- In 1944, the Port Chicago disaster killed hundreds of
Americans in a single blast. Was it an accident, or was it America's first
atomic weapons test?
- On the night of 17th July 1944, two transport vessels
loading ammunition at the Port Chicago (California) naval base on the Sacramento
River were suddenly engulfed in a gigantic explosion. The incredible blast
wrecked the naval base and heavily damaged the small town of Port Chicago,
located 1.5 miles away. Some 320 American naval personnel were killed instantly.
The two ships and the large loading pier were totally annihilated. Several
hundred people were injured, and millions of dollars in property damage
was caused by the huge blast. Windows were shattered in towns 20 miles
away, and the glare of the explosion could be seen in San Francisco, some
35 miles away. It was the worst home-front disaster of World War II. Officially,
the world's first atomic test explosion occurred on 16th July 1945 at Alamogordo,
New Mexico; but the Port Chicago blast may well have been the world's first
atomic detonation, whether accidental or not.
- The Ship
- The E. A. Bryan, the ship which exploded at Port Chicago,
was a 7,212-ton EC-2 Liberty ship commanded by Captain John L. M. Hendricks
of San Pedro, California, and operated by Oliver J. Olson & Co.,
San Francisco. It was built and launched at the Kaiser Steel shipyard in
Richmond, California, in March 1944. She made a maiden voyage to the South
Pacific and then was ordered into the US Navy's Alameda Shipyards where
the five-ton (10,000-pound maximum load) booms and gear on the no. 1 and
no. 5 holds were removed and replaced with 10-ton booms and gear. It then
docked at Port Chicago on 13th July 1944. At 8:00 a.m. on 14th July, naval
personnel began loading ammunition.
- The E. A. Bryan had been moored at Port Chicago for four
days, taking on ammunition and explosives night and day. Some 98 men of
Division Three were hard at work loading the Bryan, and by 10:00 p.m. on
17th July the ship was loaded with some 4,600 tons of munitions including
1,780 tons of high explosives.
- The second ship, the Quinalt Victory, was brand new;
it was preparing for its maiden voyage. The Quinalt Victory had moored
at Port Chicago at about 6:00 p.m. on the evening of 17th July. Some 102
men of the Sixth Division, many of whom had only recently arrived at Port
Chicago, were busy rigging the ship in preparation for loading of ammunition
which was due to begin by midnight.
- In addition to the enlisted men present, there were nine
Navy officers, 67 members of the crews of the two ships along with an Armed
Guard detail of 29 men, five crew members of a Coast Guard fire barge,
a Marine sentry and a number of civilian employees. The pier was congested
with men, equipment, a locomotive, 16 railroad boxcars, and about 430 tons
of bombs and projectiles waiting to be loaded.
- Most of the enlisted men, upon first arriving at Port
Chicago, were quite fearful of the explosives they were expected to handle.
But, over time, many of the men simply accommodated themselves to the work
situation by discounting the risk of an explosion. Most men readily accepted
the officers' assurances that the bombs could not explode because they
had no detonators.
- The Explosion
- Just before 10:20 p.m., a massive explosion occurred
at the pier. To some observers it appeared that two explosions, only a
few seconds apart, occurred: a first and smaller blast was felt; this was
followed quickly by a cataclysmic explosion as the E. A. Bryan went off
like one gigantic bomb, sending a column of fire and smoke more than 12,000
feet into the night sky.
- Everyone on the pier and aboard the two ships was killed
instantly: some 320 men, 200 of whom were black enlisted men. Very few
intact bodies were recovered. Another 390 military and civilian personnel
were injured, including 226 black enlisted men. This single, stunning disaster
accounted for almost one-fifth of all black naval casualties during the
whole of World War II. Property damage, military and civilian, was estimated
at more than US$12 million.
- The E. A. Bryan was literally blown to bits. Very little
of its wreckage was ever found. The Quinalt Victory was lifted clear out
of the water by the blast, turned around and broken into pieces. The largest
piece of the Quinalt Victory which remained after the explosion was a 65-foot
section of the keel, its propeller attached, which protruded from the bay
at low tide, 1,000 feet from its original position.
- There was at least one 12-ton diesel locomotive operating
on the pier at the time of the explosion. Not a single piece of the locomotive
car was ever identified: the locomotive simply vanished. In the river stream,
several small boats half a mile distant from the pier reported being hit
by a 30-foot wall of water.
- In an interview, one of the men described his experience
of the disaster:
- I was reading a letter from home. Suddenly there were
two explosions. The first one knocked me clean off... I found myself flying
toward the wall. I just threw up my hands like this, then I hit the wall.
