December 17, 2016: A Most Secure Memorial to a Hidden Disaster
Out of 413 National Park Service Units (National Parks, Monuments, Historic Sites, etc) the least visited is Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve, a remote volcano in Alaska that can only be reached by a float plane. It gets about 130 visitors per year. The second least visited site is the Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial in Concord, CA- an hour from both San Francisco and Sacramento. Last year Port Chicago received only 600 visitors. This seemed very surprising given the popularity of the National Park Service and their other parks in the Bay Area: Alcatraz, Muir Woods, and the Presidio.
It turns out that Port Chicago is unknown for a few reasons- the main reason is access. The memorial is located on an active Navy base. All visitors must go on a guided tour- run on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays- and must obtain security clearance from the Navy at least 2 weeks prior to the scheduled tour. Oftentimes, tours get cancelled by the Navy with no warning.
In mid-October, I called the Memorial’s number and left a message asking to tour the site. They called me back the next day, saying they had availability on their December 17th tour. They asked for my name, phone number, birthday, and driver’s license information. The Navy would then screen me to make sure I was okay to go. They said that they would call me if anything went wrong. I then booked my flight to Oakland for Friday, December 16th returning to LA on the 18th.
On Friday December 16th, I arrived at LAX for my flight to Oakland on Spirit Airlines. The weather was bad- strong winds, but according to my plane tracking app, the flight was slightly delayed and the aircraft was already in LA. No worries. I arrived and started to check-in only to discover that my flight had been cancelled. In 25 years of flying out of LA, I have never had a flight cancelled.
A Sprit representative told me to wait in a long line. After 10 minutes of waiting, I discovered that it was going to take at least 2 hours of waiting to see a representative. Instinctively, I called the airline. On their hold message, they suggested I manage my reservation online. I then cancelled the reservation in exchange for a flight credit equal to the value of my ticket plus $50 because there were no other Oakland flights that evening and Spirit doesn’t book on other airlines. I knew that if I wanted to make it to Port Chicago, I would have to drive.
Normally, Friday traffic northbound from LAX is horrendous. However, due to the holidays, it was surprisingly light and I was able to make it to Oakland in just 6 hours including a gas and dinner stop.
The next morning, my friend Andrew and I explored the town of Benicia, a former state capitol of California. The early history of California was certainly exciting. The Capitol was moved from nearby Martinez because Benicia had more hotel rooms. After a year, the governor resigned because “life is short”. The next governor moved the capitol to Sacramento for personal business reasons.
The Port Chicago tour leaves from the John Muir National Historic Site in Martinez just a few minutes from Benicia. We quickly toured the house before being met by my friend Kory at 1pm for the Port Chicago tour- Andrew had already been on the tour, so he went home.
Our group of about 10 then went into the John Muir NHS’s back room to watch a movie and get a safety briefing. Virtually everyone here was a National Parks junkie. One guy took out his very large National Parks Explorer-edition Passport that looks more like a brick than a passport. Kory and I were the only young people on the tour. After the movie, a National Parks Service bus pulled up and we all got on.
“Welcome to my mobile visitor center” our ranger exclaimed in a booming commanding voice that was distinctively Armed Forces. She was ex-Navy and was FANTASTIC!
Port Chicago is sort of a secret National Park. They have no visitor center of their own- save for the bus, nobody knows about the park, and nobody knows about the disaster it is memorializing. It kind of felt we were on a classified Naval mission.
As we bussed over to Port Chicago, we passed by a large open space that apparently used to house thousands if not millions of missiles- including possibly nuclear missiles. The ranger handed out pictures of what the site and former town looked like both before and after the disaster.
Then, we got off the highway and drove onto the base. At the security checkpoint, we got out of the bus, walked into a nondescript trailer, and filled out a form with our name. The building appeared empty, but after a closer look, there were soldiers watching us from behind one-way glass.
We then got back in the bus, drove about a mile, and were let into the base by a soldier who opened the gate and then closed it behind us. “Welcome to MOTCO, ladies and gentlemen”, our ranger said in that awesome soldier voice. It felt like I was in a movie.
