AMERICA'S DARK SECRET
- The Port Chicago Disaster -
In 1944, the Port Chicago disaster killed hundreds of
Americans in a single blast. Was it an accident, or was it America's
first atomic weapons test?
Extracted from Nexus Magazine, Volume 3,
#4 (June-July '96).
PO Box 30, Mapleton Qld 4560 Australia.
Telephone: +61 (0)7 5442 9280; Fax: +61 (0)7 5442 9381
From our web page at:
Originally found in articles written by Robert L. Allen &
as published in THE BLACK SCHOLAR, Journal of Black Studies
Volume 13, Numbers 2 and 3 - Spring 1982
UPDATE: NEW WEBSITE -
On the night of 17th July 1944, two
transport vessels loading ammunition at the Port Chicago (California)
naval base on the Sacramento River were suddenly engulfed in a
gigantic explosion. The incredible blast wrecked the naval base and
heavily damaged the small town of Port Chicago, located 1.5 miles
away. Some 320 American naval personnel were killed instantly. The
two ships and the large loading pier were totally annihilated.
Several hundred people were injured, and millions of dollars in
property damage was caused by the huge blast. Windows were shattered
in towns 20 miles away, and the glare of the explosion could be seen
in San Francisco, some 35 miles away. It was the worst home-front
disaster of World War II. Officially, the world's first atomic test
explosion occurred on 16th July 1945 at Alamogordo, New Mexico; but
the Port Chicago blast may well have been the world's first atomic
detonation, whether accidental or not.
The E. A. Bryan, the ship which exploded at Port Chicago,
was a 7,212-ton EC-2 Liberty ship commanded by Captain John L. M.
Hendricks of San Pedro, California, and operated by Oliver J. Olson
& Co., San Francisco. It was built and launched at the Kaiser
Steel shipyard in Richmond, California, in March 1944. She made a
maiden voyage to the South Pacific and then was ordered into the US
Navy's Alameda Shipyards where the five-ton (10,000-pound maximum
load) booms and gear on the no. 1 and no. 5 holds were removed and
replaced with 10-ton booms and gear. It then docked at Port Chicago
on 13th July 1944. At 8.00 am on 14th July, naval personnel began
The E. A. Bryan had been moored at Port Chicago for four
days, taking on ammunition and explosives night and day. Some 98 men
of Division Three were hard at work loading the Bryan, and by
10.00 pm on 17th July the ship was loaded with some 4,600 tons of
munitions including 1,780 tons of high explosives.
The second ship, the Quinalt Victory, was brand new; it was
preparing for its maiden voyage. The Quinalt Victory had
moored at Port Chicago at about 6.00 pm on the evening of 17th July.
Some 102 men of the Sixth Division, many of whom had only recently
arrived at Port Chicago, were busy rigging the ship in preparation
for loading of ammunition which was due to begin by midnight.
In addition to the enlisted men present, there were nine Navy
officers, 67 members of the crews of the two ships along with an
Armed Guard detail of 29 men, five crew members of a Coast Guard fire
barge, a Marine sentry and a number of civilian employees. The pier
was congested with men, equipment, a locomotive, 16 railroad boxcars,
and about 430 tons of bombs and projectiles waiting to be loaded.
Most of the enlisted men, upon first arriving at Port Chicago,
were quite fearful of the explosives they were expected to handle.
But, over time, many of the men simply accommodated themselves to the
work situation by discounting the risk of an explosion. Most men
readily accepted the officers' assurances that the bombs could not
explode because they had no detonators.
Just before 10.20 pm, a massive explosion occurred at the pier.
To some observers it appeared that two explosions, only a few seconds
apart, occurred: a first and smaller blast was felt; this was
followed quickly by a cataclysmic explosion as the E. A. Bryan
went off like one gigantic bomb, sending a column of fire and smoke
more than 12,000 feet into the night sky.
Everyone on the pier and aboard the two ships was killed
instantly-some 320 men, 200 of whom were black enlisted men. Very few
intact bodies were recovered. Another 390 military and civilian
personnel were injured, including 226 black enlisted men. This
single, stunning disaster accounted for almost one-fifth of all black
naval casualties during the whole of World War II. Property damage,
military and civilian, was estimated at more than US$12 million.
