The following letter was sent by Congressman George Miller to his colleagues asking for their support of a measure that would significantly enhance the Port Chicago Memorial:
This summer marks the sixty-third anniversary of America’s worst home-front disaster of World War II. I will be introducing legislation in July to commemorate the anniversary by improving and enhancing the Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial, and I write today to invite you to join me as an original cosponsor.
Thousands of tons of ammunition exploded on the night of July 17, 1944, at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine in the east San Francisco Bay area. The blasts instantly killed 320 sailors, wounded hundreds more, and damaged and destroyed merchant ships, the pier, a train, and the buildings of Port Chicago. Less than a month after the tragedy, three divisions were ordered to resume work at a new site a few miles away. Most of the men refused to continue their dangerous tasks until supervision, training, and working conditions were improved. In response, the Navy charged fifty men with conspiring to mutiny; all were convicted.
The majority of the men killed while handling ordinance at Port Chicago, and all of those convicted of mutiny, were African-American. This injustice had clear racial implications, and was a turning point in our nation’s history. Following the conviction, Thurgood Marshall, then a lawyer with the NAACP, took up the case. The Port Chicago disaster and its aftermath strongly influenced America’s move towards racial equality, including the Navy’s move toward desegregation in 1945, and President Truman’s 1948 Executive Order desegregating the Armed Forces and guaranteeing “equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin.”
Recognizing the importance of the site to our nation’s history, I sponsored legislation in the 102nd Congress to designate the site of the Port Chicago Naval Magazine as a national memorial. Since the bill became law in 1992, the Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial has been managed by the National Park Service to remind Americans of the contributions made by the Port Chicago sailors.
In the 1990s, I led a successful congressional effort to secure a presidential pardon from President Clinton for Freddie Meeks, one of the few Port Chicago sailors still living at that time. He and the other men of Port Chicago served our nation and helped educate us not only about racial justice, but also about how courage, perseverance and dignity ultimately are honored.
This July, to honor the anniversary of the 1944 disaster, I will introduce the “Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial Enhancement Act of 2007,” a new bill designed to increase the National Memorial’s accessibility, provide additional visitor services, and preserve the site for future generations.
I hope you will join me in honoring this important moment in American history by supporting this legislation. Please contact Ben Miller with my staff … with any questions or to join as a co-sponsor.
Member of Congress
Preserving and enhancing the memory of the 1944 explosion is a Good Thing. As a former resident of Port Chicago, I note that nothing is said about the unnecessary Navy buyout of the town in 1968 and the forced eviciton of residents of the entire community. What happened in 1944 was an accident; what happened in 1968 was a crime. The 37th annual town reunion is set for the last Saturday in July at Ambrose Park in Bay Point. Congress will not be there, nor the press; the people will. Port Chicago Isn’t There Anymore–But We Still Call It Home.