WASHINGTON, DC – Rep. George Miller’s bill to improve management of the Port Chicago National Memorial in Concord, CA won the important backing of the National Park Service and key private organizations at a congressional hearing held Sept. 27 on the measure.
The Port Chicago National Memorial is a historic site that commemorates the worst home-front disaster of World War II. More than 300 sailors, most of whom were African American, died in a mysterious explosion while loading munitions on to ships bound for the Pacific front. A group of 50 African American sailors who refused to continue loading munitions after the explosion out of fear for their lives were later court-martialed.
Miller’s bill would increase the National Memorial’s accessibility, provide additional visitor services, and help preserve the site for the benefit of generations to come. “I greatly appreciate the important backing for my bill from the National Park Service, the Friends of Port Chicago, the National Parks Conservation Association, and the well respected individuals who testified today before Congress,” said Miller, who has a long legislative and advocacy track record on Port Chicago, working closely over the years with former sailors and their families who were affected by the explosion and its legal and political aftermath.
“This bill is about securing for future generations the ability to learn about, and learn from, the dramatic events that took place at Port Chicago over 60 years ago and that reverberated for years afterward, ushering in racial desegregation to the United States Navy.”
William D. Shaddox, from the National Park Service, Robert L. Allen, Ph.D., author of the complete history on Port Chicago and Eugene Sayles who was present at the Port Chicago tragedy all testified in strong favor of the bill.
William D. Shaddox, the acting Associate Director of Park Planning, Facilities and Lands for the National Park Serivce testified in support of the bill, saying that it would “provide for a designation that we believe is wholly appropriate for a national memorial that commemorates one of the most significant events that occurred on American soil during World War II.”
Dr. Robert Allen, an African-American historian who wrote The Port Chicago Mutiny: The Story of the Largest Mass Mutiny Trial in U.S. Naval History, and a Board Member of Friends of Port Chicago National Memorial, spoke of the importance of the site and the events that occurred there.
Dr. Allen said, “The magnitude of the Port Chicago explosion, and its cost in lives and destruction, were front-page news around the nation. But, in the midst of war, of course, new dramatic headlines quickly replace yesterday’s stories. Port Chicago soon faded from the news, and was in danger of being lost to memory. We need a national memorial so that the tragic story of Port Chicago is not forgotten, so that all those who served and died at Port Chicago are remembered and honored for their service to the nation.”
Eugene Sayles was a Seaman First Class at Port Chicago. He was present when thousands of tons of ammunition exploded on the night of July 17, 1944, at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine. He helped get injured men out of the barracks after the explosion and today he provided a personal perspective on the importance of what happened at the Naval base over 63 years ago.
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. Their courts martial had clear racial implications, and was a turning point in the nation’s history of a segregated military. 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.”
The legislation, which Miller hopes will be marked up and sent to floor before the end of this Congressional session, directs the Secretary of the Interior to administer the Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial as a unit of the National Park System. In addition, when the site is determined to be excess to military needs, this new bill would transfer the property to the administrative jurisdiction of the Secretary of the Interior.
In order to improve public access to the Memorial, the legislation authorizes the Interior Department to work with the City of Concord and the East Bay Regional Park District to establish and operate a facility for visitor orientation and parking, administrative offices, and curatorial storage for the Memorial. The bill also directs the Defense Department and the Interior Department to work together to repair storm damage to the site.
Congressman Miller has long championed the Port Chicago issue. He worked for over a decade in Congress on behalf of Port Chicago sailors and their families to preserve the historic site. His legislation in 1992 first designated the site of the Port Chicago Naval Magazine as a national memorial, and his subsequent efforts led to the pardon of one of the Port Chicago sailors. Since 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.