The E. A. Bryan was literally blown to bits. Very little of
its wreckage was ever found. The Quinalt Victory was lifted
clear out of the water by the blast, turned around and broken into
pieces. The largest piece of the Quinalt Victory which
remained after the explosion was a 65-foot section of the keel, its
propeller attached, which protruded from the bay at low tide, 1,000
feet from its original position.
There was at least one 12-ton diesel locomotive operating on the
pier at the time of the explosion. Not a single piece of the
locomotive car was ever identified: the locomotive simply vanished.
In the river stream, several small boats half a mile distant from the
pier reported being hit by a 30-foot wall of water.
In an interview, one of the men described his experience of the
"I was reading a letter from home. Suddenly there were two
explosions. The first one knocked me clean off... I found myself
flying toward the wall. I just threw up my hands like this, then I
hit the wall. Then the next one came right behind that. Phoom!
Knocked me back on the other side. Men were screaming, the lights
went out and glass was flying all over the place. I got out to the
door. Everybody was...that thing had...the whole building was turned
around, caving in. We were a mile and a half away from the ships. And
so the first thing that came to my mind, I said, 'Jesus Christ, the
Japs have hit!' I could have sworn they were out there pounding us
with warships or bombing us or something. But one of the officers was
shouting, 'It's the ships! It's the ships!' So we jumped in one of
the trucks and we said, 'Let's go down there, see if we can help.' We
got halfway down there on the truck and stopped. Guys were shouting
at the driver from the back of the truck, 'Go on down. What the hell
are you staying up here for?' The driver says, 'Can't go no further.'
See, there wasn't no more dock. Wasn't no railroad. Wasn't no ships.
And the water just came right up to...all the way back. The driver
couldn't go no further. Just as calm and peaceful. I didn't even see
Rescue assistance was rushed from nearby towns and other military
bases. The town of Port Chicago was heavily damaged by the explosion
but fortunately none of its citizens was killed, although many
During the night and early morning, the injured were removed to
hospitals and many of the black enlisted men were evacuated to nearby
stations, mainly to Camp Shoemaker in Oakland. Others remained at
Port Chicago to clear away debris and search for what could be found
The search for bodies was grim work. One survivor recalled the
"I was there the next morning. We went back to the dock. Man,
it was awful; that was a sight. You'd see a shoe with a foot in it,
and then you'd remember how you'd joked about who was gonna be the
first one out of the hold. You'd see a head floating across the
water-just the head-or an arm. Bodies...just awful."
Some 200 black enlisted men volunteered to remain at the base and
help with the clean-up operation.
Three days after the disaster, Captain Merrill T.
Kinne-officer-in-charge of Port Chicago-issued a statement praising
the black enlisted men for their behaviour during the disaster.
Stating that the men acquitted themselves with "great credit", he
added, "Under those emergency conditions, regular members of our
complement and volunteers from Mare Island displayed creditable
coolness and bravery."
Four days after the Port Chicago disaster, on 21st July 1944 a
Naval Court of Inquiry was convened to "inquire into the
circumstances attending the explosion". The inquiry was to establish
the facts of the situation and the Court was to arrive at an opinion
concerning the cause or causes of the disaster. The inquiry lasted 39
days and some 125 witnesses were called to testify.
However, only five black witnesses were called to testify-none
from the group that would later resist returning to work because of
unsafe practices. The Court heard testimony from survivors and
eyewitnesses to the explosion, other Port Chicago personnel, ordnance
experts, inspectors who checked the ships before loading, and others.
The question of Captain Kinne's tonnage-figures blackboard-and the
competition it encouraged-came up during the proceedings. Kinne
attempted to justify this as simply an extension of the Navy's
procedure of competition in target practice. He contended that it did
not negatively impact on safety, and implied that junior officers who
said it did, did not know what they were talking about.
The Court also heard testimony concerning the fuelling of the
vessels, possible sabotage, defects in the bombs, problems with the
winches and other equipment, rough handling by the enlisted men, and
organisational problems at Port Chicago.