Then the next one came right behind that. Phoom! Knocked me back on the
other side. Men were screaming, the lights went out and glass was flying
all over the place. I got out to the door. Everybody was... that thing
had... the whole building was turned around, caving in. We were a mile
and a half away from the ships. And so the first thing that came to my
mind, I said, 'Jesus Christ, the Japs have hit!' I could have sworn they
were out there pounding us with warships or bombing us or something. But
one of the officers was shouting, 'It's the ships! It's the ships!' So
we jumped in one of the trucks and we said, 'Let's go down there, see if
we can help.' We got halfway down there on the truck and stopped. Guys
were shouting at the driver from the back of the truck, 'Go on down. What
the hell are you staying up here for?' The driver says, 'Can't go no further.'
See, there wasn't no more dock. Wasn't no railroad. Wasn't no ships. And
the water just came right up to... all the way back. The driver couldn't
go no further. Just as calm and peaceful. I didn't even see any smoke.
- Rescue assistance was rushed from nearby towns and other
military bases. The town of Port Chicago was heavily damaged by the explosion
but fortunately none of its citizens was killed, although many suffered
- During the night and early morning, the injured were
removed to hospitals, and many of the black enlisted men were evacuated
to nearby stations, mainly to Camp Shoemaker in Oakland. Others remained
at Port Chicago to clear away debris and search for what could be found
- The search for bodies was grim work. One survivor recalled
- I was there the next morning. We went back to the dock.
Man, it was awful; that was a sight. You'd see a shoe with a foot in it,
and then you'd remember how you'd joked about who was gonna be the first
one out of the hold. You'd see a head floating across the water --just
the head --or an arm. Bodies... just awful.
- Some 200 black enlisted men volunteered to remain at
the base and help with the clean-up operation.
- Three days after the disaster, Captain Merrill T. Kinne,
officer-in-charge of Port Chicago, issued a statement praising the black
enlisted men for their behavior during the disaster. Stating that the men
acquitted themselves with "great credit," he added, "Under
those emergency conditions, regular members of our complement and volunteers
from Mare Island displayed creditable coolness and bravery."
- The Aftermath
- Four days after the Port Chicago disaster, on 21st July
1944 a Naval Court of Inquiry was convened to "inquire into the circumstances
attending the explosion." The inquiry was to establish the facts of
the situation, and the Court was to arrive at an opinion concerning the
cause or causes of the disaster. The inquiry lasted 39 days, and some 125
witnesses were called to testify.
- However, only five black witnesses were called to testify
-- none from the group that would later resist returning to work because
of unsafe practices. The Court heard testimony from survivors and eyewitnesses
to the explosion, other Port Chicago personnel, ordnance experts, inspectors
who checked the ships before loading, and others.
- The question of Captain Kinne's tonnage figures blackboard,
and the competition it encouraged, came up during the proceedings. Kinne
attempted to justify this as simply an extension of the Navy's procedure
of competition in target practice. He contended that it did not negatively
impact on safety and implied that junior officers who said it did, did
not know what they were talking about.
- The Court also heard testimony concerning the fueling
of the vessels, possible sabotage, defects in the bombs, problems with
the winches and other equipment, rough handling by the enlisted men, and
organizational problems at Port Chicago.
- But the specific cause of the explosion was never officially
established by the Court of Inquiry. Anyone in a position to have actually
seen what caused the explosion did not live to tell about it.
- Although there was testimony before the Court about competition
in loading, this was not listed by the Court (or the Judge Advocate) as
in any way a cause of the explosion (although the court saw fit to recommend
that, in future, "the loading of explosives should never be a matter
of competition" -- a small slap on the hands of the officers).
- Thus, the Court of Inquiry in effect cleared the officers-in-
charge of any responsibility for the disaster, and in so far as any human
cause was invoked, the burden of blame was laid on the shoulders of the
black enlisted men who died in the explosion.
- The Mutiny
- After the explosion, many of the surviving black sailors
were transferred to nearby Camp Shoemaker where they remained until 31st
July; then the Fourth and Eighth Divisions were transferred to naval barracks
in Vallejo near Mare Island. During this period, the men were assigned
barracks duties but no ship-loading was assigned. Another group, the Second
Division, which was also at Camp Shoemaker until 31st July, returned to
Port Chicago to help with the cleaning up and rebuilding of the base.
- Many of the men were in a state of shock, troubled by
the vivid memory of the horrible explosion in which so many of their friends
had died. All were extremely nervous and jumpy. "Everybody was scared,"
one survivor recalled. "If somebody dropped a box or slammed a door,
people be jumping around like crazy. Everybody was still nervous."
