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View photos of the aftermath of the Port Chicago disaster

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Port Chicago, California

Ammunition Ship Explosion

July 17, 1944


Port Chicago Razed By 2-Ship Explosion

Hundreds Injured in Disaster; Great Wall of Flames Shoots Skyward; Flying Shells Rocket Far Afield as Navy Warns Of Unexploded Missiles; Identity of Vessels Is Disclosed


More than 300 men were killed and hundreds of men and women were injured last night in a terrific explosion that destroyed two ammunition ships loading near Port Chicago, and shook homes and business buildings throughout the Bay area.

The Navy, taking count of the tragedy today, found that at least two merchant ships were sunk, two Coast Guard picket boats probably went down, a fireboat was missing and an oil tanker was damaged.

More than 10,000 tons of explosives were set off by the blast. The force of the explosion, which shook residents out of their beds and broke windows 50 miles away, centered in the two vessels loading shells at the dock between Avon and Port Chicago, in Contra Costa County.

No cause for the blast was given officially, and the Navy said there was nothing to indicate sabotage. A sailor from one of the ships, though, said it was possible that a heavy shell or bomb had been dropped on the steel deck to touch off what amounted to two arsenals.

The Navy warned that “casualties will be heavy” as it investigated what probably will prove to be one of the worst disasters in American wartime history. At least 130 of the victims were believed to be civilians.

Engineers Disarm 'Live' Shell
Several hours later local authorities called for Army demolition experts to disarm a shell lying in a Port Chicago street. The soldier engineers were ordered out from Camp Stoneman, at Pittsburg, to take care of the shell.

At the same time, farmers reported they were finding unexploded shells scattered throughout the countryside. They said they were fearful there might be further explosions and loss of life if the shells were not picked up immediately.

The first of the ships was identified as the Quinault Victory, built in the Portland yards of the Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation, and delivered just a week ago. It was sponsored by the workers in the mould loft of the yard as part of the Fifth War Loan drive.

The other vessel was the E. A. Bryan of the Oliver J. Olson Lines, built at Richmond and launched last February 29.

The shock of the original double blast was so terrific it woke up sleepers in Oakland, more than 20 miles away hurled 200-pound chunks of metal a mile and a half, and almost flattened the town of Port Chicago, more than a mile from the scene.

Residents of Martinez, five miles from the dock, were awakened at 10:19 p. m. by a great sheet of white fire that flashed across the sky. An instant later, the first of the two explosions knocked them from their beds.

All spectators were dazed by the terror of the explosions, but all agreed that there were two blasts. The first apparently sank one ship and the second accounted for the other.

Observers this morning found pieces of jagged metal more than a mile from the scene, and one farmer reported that he had picked up a five-inch shell two miles away.

Rescue Vessels Are Sent to Bottom
Both merchant ships sand at their piers and the subsequent explosions and fire sent the Coast Guard rescue vessels to the bottom.

The scene of carnage along the wharf was so bad today that Navy officers were reluctant to permit civilian photographers on the scene.

However, observers got into the yards later this morning and found one of the ships completely sunk and the other showing only its stern above water.

It looked, they said, like a hurricane had hit the area, with only the stumps of piling poking out of the bay and freight cars blown asunder on land.

“It looks,” one of the men said, “as though there never had been a pier there.”
Special guards stood by scattered shells with red flags, a warning to passersby that they were treading in dangerous territory.

At the same time, Dr. W. A. Powell, county health officer, and State Sanitary Inspector Thomas McMorrow warned residents of Port Chicago by loudspeaker system that they must watch for broken mains.

“Every store in the town was shot to hell,” one reporter said, “and it didn't look to me as if a man could live there.”

The San Francisco Disaster Relief organization set up headquarters in the grammar school as soon as word of the catastrophe was learned.

One Merchant, Otto Lichtl, a druggist, said he had suffered a $15,000 loss and had no idea as to when he would be back in business.

60 Mare Island Doctors Answer Call
Within seconds after the blast, the Navy called for every available service and civilian doctor and nurse in the area. It repeated its pleas until 1 a. m., when local radio stations were notified they could stop their broadcasts.

By that time, though, the highways to Martinez and Port Chicago were jammed, and the medical men trying to reach the magazine depot were unable to make their way through.

Sixty doctors from Mare Island alone answered the call. They were joined by hundreds of others in this area for the week-end.

Greyhound busses[sic] were ordered to run special trips to the depot, but they were stopped far short of their destination by the traffic over the highways.

Full details of the casualties were not revealed by the Navy until their nearest of kin have been notified, but it was disclosed that nine officers known to have been stationed at the post are missing. They presumable have been killed.

In addition to the depot's personnel, two men were missing from Coast Guard picket boats, two were injured, and two were missing from the fireboat that answered the first alarm.

The Coast Guard issued immediate warnings to all mariners in the Bay to look out for ammunition that might be floating on the surface. They pointed out that it constituted a menace.

John Miller, former sheriff of Contra Costa County, now civilian defense coordinator for the area, estimated that at least 200 civilians were injured when the ships blew up. They were treated at hospitals throughout the county and by private physicians.
However, the Navy and civilian authorities agreed, there undoubtedly were hundreds of others hurt who didn't seek medical attention immediately.

continued >> Go to page 1, 2, 3, List of Dead, List of Injured

Submitted & transcribed by Stu Beitler  Thank you, Stu!


The Port Chicago disaster was a deadly explosion that took place on July 17, 1944 at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine in Port Chicago, California, in the United States. Ammunition being loaded aboard cargo vessels bound for the war in the Pacific exploded, killing 320 sailors and civilians, and injuring more than 400 others. Most of the dead and injured were African American recruits, and the continuing unsafe conditions even after the disaster resulted in a number of servicemen refusing to work, known as the Port Chicago Mutiny, a month later. more

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