Thursday, Oct 29, 2009
The National Park System has gained a new park – Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial in Concord, California. With President Obama’s signing of the Defense Authorization Act, Port Chicago yesterday 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 Director Jonathan 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 American.
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 culturally aware. 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 national importance 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.