- There was no psychiatric counseling or medical screening
of the men except for those who were obviously physically injured. The
men's anxiety was probably made worse by the fact that they did not know
what caused the explosion. Rumor and speculation were rife. Some thought
it was caused by an accident, some suspected sabotage, others did not know
what to think. Apparently the men were not informed that the Navy was conducting
an investigation. Certainly, none of those who would later be involved
in the work stoppage was called to testify at the Court of Inquiry.
- The men talked among themselves. They had not yet been
ordered back to their regular duty and no one knew what would happen next,
but many of them hoped they would be transferred to other stations or to
- Many of the survivors expected to be granted survivors'
leaves to visit their families before being reassigned to regular duties.
But such leaves were not granted, creating a major grievance. Even men
who had been hospitalized with injuries were not granted leaves.
- The survivors and new personnel expressed their opposition
to returning to loading ammunition, citing the possibility of another explosion.
The first confrontation occurred on 9th August. A ship had come into Mare
Island to be loaded with ammunition, and the Second, Fourth and Eighth
Divisions, 328 men, were ordered out to the loading pier. The great majority
of the men balked, and eventually 258 men were arrested and confined for
three days on a barge tied to the pier. Officers told the men they faced
serious charges, including mutiny for which they could be executed. They
were also being threatened by guards with being summarily shot.
- In early September, 50 men were selected as the ring-leaders
and charged with mutiny. On 24th October 1944, after only 80 minutes of
deliberation by a specially convened military court, all 50 men were found
guilty of mutiny. Ten were sentenced to 15 years in prison, 24 sentenced
to 12 years, 11 sentenced to 10 years, and five sentenced to eight years.
All were to be dishonorably discharged from the Navy.
- After a massive outcry over the next year, in January
1946, 47 of the Port Chicago men were released from prison and exiled for
one year overseas before returning to their families.
- Of the Navy personnel who died in the blast, most --
some 200 ammunition-loaders -- were black. Indeed, every man handling ammunition
at Port Chicago was black, and every commissioned officer was white. This
was the standard operating procedure in the segregated Navy at that time.
- Development of the Uranium Bomb
- About 400 to 600 pages of reports and memoranda on Port
Chicago are held at the Los Alamos (Manhattan Project) Laboratories. They
were declassified in 1981. The most substantial record of the accident
was prepared by US Navy Captain William J. Parsons and transmitted to US
Rear Admiral W. R. Purnell, member of the Atomic Bomb Military Policy Committee
and Parsons' superior officer.
- Parsons is credited with designing the ordnance for the
first atomic bomb and bringing it to battle-ready status. He was assigned
to Los Alamos and named Deputy Director under J. Robert Oppenheimer and
Division Leader for the Ordnance Engineering Division established in June
1943. They developed, designed and constructed the uranium-235 gun-bomb
used on Hiroshima. Immediately after the Port Chicago disaster, Captain
Parsons was elevated to the rank of Commodore, USN. He was subsequently
the bombing officer aboard the B-29, the Enola Gay, which dropped the U-235
bomb on Hiroshima. After Hiroshima, Parsons was elevated to the rank of
Rear Admiral, US Navy.
- Parsons was a member of the LeMay Subcommittee of the
Joint Chiefs of Staff which became the Joint Crossroads Committee in 1946.
He was Assistant Chief of Naval Operations for Special Weapons prior to
his appointment as Chairperson of the Joint Crossroads Committee which
planned the Bikini Atoll tests. He was also Deputy Task Force Commander
for Technical Direction of the Bikini tests. Parsons died in 1952.
- Specifications for the U-235 gun-bomb used at Hiroshima
were complete by February 1944, according to Volume I of the Manhattan
District History. Hardware for at least three uranium-235 guns was ordered
at the end of March 1944. According to the US Department of Energy Oak
Ridge records, 74 kilograms of U-235 was available by December 1943, 93
kg by December 1944 and 289 kg by December 1945. The uranium-235 gun-bomb
weighed about 9,000 pounds when assembled.
- Effective 1st August 1944, Los Alamos Laboratories were
reorganized, all work on the U-235 gun-bomb was curtailed, and efforts
were concentrated on the plutonium-239 Nagasaki bomb.
- The Government's Story
- The US Government claimed that 1,780 tons of high-explosive
TNT-equivalent exploded spontaneously at Port Chicago. (This is in contrast
to the two previous ship explosions, Mont Blanc in Halifax in 1917, and
SS Fort Stikine in Bombay in 1944, which followed shipboard fires.) The
government claimed there was not enough uranium-235 available for a bomb.
