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War Time History of U.S. Naval Magazine, Port Chicago, California

5 December 1945



  1. Location:
  2. Function:
  3. Improvements and Facilities:

    Inland Area

  4. Transportation.

    Within the two areas of the station and between same, there is a total of approximately 100 miles of Navy-owned railroad trackage, including three classification yards with a capacity of approximately 650 cars. Direct connection with the Southern pacific is available in he Tidal Area. Direct connection with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe (and the Sacramento and Northern via the ATSF) is available to the Inland Area. Approximately 45 miles of the above Navy-owned railroad was originally the Bay point - Clayton R.R., serving the town of Cowell. It was taken over and operated by the Navy as of 1 July 1945.

    Both areas are served by either railroad by means of a Navy-owned overpass which bridges the Southern Pacific and Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe main lines.

    Interchange facilities for all three railroads are also available in the yards of the town of Port Chicago.

    Interchange facilities between the Sacramento and Northern and Inland Area are also available just south of the town of Clyde.

    An extensive system of roads services all facilities.

    Shipments and deliveries may be effected by rail, truck, or water.

    There is a joint Army-Navy flying field approximately two miles west of Concord, between the towns of Concord and Pacheco.

    Regular commercial passenger bus service is available at Port Chicago, for San Francisco, Oakland and other cities in the Bay Area, as well as to the Navy Yard at Mare Island, Pittsburg, Antioch, Sacramento and other San Joaquin and Sacramento Valley points.

  5. History:

    Establishment of the Naval Magazine, Port Chicago, was the outgrowth of a confidential report made by a board on "Terminal Facilities for Shipment of Explosives -- San Francisco Bay Area" A16-1/NTSI(24) (SG_ (1952-14-sm-ku of 9 Dec 1941 to Com12). Procurement of site was inaugurated and construction began in February 1942, under the cognizance of the Public Works Officer of the Twelfth Naval District and the Commanding Officer, Naval Ammunition Depot, Mare Island.

    In the early stages there were considerable differences of opinion between the various interested parties as to the nature, extent and design of facilities required for the accomplishment of the purpose in mind.

    Initial facilities provided included the following major structures:

    Initial facilities were completed so that operations could begin 30 November 1942.

    The first cars of ammunition for transshipment arrived the first week in December and the first ship, the SS BREWER, moored at 1200, 8 Dec. 1942, to load approximately 3800 tons of anti-aircraft ammunition for Epic (Noumea, New Caledonia).

    The actual loading operations began 9 December 1942, and the first ship was loaded and sailed at 1500, on 13 Dec. 1942.

    All loading and handling operations were performed by Naval personnel (100% colored enlisted Ordnance battalions), supervised by officers and small group of trained civilian ordnancemen made available from Naval Ammunition Depot, Mare Island, California. Maintenance work and operation of locomotives and cranes was performed by civil service employees.

    After the first two months of operations it became apparent that the loading platforms at the ships pier were too narrow for efficient and safe handling of ammunition. Consequently, in March 1943 the loading platform on the inboard berth was moved and joined to the outboard loading platform, thereby providing a 20 ft. loading platform with resulting increased efficiency and safety. To accomplish this, one railroad track on the ships pier was sacrificed and the inboard berth no longer was available for loading. However, during the 11-month period from 1 December 1942 to 31 October 1943, it was only necessary to load a total of 39 ships, or a total of approximately 115,000 tons and one berth was ample for the work load.

    On 1 July 1943, cognizance of new construction at Port Chicago was transferred from the Public Works Officer, Twelfth Naval District to the Public Works Officer, Mare Island.

    Anticipating an increase in tonnage to be loaded at Port Chicago in the future, recommendations were made in the spring of 1943 to construct a marginal wharf inboard of the first pier to accommodate an additional two vessels. However, no action was taken on this proposal until approximately November 1943, when the Commandant, Twelfth Naval District, visited Port Chicago.

    As a result of this visit and apparent need of increased loading capacity at Port Chicago, construction of the marginal wharf was expedited. Meanwhile, as an expedient to get two berths in operation at pier #1 in the shortest possible time, it was concluded to widen both the inboard and outboard berths ten (10) feet each, thereby permitting 20 feet loading platforms at each berth and enabling two ships to load simultaneously.

    Work on this widening was instituted shortly thereafter with loading operations continuing at one berth while the other was being widened. The widening of the berths was completed so that two ships could be simultaneously loaded for the first time on 10 May 1944. Also by that time work was well under way on the marginal wharf, together with 13 additional barricades to accommodate an additional 95 cars and five additional barracks buildings.

    Early in 1944 the Inland Area project was contemplated as a permanent Magazine for stowage of ammunition and high explosives. By April a survey had been made and actual plans drawn. After consultation with representatives from BuOrd, a request was sent to BuDocks to acquire the land. This request was approved in June.

    Expansion program at that time also included a combined Auditorium, Gymnasium, and Recreation Building, a BOQ to accommodate 74 officers, and construction of twenty (20) magazines in the Tidal Area, also barracks and messing facilities to accommodate the increased personnel required to load four ships simultaneously.

    On 17 July 1944, the S.S. A. E. Bryan and the S.S. Quinault Victory were berthed at ship pier #1. The A. E. Bryan was almost completely loaded with ammunition, while the Quinault Victory had just berthed and was being rigged for loading.

    At about 2200, two explosions, a few seconds apart, took place at the pier, causing complete destruction of both ships, the pier, all buildings and equipment on the pier, and a marginal wharf (pier #2), at that time under construction and approximately 80% completed. A U.S.C.G. fire barge moored at the pier was also destroyed. The explosion caused considerable damage to buildings on the station and in the vicinity.

    A total of 319 people were killed and 255 injured. All fatalities, however, were confined to persons either on board the ships or on the pier.

    Assistance was quickly rushed from nearby towns, the casualties were given first aid and removed to hospitals, and the majority of the remaining personnel evacuated to nearby stations.

    For further details of the explosion see "War Diary, U.S. Naval Magazine, Port Chicago" dated 31 July 1944 and the report of the Court of Inquiry appointed by the Commandant of the Twelfth Naval District to investigate the facts surrounding the explosion.

    As a result of visits by representatives of the Bureau of Ordnance shortly thereafter, plans for the future development and expansion of Port Chicago were outlined as follows:

    1. The construction of two additional ship piers (piers #3 and #4) which, together with pier #2 (to be reconstructed) would provide a total of six berths. It was concluded not to rebuild the demolished pier #1.
    2. Abandonment of plans to construct 20 magazines in the Tidal Area.
    3. Provision of facilities for the segregation of returned ammunition.
    4. Development of the program to establish the Inland Area.
    5. Construction of additional barracks buildings and auxiliary structures to accommodate requirements of resulting increased work load.
    6. Abandonment of policy of operating the station with 100% colored enlisted personnel.

    Accomplishment of the foregoing expansion program was begun immediately thereafter, and proceeded with dispatch.

    Following the explosion, the first berth at pier #2 was completed and became available 6 September 1944, the second berth at pier #2 6 October 1944, and berths #3 and #4, pier #3, 3 January 1945.

    By 20 January 1945, construction of the Inland Area had progressed to the extent that the first group of 20 HE magazines and the first row of 15 gun ammunition magazines were available for use.

    Berths #5 and #6, pier #4, were completed and available for use 1 April 1945. However, insufficient personnel was available for the simultaneous loading of six vessels until 1 June 1945. Also by 1 June 1945, most of the facilities in the Inland Area were completed and in use. As of 15 August 1945, the following facilities had not yet been completed or accepted:

    Tidal Area

    1. Segregation facilities for returned ammunition (contract to be completed)
    2. Three additional barracks (15 completed and in use -- contract to be completed)
    3. BOQ for 50 officers (No work has been started. The request is in the hands of the Secretary of the Navy for approval.)
    4. Eleven 5-car barricaded sidings. (Contract to be completed with rail and road access. All other proposed barricaded sidings to be eliminated.)
    5. Rehabilitation of the main line of the Bay Point -- Clayton R.R. (A proposal to re-lay the light rail of this line with 110 pound rail is in the hands of the Secretary of the Navy for approval.)
    6. Additional N.S.A. storehouse and vehicle storage shed. (This project is in the hands of the Secretary of the Navy for approval.)
    7. A..Q.E. facilities. (These facilities as specified in BuOrd Letter NT1-32 Ad3b of 7 July 1945 were authorized but no work has been started.)

