Thursday, Jul 22, 2010
On Saturday, July 17th, the National Park Service, in partnership with the U.S. Army and Friends of Port Chicago, dedicated the 392nd national park unit and honored all who served at Port Chicago Naval Base when two munitions ships and several boxcars exploded on July 17, 1944. The disaster caused the greatest loss of life on the home front during World War II. Three hundred and twenty men died, and nearly 400 others were injured. Of the 320 killed, 202 were African American.
At this year’s 66th anniversary of the explosion – and the park’s dedication – survivors, friends, family, and hundreds of others gathered to reflect together on the courage and sacrifices of those who gave their lives in service to the country, and to recognize the critical role African American servicemen played in the military during the war.
Eloquent speeches emphasized the importance of remembering the past. Keynote speaker Shelton Johnson – Yosemite National Park ranger, writer, and historian recently featured in the Ken Burns series, “The National Parks” – spoke of his own father’s military experience and the importance of saying thank you to those who served. This newest national park unit, he said, will ensure we will never forget the critical events of Port Chicago.
U.S. Congressman George Miller was presented with the Friends of Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial Commemorative Heroes Award for spearheading legislation to create the new park, signed into law on October 28, 2009 by President Barack Obama. Miller shared his conviction that Port Chicago is not just about the explosion, and the park is not just a place. Like the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, and the Lincoln Memorial, it’s about the history of our people, their courage and their dignity.
The events of Port Chicago in 1944 were a catalyst in the desegregation of the armed forces by 1948. This marked a milestone in the struggle for civil rights for all Americans.
“Port Chicago,” Miller said, “is a story about courage, conflict, racial discrimination and the struggle to overturn it. It is the story of African-American contributions to the home-front effort during WWII. Through the establishment of this new national park, we preserve that history and make it more accessible for people to appreciate – today and for generations to come.”
Numerous additional speakers, including U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Chris Hart, General Superintendent Martha Lee, NPS Deputy Director Mickey Fearn, Friends of Port Chicago President Reverend Diana McDaniel, City of Concord Mayor Guy Bjerke, and representatives from U.S. Senators Dianne Feinstein’s and Barbara Boxer’s offices, paid tribute to all those connected to the tragedy at Port Chicago. Musical performances; the ringing of the bell from the USS Pampanito, a WWII naval submarine; and the playing of taps as a commemorative wreath was placed in the water closed out the ceremony.
The theme of the day was remembering, and was perhaps most profoundly and succinctly summed up by an elderly African American gentleman who concluded, as he boarded the bus to go home, that his own brother, killed in the tragic explosion 66 years ago, did not die in vain.
For more information about park history and programs please go to www.nps.gov/poch.