Letters to the Editor

What Caused the Port Chicago Disaster?

By Howard Keylor

On July 17, 2010 I attended the 66th anniversary of the Port Chicago Naval Weapons Station disaster1. The National Park Service was dedicating the site as part of the park system. Speakers were from the Park Service, the army, and various politicians.

What surprised me is that none of the speakers addressed what appears to have been the real cause of the explosion that killed 320 men. Included among those killed were 203 young Black sailors who were doing the loading of the ships, 29 Naval armed guards, 67 crew members of the two ships which exploded, Coast Guard sailors on a barge moored alongside, and several railroad workers.

The Navy blamed the untrained Black sailors for the explosion and completely exonerated the Navy officers in charge for any responsibility for the disaster.

“Hot munitions” were being loaded

Contrary to all safe and normal practice, incendiary bombs with the fuses already installed were being loaded into the cargo ship, the E. A. Bryan. This means that an impact on the front of the bombs could cause them to explode. While I never loaded any munitions I am somewhat of a military weapons buff and know that torpedoes, artillery shells, and bombs are NEVER shipped with the fuses installed. The fuses are always installed shortly before use. In fact the fuses should not be placed in a vessel during sea transport near to the munitions and must be handled with great care since they are quite sensitive. These “hot” incendiary bombs were being loaded into the number one hold of the E. A. Bryan.

The foot brake on one of the steam winches in the number one hatch was stuck in the “off” position

I drove steam winches on ships identical to the E. A. Bryan during the early years of my work as a longshoreman. Steam winches have a foot brake in case there is an interruption in the supply of steam to the winch and consequent loss of control over the hoist. When bringing a load from the dock onto the ship and then descending the load into the hatch, any interruption in the supply of steam, as for example a steam winch with faulty valves or packing, the weight of the load will cause the cargo to rapidly descend. This means that a heavy load of cargo can fall all the way down three decks and impact the bottom with great force. That is why the winch driver must rapidly engage the foot break when he loses control of the lift. This is a tricky operation requiring a very rapid response from the winch driver in engaging the foot brake. I remember being quite scared the first time this happened to me. On taking my position as winch driver I always checked the foot brakes on the steam winches before hoisting a load of cargo. I always had my foot poised over the brake so that I could engage it and stop the operation within an instant. Any problems with the foot break and I would refuse to operate the winch until it was repaired.

In addition, the steam winches on the number two and number four hatches “had problems” with the steady supply of steam to power the winches. It appears that the faulty winches were not properly maintained or repaired. An interruption in the supply of steam pressure to the winches while hoisting cargo aboard the vessel can cause total loss of control over the cargo. The weight of the cargo hoist can cause a rapid decent into the hatch without the capacity to put the midship winch into the reverse power mode. Only the foot brake can halt such an occurrence.

Sound of “rending timbers”
heard from the E.A. Bryan
just before the explosion

If a load of cargo gets out of control and descends with great force it can cause the steel cable “topping gear” of a cargo boom to break causing the whole long wooden boom to fall on deck. A longshore friend of mine was killed when this happened on a ship where he was driving winches.

The Navy refused to hire
experienced ILWU longshoremen at Port Chicago

Naval officers gave as one of their reasons for not hiring experienced ILWU longshoremen that the Navy feared “sabotage” by the union longshoremen. The probable real reason was that ILWU longshoremen would have refused to work under unsafe correctable conditions or with faulty gear.

The Navy officers in charge should have been charged with “negligent felony manslaughter”

None of the speakers at the ceremony demanded a full independent investigation into the cause of the disaster.

Several people have asked me why the Navy would load “hot munitions.” I can only speculate that some ignorant Navy officer figured that he would make points by shipping the incendiary bombs with fuses intact to save time when they reached their destination prior to being loaded on a plane.

The beginning of wisdom for me as a 19-year-old soldier during the Battle of Okinawa (April-June 1945) was finding out that the higher-ranking professional officers of the 10th Army were appallingly incompetent. I was further shocked to learn that they had hatred and contempt for the ordinary soldiers and were virulently racist.

Howard Keylor is a retired member ILWU Longshore Local 10 and can be reached at: