The Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial in Martinez, California is one of America’s least visited historical sites, but it shouldn’t be. The details of what happened in Port Chicago are a little bit of a mystery, and the aftermath is an astonishing piece of history. While loading a variety of ammunition onto two 500 foot U.S. Navy ships on July 17, 1944, 320 over-worked and under-trained men, primarily African American, were killed and 390 were injured.
Following the explosion, officials demanded that loading proceed as before without any explanation or additional training to prevent another explosion from occurring. Out of fear, many refused to go back to working on the dock. Unsure on how to handle the refusal, the Navy charged 50 of these men with mutiny, the largest mutiny trial in U.S. history, and many argue that the trial itself was unconstitutional. Investigations on how the accident happened in the first place and justifications for charging certain men with mutiny has remained vague, which is likely why two of the three remaining workers who were sentenced refused the pardon given by President Clinton while in office.
Surely someone knows what went wrong here, and like everything else in life, it was probably a compilation of things. Even with the little information that is provided to the public, this case reveals an obvious human rights violation—something no person or country should ever be proud of. Preconceived notions are dangerous, especially when associated with the value of life. Civil Rights Laws didn’t pass for another twenty years following this horrific accident, but it made people realize things have to change.
Prior to the accident at Port Chicago, only white men could hold a titled position in the U.S. Armed Forces, everyone else was classified as unqualified. Port Chicago led to the desegregation in U.S. Armed Forces: women, gays and lesbians, and in 2016, the transgender ban was finally dropped. Despite laws, there is still resistance in various forms. The disturbing question is, why must we have enforced laws to treat one another equally?
This memorial is a hard look at how we live and work together in a society and as a world race. Are we still blowing each other up in some way? Sabotaging information and the education of others? Restricting the growth and opportunities of others? Your world effects the rest of the world. So instead, ask yourself this, what can you do to help others in your small world?
Ranger-Led Tour of Port Chicago
- The tour begins at the Visitor Center located about 20 miles away, also in Martinez, and shares space with the John Muir National Historical Site; combine both for a day trip. The back room of the Visitor Center has a movie screen where a 10-minute video is shown on the history of Port Chicago; captions are available but an audio described version is not. Please note that the Army can deny access to certain sites if there is a security issue, including the entire property, though it rarely happens.
- Transportation and Parking: 1 designated parking space with van access. The Country Connector bus line also has a stop directly in front and has connecting routes to BART and AMTRAK.
- Pathway and Doors: The pathway from the parking spot to the front doors is paved asphalt. Both the front and the back doors are automatic via push-button.
- Information Desk: Is lowered to provide the most access to the most people. Large-print and braille documents are available.
- Drinking Fountain: A modified drinking fountain is just outside the back doors.
- Bathrooms: 3 bathrooms are located at the Visitor Center; 2 have been modified for access needs with grab-bars, a roll-up sink, and lowered hand dryers.
- Picnic Tables: A few tables are outside just to the left of the drinking fountain on top of a flat grassy area; 2 have partially extended ends for better wheelchair access. Trees nearby offer some shade.
Touring the Memorial
- Reservations: Touring the memorial requires a reservation made at least a two week in advanced. Visitors must provide a government issued identification number along with some other basic information for security purposes. This information is cross-checked again at the Visitor Center and upon arrival at one of two security gates before reaching the memorial.
- Getting Here: If you cannot transfer into a non-accessible shuttle, visitors are permitted to carpool behind the ranger to the memorial site.
- Parking: 1 access sign is placed closest to the beginning of the pathway from the parking lot. The parking lot is made up of loose gravel, which can be challenging for some.
- The Site: From the parking lot, a cobblestone-type pathway leads to a section of the memorial. The rest of the area that visitors are permitted to see is paved. The ranger leads the group to a few points of interest that tell the story of Port Chicago. To see the artifacts with the surrounding area, in person, really allows you to put the event in perspective and feel what those experiencing it felt. The focal point, of course, is the dock itself where the explosion occurred. It is being eroded away quickly due to rising salt levels from global warming.