The Port Chicago Disaster
On the 24 of July 1944, a memorandum was written from Captain W. S. Parsons, USN to Rear Admiral W. R. Purnell, USN. It was a report on the most destructive explosion on United States soil at that time. It was known as the Port Chicago Explosion. Captain Parsons worked in the Bureau of Ordnance as their Liaison Officer. So he was a prime candidate for the job. Rear Admiral Purnell was the head of the Military Policy Committee. This memorandum was not intended to incarcerate people, determine its cause, nor report defects in the design of munitions depots. Its sole purpose was to collect data from the damage done and to find the exact time when the explosion happened.
Captain Parsons determined the exact time based on seismic activity. He determined the time of detonation occurred at approximately between 2218-2244 on the 17 of July, 1944. It was found that approximately 2000 tons of high explosion were present on the dock at the time of the explosion. He also determined that light damage extended approximately 1500 yards from the explosion. This was minor damage but significant none the less. From ground zero and out to approximately 1000 feet it was determined that there was total destruction. However, at 1000 feet there were 3 civilians that remained alive; these were the closest survivors to the blast.
This horrible disaster could have been prevented, only if certain factors were addressed accordingly. Within the confines of the munitions depot at port Chicago, there was racism. Akers states: The general classification test employed at this time placed the black ratings at Port Chicago ‘in the lowest twelfth of the Navy’. According to their superiors, these men were unreliable, emotional, lacked capacity to understand or remember orders or instructions, were particularly susceptible to mass psychology and moods, lacked mechanical aptitude, were suspicious of strange officers, disliked receiving orders of any kind, particularly from white officers or petty officers, and were inclined to look for and make an issue of discrimination. For the most part, they were quite young and of limited education. 1
Black men, no matter what they scored on their classification test were put into these laborious work parties. If they scored high enough and there were empty billets, they would be transferred to another duty station. Therefore, there was a lack of good leaders to be had. This is a prime example of discrimination. Another example of racism at this munitions depot is that:
Negroes in the Navy don’t mind loading ammunition. They just want to know why they are the only ones doing the loading! They want to know why they are segregated; why they don’t get promoted. 2
This stated that the racism was severe and the moral of the black sailors was very low. When morale was low, they started to ask question and the quality of work that was produced was poor. This caused the black sailors to be careless in their work and more prone to accidents.
In addition, white officers were put in charge of these loading parties and the black sailors did not like them. On top of that, the commanding officer, Captain Kinne, demanded a quota of ten tons per hatch per hour. These white officers deemed this goal, of the commanding officer, too high. But they had to fulfill it nonetheless or else their jobs were on the line. Allen stated, “…officers sometimes raced working divisions against each other to speed up loading.” 3 This caused workers to work at an unsafe speed and often times a shell would drop to the deck. Allen also stated: As Carr [the wench maintenance personnel] looked on, one man lost his grip on a shell; it dropped two feet and hit the deck with a thud.4
This showed that the rate at which they loaded ammunition onto the ships was unsafe. It made the possibility for a disaster very high. Still the Captain Kinne, the white officers had quotas to fill so they...
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