The National Park System has gained a new park: Port Chicago Naval
Magazine National Memorial in Concord, Calif. With President Obama’s
signing of the Defense Authorization Act, Port Chicago today became the
392nd unit of a system fondly referred to as “America’s best idea.”
“The addition of Port Chicago demonstrates a commitment to make
America’s best idea even better–more relevant to Americans, more
expressive of our nation’s history, and more representative of our
diversity,” said National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis.
On July 17, 1944, crews at the magazine in the San Francisco Bay
area were loading two Pacific-bound naval vessels with active munitions
when the explosives ignited in a terrific series of blasts. Felt
throughout the area, the explosions broke windows as far away as San
Francisco, hurled debris in the air, obliterated both ships, and killed
everyone at the waterfront. To this day, because of the tragedy,
ignition sources for bombs and guns are loaded separately on carriers.
The disaster caused the greatest loss of life on the home front
during World War II. 320 men died, and almost 400 others were injured.
Of the 320 killed, 202 were African Americans.
In the nation’s then-segregated military, enlisted and drafted
African Americans could work in kitchens, cooking meals for fellow
servicemen, or as stevedores, loading and unloading ships. The
stevedores at Port Chicago lacked training and thought they were
handling inactive munitions. In reality, they were working at top speed
to load bombs equipped with warheads.
After the explosion, African American survivors were sent to a
nearby base to resume loading ships for the war effort. Many refused to
continue their work without safety training, and the U.S. Navy charged
50 of these men with “conspiring to make mutiny.” They were tried,
convicted, and imprisoned. After the war, they were released, granted
clemency, allowed to complete their military service, and given
honorable discharges. Only one was ever pardoned.
Thurgood Marshall, Chief Consul for the National Association for
the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), attended the trial and took
advantage of the occasion it presented to speak with journalists several
times about racial discrimination in the armed forces. The Navy began
to integrate its regiments in June 1945. Desegregation of the entire
U.S. military came in 1948.
Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial reminds Americans
that our history includes both opposition to injustice–opposition seen
here in the actions of Thurgood Marshall–and the tolerance of injustice
in such forms as segregation. The story of Port Chicago resonates with
any group whose members have been treated differently from other
citizens of their country.
The story also raises questions – who in our world is treated as
being of lesser worth? who is denied opportunities? – and motivates us
to strive for the equality of all.
“We’re honored to provide educational opportunities and
preservation at Port Chicago,” Jarvis said. “We have a chance, as the
National Park Service heads to its centennial in 2016, to reach out to
Americans with places that hold meaning for them and make all of us
Port Chicago is one of those places. We have worked to realize the
dream of including it within the National Park System, and we thank
Representative George Miller and Senator Barbara Boxer for their vision
in sponsoring this legislation.”
The Defense Authorization Act calls for the transfer to the
National Park Service of the five acres around the site of the 1944
explosion; for the National Park Service and the military to coordinate
public access through an active military base; and for the establishment
of a visitor orientation facility with curatorial storage in concert
with the City of Concord and the East Bay Regional Parks District.
The act raises Port Chicago from its previous designation as an
affiliated area – a place whose nationalimportance is recognized but
where no federal money is spent on education, historic preservation, or
efforts to increase public awareness of the site’s significance.
“We are committed, along with our partners – the Army, the Friends
of Port Chicago, the City of Concord, and the East Bay Regional Park
District – to preserving this site, which has such a rich history,” said
Martha Lee, superintendent of this new site and of Rosie the Riveter
World War II Home Front National Historical Park, John Muir National
Historic Site, and Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site.
Currently, the ocean-side memorial features bunkers, boxcars, and
remnants of piers, as well as interpretive signage and a granite
monument bearing the names of those who died. Reservations for visiting
Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial can be made by calling
925-228-8860. Visitors should call at least two weeks in advance. They
need military clearance as well as reservations. No visits occur when
the docking and loading of military ships are planned.