MOTCO, or the Military Ocean Terminal Concord, was established as the Port Chicago Naval Magazine in the wake of Pearl Harbor as the main place to load weapons and missiles onto ships on the West Coast. The location in the Sacramento River Delta- a relative backwater midway between San Francisco and Sacramento ensured security while still enjoying good access to the ocean and the factories in Richmond.
Port Chicago Naval Magazine was established so quickly that the Navy did not have time (or did not choose to spend the time) to build a long enough wharf to safely dock two ships. The wharf was only long enough to safely load one ship, but the Navy worked around this by parking ships on both sides of the pier. Multiple sources cited the major safety and logistical concerns, but the Navy had to fight a war and the immediate needs of the battles in the Pacific trumped their desire to build a longer pier.
MOTCO was staffed completely by enlisted men who volunteered to fight for their country. Nobody who was drafted in the Navy served here.
Loading missiles was difficult and dangerous work. The missiles contained a huge amount of firepower and were incredibly heavy. The work was also not exciting- most men who enlisted wanted to go overseas to fight the enemy. As a result, the Navy gave these very undesirable jobs to the most undesirable soldiers in their eyes: Black soldiers.
The soldiers staffed here were fresh out of boot camp and were not trained in how to load a missile onto a ship. They improvised and did their best to load the ships as fast as possible to win the contests set up by their white commanders. The soldiers worked in shifts so that ships were being loaded 24 hours a day.
The combination of unsafe working conditions, lack of training, and the breakneck pace led to disaster.
At 10:18 pm on July 17, 1944, an accidental explosion completely destroyed one of the docked ships and then, seconds later, a second explosion destroyed the other ship parked just feet away. The combined power of the explosions was so large that: both ships- each the size of an NFL stadium- were immediately turned into a piece of scrap metal 3 feet long. The explosion was two miles tall and debris almost destroyed a plane flying in the area and registered as a magnitude 3.4 earthquake. It was heard and felt as far away as Palo Alto at the far end of San Francisco Bay.
320 men were killed instantly and another 399 were injured. Of the dead, 202 were African American dockworkers.
The ranger then let us out to see the pier and the memorial to the dead. As the site is still an active military base that loads ships, we were told not to point our cameras at the obvious white cranes.
You would think the story ends with this disaster, but it’s actually just the beginning.
Not sure whether they were being attacked or not, off-duty black soldiers ran to the dock only to see the horrific aftermath. They then gathered up the dismembered limbs of their friends and brought the living to medics. The next day there was a memorial to honor the dead. The white soldiers were given a month off to grieve, as they too lost men. The black soldiers were forced to go back to work the next doing the very same dangerous job with no more time off. “Saipan needed ammo”.
The Navy had asked to give the family members of the deceased $5,000. However, once Congress heard that mainly Blacks died, they lowered the pay to $3,000.
Because there was no solution in place to prevent another explosion, 258 Black sailors refused to load missiles onto ships. They agreed to do any other task asked of them. For this, they were marched to a prison barge and given the chance to either return to work or be charged with mutiny. 208 returned to work, but for this act of disobedience were given dishonorable discharges, which gave them no veterans’ benefits including medical care. The remaining 50 were charged with and convicted of mutiny.
The trial made national news and the backlash of 50 black soldiers being convicted of mutiny eventually led to desegregation of the Navy by 1945, just a few months after the trial ended.
You would think that the Navy has expressed regret for what has happened, but the short answer is no. The mutineers were never pardoned for forgiven in any way for their actions and while the Memorial exists, nowhere is there a mention of race/racism.
On the way out, we drove through the empty streets of the former town of Port Chicago, leveled for the construction of MOTCO. The ranger said that people who grew up in the town sometimes come on her tour, as it is the only way to see the place that was once their home.
We then left the base and headed back to the John Muir house. I was and still am shocked that these two disasters- the explosion and our government’s reaction- are basically unknown to most Americans. The fact that only 600 visitors come to see the park is an absolute shame!
The story of Port Chicago seems very relevant today, as gays only recently have been allowed to serve openly in the military and racial and political tensions are high. Hopefully more people can learn and talk about this forgotten but important part of US history.
If you want to visit Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial: call 925-228-8860 ext. 6520 at least 2 weeks before the desired tour date. You have to give them your name, date of birth and driver’s license number. Tours are only on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays and can be cancelled last minute.