Port Chicago

Port Chicago, a World War II munitions transfer point in the San Francisco Bay area, was the site of tragedy on July 17, 1944, when an explosion killed 320 people and injured 390 more. (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times / July 29, 2010)

The bombs erupted along Pier No. 1, thousands of them, about 30 miles northeast of San Francisco. And 66 years later, you can still spot a few twisted hunks of metal near water's edge, an American flag snapping in the wind overhead.

This is Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial, the newest unit in the national park system and the scene of the bloodiest 20th century California war story that millions of Californians have never heard. It covers just 5 acres, surrounded by a military base, between Suisun Bay and the blond hills of Contra Costa County.

"You won't see much of anything," the Rev. Diana McDaniel, president of the Friends of Port Chicago, tells first-time visitors. "But you'll feel something."

The biggest home-front disaster of World War II happened here. Followed by the largest mass mutiny trial in U.S. Navy history. Which paved the way for the integration of the American military and, many say, the emergence of the American civil rights movement in the 1950s. In other words, Port Chicago's first full-time rangers may not have much to show when they welcome visitors, but they have plenty to tell.

The core of the story is always July 17, 1944. It was a Monday. The U.S. was more than two years into World War II, and Port Chicago was where the Navy took munitions off railroad cars and loaded them onto ships bound for the Pacific.

Out along the port's long, bending pier, which had just been expanded to accommodate two ships at a time, the Quinault (sometimes spelled Quinalt) Victory glided in about 6 p.m. The new ship, ready for loading, moored on the pier's seaward side, facing upstream.

On the land side, facing downstream, loomed the E.A. Bryan, a 440-foot-long Liberty ship that had been in port for four days of around-the-clock loading. Like most Liberty ships, it had five cargo holds, each about four stories deep. The ship was mostly full, with five days left to finish the job. Most of the loading had gone smoothly, investigators found later, except for a few problems with the steam-powered winches that lifted munitions into the ships.

The base was eight miles down the Sacramento River from Pittsburg, seven miles upriver from Martinez and 11/2 miles from the tiny town of Port Chicago. It had rail connections and plenty of land, well-separated from population centers in case anything major went wrong. Through more than a year and a half of hastily handling 280,000 tons of ammunition and explosives onto 78 ships, nothing had.

But Port Chicago was ready to blow, in more ways than one.

About 1,400 enlisted men did the most dangerous work. Some were volunteers. Some were draftees. All were black, barred from most other jobs by segregationist policies that prevailed in the Navy and throughout American society. Their morale, the Navy acknowledged later, was "extremely low."

Irvin G. Lowery, now an 86-year-old retired state official in Columbus, Ohio, arrived in Port Chicago in the spring of '44 as a 19-year-old petty officer. In Ohio, "There were no black people working for the telephone company, no black people working for the electric company, no black people working for the gas company. And they didn't drive school buses or street cars," he told me in a telephone interview. "That's the way the world was then. So when you look at going into a segregated Navy, that was normal."

Sleeping in barracks about half a mile from the dock, most of these men served as stevedores, working around the clock in three shifts, filling westbound ships with bullets and bombs under the supervision of about 70 commissioned officers, all white. (The historical details in this article, unless otherwise attributed, are drawn from now-public Navy documents and "The Port Chicago Mutiny," a 1989 book by Robert L. Allen.)

Exhorted by officers to work quickly, the enlisted troops rolled bombs down ramps and stacked ammunition on pallets or loaded it into nets. Then winches hoisted the ordnance off the pier and into the hatches. Although commercial stevedores at nearby Mare Island averaged 8.7 tons per hatch per hour, the officers at Port Chicago set a target of 10. The men usually averaged 8.2.

And most of them were learning on the job. As a later Navy review found, the Navy offered little or no training to Port Chicago's men, had no written guidelines on how to load munitions, and sometimes violated Coast Guard instructions because they ate up too much time. Officers offered rewards to the fastest crews, may have bet on tonnage results and brushed off safety concerns by explaining that the troops were packing mostly munitions without fuses or detonators.

"We were in that war to win," said Tad Shay, a park ranger who splits his time among Port Chicago and three other sites. "Nothing was going to stop us. It was go, go, go."

By 10 p.m. July 17, more than 100 men were aboard the Quinault Victory, rigging the new ship and expecting to start loading bombs at midnight.

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.