An ammunition ship explodes while being loaded in Port Chicago, California, killing 320 people on July 17, 1944. The United States’ World War II military campaign in the Pacific was in full swing at the time. Poor procedures and lack of training led to the disaster.
Port Chicago, about 30 miles north of San Francisco, was developed into a munitions facility when the Naval Ammunition Depot at Mare Island, California, could not fully supply the war effort. By the summer of 1944, expansion of the Port Chicago facility allowed for loading two ships at once around the clock. The Navy units assigned to the dangerous loading operations were generally segregated African American units. For the most part, these men had not been trained in handling munitions. Additionally, safety standards were forgotten in the rush to keep up frenetic loading schedules.
On the evening of July 17, the SS Quinault Victory and SS E.A. Bryan, two merchant ships, were being loaded. The holds were being packed with 4,600 tons of explosives—bombs, depth charges and ammunition. Another 400 tons of explosives were nearby on rail cars. Approximately 320 workers were on or near the pier when, at 10:18 p.m., a series of massive explosions over several seconds destroyed everything and everyone in the vicinity. The blasts were felt as far away as Nevada and the resulting damage extended as far as San Francisco. Every building in Port Chicago was damaged and people were literally knocked off their feet. Smoke and fire extended nearly two miles into the air. The pilot of a plane flying at 9,000 feet in the area claimed that metal chunks from the explosion flew past him.
Nearly two-thirds of the people killed at Port Chicago were African American enlisted men in the Navy—15 percent of all African Americans killed during World War II. The surviving men in these units, who helped put out the fires and saw the horrors firsthand, were quickly reassigned to Mare Island. Less than a month later, when ordered to load more munitions, but still having received no training, 258 African American sailors refused to carry out the orders. Two hundred and eight of them were then sentenced to bad conduct discharges and pay forfeiture. The remaining 50 men were put on trial for general court martial. They were sentenced to between eight and 15 years of hard labor, though two years later all were given clemency. A 1994 review of the trials revealed race played a large factor in the harsh sentences. In December 1999, President Clinton pardoned Freddie Meeks, one of only three of the 50 convicted sailors known to be alive at the time.
The Port Chicago disaster eventually led to the implementation of far safer procedures for loading ammunition. In addition, greater emphasis was put on proper training in explosives handling and the munitions themselves were altered for greater safety. There is now a national memorial to the victims at the site.