But the specific cause of the explosion was never officially
established by the Court of Inquiry. Anyone in a position to have
actually seen what caused the explosion did not live to tell about
Although there was testimony before the Court about competition in
loading, this was not listed by the Court (or the Judge Advocate) as
in any way a cause of the explosion (although the court saw fit to
recommend that, in future, "the loading of explosives should never be
a matter of competition"-a small slap on the hands of the officers).
Thus, the Court of Inquiry in effect cleared the officers-in-
charge of any responsibility for the disaster, and in so far as any
human cause was invoked, the burden of blame was laid on the
shoulders of the black enlisted men who died in the explosion.
After the explosion, many of the surviving black sailors were
transferred to nearby Camp Shoemaker where they remained until 31st
July; then the Fourth and Eighth Divisions were transferred to naval
barracks in Vallejo near Mare Island. During this period, the men
were assigned barracks duties but no ship-loading was assigned.
Another group, the Second Division, which was also at Camp Shoemaker
until 31st July, returned to Port Chicago to help with the cleaning
up and rebuilding of the base.
Many of the men were in a state of shock, troubled by the vivid
memory of the horrible explosion in which so many of their friends
had died. All were extremely nervous and jumpy. "Everybody was
scared," one survivor recalled. "If somebody dropped a box or slammed
a door, people be jumping around like crazy. Everybody was still
There was no psychiatric counselling or medical screening of the
men, except for those who were obviously physically injured. The
men's anxiety was probably made worse by the fact that they did not
know what caused the explosion. Rumour and speculation were rife.
Some thought it was caused by an accident, some suspected sabotage,
others did not know what to think. Apparently the men were not
informed that the Navy was conducting an investigation. Certainly,
none of those who would later be involved in the work stoppage was
called to testify at the Court of Inquiry.
The men talked among themselves. They had not yet been ordered
back to their regular duty and no one knew what would happen next,
but many of them hoped they would be transferred to other stations or
Many of the survivors expected to be granted survivors' leaves to
visit their families before being re-assigned to regular duties. But
such leaves were not granted, creating a major grievance. Even men
who had been hospitalised with injuries were not granted leaves.
The survivors and new personnel expressed their opposition to
returning to loading ammunition, citing the possibility of another
explosion. The first confrontation occurred on 9th August. A ship had
come into Mare Island to be loaded with ammunition, and the Second,
Fourth and Eighth Divisions, 328 men, were ordered out to the loading
pier. The great majority of the men baulked, and eventually 258 men
were arrested and confined for three days on a barge tied to the
pier. Officers told the men they faced serious charges, including
mutiny for which they could be executed. They were also being
threatened by guards with being summarily shot.
In early September, 50 men were selected as the ring-leaders and
charged with mutiny. On 24th October 1944, after only 80 minutes of
deliberation by a specially-convened military court, all 50 men were
found guilty of mutiny. Ten were sentenced to 15 years in prison, 24
sentenced to 12 years, 11 sentenced to 10 years, and five sentenced
to eight years. All were to be dishonourably discharged from the
After a massive outcry over the next year, in January 1946, 47 of
the Port Chicago men were released from prison and 'exiled' for one
year overseas before returning to their families.
Of the Navy personnel who died in the blast, most-some 200
ammunition-loaders-were black. Indeed, every man handling ammunition
at Port Chicago was black, and every commissioned officer was white.
This was the standard operating procedure in the segregated Navy at
DEVELOPMENT OF THE URANIUM BOMB
About 400 to 600 pages of reports and memoranda on Port Chicago are
held at the Los Alamos (Manhattan Project) Laboratories. They
were declassified in 1981. The most substantial record of the
accident was prepared by US Navy Captain William J. Parsons and
transmitted to US Rear Admiral W. R. Purnell, member of the Atomic
Bomb Military Policy Committee and Parsons' superior officer.
