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Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial - History & Visitor Information

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Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial

Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial

© NPS

Contact Info:

Address: P.O. Box 280, Danville, CA 94526

Phone: 925-228-8860

Overview:

On the evening of July 17, 1944, San Francisco residents woke to an explosion so massive that the sky lit up and windows broke. What occurred at Port Chicago Naval Magazine was the the greatest loss of life on the home front during World War II - 320 men died (202 were African Americans due to segregation), and almost 400 others were injured.

Located on the Sacramento River where it flows into San Francisco Bay, the area's national importance has been recognized for some time but not "officially" so that federal money could be spent on education, historic preservation, or public awareness. In October, 2009 that changes when President Obama signed the Defense Authorization Act, calling for the following: transfer to the National Park Service of the five acres around the site; 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.

History:

On December 9, 1941, two days after Pearl Harbor was attacked, authorization was given to construct the Port Chicago Naval Magazine. It was created for the operation of loading ships with ammunition destined for the Pacific and began work in November 1942.

On the evening of July 17, 1944, two ships changed history forever. While the empty SS Quinalt Victory prepared for loading on her maiden voyage, the SS E.A.Bryan had just returned from her first voyage and was loading across the platform. The loads were explosives, incendiary bombs, depth charges, and ammunition - 4,606 tons of munitions in all. Nearby were 16 rail cars on the pier with another 429 tons of munition.

At about 10:20 p.m. the loading dock at Port Chicago Naval Magazine unexpectedly exploded. Fire and smoke stretched over two miles into the sky and the shock was felt as far away as Boulder City, NV. Three hundred and twenty men on duty were killed and nearly 400 others were wounded. Of the 320 men killed, 202 were African American which accounted for 15% of all African-American casualties of World War II.

Devastated by the event, 258 African American seamen refused to return to the job of loading munition. The navy reacted to the work-stoppage by imprisoning the men for three days and threatened if they continue on strike, they could be court martialed and face a firing squad. Two hundred and eight decided to return to work and were given bad conduct discharges and docked three months pay.

In September of 1944, the remaining 50 men faced a trial that lasted 32 days. Though the defense tried to show that African Americans were being used as slave laborers in unsafe areas, the prosecution cried treason.

After only 80 minutes of deliberation, all of the men were dishonorably discharged and sentenced from 8 to 15 years in jail. Future Supreme Court Justice, NAACP counsel Thurgood Marshall watched the trial and was disappointed by the obvious racism. Although he took the case the following year, Marshall was unable to get the convictions overturned. When the war ended a year later, the President Harry S. Truman agreed to release the men from prison, though they were forced to remain in the navy. The tragedy at Port Chicago 50 helped lead to an executive order by Truman in 1948 to end segregation in the U.S. military.

When to Visit:

The memorial is open Wednesdays through Saturdays at 10:00 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Allow 1.5 hours for your visit. There is no public access Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's Day, and during Concord Naval Weapons Station operations.

The Memorial is located along the Carquinez Straits waterway which is often windy. From April to October is it mostly dry with mild to warm temperatures (65-100 F). From November to March there can be periods of rain with cooler temperatures (45-65 F). Be sure to dress in layers and wear comfortable footwear.

Getting There:

All visitors are shuttled to the memorial on NPS vehicles from the Concord Naval Weapons Station Identity (ID) Office. The office can easily be reached whether you drive or fly into the area.

Drivers from San Francisco can take Interstate 80 (Bay Bridge) to Hwy 4 East. If you are coming from Berkeley & Oakland, take Interstate 80 West to Hwy 4 East. From San Jose or Walnut Creek, take Interstate 680 North to Hwy 242. Exit at Port Chicago Hwy North. After passing under Hwy 4, drive until you see the visitor parking lot (on your right) at Military Ocean Terminal Concord.

Closest airports are as follows: Oakland International Airport - 45 minutes; San Francisco International Airport - 60 minutes; San Jose International Airport - 90 minutes.

Fees/Permits:

There are no fees to enjoy this national monument. But remember ALL visitors, even those active in the military, must have a reservation as well as military clearance. Information required for each person includes name, phone number, date of birth, and valid ID numbers (may come from passport of state Driver's License). Reservations must be made at least two weeks in advance by calling 925-228-8860.

Areas of Interest Outside the Memorial:

John Muir National Historic Site: Located only 5 miles away, visitors can learn about the "father of the National Park Service." Muir convinced President Theodore Roosevelt to protect Yosemite, Sequoia & Kings Canyon, Grand Canyon and Mt. Rainier as National Parks. Activities include self-guided tours, nature walks, bird watching, and full moon walks. Call 925-228-8860 for more information.

Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail: In 1776, as Americans fought for their independence, Spanish Captain Juan Bautista de Anza led almost 300 people over 1200 miles to settle in Alta (or upper) California. This historic trail traces the 1200 miles through Arizona and California. Maps are available for trailheads and other information.

Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park: Located in Richmond, CA, this park preserves and interprets the stories and places of our nation's home front response to World War II. Open year-round, visitors can take self-huided tours, visit memorials, and even tour the Red Oak Victory Ship. Call 510-232-5050 for more information.

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