    As of 15 August 1945 a total of approximately 809,195 tons of ammunition and HE has been loaded in 178 deep draught vessels since the start of operations at this Magazine. Operating 6 berths with about 40% vacancy, tonnage was being loaded at the rate of 58,000 tons per month. Approximately 4000 tons a month was being handled at the barge pier. Approximately 2,754 railroad cars were being received monthly and approximately 35,000 tons per month was being handled in and out of magazines in the Inland Area.

    For the past twelve months the vast majority of ships at Port Chicago have been loaded for selective discharge in contrast to the period prior to that time when most ships were block stowed. Ship loading at Port Chicago has been characterized by a great variety of types of ammunition handled. While other loading stations have loaded greater quantities of ammunition, it is doubted that other loading stations have been required to handle as many diversified types of ammunition as Port Chicago, or to load as many types of ammunition in one vessel. At times there have been as many as 175 items to a 7,000 ton load for selective discharge.

    In compliance with BuOrd letter S78(A) dated 31 August 1944, a ship loading safety organization (Coast Guard) was established 17 February 1945 (Station Order No. 10-45, dated 17 Feb. 1945), enclosure #2.

    Estimated oversea loading rate at this station with 6 berths in operation is better than 100,000 tons a month. It is believed no difficulties will be encountered in loading at this rate, provided that arrival of ships can be regularly scheduled to efficiently utilize the available berthing capacity and that arrival of cargo can be controlled and coordinated with the scheduled loading period of the respective vessels.

    As outlined in BuOrd letter N21-10/S78 pr 6D/10 May 1945, it is anticipated that full operation of the Inland Area at Port Chicago will largely eliminate the storage and issue of all serviceable types of ammunition, including high explosives, at Naval Ammunition Depot, Mare Island. Furthermore, with the restrictions imposed on transporting high explosive through the Navy Yard, Mare Island, and other points in the San Francisco Bay Area, Port Chicago has become the principal ammunition loading port and storage point for ammunition and high explosives on the Pacific Coast.

  6. Statistics:

    (a) Navy Officers    
    On Board
    &nbsp: 1 January 1943 -- 18
      1 July 1943 -- 27
      1 January 1944 82 44
      1 July 1944 82 71
      1 January 1945 82 86
      1 July 1945 168 152
      15 August 1945 168 152
      1 December 1942 402 525
      1 June 1943 612 514
      1 January 1944 2059 706
      1 July 1944 2059 1431
      1 January 1945 2646 2168
      1 July 1945 2790 3667
      15 August 1945 2790 3908
    (c) Marines    
      1 January 1943 -- 59
      1 July 1943 --- 52
      1 January 1944 --- 70
      1 July 1944 --- 106
      1 January 1945 --- 95
      1 July 1945 --- 215
      15 August 1945 --- 215
    (d) Civilians    
      1 January 1943 (no ceiling) 87
      1 July 1943 " 107
      1 January 1944 " 142
      1 July 1944 " 231
      1 January 1945 " 336
      1 July 1945 " 609
      15 August 1945 " 651
    (e) Coast Guard Officers    
      17 February 1945 14 ---
      21 February 1945 14 ---
      5 May 1945 14 12
      1 July 1945 14 11
      15 August 1945 14 14
    (f) Coast Guard Enlisted Men    
      17 February 1945 252 ---
      21 February 1945 252 81
      1 July 1945 252 195
      15 August 1945 252 254
    (g) Loading Figures by Years
    (Into Vessels for Overseas Shipment)
      9 December 1942--31 December 1943 142,261 tons
      1 January 1944--31 December 1944 220,316 tons
      1 January 1945--10 August 1945 346,618 tons
        Total 709,195 tons

    * Subsequently established as a separate command.

    Port Chicago History, continued...

    Source: US Navy. Bureau of Ordnance. "War Time History of U.S. Naval Magazine, Port Chicago, California." 5 Dec. 1945. In "Selected Ammunition Depots, Volume 2" [World War II Administrative History #127-B, located in Rare Book Room, Navy Department Library, Naval Historical Center, Washington, DC.]

    24 February 1999