Parsons is credited with designing the ordnance for the first
atomic bomb and bringing it to battle-ready status. He was assigned
to Los Alamos and named Deputy Director under J. Robert Oppenheimer
and Division Leader for the Ordnance Engineering Division established
in June 1943. They developed, designed and constructed the
uranium-235 gun-bomb used on Hiroshima. Immediately after the Port
Chicago disaster, Captain Parsons was elevated to the rank of
Commodore, USN. He was subsequently the bombing officer aboard the
B-29, the Enola Gay, which dropped the U-235 bomb on
Hiroshima. After Hiroshima, Parsons was elevated to the rank of Rear
Admiral, US Navy.
Parsons was a member of the LeMay Subcommittee of the Joint Chiefs
of Staff which became the Joint Crossroads Committee in 1946. He was
Assistant Chief of Naval Operations for Special Weapons prior to his
appointment as Chairperson of the Joint Crossroads Committee which
planned the Bikini Atoll tests. He was also Deputy Task Force
Commander for Technical Direction of the Bikini tests. Parsons died
Specifications for the U-235 gun-bomb used at Hiroshima were
complete by February 1944, according to Volume I of the Manhattan
District History. Hardware for at least three uranium-235 guns
was ordered at the end of March 1944. According to the US Department
of Energy Oak Ridge records, 74 kilograms of U-235 was available by
December 1943, 93 kg by December 1944 and 289 kg by December 1945.
The uranium-235 gun-bomb weighed about 9,000 pounds when assembled.
Effective 1st August 1944, Los Alamos Laboratories were
reorganised, all work on the U-235 gun-bomb was curtailed, and
efforts were concentrated on the plutonium-239 Nagasaki bomb.
THE GOVERNMENT'S STORY
The US Government claimed that 1,780 tons of high-explosive
TNT-equivalent exploded spontaneously at Port Chicago. (This is in
contrast to the two previous ship explosions, Mont Blanc in
Halifax in 1917, and SS Fort Stikine in Bombay in 1944, which
followed shipboard fires.) The government claimed there was not
enough uranium-235 available for a bomb. This is now known to have
been a lie, as noted above. According to the declassified Oak Ridge
documents, 15.5 kilograms of U-235 is needed for a gun-bomb. The
December 1943 inventory was 74 kg of U-235, and in December 1994, six
months after Port Chicago, it was 93 kg. If a nuclear weapon was
detonated at Port Chicago, it is likely to have been one of the U-235
gun-bombs built after March 1944.
THE EVIDENCE FOR AN ATOMIC EXPLOSION
The force of the blast was greater than the 1,780 tons of high
explosives could have caused, when one considers the total
disintegration of the ship, the size of the blast crater, the tidal
wave, the destruction of the Quinalt Victory, the 12-ton
Eyewitnesses reported "an enormous blinding incandescent". The
Navy reported "the first flash was brilliant white", such as is now
known to be characteristic of nuclear explosions which achieve
several tens of millions of degrees Centigrade in milliseconds.
Conventional explosives reach a maximum of 5,000 degrees C and do not
give off a white flash except when mixed with magnesium. There was no
magnesium on the list of explosives loaded onto the Bryan. The
white flash occurs with atomic bombs of five kilotons and greater.
The Port Chicago disaster gave rise to a Wilson condensation cloud
like those at Bikini-now known to be characteristic of atomic bombs
detonated in vapour-laden atmospheres.
The seismic records show a very rapid detonation not
characteristic of conventional explosions but the signature of atomic
explosions. There was a typical nuclear fire-ball.
The Navy has a film record of the disaster at its Concord Naval
Weapons Station. After being challenged, the Navy claimed this was a
Hollywood simulation of a miniature explosion. The film shows a
typical nuclear explosion, which would have been hard to simulate.
According the the Navy, the film was created to support their
argument to the US Congress sometime in the 1960s that the remains of
the the town of Port Chicago be purchased by the Navy and
incorporated into the Concord Naval Weapons Station as a buffer zone
in the event of another large explosion.
Significantly, the Navy did not claim the film was a re-creation
until after it was suggested that the film could be the record
of a nuclear detonation. However, Dan Tikalsky, public affairs chief
at Concord, told Peter Vogel, writing for The Black Scholar
magazine, that the film was a nitrate-base film, which would require
the film to have been produced prior to 1950 when nitrate-base film
was replaced with non-explosive cellulose-base film.
