisted of five additional lawyers who each handled the cases of ten defendants.

The trial was held in a Marines barracks on Yerba Buena Island (also known as Treasure Island) in San Francisco Bay.

Prosecution

On September 14, 1944 the trial opened. Coakley argued that a strike was mutinous in time of war. He dismissed the defendants’ claims, stating, “What kind of discipline, what kind of morale would we have if men in the United States Navy could refuse to obey an order and then get off on the grounds of fear?”

The questioning of the defendants was loaded with racial language, and the prosecutors often disparaged the men’s honesty, especially when their spoken statements contradicted their earlier statements—although the men had complained that the transcriptions were inaccurate. One defendant had refused to load ammunition because he’d broken his wrist the day before the work stoppage and was wearing a cast. Coakley replied that “there were plenty of things a one-armed man could do on the ammunition dock.”

Defense

Veltmann quoted the official legal definition of mutiny: “a concerted effort to usurp, subvert, or override authority,” and argued that the men had never tried to seize command and therefore, were not guilty of mutiny. Since direct orders had not been given to each man, they could not be guilty of disobeying orders. The defense chronicled the discriminatory conditions at Port Chicago, the psychological effects of the explosion and cleaning up body parts, and the unchanged conditions they faced at Mare Island.

Damage at mess hall at US Naval Magazine, Port Chicago from 17 July 1944 explosion (US Naval History and Heritage Command)

Damage at mess hall at US Naval Magazine, Port Chicago from 17 July 1944 explosion (US Naval History and Heritage Command)

Publicity

The Navy encouraged the press to cover the trial, and the NAACP sent their chief counsel, Thurgood Marshall (the future Supreme Court justice), who sat through twelve days of the trial. On October 10, Marshall held a press conference and stated that the prosecution acted in a prejudicial manner. On October 17, he issued a statement deriding the conditions in the Navy and specifically at Port Chicago. He believed the men were guilty of the lesser charge of insubordination and did not meet the legal definition of mutiny.

Verdict

On October 24, 1944, after deliberating for 80 minutes, the court convicted all 50 defendants of mutiny, including the man with the broken wrist and two others who had never loaded ammunition previously for medical reasons. All 50 men received 15-year sentences, and at the end of November they were imprisoned at Terminal Island Disciplinary Barracks in San Pedro, California.

Further Legal Action

On November 15, Admiral Wright reviewed the court’s findings and adjusted the sentences to 8-15 years. On April 3, 1945 Thurgood Marshall filed an appeals brief to the Judge Advocate General’s office in Washington DC. Concerned about hearsay evidence, the Secretary of the Navy asked the court to reconvene. They did so on June 12, 1945, but upheld the sentences. After the war was over, the sentences were reduced. In September 1945, one year was lopped off each man’s sentence, and in October the sentences were reduced to two years for all the men with good conduct and three for those with bad conduct. In January 1946, the Navy released all but three of the men—one remained for bad conduct and two in the hospital. The men stayed in the Navy and eventually received honorable discharges, but the felony convictions remained on their records.

Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, 1976

Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, 1976

Sources:

Allen, Robert L. The Port Chicago Mutiny. Berkeley CA: Heyday Books, 2006.

The Articles of War. Washington DC: United States War Department, approved 8 September 1920, accessed 25 June 2019.

Department of the Navy. Articles for the Governance of the United States Navy, 1930. Washington DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1932. On Naval History and Heritage Command website, updated 22 August 2017. Accessed 25 June 2019.

Marshall, Thurgood. “Statement on the Trial of Negro Sailors at Yerba Buena, September 24, 1944.” On Organization of American Historians website, printed 20 November 2007.

A Solemn Responsibility

When I became a pharmacist, I was struck by the realization that I held other people’s lives in my hands. If I enter the prescription into the computer for the wrong patient, select the wrong medication or strength from the shelf, fail to recognize a drug interaction, calculate the wrong dose, or commit any number of possible errors, the patient can be harmed. Whoa. I treat my work in pharmacy as a solemn responsibility requiring wisdom.

 When Abraham told his chief servant, most likely Eliezer of Damascus, to find a wife for his son Isaac, Eliezer must have felt that same sense of responsibility. Isaac was Abraham’s beloved son, the child of the covenant, through whom God had promised to bless all nations. Not just any wife would do. The woman would be the mother of nations. She had to be pleasing to Abraham, to Isaac, and most importantly, to the Lord. Eliezer had to get it right.
So Eliezer prayed for wisdom. Only the Lord knew the right woman, and Eliezer prayed for God to reveal her to him. God did so. Eliezer was thrilled. Abraham was thrilled. And Isaac fell in love.
James 1:5 says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.” This is one prayer the Lord never refuses. Whatever solemn responsibility lies before you, know God will give you the wisdom to handle it. All you have to do is ask.

Port Chicago – the Work Stoppage

 

Damage to depot at US Naval Magazine, Port Chicago from 17 July 1944 explosion (US Naval History and Heritage Command)

Damage to depot at US Naval Magazine, Port Chicago from 17 July 1944 explosion (US Naval History and Heritage Command)

In the worst Home Front disaster of World War II, an explosion at the Naval Magazine in Port Chicago, California on July 17, 1944 killed 320 men, of whom 202 were black. The tragedy was followed by a work stoppage and a controversial mutiny trial. This sent ripples of change through the segregated armed forces.

These events are included in my novel Blue Skies Tomorrow. Previous blog posts discussed the situation in the armed forces and at Port Chicago, and the explosion, today I’ll cover the work stoppage, and over the next couple of weeks we’ll look at the trial, and the aftermath.

Survivors

After the July 17, 1944 explosion claimed 320 lives, most of the survivors were taken to Port Shoemaker in Oakland. However, two hundred men remained to help in the grisly clean up. By the end of the month, reconstruction began, and the first berth on the new pier opened September 6, 1944. Survivors’ leaves were granted to the white, but not the black survivors.

Congress met to decide on payments to beneficiaries, usually $5000. However, when Senator John Rankin (D-Mississippi) heard most of the beneficiaries were black, he demanded lowering payments to $2000. Congress settled on the insulting amount of $3000, which applied to white beneficiaries as well.

Since the war continued and the Navy’s need for munitions in the Pacific had not diminished, three of the surviving work divisions (all black) from Port Chicago were sent to the main depot across the river at the Mare Island Navy Yard in Vallejo.

Damage to barracks at US Naval Magazine, Port Chicago from 17 July 1944 explosion (US Naval History and Heritage Command)

Damage to barracks at US Naval Magazine, Port Chicago from 17 July 1944 explosion (US Naval History and Heritage Command)

 

Work Stoppage

The men remained jittery from the explosion that had killed so many of their friends. No new training was given, no new safeguards were instituted, and the men served under the same white officers from Port Chicago. Tensions rose as they realized they’d be asked to load ammunition again. They knew firsthand the hollowness of the promise that the ammunition couldn’t detonate.

On August 9, 1944, the men were marched from their barracks at Mare Island toward the dock to load ammunition again for the first time since the explosion. Suddenly, the men stopped marching. They said they were afraid to handle munitions and they’d obey any order except the order to load ammunition.

Upon further questioning from the officers, of the 328 men in the three divisions, 258 refused to work. These men were confined to a barge, since the brig wasn’t big enough. For three days, the men remained under guard on the crowded, poorly ventilated barge.

The Admiral’s Demand

On August 11, the 258 men were gathered on the baseball field. Admiral Carleton Wright, commander of the 12th Naval District, addressed the men. He informed them that refusing to work in time of war was mutinous behavior, and that mutiny carried the death penalty.

The men were asked again if they were willing to work, and 208 said they were willing, but the remaining 50 refused and were taken to the brig at Camp Shoemaker in Oakland, California. These 50 men included two who refused because they were mess cooks and had never handled munitions before—one had a nervous condition and the other was underweight. Another man refused to work due to a broken wrist in a cast.

Interrogations

All 258 of the men who initially refused to work were interrogated at Camp Shoemaker, under armed guard and without counsel. The transcripts of their testimonies were often wildly inaccurate, but they were given no choice but to sign the testimonies.

On September 2, President Roosevelt recommended that the 208 men who agreed to return to work receive light sentences. These 208 were given Summary Courts Martial and bad-conduct discharges, and were docked three months’ pay. The 50 men who refused to work were given General Courts Martial with the charge of mutiny.

Sources:

Allen, Robert L. The Port Chicago Mutiny. Berkeley CA: Heyday Books, 2006.

War Time History of U.S. Naval Magazine, Port Chicago, California. Washington DC: US Navy Bureau of Ordnance, 5 December 1945. On Naval History and Heritage Command website. Accessed 25 June 2019.

New Book Series Title!

It’s official! My publisher, Revell, notified me this week that the title for my next series will be Wings of the Nightingale – for the first time, a title I actually came up with! The first novel in the series is officially titled With Every Letter, and the titles for the other two books will be determined later.

In Wings of the Nightingale, three World War II flight nurses pioneer medical air evacuation in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, and southern France. Danger, deprivation, and tragedy cause them to grow in friendship, while romance awakens them to adventures of the heart and soul.

I’m starting work now on To Every Shore (working title), which is scheduled to release Summer 2013. Lt. Georgie Taylor loves her job as a flight nurse, but the goals of pharmacist Sgt. John “Hutch” Hutchinson are frustrated at every turn. As Georgie and Hutch care for American soldiers in Sicily and Italy, tragedy brings them together. But will their differences keep them apart?

With Every Beat  (working title) is scheduled for Summer 2014. Flight nurse Lt. Kay Jobson collects hearts wherever she flies, but C-47 pilot Lt. Roger Cooper is immune to her charms. Throughout Italy and southern France, as she evacuates the wounded and he delivers paratroopers and supplies, every beat of their hearts draws them where they don’t want to go.
The next step…the cover for With Every Letter! Considering the gorgeous work Revell did for the Wings of Glory series, I can’t wait to see what they do for Wings of the Nightingale!

Book Beat – Remembering Christmas by Dan Walsh

It’s 1980, and yuppie Rick Denton has everything going for him. Job, cash, car, condo, and women. The only thing he can complain about is gas prices – a dollar a gallon? What is the world coming to? But then his obnoxious stepfather collapses from an aneurysm, and his mother begs for Rick’s help to keep their business running. Their smarmy little Christian bookstore with the crazy customers and the homeless man sleeping in the doorway. Rick agrees, but the only good thing about the deal is the pretty young woman who works at the bookstore. However, the next few weeks will turn Rick’s assumptions about himself, his family, and his life upside-down.

In Remembering Christmas, Dan Walsh writes with humor and a fun bit of attitude – and still writes a heartwarming tale. The story delighted me, and one twist completely surprised me. Realistic and lovable characters – even shallow Rick – and the refreshing Florida beach town setting make this a memorable Christmas story. I loved Dan’s previous novels, The Unfinished Gift, The Homecoming, and The Deepest Waters. Remembering Christmas is sure to please his fans and to enthrall new readers as well. I highly recommend this novel.

Port Chicago – the Explosion

Damage at US Naval Magazine, Port Chicago from 17 July 1944 explosion. (US Naval History and Heritage Command)

Damage at US Naval Magazine, Port Chicago from 17 July 1944 explosion. (US Naval History and Heritage Command)

In the worst Home Front disaster of World War II, an explosion at the Naval Magazine in Port Chicago, California on July 17, 1944 killed 320 men, of whom 202 were black. The tragedy was followed by a work stoppage and a controversial mutiny trial. This sent ripples of change through the segregated armed forces.

I included these events in my novel Blue Skies Tomorrow. Last week I discussed the situation in the armed forces and at Port Chicago, today I’ll cover the explosion, and over the next few weeks we’ll look at the work stoppage, trial, and aftermath.

One Summer Night

The evening of Monday July 17 was cool, clear, and moonless. Down by Suisun Bay, where the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers merge, floodlights illuminated the docks at the U.S. Naval Magazine at Port Chicago, California.

The U.S. Navy in the Pacific depended on the ammunition loaded at Port Chicago, so men worked around the clock. For the night shift, two divisions of about one hundred black men each were hard at work loading two cargo ships from sixteen boxcars on the rails leading to the dock. Nine white officers and twenty-nine armed white Marine guards were also present, along with the crews of both ships and a Coast Guard fire barge moored nearby.

The SS E.A. Bryan, a Liberty ship, had already been loaded with 4600 tons of cargo by 10 pm, including fuzed (live) 650-lb incendiary bombs, depth bombs, 1000-lb bombs, 40-mm shells, and frag. cluster bombs. The SS Quinault Victory (also spelled Quinalt), a brand-new Victory ship, had docked at 6 pm to be loaded for her maiden voyage starting at midnight. About 429 tons of explosives were on the docks or in the boxcars at 10 pm.

 

The Explosion

At 10:18 pm, two massive explosions occurred, seven seconds apart, equivalent to five kilotons of TNT, about the same magnitude as the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The first explosion appears to have happened on the dock area, and the second explosion was most likely the E.A. Bryan exploding as a whole.

A flash of bright orange, a sound like giant doors slamming, and a column of fire, smoke, and debris rose to over 12,000 feet. Exploding shells within the column of smoke produced effects like fireworks. An Army Air Force plane at 9000 feet reported seeing debris above its altitude.

Damage on docks at US Naval Magazine, Port Chicago from 17 July 1944 explosion (US Naval History and Heritage Command)

Damage on docks at US Naval Magazine, Port Chicago from 17 July 1944 explosion (US Naval History and Heritage Command)

The Damage

On the ships and docks, all 320 men present were killed instantly, 202 of whom were black. (News sources at the time reported the figure of 322 deaths; therefore, I used that figure in Blue Skies Tomorrow.) The E.A. Bryan completely disintegrated, and the Quinault Victory spun 180 degrees and snapped in two. The dock, locomotive, and boxcars disappeared.

Out on the river, two nearby boats were swamped by a thirty-foot wave, killing one, and the nearby Roe Island Lighthouse was seriously damaged.

On the base, every single building was damaged. The explosion knocked men off their feet and out of windows over a mile and a half away. In the town of Port Chicago, almost every home was damaged, but no one was killed. The explosion was felt within a 40-mile radius, as far away as San Francisco. Windows were blown out and plaster shaken down in Pittsburg, Antioch, Martinez, Benicia, and Vallejo.

About 390 people were injured, military and civilians. The most common injuries resulted from flying glass, including many who were blinded. The first explosion brought people to the windows to investigate, then the second explosion shattered the windows.

Some of those close to the explosion thought the Japanese were bombing. Those further away judged the rumbling and shaking as an earthquake.

Damage to rail cars at US Naval Magazine, Port Chicago from 17 July 1944 explosion (US Naval History and Heritage Command)

Damage to rail cars at US Naval Magazine, Port Chicago from 17 July 1944 explosion (US Naval History and Heritage Command)

Rescue Efforts

On the base, the uninjured quickly and calmly rallied for search and rescue and first aid. Local military bases and civilian fire departments sprang to action. The first ambulances arrived within thirty minutes and transported the wounded to local hospitals. Local Red Cross, USO, and Salvation Army groups provided aid on the base and in the local communities.

Cause of the Explosion

Since every eyewitness to the explosion was killed, the exact cause of the explosion will never be determined. Poor training and leadership emphasized speed over safety, and several of the booms had been reported to have faulty parts. Since fuzed incendiary bombs were being loaded, rough handling or an accident could easily have led to a dockside explosion, which then spread to the heavily loaded E.A. Bryan.

Sources:

Allen, Robert L. The Port Chicago Mutiny. Berkeley CA: Heyday Books, 2006.
Port Chicago Naval Magazine Explosion on 17 July 1944: Court of Inquiry: Finding of Facts, Opinion and Recommendations. Washington DC: Department of the Navy, 30 October 1944. On Naval History and Heritage Command website. Accessed 25 June 2019.
Antioch Ledger, various articles, July 1944. Accessed on microfiche, Antioch Public Library, Antioch CA.