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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 History and Heritage Command, Washington, DC.]


The Naval History and Heritage Command gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Patrick Clancey in preparing this document for posting on our website.

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


  1. Morale:

    In the early days of shiploading operations the morale of men and officers at this base was extremely low. Some of the contributing factors were:

    1. Lack of sufficient experienced officers
    2. Isolation of the station
    3. Inadequate transportation
    4. Lack of recreational facilities for officers and men
    5. Lack of recreational facilities for Negroes in nearby towns
    6. Lack of officers selected to work with Negro personnel
    7. Lack of facilities on base, such as laundry, tailor shop, cobbler shop, etc.
    8. Irregular work and liberty schedule
    9. Lack of proper work clothing for inclement weather

    Furthermore, at the outset, due to lack of sufficient properly indoctrinated officers, there was a certain amount of friction between the officers assigned to the Magazine and those assigned to the Naval Barracks. These two groups were quartered and messed some distance apart. Also the officer responsible for Magazine activities was junior to the Commanding Officer of the Naval Barracks. This unfortunate condition led to an overlapping and misunderstanding of various responsibilities, with a definite lack of integration between the two groups.

    This situation was considerably improved when the combined BOQ was completed in July 1944. The necessary intermingling in these quarters, the additions to the recreational facilities, and the addition of a large group of new officers all tended toward an improvement in morale.

    After the explosion on 17 July 1944, due to the razing of the barracks buildings, several divisions of men were sent to Camp Shoemaker for billeting. Because the Port Chicago facilities were totally destroyed, and in an effort to continue the shipping of ammunition, these men were later sent to Mare Island to load ship. On 9 August 1944 when first ordered to the docks for this work, there was a concerted refusal of duty on the part of 3 colored divisions. The Commandant of the Twelfth Naval District personally addressed this entire group on the following day after which 206 men returned to duty, while 50 continued their refusal. The 206 men who returned to duty were given Summary Courts Martial for refusal to obey orders, while the 50 who continued their refusal were tried by General Court Martial on the charge of mutiny. All men involved in this occurrence were Negroes.

  2. Training:

    As the shiploading operations progressed, the need for better trained personnel to handle explosives became apparent, and steps were taken to establish a training department. The primary need among the enlisted personnel was for experienced winchmen and hatch tenders; therefore, in October 1943 the building of a training rig was started. The structure represented two small holds of a ship with Liberty-ship-type booms and rigging. By February 1944 the structure was equipped with steam winches for one hold, and training of station personnel began. In September 1944 a more elaborate and comprehensive training program was established, and an electric winch was installed at the second hold. The program for officers included lectures on different types of ordnance, proper handling and stowage of ammunition, and safety precautions. The training of enlisted men included a series of films on ammunition handling and identification, practical work in winch driving and hatch tending, electric lift truck operation, and ship rigging. Lectures were also given on safety precautions. In addition to training men assigned to the Magazine, these facilities were also used for the training of men from ships berthed at Port Chicago for loading. In May 1945 ComWesSeaFron began to send men to be trained as winchmen and hatch tenders for W.S.A. ammunition ships. In the same month ammunition handling units of 100 men each began to arrive for six week training periods. Practical training in ammunition handling was given at this Magazine while checkers were sent to NAD MI for instruction. Approximately 200 winchmen and hatch tenders were trained for W.S.A. ammunition ships and about 500 ammunition handlers in units during the period from May to August 1945. In April 1945 a special training program was inaugurated for the teaching of reading and writing to about two hundred illiterates.

  3. In Retrospect.

    To enable the responsible officials of the future to take advantage of the successes of the current war and avoid its mistakes, the following are considered the most significant lessons learned at this station:

    1. From a logistic standpoint, it was demonstrated that shipment and arrival of cars containing ammunition and their subsequent temporary storage at a loading station could be coordinated and controlled with scheduled availability of ships without unduly tying up transportation equipment and accrual of excess demurrage.
    2. The wisdom of locating an ammunition loading station at a relatively isolated locality, in contrast to the congested lower San Francisco Bay Area or Navy Yard, Mare Island, was proven in the explosion that took place 17 July 1944.
    3. The safety inherent in storing loaded cars of ammunition in barricaded sidings was also proven in the same explosion.
    4. The inadvisability of employing 100% colored ordnance battalions to handle and load ammunition was amply demonstrated.
    5. Much was gained from practical experience at Port Chicago towards the proper design and construction of a pier for loading ammunition. Based on experience at this station it is believed that such a pier should incorporate the following features:
      1. Each pier should be approximately 1,100 ft. in length to accommodate two ships loading on the outboard side of the pier only.
      2. Ammunition ships should not be loaded abreast of one another at a loading pier.
      3. A loading platform should be provided which should be at least 25 ft. in width and of approximately car floor height.
      4. If main movement of cargo is from car to dock, height of this loading platform should be from two to three inches lower than average floor of box cars.
      5. Not less than three tracks, with adequate crossovers, should be provided for each berth -- two to be used to accommodate cargo, permitting cargo from outboard cars to be loaded through inboard cars when empty, thus minimizing lost time from switching. The third track to be used for a work track (operation of locomotive crane, movement of dunnage, etc.)
      6. Separate approach tracks for each berth should be provided so that cars may be moved to and from a given berth on one pier without interfering with, or interrupting loading operations in progress at the other berth on the same pier.
      7. If more than one pier is provided at a loading station, there should be a minimum of 2,155 feet distance between piers.
      8. Not more than six berths should be provided at one loading station.
      9. Piers should be equipped with adequate flood lights and spark enclosed electric outlets for safety extension cords for explosion proof lights in box cars in order that loading operations may be carried on twenty-four hours a day.
      10. In addition to usual utilities such as fire protection, fresh water, light and power, permanent facilities for compressed air should be provided to permit operation of pneumatic saws in holds of vessels.
      11. It is also desirable that facilities for charging batteries, riggers loft, heads, and an office space be provided on or near each pier to minimize lost time.
      12. From a safety standpoint, it is desirable to minimize pedestrian and vehicular traffic on ship piers and its approaches. Separate approaches for (1) railroad traffic and (2) vehicular and pedestrian traffic are recommended.
    6. Construction of 5 car barricades is recommended in contrast to 15 car barricades. The reasons for this are that BuOrd regulations do not permit storage of more than 250,000 lbs. (5 cars) of high explosives in one barricade, although it is permissible to store as many as 15 cars of projectiles or smokeless powder in one barricade. Since the needs of the forces afloat cannot be anticipated and will fluctuate from time to time, 5 car barricades will permit maximum storage and utilization of available barricade facilities, whereas, if a portion of such facilities are 15 car barricade, unless a proportionate part of each shipment comprises projectiles and smokeless powder, full use of 15 car barricades cannot be made. At Port Chicago there have been numerous instances when the station was required to temporarily store more high explosive cars than it had barricade capacity for. This was primarily due to the fact that many shipments were almost entirely comprised of high explosives, plus the fact that higher authorities in planning ammunition movements used the station's total barricade capacity without giving consideration to its respective capacity for high explosive, projectile and smokeless powder cars. Also it has been this stations' experience that a 15 car, 3 track barricade provides more flexible working conditions than a 15 car single track barricade. If barricades are located at a substantial distance from ship piers, it is recommended that barricade capacity of at least 10 cars per berth be provided at a point close to the pier to minimize lost time in switching.
    7. The layout of the magazines in the Inland Area is excellent in that all magazines, H.E. and G.A., have both rail and truck access. Furthermore, the loading platforms are constructed at car-floor height, rendering the transfer of ammunition in and out of magazines comparatively simple.
    8. Due to the fact that no car blocking shed was included in the original installation of the Inland Area, it was necessary to install certain equipment in one of the G.A. magazines and utilities it as a car blocking building. Car blocking facilities should be provided in close proximity to magazines.
    9. It is not believed that inset magazines constructed as an integral part of HE barricades are practical for the following reasons:
      1. Car capacity of a barricade is reduced proportionately to the amount of material stored in inset magazines. For example, at Port Chicago, there are 5 inset magazines in certain 5 car HE barricades. If one of these inset magazines contains ammunition, it is only permissible to store 4 cars in that barricade.
      2. Material generally cannot be loaded in or out of a given inset magazine, regardless of whether by truck or rail, without moving cars stored in the barricade.
      3. Truck deliveries to Port Chicago inset magazines cannot be effected unless barricades are emptied of railroad cars.
      4. Only side loading or unloading of trucks is possible, whereas many trucks are more efficiently loaded or unloaded from the ends.
      5. When material must be unloaded to avoid tying up foreign box cars, it is more efficient and costs less to transfer such material into station-owned cars and store these cars in barricades than to unload this material into an inset magazine. One handling is eliminated and high explosives can be stored in station-owned box cars in barricades as well as in inset magazines that are an integral part of such barricades. If the question of safety is involved, it is felt that the extra handling is fully as hazardous as having explosives in sealed box cars in barricaded sidings in a continental naval station.
    10. Based on experience of this station, it is recommended that barricaded sidings for at least 4 days loading requirements be provided. For example: at 1000 tons per day loading rate per berth, if a station has 6 berths, 4 days requirements total 24,000 tons. At 40 tons per car, this is equivalent to 600 cars or 100 cars per berth. A minimum of 4 days loading requirements per berth is needed because:
      1. Shipment of large quantities of ammunition from inland and eastern depots (both Army and Navy) was seldom controlled or accomplished within a 3 day margin of scheduled arrival time prior to V-J Day. Steps were under way, however, to improve this control prior to the cessation of hostilities.
