At about 10:20 PM the night of July 17, 1944, the loading dock at Port Chicago Naval Magazine near the San Francisco Bay in California went up in a colossal explosion. Witnesses said that a brilliant white flash shot into the air, accompanied by a loud sharp boom. Within six seconds, a deeper explosion erupted as the contents of the E.A. Bryan detonated as one massive bomb. A pillar of fire and smoke stretched over two miles into the sky above Port Chicago and the seismic shock wave was felt as far away as Boulder City, Nevada. The air filled with the sharp cracks and dull thuds of smoldering metal and unexploded shells as they showered back to earth as far as two miles away.
The reason for the explosion was never proven, but it was believed to have been caused by the volatile new explosives in the torpedoes. The blast caused a crater 66 feet deep, 300 feet wide and 700 feet long in the river bottom. Some of the blast was absorbed by the ship's hull, so it may have exceeded the equivalence of a five-kiloton nuclear bomb.
The E.A. Bryan was nearly loaded and the U.S. Quinalt Victory was due to start loading at midnight. The dock also had a locomotive with 16 boxcars full of ammunition. In total, about 5,000 tons of explosives were detonated. Everything was destroyed. The largest remaining section of the E.A.Bryan was the size of a suitcase. The stern section of the Quinalt Victory was thrown like a toy 500 feet away and the locomotive and boxcars disappeared. The pilot of a plane flying at 9,000 feet reported seeing chunks of white hot metal "as big as a house" flying past.
Three hundred and twenty men (320) on duty were killed and nearly 400 wounded. Of the 320 men killed in the explosion, 202 were from the African American enlisted men who were assigned the dangerous duty of loading the ships. The explosion at Port Chicago accounted for 15% of all African-American casualties of World War II.
Photographs from U.S. Naval Historical Center
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