Remembering the Chicago Harbor Explosion, 80 Years Later
7 mins read

Remembering the Chicago Harbor Explosion, 80 Years Later

Padmore and Shelby are just two of many people preparing for Port Chicago Weekend, a three-day series of events from July 18 to 21. In addition to live music and dancing, the program will include a performance Chicago Harbor 50art by David Shackelford and Dennis Rowe.

Attendees will also have the opportunity to hear first-hand accounts from the families of those who died in the tragic events of July 17, 1944 — exactly 80 years ago.

Remembering the Chicago Harbor Explosion, 80 Years Later
A group of black sailors marching in the Port of Chicago. (National Park Service Collection)

AND

In 1944, the United States was in the midst of World War II, and throughout the Bay Area, workers played a huge role in the war effort. Women entered the workplace in droves, a change often symbolized by the fictional character Rosie the Riveter and immortalized in Richmond’s eponymous park and museum. At the same time, scientists at UC Berkeley were working on the Manhattan Project that led to the development of the atomic bomb. Thousands more worked in mills in Marin County, factories in Oakland and on ships at Hunters Point, all to support the war effort.

In July, at the Suisun Bay naval base, hundreds of men worked tirelessly to load ammunition onto the 440-foot transport ship SS E.A. Bryan. Reports show that at the time of the incident, the ship was loaded with more than 4,600 pounds of weapons, including large cluster bombs, small ammunition, naval mines and other explosives. The cargo ship itself, loaded with more than 5,000 barrels of bunker oil, was highly flammable. Some 430 tons of ammunition and bombs were in rail cars near where the ship was moored. Another ship, the SS Quinault’s Victorywas located directly next to.

Sailors working on the pier during World War II.
Sailors working on the pier during World War II. (National Park Service, Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial)

Just after 10 p.m. on July 17, witnesses heard the sound of falling metal before a massive explosion sent a three-mile-wide fireball into the sky. Debris was shot 1,200 feet into the air. The blast was reportedly heard as far away as Nevada. In Berkeley, 20 miles away, it measured 3.4 on the Richter scale.

Of the men working on the ship, 320 died instantly, vaporized by the explosion. Hundreds more were injured. Those killed in the explosion represented 15 percent of the black soldiers who died in World War II.

The exact cause of the explosion was never determined. However, during the trial, it became clear that the Navy had not followed protocol in training the mostly black workers on how to properly load ammunition. Furthermore, three weeks later, the remaining workers were sent to Mare Island in Vallejo to continue loading ammunition for the Navy.

Seeing that no new safety measures had been taken, workers protested. Initially, more than 250 men refused unsafe working conditions. But soon most returned to work, leaving 50 men—known as the Port Chicago 50—to protest.

African Americans made up 5.5 percent of the Navy during World War II — more than 187,000 sailors — but only 64 of them received officer rank.
African Americans made up 5.5 percent of the Navy during World War II — more than 187,000 sailors — but only 64 of them received officer rank. (National Archives)

Charged with wartime insubordination and mutiny, the men were supported by Thurgood Marshall, who was not their lawyer but attended the hearings and publicized their case. This was years before Marshall worked on the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education or became the first black Supreme Court justice, but as general counsel to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Marshall’s name still carried weight.

In support of the Port Chicago 50, Marshall said, “These are not 50 men on trial for mutiny. This is the Navy on trial for all its cruel policies toward the Negroes. The Negroes in the Navy don’t mind loading ammunition. They just want to know why they’re the only ones loading it.”

Ultimately, 50 men were imprisoned, with sentences ranging from eight to 15 years, at Terminal Island Disciplinary Barracks in San Pedro. The senior officers, all white, escaped unharmed. On Capitol Hill, the Navy demanded $5,000 in compensation for each of the victims’ families; after protests from Mississippi congressman John Rankin, a hard-line racist, that amount was reduced to $3,000.

Navy SEAL and member of the Port Chicago 50, Joseph Small.
Joseph Small, Navy SEAL and member of the Port Chicago 50. (Robert L. Allen)

B

In January 1946, the war ended, and the Port Chicago 50 were released from prison. That same year, the Navy ended all formal segregation. Two years later, on July 26, 1948, President Harry Truman formally abolished segregation in the military and established the President’s Committee on Equal Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services.

In 1999, President Bill Clinton officially pardoned Port Chicago 50 member Freddie Meeks. However, many other men refused the pardon because it was supposed to be an admission of some form of guilt.

“My goal is to get these men exonerated this year,” says Yulie Padmore. Working with people like Friends of Port Chicago National Memorial President Rev. Diana McDaniel, Padmore is also actively working to make sure the story of the Port Chicago disaster and the Port Chicago 50 is available to everyone.

In 1994, the Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial was dedicated to those who died in the explosion. Fifteen years later, President Barack Obama signed legislation to designate the same site as a National Park Service unit. The problem is that the public doesn’t have easy access to the site because it’s on an active naval base.

But there’s a new park in the works: Thurgood Marshall Regional Park — Home of the Port Chicago 50. “We’re going to have a visitors’ center right here in the Bay Area,” Padmore says of the upcoming space in Los Medanos Hills, a 2,500-acre area between the cities of Concord and Pittsburgh. And while the center is 40 years away from opening, the name itself is a significant step. “This is the first regional park named for people who were formerly incarcerated,” Padmore says, noting that the community pushed to add “Home of the Port Chicago 50” to the title.

Sailors honored at Port Chicago.
Sailors honored at Port Chicago. (U.S. Navy via National Archives)

“It’s so much bigger than we can possibly imagine at this point,” Padmore tells me. “People of California, we go to Washington, D.C., and we learn about our history… but where do we have a significant history of this magnitude for African Americans in the state of California?”

Even though the center’s opening is some time in the future and the Port Chicago disaster happened 80 years ago, this piece of history is more important now than ever.

From workers’ rights to diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace, this month’s 80th anniversary event is significant. For scholars and activists, it’s a chance to learn more about people like Dr. Robert L. Allen, who wrote the book Chicago Harbor Mutiny. There is even something for those discussing reparations and land repatriation.

As Padmore reminds us, there’s room for education, too, and entertainment — all while paying homage to the Port Chicago 50 legacy.