This is now known to have been a lie, as noted above. According to the
declassified Oak Ridge documents, 15.5 kilograms of U-235 is needed for
a gun-bomb. The December 1943 inventory was 74 kg of U-235, and in December
1994, six months after Port Chicago, it was 93 kg. If a nuclear weapon
was detonated at Port Chicago, it is likely to have been one of the U-235
gun-bombs built after March 1944.
- The Evidence for an Atomic Explosion
- The force of the blast was greater than the 1,780 tons
of high explosives could have caused, when one considers the total disintegration
of the ship, the size of the blast crater, the tidal wave, the destruction
of the Quinalt Victory, the 12-ton locomotive, etc.
- Eyewitnesses reported "an enormous blinding incandescent."
The Navy reported "the first flash was brilliant white," such
as is now known to be characteristic of nuclear explosions which achieve
several tens of millions of degrees Centigrade in milliseconds. Conventional
explosives reach a maximum of 5,000°ree;C and do not give off a
white flash except when mixed with magnesium. There was no magnesium on
the list of explosives loaded onto the Bryan. The white flash occurs with
atomic bombs of five kilotons and greater.
- The Port Chicago disaster gave rise to a Wilson condensation
cloud like those at Bikini -- now known to be characteristic of atomic
bombs detonated in vapor-laden atmospheres.
- The seismic records show a very rapid detonation not
characteristic of conventional explosions but the signature of atomic explosions.
There was a typical nuclear fire ball.
- The Film
- The Navy has a film record of the disaster at its Concord
Naval Weapons Station. After being challenged, the Navy claimed this was
a Hollywood simulation of a miniature explosion. The film shows a typical
nuclear explosion, which would have been hard to simulate. According the
Navy, the film was created to support their argument to the US Congress
sometime in the 1960s that the remains of the town of Port Chicago be purchased
by the Navy and incorporated into the Concord Naval Weapons Station as
a buffer zone in the event of another large explosion.
- Significantly, the Navy did not claim the film was a
re-creation until after it was suggested that the film could be the record
of a nuclear detonation. However, Dan Tikalsky, public affairs chief at
Concord, told Peter Vogel, writing for The Black Scholar magazine, that
the film was a nitrate-base film, which would require the film to have
been produced prior to 1950 when nitrate-base film was replaced with non-explosive
- Peter Vogel wrote in the Spring 1982 edition of The Black
- Based on viewing an edited video copy of that film which
was made available to me, I have concluded that the film records, in every
detail, the progression of the actual explosion of July 17, 1944 at Port
Chicago. For example, early frames of the film suggest a record of the
expansion of the Wilson condensation cloud during which the formation of
the ball of fire is obscured. Furthermore, the movements exhibited by several
large, independent fragments of the explosion over time compared to the
speed of the explosion itself are evidence of the very large distances
those fragments travelled during the course of the film sequence.
- It is obvious, of course, that only an intentional film
record of the blast could have been made since the probability of having,
by chance, a motion picture camera rolling and pointed in the right direction
at the right time at night is exceedingly remote.
- If the explosion was filmed at the Port Chicago site,
it would follow that the explosion was planned and anticipated.
- The July 1944 blast caused a crater 66 feet deep, 300
feet wide and 700 feet long in the river bottom. A five-kiloton nuclear
bomb on the surface of wet soil creates a crater 53 feet deep and 132 feet
in diameter. Some of the blast was absorbed by the ship's hull, so it may
have exceeded five kilotons.
- Residual radiation exposures in this area are unknown,
as Port Chicago was used also as a decontamination port for ships exposed
to nuclear blasts in the Marshall Islands.
- Los Alamos Laboratories have an inventory of all munitions
loaded onto the Bryan before the disaster. For 18th July 1944, there are
two empty boxcars, DLW44755 and GN46324, listed with an asterisk. The asterisk
refers to a note at the bottom of the page: "Papers showing that these
cars were loaded we destroyed, so cars do not show on attach[ed] list."
These may have been the cars which carried two parts of the uranium-235
- After examination of the historical evidence, the testimonials
of survivors and eyewitnesses, the subsequent investigations as well as
the film record, it is hard not to reach the conclusion that the blast
at Port Chicago was in fact an atomic explosion -- which, if so, would
make it the world's first atomic detonation.
- What really needs to be investigated further is whether
or not this device was deliberately detonated by the military, using low-ranking
(black) personnel as guinea pigs to test its effects.
- Primary Sources of History
- There are two primary sources, The Los Alamos Project,
Volumes I and II (distribution, 1961), which contains the official history
of the Manhattan Project, code-name for the atomic bomb program in World
War II, and a Los Alamos declassified document entitled "History of
the 10,000-ton Gadget," which dates from about September 1944.