Peter Vogel wrote in the Spring 1982 edition of The Black
"Based on viewing an edited video copy of that film which was
made available to me, I have concluded that the film records, in
every detail, the progression of the actual explosion of July 17,
1944 at Port Chicago. For example, early frames of the film suggest a
record of the expansion of the Wilson condensation cloud during which
the formation of the ball of fire is obscured. Furthermore, the
movements exhibited by several large, independent fragments of the
explosion over time compared to the speed of the explosion itself are
evidence of the very large distances those fragments travelled during
the course of the film sequence.
"It is obvious, of course, that only an intentional film record
of the blast could have been made since the probability of having, by
chance, a motion picture camera rolling and pointed in the right
direction at the right time at night is exceedingly remote.
"If the explosion was filmed at the Port Chicago site, it would
follow that the explosion was planned and anticipated."
The July 1944 blast caused a crater 66 feet deep, 300 feet wide
and 700 feet long in the river bottom. A five-kiloton nuclear bomb on
the surface of wet soil creates a crater 53 feet deep and 132 feet in
diameter. Some of the blast was absorbed by the ship's hull, so it
may have exceeded five kilotons.
Residual radiation exposures in this area are unknown, as Port
Chicago was used also as a decontamination port for ships exposed to
nuclear blasts in the Marshall Islands.
Los Alamos Laboratories have an inventory of all munitions loaded
onto the Bryan before the disaster. For 18th July 1944, there
are two empty boxcars, DLW44755 and GN46324, listed with an asterisk.
The asterisk refers to a note at the bottom of the page: "Papers
showing that these cars were loaded we destroyed, so cars do not show
on attach[ed] list." These may have been the cars which carried two
parts of the uranium-235 gun.
After examination of the historical evidence, the testimonials of
survivors and eyewitnesses, the subsequent investigations as well as
the film record, it is hard not to reach the conclusion that
the blast at Port Chicago was in fact an atomic explosion-which, if
so, would make it the world's first atomic detonation.
What really needs to be investigated further is whether or not
this device was deliberately detonated by the military, using
low-ranking (black) personnel as guinea pigs to test its effects.
PRIMARY SOURCES OF HISTORY
There are two primary sources, The Los Alamos Project, Volumes
I and II (distribution, 1961), which contains the official
history of the Manhattan Project, code-name for the atomic
bomb program in World War II, and a Los Alamos declassified document
entitled "History of the 10,000-ton Gadget", which dates from about
Manhattan District History-Project Y: The Los Alamos Project,
Volumes I and II, LAMS-2532, Los Alamos, Paragraph 11:20, refers
to work accomplished at Los Alamos following 1st August 1944 in
describing the process of an atomic explosion. It is almost identical
with the Los Alamos document, "History of the 10,000-ton Gadget",
procured by Peter Vogel, a Santa Fe historian. Both appear to
describe an actual nuclear explosion. Joseph O. Hirschfelder (later
of University of Wisconsin at Madison) was director of the project at
Los Alamos. Paragraph 11:20 of the Manhattan District History
(supposedly prepared in November 1944) reads:
"Much more extensive investigation of the behavior and effects
of a nuclear explosion were made during this period than had been
possible before, tracing the history of the process from the initial
expansion of the active material and tamper [Tuballoy, an inert
neutron-reflective material] through the final stages. These
investigations included the formation of the shock wave in the air,
the radiation history of the early stages of the explosion, the
formation of the 'ball of fire', the attenuation of the blast wave in
air at greater distances, and the effects of blasts and radiations of
[sic.] human beings and structures. General responsibility for this
work was given to Group T-7, with the advice and assistance of [the
British Mission consultant] W. G. Penney."
Los Alamos Laboratories Theoretical Division Group T-7 (Damage)
was formed in November 1944 and had been the former Group O-5
(Calculations) of the Ordnance Division. As was noted, William
Parsons was the Division Leader for Ordnance. He reported to J.
Robert Oppenheimer. Both O-5 and T-7 were headed by Hirschfelder. The
responsibility of G-7 was to complete the earlier investigations of
damage and of the general phenomenology of a nuclear explosion.
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