Berkeley Oral History Project Seeks Survivors Of Port Chicago Explosion

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Cleaning up the damage at the remains of the pier after the explosion at Port Chicago. (Wikipedia)

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BERKELEY (KCBS) – Historians have launched a search to gather survivor accounts of a deadly World War II incident at a Contra Costa shipyard that contributed to the eventual desegregation of the military.

Five thousand tons of ammunition blew up aboard a munitions ship at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine. Most of the 320 killed on July 17, 1944 were black enlisted men.

Some 200 survivors refused to report for work on the docks.

KCBS’ Margie Shafer Reports:

“African American stevedores were working in conditions where they had not been properly trained. They were not given 30 days survivors leave after the explosion,” explained UC Berkeley doctoral candidate Javier Arbona, who has already interviewed some of the surviving sailors.

The Navy court-martialed 50 of those who disobeyed orders to work on mutiny charges. Their convictions stood for decades.

One of them was eventually pardoned by President Bill Clinton. Efforts to exonerate the others have been unsuccessful, though the incident did spur the Navy to address racial inequality in its ranks.

“It highlighted the racial tension at the time,” Arbona said.

Arbona said the ranks of survivors with firsthand memories of the Port Chicago Explosion and its aftermath are dwindling.

Interviews with both survivors and their relatives collected for the Regional Oral History Office of the Bancroft Library would create primary source material for future research, he said.

Researchers also hope to feature some of the oral histories in a visitors center in the military town at Port Chicago being planned by the National Park Service.

Outreach to the survivors comes as the Bay Area marks the 67th anniversary of the tragedy on Sunday.

(Copyright 2011 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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