- Manhattan District History-Project Y: The Los Alamos
Project, Volumes I and II, LAMS-2532, Los Alamos, Paragraph 11:20, refers
to work accomplished at Los Alamos following 1st August 1944 in describing
the process of an atomic explosion. It is almost identical with the Los
Alamos document, "History of the 10,000-ton Gadget," procured
by Peter Vogel, a Santa Fe historian. Both appear to describe an actual
nuclear explosion. Joseph O. Hirschfelder (later of University of Wisconsin
at Madison) was director of the project at Los Alamos. Paragraph 11:20
of the Manhattan District History (supposedly prepared in November 1944)
- Much more extensive investigation of the behavior and
effects of a nuclear explosion were made during this period than had been
possible before, tracing the history of the process from the initial expansion
of the active material and tamper [Tuballoy, an inert neutron-reflective
material] through the final stages. These investigations included the formation
of the shock wave in the air, the radiation history of the early stages
of the explosion, the formation of the ball of fire, the attenuation of
the blast wave in air at greater distances, and the effects of blasts and
radiations of [sic] human beings and structures. General responsibility
for this work was given to Group T-7, with the advice and assistance of
[the British Mission consultant] W. G. Penney.
- Los Alamos Laboratories Theoretical Division Group T-7
(Damage) was formed in November 1944 and had been the former Group O-5
(Calculations) of the Ordnance Division. As was noted, William Parsons
was the Division Leader for Ordnance. He reported to J. Robert Oppenheimer.
Both O-5 and T-7 were headed by Hirschfelder. The responsibility of G-7
was to complete the earlier investigations of damage and of the general
phenomenology of a nuclear explosion.
- A MUSHROOM CLOUD
- What really happened at Port Chicago in 1944, a nuclear
- By Harry V. Martin C. FreeAmerica and Harry V. Martin,
- Everyone within a 50-mile radius of Port Chicago - located
in Contra Costa County, felt a tremendous blast. At first most residents
in the Bay Area, including Napa County, thought it was an earthquake. The
night was Monday, July 17, 1944. Port Chicago has now been named the Concord
Naval Weapons Station.
- The Hiroshima blast was a year later, in August 1945.
Not until the Hiroshima and the Nagasaki blasts was the general population
of the world aware of terms such as "bright white light" and
"mushroom cloud" in reference to a military explosion.
- The coincidences and the oddities surrounding the Port
Chicago explosion are only surfacing today. Some of those are:
- * The U.S. claimed it could not test the Hiroshima bomb
because it only had a small supply of U-235, allowing for the making of
only two bombs. Records obtained from the U.S. Government indicate that
enough U-235 existed in 1944 to make several bombs, and more in 1945. *
The head of Port Chicago was promoted to commodore immediately after the
explosion and also headed up tests in the Pacific, and was also aboard
the Enola Gay when it dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. After Hiroshima he
was made a rear admiral. He was Captain Parsons - who had been stationed
at Los Alamos Laboratories before the explosion at Port Chicago. * Liberty
ships were loaded while crews remained aboard the vessel. The Liberty ship
that exploded at Port Chicago had no crew aboard. * Documents from Los
Alamos show that at the time of the Port Chicago explosion it was believed
that the only way to deliver an atomic bomb to the enemy was by ship, detonating
in the harbor. It was called the Hydrodynamic Theory of Surface Explosions.
* Records of contents of two box cars unloaded at Port Chicago are missing.
A complete list of all box cars were kept - except those two. Did it contain
the 9000 pound bomb? * Port Chicago was rebuilt in one week after its destruction.
Two hundred black sailors died in the explosion. * There was a Navy mutiny
at Port Chicago after the blast. * The Navy was photographing the entire
blast from across the Bay. * In a top secret report on a nuclear detonation
after Port Chicago, the notes state that it was a "Port Chicago-type"
explosion in similarity and form. * One of the highest rates of cancer
in the United States is in Contra Costa County.
- The story seems too incredible to believe - that the
U.S. would test a weapon on itself. In order to ascertain the truth of
this matter, one must study old reports. In the beginning of this series,
the simplest reports to study are the uncensored news reports of local
newspapers, such as the St. Helena Star and the Napa Journal - The Napa
Journal was bought out in the 1950's and became the Napa Register. These
eye witness reports were made in the pre-atomic age, when no one knew about
atomic weapons - what they were, how they worked, what devastation they
created, what they looked like, or for that matter, that they even existed.
It was one of the most closely guarded top secrets of World War Two.
- "One of the few to see the flash from here was Tom
Street, who happened to be standing in the patio if his Spring Mountain
home when the blast came," reported the July 21, 1944 edition of the
St. Helena Star. "First there was a sudden mushroom of white light,
followed an instant later by another, then a few moments later the intense
roar and the concussion of the blast. At the rate of about a mile for every
5 seconds, it required a little over 4 minutes for the blast to reach St.
