Port Chicago Munitions Explosion – 1944

America prides itself on defending national shores and protecting its people against hostile incursion in times of war, but that’s not to say there have never been US war casualties on American soil. One of the greatest losses of life occurred in World War II at Port Chicago, California (not to be confused with Port of Chicago, Illinois).

At the Port Chicago Naval Magazine, munitions to support America’s Pacific Theatre of Operations were delivered by train prior to loading onto cargo ships. In July 1944 the naval base was a hive of activity, working around the clock as crews – mainly enlisted African-Americans – competed to see who could load munitions fastest, though these US Navy stevedores were poorly trained and badly supervised.

One night, the Liberty ship SSEA Bryan was being loaded with bombs and depth charges at Port Chicago’s single pier, opposite the SS Quinault Victory. At 22.18 an explosion occurred and fire broke out. A few seconds later there was a massive detonation as all the munitions in and around E A Bryan went up in a huge fireball, killing everyone on the pier and injuring hundreds more in the nearby barracks and town.

The E A Bryan was completely destroyed, Quinault Victory was blown out of the water and disintegrated, a fireboat was hurled 180 m (600 ft) before sinking and the pier and its environs were completely flattened. It was later calculated that the explosion was equivalent to the detonation of 2,000 tons of TNT (or a small nuclear bomb) and the shock wave measured 3.4 on the Richter earthquake scale. When the dust settled, over 300 navy personnel were dead (most so badly burned that they were never identified) and nearly 400 sailors and civilians had been injured, many seriously.

When: July 17 1944

Where: Port Chicago, California, USA

Death toll: 320 dead, 390 injured

You should know: Safety conditions for loading munitions were not improved and the Port Chicago disaster had a significant sequel. African-American sailors who subsequently refused to load munitions were court martialed for mutiny, dubiously convicted and sentenced to long prison terms, it became a cause celebre that highlighted racial inequality in the US Navy and led to the first serious efforts to lessen discrimination. The convicted mutineers were released after serving barely a year.

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