Port Chicago 50 exonerated on 75th anniversary

Army Lt. Col. Curtis L. Yankie, commander, 834th Transportation Battalion of Military Ocean Terminal Concord, speaks during the recent ceremony at Port Chicago, formerly known as the Concord Naval Weapons Station, in Concord.

July 17, 1944.

On a warm summer night in Port Chicago 75 years ago, 320 men made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. While working to load two ammunition ships, the E.A. Bryan and Quinault Victory, at the height of World War II, massive explosions obliterated the ships and all the men working aboard and around them. Three hundred and ninety people were injured. It was the deadliest homefront death toll during the war. The ripples from the blast’s effects are still being felt today.

The first immediate impact of the blast was a “mutiny” by 258 African-American enlisted personnel who refused orders to return to ammunition loading. Eventually, most returned to duty, but 50 were convicted of mutiny in Navy court martial trials. The workers protested the lack of safety training and leave policies following the blasts and the racial policies of the then-segregated military. The 50 were represented by Thurgood Marshall, the eventual U.S. Supreme Court justice. All 50 were convicted and sentenced to prison.

Besides snuffing out lives, the explosion and following mutiny lit a spark in the budding civil rights movement that echoes today in the halls of Congress. Debate over the convictions has continued through 13 presidential administrations. Only one mutineer, Freddie Meeks, was pardoned by President Bill Clinton in 1999, despite pleas for pardons or clemency for the survivors over the decades.

The blast’s impact also led the Navy’s takeover of the town of Port Chicago and its eventual dismantling. In order to limit potential blast damage to residential areas, the Navy destroyed the old town and expanded the port into what became the Concord Naval Weapons Station. The facility served military supply operations from World War II through the Korean War, Vietnam War and up to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The port facility was eventually passed over to Army control and is now operating as the Military Ocean Terminal Concord.

A memorial was established at the site in 1994.

This week, the echoes of Port Chicago’s history were marked by two milestones. First, the East Bay Regional Park District formally accepted the title to 2,540 acres on the eastern side of the former Naval Weapons Station, creating the Concord Hills Regional Park, the largest park expansion in the East Bay in decades.

The former military base’s 5,028 acres were slated for closure and transfer to civilian control in 2005. Concord’s plans for the land outside the park provides for development of over 12,200 new housing units, over 6.1 million square feet of commercial floor space, and a variety of community facilities and city parks. The proposed development would primarily be clustered on the western portion of the former base and will greatly expand the city’s population and economy. It represents the largest transfer of undeveloped land area in the Bay Area since the closures of Mare Island, Alameda Naval Station and Treasure Island.

Officials from the park agency, the National Park Service, the City of Concord and other government representatives gathered at the new park land last week to celebrate the transfer of the land.

The second milestone for Port Chicago came through Washington. Among those at the Concord park event was Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Walnut Creek. Just days before the event, DeSaulnier sponsored a concurrent resolution agreed upon by the 116th Congress. The measure directs the Secretary of the U.S. Navy to publicly exonerate the Port Chicago 50. The effort was included in the National Defense Authorization Act, H.R. 2500, which passed the House of Representatives in a 220-to-197 vote.

“I cannot think of a more fitting tribute on the 75th anniversary of the Port Chicago disaster than to finally honor the Port Chicago 50 with exoneration,” said DeSaulnier. “For far too long, the names of these brave men have been tarnished by our history of racial discrimination, but today, we are righting a wrong and giving the Port Chicago 50 the respect they deserved so many years ago. This momentous occasion could not have been made possible without the help of the Friends of Port Chicago, former Congressman George Miller, Professor John Lawrence at the University of California Washington Center, Congresswoman Barbara Lee and committed members of our community. I thank them all for their steadfast determination in helping correct this past injustice and setting our nation on a path of healing.”

Part of the park plans include construction of a new visitor’s center for the Port Chicago Memorial. Among other goals, the park district is planning:

• an extensive trail system consisting of both paved and unpaved trails for bikers, hikers, equestrians, joggers and others which connect to the vast regional network linking to parks and trails such as Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve, Mt. Diablo State Park, the Iron Horse Trail and the Delta DeAnza Trail.

• access to passive recreation opportunities unparalleled in the region through bird watching, sunset vistas and views of Mt. Diablo, hiking and other opportunities.

• large group picnic areas and gathering sites, including the potential for group camping facilities, utilizing existing internal roadways and developed areas.

Brian Holt, EBRPD senior planner, acknowledged development of the vast park will be “a long-term, multi-phase process” that will take several years. He said the agency will focus on the eastern 900-acre portion along Baily Road in order to open up hiking trails. “There’s a good infrastructure in place with roads and railways” to get started with, he noted, but the speed of usage will also rely on available funding and resources. The agency will be scheduling a public meeting on the park’s plans in October.

A few days after the park event, National Parks officials hosted a 75th anniversary ceremony at the memorial site along the water. Led by Rev. Diana McDaniel, president of The Friends of Port Chicago National Memorial and Park Superintendent Tom Leatherman, veterans and survivors were escorted onto the base and gathered in a somber remembrance. Following remarks by Leatherman, Army Lt. Col. Curtis Yankie and Kelli English, the National Parks’ chief interpreter, who recounted the history of the site, military personnel struck a ship’s bell and lowered the flag as flowers were strewn along the waterfront.

For more information, see “The Port Chicago Mutiny” by Robert Allen, and: www.ebparks.org/about/planning/cnws.htm, www.nps.gov/poch/planyourvisit/directions.htm, www.concordreuseproject.org