Helena." In another account in the same newspaper, it states. "The
force of the explosion was felt at the Mt. St. Helena observation tower,
but apparently the range of the mountains at the end of the valley stopped
the concussion, for Lake County residents didn't feel it."
- "The hills of the Napa Valley were momentarily illuminated
by sunlight." reported the Napa Journal.
- Differences In Nuclear Explosions - Port Chicago Blast
- By Harry V. Martin Second in a Series c. The Napa Sentinel,
- A major disaster, such as that of Port Chicago, can always
remain a mystery - and often time sparks the interest of "conspiracy
theorists." In most cases, time erodes the evidence, But in the case
of Port Chicago time has not wiped out the evidence - the U.S. military
and scientific community are good record keepers. Because of the existing
records on Port Chicago, the court martial of 50 black sailors, various
records from Los Alamos, and reports from nuclear agencies and the media
provide a succinct road map to the Port Chicago disaster.
- The local news accounts of the blast on July 17, 1944,
all focus on a flashing bright light and a mushroom cloud - all written
before the general public or the news media were even aware of the dawn
of the nuclear age. One of the critical points of contention in the theory
that Port Chicago's explosion may have been nuclear, is the radiation factor.
The purported bomb would have been a low-yield weapon detonated in shallow
water. One of the key authorities on the effect of nuclear weapons is a
publication prepared by the United States Department of Defense and published
by the United States Atomic Energy Commission in April 1962. Entitled,
"The Effects of Nuclear Weapons", the publication states on page
60, "There may well be some fallout or rainout onto the surface of
the water (or a ship or shore station) from the radioactive base surge,
but in many cases it is expected to pass over without depositing any debris.
Thus, according to circumstances, there may or may not be radioactive contamination
on the surfaces of objects in the vicinity of a shallow underwater nuclear
burst." The theory advanced by Peter Vogel - who is a journalist and
who also studied physics with nuclear physicist Edward Teller - is that
a nuclear weapon was in the hold of a Liberty Ship.
- But before entering Vogel's scenario, which has some
contradiction with official records, it is important to note how Vogel
was drawn to such a theory. It started innocently enough in Santa Fe, New
Mexico - a town across the Rio Grande from Los Alamos. Vogel was at a rummage
sale conducted by the Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church. At the bottom
of a box of equipment, which had been donated to the church, he found a
photocopied document taken from Los Alamos Laboratories in the Autumn of
1944 - a few months after the Port Chicago explosion. The document is entitled,
"History of 10,000 ton gadget."
- Vogel traced the document to Paul Masters, who was employed
at the Laboratories as a photographic darkroom technician and photographer.
Part of Masters' duties was to operate a large blueprint-type machine upon
which were made copies of bomb drawings and other originals too large for
conventional copying machines. The document is the earliest known description
of the progression of the explosion of an atomic bomb. It is very concise
and contains previously top secret information about the actual design
of an atomic bomb. On the bottom line in Step 11, the document reads, "Ball
of fire mushroom out at 18,000 ft, in typical Port Chicago fashion."
The Port Chicago explosion was characterized by a brilliant white flash,
and a ball of fire which mushroomed out above Suisun Bay to an observed
altitude of 10,000 feet before its ascent was obscured by the dark of night.
- What is so important about this particular document?
It compared a hypothetical nuclear explosion to the actual explosion at
Port Chicago, possibly implying that the Port Chicago disaster, itself
may have been due to a nuclear detonation. Vogel found that document in
1980 - he has followed the trail of Port Chicago ever since.
- The U.S. government had never made an official "finding"
on Port Chicago. It speculated that the black sailors had handled the ammunition
carelessly. One factor the U.S. government has been emphatic about, is
that there was not sufficient U-235 in 1945, and that the Hiroshima bomb
was dropped untested. If there was not sufficient U-235 available to make
a bomb, how could Vogel theorize that the Port Chicago blast was nuclear?
- Apparently few, if anyone, had bothered to check the
records of the United States Department of Energy on U-235 production.
The results are very surprising - and reflect on the possibility that the
U.S. government was not forthright in its statements. The minimum critical
mass for U-235 is approximately 15.5 kilograms. The Hiroshima bomb might
have contained up to 60 kilograms of U-235. In checking the official data
from the Enriching Operations Division of the Department of Energy at Oak
Ridge, the records reveal that in 1943 the U.S. had 74 kg. of U-235 available
for a bomb - six times that of the minimum requirement. By 1944 it had
93 kg. or seven times the minimum, and by 1945, 289 kg. were available.
