Saturday, July 18, 2015

Port Chicago Memorial

I went to the annual ceremony at Port Chicago today, with friends from my "55-Alive" MeetUp group. An important place and an important bit of history that everyone in the country should know about, but - sadly - not enough people do know about.  

Black lives matter. 320 Navy stevedores and their first-line supervisors died in the munitions explosion at Port Chicago on  July 17, 1944. 202 of those who died were black Navy enlistees. Remains of only eight of all those who died were ever fully recovered. 

Ground zero:

This is hallowed ground and sea. 


An additional 394 were seriously wounded. Subsequent investigations found that procedures and supervision at the time were remiss, but some 50 black enlistees who refused to return to work were found guilty of mutiny and many others besides those 50 were summarily dishonorably discharged. A very big blemish on our shared American history. . . .  Efforts to exonerate these men and to right all the wrongs our government made with respect to the disaster - in its totality - are to-this-day ongoing.

My MeetUp Group, the Concord "55-Alive Singles" folks, had a group of us attending.  We met at the parking lot just outside the base. (Yes, the installation is still an active military base.)   And took a bus ride to the site of the memorial:

It was a beautiful day, but a bit windy. I was able to see the windmills across the water to the northeast in Solerno as well as the last of the navy ships in "the mothball fleet" out to the west on Suisun Bay.

A History of the Port Chicago Disaster was presented by NPS Park Ranger Raphael Allen.
Newly-elected congressman Mark DeSauinier, as well as Mayor Tim Grayson of Concord spoke. 

The township that is the site of the former village of Port Chicago merged into Concord after many years of neglect - and ultimately a "buyout" under Eminent Domain by the Federal government. The village of Port Chicago was mostly leveled by the explosion, but its residents fought long and hard with the government to try to rebuild, before the buyout and the "move-out ultimatum." There is just a flat plain today on the site where the village once stood, that plain currently being part of the base.

The Blast Zone covered the area within dotted lines on this map passed around on our bus (Martinez, my hometown was in that area). Windows were blown out within the area surrounded by the solid lines. The earth was shaking as far as 450 miles away. Seismographic machines recorded it as a major earthquake. 

A pilot who just happened to be flying 9,000 feet overhead at the time of the explosion reported he'd seen chunks of metal - from the destroyed ships - the size of houses flying upward at him.

A lady I spoke with before we boarded the buses told me she lived in Martinez at the time and remembered it as the worst event ever in her life; and she was only five years old at the time. The blast was so loud a lot of people lost their hearing. Some thought that the Japanese were attacking, in another sneak attack like the one on Pearl Harbor three years earlier. It was found that over 5,000 tons of explosives had detonated. . . the largest ever non-nuclear explosion on the mainland USA.

Flowers were offered to attendees to toss on the water, and a bell from one of the destroyed ships was rung 21 times as part of the ceremony.  A wreath was placed in the water with the last of the bell tolls.  Finally, Taps was played.

The best speech of the day, in my opinion was given by the National Park Service's Park Ranger Raphael Allen. He was spot-on in all that he said. I chatted with him for a while after the event.
A very nice fellow, whose home-base is the Rosie-The-Riveter National Historic Site in Richmond, but who also does much here at this hopefully soon-to-be full-fledged additional National Historic Site.

I also talked afterwards with my own East Bay Regional Parks' Ms. Beverly Lane - one of the members of EBRP's Board of Directors - who had presented a brief description, from the podium, about the efforts of that agency - together with the National Park Service - to develop a Visitors Center  for the site.  I'm going to attend an informational meeting on Thursday to find out what the plans are for that Visitors Center and to listen to the suggestions for it by local residents who want to give input as to what they think should be included in it.

I and my friend Joyce also took a walk over to the railyard nearby. Anything being delivered by rail to the base has to be "parked" inside one of these "buffers." Something they didn't seem to have at the time of the explosion, I think:

We were treated to several "flybys" of an appropriate nature - by pelicans - while there. I thought "Yes, God's in his Heaven. . . . but all's not quite right with the world just yet."

 My friend and fellow MeetUp member Joyce told me she was stirred by the event. She's lived in the area many years, but had never been to Port Chicago.

Afterwards, most of us met again at a nearby "oasis." A bit of stress-relief was provided when Reenie suggested we all do this:
"I just got one last thing, I urge all of you, all of you, to enjoy your life, the precious moments you have. To spend each day with some laughter and some thought, to get your emotions going."

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