According to official government records, sufficient U-235 was processed
in 1944 - the date of the Port Chicago blast - to make six minimum nuclear
- The American public has grown to visualize nuclear weapons
being dropped from B-29s or from missiles. But in 1944, at the time of
the Port Chicago blast, the belief was that the United States did not have
any type of aircraft capable of carrying a bomb, nor airfields close enough
to Japan to carry such a weapon. The B-29 was not operational, nor was
the island of Tinian, in the Mariana Islands, under U.S. control. Documents
from Los Alamos show that at the time of the Port Chicago explosion, it
was believed that the only way to deliver an atomic bomb to the enemy was
by ship, detonating it in the harbor. It was called the Hydrodynamic Theory
of Surface Explosions.
- Vogel's theory, based on the documents he had found -
compared with official government documents and eye witness reports - is
plausible. But a lot more evidence is needed. Has that evidence been found?
If Vogel's theories are totally false, why then is a Bay Area television
station preparing a documentary. Several major news organizations are after
the story and why has the U.S. Government suddenly retroactively reclassified
Technical Paper #6 entitled Port Chicago Explosion so that it is now top
secret after nearly half a century?
- Cause Of Port Chicago Blast Never Determined
- By Harry V. Martin Third in a Series c. The Napa Sentinel,
- At 10:18 p.m. on Monday evening, July 17, 1944, a giant
explosion rocked Suisun Bay. The blast killed 320 Naval personnel and registered
3.4 on the Richter Scale in parts of Nevada. The Liberty Ship E. A. Bryan
was being loaded at Port Chicago in northern Contra Costa County. Its reported
cargo was 4600 tons of ammunition, including 1780 tons of high explosives.
The nighttime explosion was reported as a bright white light over the sky
of the San Francisco Bay Area, followed by a mushroom cloud and a strong
concussion. Windows in Vacaville, Concord, Vallejo, Benicia, Martinez,
Napa, and San Francisco were all blown out. Heavy doors and locks in Yountville
and ship hatches at Mare Island were blown off because of the resulting
concussion from the explosion.
- Peter Vogel, a journalist and a man who also studied
with the father of the American H-bomb, Dr. Edward Teller, told a KVON
audience a few weeks ago that the explosion was that of a nuclear bomb
and that it was purposefully set off as a test. Vogel's theory is based
on the strength of the explosion, the secrecy after it happened, and documents
from Los Alamos Laboratories which described a nuclear test blast as having
simulated the Port Chicago explosion - that test was conducted a few months
after the Port Chicago disaster. Of critical importance to Vogel's theory
that the United States used its' own sailors as a test for the first nuclear
device, was the number to explosions that occurred. He claims there was
only one explosion.
- THERE WERE TWO EXPLOSIONS - NOT ONE
- News accounts in 1944 of eye witnesses all universally
state there were two explosions. Articles from the Napa Journal, St. Helena
Star Bulletin, Martinez Gazette, Vallejo Times Herald, Vallejo News-Chronicle,
Oakland Tribune and San Francisco newspapers, all report two explosions.
The Second explosion was mightier than the first. It was during the second
explosion that the white flash and the mushroom cloud was reported.
- In 1964 No Share the Glory was published by native Vallejoen
Robert H. Pearson. Pearson's book, which was the untold story of the great
Port Chicago disaster of 1944, focuses on black American sailors who mutinied
after the Port Chicago explosion. Black sailors were not allowed to sail
on U.S. warships during the war and were used for the task of loading munitions
on the ships. Pearson's book describes the eye witness accounts of people
who saw the Port Chicago blast first hand - from Coast Guard men on patrol,
a tanker crew that was nearby, the commander of Port Chicago, and those
who somehow escaped the carnage, but nontheless saw it happen.
- Before the explosion, the E.A. Bryan was low in the water
- heavily laden with tons of ammunition. When the Bryan exploded 323 men,
five ships, a diesel engine, 16 boxcars and a small town were totally destroyed.
Twelve other cities were damaged. Damage was reported as far away as 200
miles. Pearson stated on page 19 of his book. "It is estimated that
the force of the blast was greater than that of a five kiloton atomic bomb."
That estimate was provided in the 1960s - when the world knew atomic weapons.
The contents that were loaded into the Bryan consisted of 4600 tons of
fuses, Detonators, guncotton, and 10 tons of smokeless powder in bulk,
The most critical and most unstable of the explosives on the ship's manifest
- 1780 tons of high explosives - were loaded last. Hold Number One held
incendiary bombs and small arms ammunition; Hold Number Two contained 3-inch
0.50 shells; Hold Number Three held serial bombs, some tail vanes and 5-inch
0.38 naval shells; and Hold Number Four contained fragmentation cluster
bombs and a few 14-inch naval shells; The closed Hold Number Five was reported
to have contained 40mm shells and small arms ammunition.
- It is important to establish some critical historical
points to embrace or reject Vogel's KVON discussion. The building of Port
Chicago as a Naval Ammunitions Depot commenced in June 1943. The first
loading pier was completed for use in May of 1944 - two days before the
explosion - the Port was only 80 percent finished. the reason the Port
had not been completed by then was the fact that there was a material and
labor shortage - common in wartime.
- NEW SHIP REFITTED
- The Bryan had been launched at the Richmond Kaiser Shipyard
in March 1944 and had just finished her maiden voyage to the South Pacific.
Though it was a brand new ship, the Navy ordered the Bryan to dock at the
Alameda shipyard two days before its reporting to Port Chicago. The Navy
installed two 10-ton booms at the Number One and Number Five holds - replacing
the 5-ton booms. The Captain of the Port in San Francisco, Lt. E. J. Carswell,
boarded the Bryan and found it completely safe, and then issued a permit
to load ammunition aboard the vessel.
- The loading plan was filed. All the records of the munitions
loaded aboard the Bryan are still available - except information about
the contents of two box cars. The government claims that somehow, the record
of those two boxcars are missing - yet they should have been part and parcel
of the first manifest, which is still available.
- Lt. Commander Glen Linqueist, naval inspection officer
for the 12th Naval District, also found everything satisfactory aboard
the Bryan prior to the loading of munitions. The new gear installed at
Alameda Shipyards was also found to be in satisfactory working order.
- Most of the crew from the Bryan took leave from the ship.
On several occasions during the three day loading process, shells and bombs
were accidentally dropped - but none resulted in any type of explosion
or damage. Along side the Bryan was the S. S. Quinalt Victory, a 7606 ton
vessel which had only been commissioned a week before the blast.
- The Bryan was loaded with 5292 barrels of bunker C-type
diesel fuel oil. The Navy had recently refitted the Bryan with a 10-ton
crane to fit Holds Number One and Five. But, during the entire loading
process, Hold Number Five remained closed. The Commander of Port Chicago,
Captain Merril T. Kinne, was appointed to his post on April 12, 1944 -
three months before the explosion.
- What was the Bryan's destination? It was destined for
Tinian, in the Mariana Islands. Tinian was where the Enola Gay took off
to drop the first atomic bomb on Japan in 1945.
- CAUSE NEVER OFFICIALLY DETERMINED BY NAVY
- The actual cause of the Port Chicago disaster was never
officially or publicly established. Three days after the explosion, Rear
Admiral Carleton H. Wright, commander of the 12th Naval District, convened
a board of inquiry in San Francisco. After hearing all the evidence, the
board could not determine the exact cause or circumstance of the first
explosion, but did issue a list of seven circumstances that might have
caused the disaster.
- "That the Naval and Coast Guard personnel killed
or injured in this explosion and listed in the Finding of the Facts, were
killed or injured in the line of duty and not because of their own misconduct.
The probable cause of the first explosion listed in the order of chance
- * Presence of a supersensitive element which was detonated
while handling. * Rough handling by a person or individuals. This might
have happened at any stage of the loading process from the breaking out
of the cars to the final stowage in the holds. * Failure of handling gear,
such as the falling of a boom, failure of a block or a hook, parting of
a whip, etc. * Collision of the switch engine with an explosive-loaded
car, possibly in unloading. * An accidental incident to the carrying away
of the mooring lines of the Quinalt Victory or the bollards which the Quinalt
Victory was moored, resulting in damage to an explosive component. * The
result of an act of sabotage. Although there is no proof to support sabotage
as a possible cause, it cannot be eliminated as a possibility.
- Eye witnesses reported seeing both ships secure and all
gear in place moments before the first blast. The theory of the crane or
equipment falling, or a ship loose from its mooring cannot be sustained
by eye witnesses, thus eliminating those possibilities.
- REMAINING PART OF SERIES
- In the two remaining articles in this series, we will
examine a unique report never made public before - The Computational Evaluation
for the Energy Released in the Port Chicago Explosion: a different theory
than Vogel claimed on KVON. Why nine German officers and two guard dogs
are secretly buried in Benicia - having died within a short span of time
from the Port Chicago blast: What scientists at Los Alamos deduce from
the explosion: and some critical eye witness reports. Did this explosion
in anyway impact the conduct of the waning years of World War Two? Those
questions will be thoroughly examined in the remaining part of the series.
- Evidence Points To A Port Chicago Nuclear Device