      2. Unless cargo being loaded for selective discharge can be accumulated prior to start of loading operations or its arrival very closely controlled from day to day, loading operations will be interrupted with resulting inefficiency, delays, and excessive tying up of ships.
      3. It is not possible to definitely schedule in advance the exact date a given ship will be available to load. Cargo must be ordered from 10 to 30 days in advance so that it may arrive at the loading station in accordance with the tentative date the vessel will to on berth. Ships commonly were not available for loading until 2 or 3 days later than originally scheduled and there have been instances when ships were as much as 7 to 10 days late. Obviously, cars ordered and shipped to arrive in accordance with original and tentative loading date must be held until the ship arrives.
      4. Last minute deletions, substitutions or additions to cargo during the process of loading must be expected to meet the needs of the forces afloat. In one instance it was necessary to discharge approximately 3600 tons from two ships partially loaded due to a last minute change in cargo. This tonnage had to be stored in cars and on lighters approximately one week until disposition of the discharged material could be determined. Meanwhile, cargo in replacement had to be accommodated in addition to cargo arriving for other ships simultaneously loading at other berths.
      5. Arrival dates of cars diverted to Port Chicago while enroute to other Depots cannot be closely controlled and coordinated with scheduled loading periods. Leeway in available barricade capacity is required to accommodate such diversions.
      6. In the San Francisco Bay Area there are restrictions on the receipt of ammunition and high explosives in most localities. Consequently, if cars continue to arrive at Port Chicago and accumulate beyond its barricade capacity, there is a lack of convenient facilities to store such cars. BuOrd does not approve of storing cars on unbarricaded classification tracks, sidings, etc. However, there have been numerous instances when, in furtherance of war effort and for want of other disposition, Port Chicago has had to accept cars in excess of its barricade capacity.
      7. It is obvious from the foregoing, that the need for leeway in barricade capacity increases proportionately with the number of berths at a station. If there are 6 berths, there are six chances of all the above described problems arising with resulting compounded difficulties.
    11. Until January 1945 there were no facilities provided a Port Chicago for the storage of the substantial quantities of lumber required for shoring and dunnaging ships. 30,000 to 40,000 board feet per 1,000 tons of ammunition loaded is required. Facilities for the accumulation and storage of such lumber should be provided when a loading station is constructed. It is also recommended that the location of such lumber bearings be as close to the ship piers as possible. At the same time facilities should similarly be provided for the salvage and reclamation of lumber generated in unloading cars of ammunition. Unless this is done, problems will arise in the disposition of a large volume of scrap lumber without the creation of a severe fire hazard. Moreover, utilization of salvaged lumber for shipboard dunnaging proportionately reduces necessary purchases of lumber with resulting savings to the government and economy in the use of a critical material.
    12. It is believed that the assignment of trained personnel to handle and load ammunition at ammunition depots and magazines is of paramount importance. For the first year and three-quarters of its operation, this station was assigned almost 100% colored enlisted personnel to load substantial quantities of ammunition and high explosives aboard deep draught vessels for overseas shipment. They had received no prior training whatsoever and but a "once over lightly" indoctrination in military conduct and bearing at the Naval Training Station, Great Lakes. In addition, qualified petty officers were not supplied, and the great majority of non-rated men available were not satisfactory petty officer material. Coupled with inexperienced officers, commented upon in more detail in subsequent paragraphs, the result was a most difficult and trying situation for all concerned. Lessons belatedly learned were as follows:
      1. Personnel at ordnance stations should not be predominantly colored, and the ration of white to colored should be at least 70% to 30%.
      2. Personnel handling ammunition should be given training in ammunition handling, identification, and stevadoring (winch driving, ship rigging, driving mules, etc.) before being assigned to the duty of loading ammunition and high explosives aboard vessels.
    13. Much the same situation existed in respect to officers supplied to supervise the handling and loading of ammunition. Stevedoring in itself requires special technical knowledge. Loading explosives aboard deep water vessels requires even greater technical knowledge and practical experience owing to the hazards involved, the knowledge of ammunition required, the restrictions and limitations imposed by Coast Guard regulations, loading for selective discharge, fleet issue, etc. The need for such professional ability is all the more acute when stevedoring is performed by military personnel, since the services of experienced "walking bosses" are not available to supervise actual placement, loading, and shoring of cargo. It is recognized that the number of people available with such training or background is very limited and the demand far exceeds the supply for all the various activities, both Army and Navy -- continental and abroad -- required in the logistics of a global war.
    14. It is therefore strongly recommended that a naval magazine such as this be provided at the outset with qualified personnel and a proper organizational setup. Otherwise, an indifferent work attitude may result which is most difficult to overcome and rectify later on. This involves initially supplying an adequate number of officer and enlisted personnel, supplying such personnel with a proper background and training for the particular duties they will be called upon to perform, and establishing an organizational setup for them to work under that is both practical and in accordance with naval regulations. Specifically, it is recommended that relative rank of the top commands of such a station be in the following order:

        Commanding Officer or Officer-in-Charge;
        Executive Officer;
        Commanding Officer -- Naval Barracks;
        Executive Officer -- Naval Barracks.

    15. In preparing for the eventuality of another war, it is also recommended that thorough study be given to the regulations governing the transportation of military explosives on merchant vessels in time of war. At the outbreak of this war, the only regulations available were I.C.C. regulations (Bureau of Explosives) which were primarily designed for peace-time movement of explosives in small quantities. These regulations, modified by Army classifications, were adopted and resulted in the so-called "Red Book", with the full force and effect of law. Many of the provisions of the "Red Book" were proven to be not applicable to war-time conditions and the necessities of the forces afloat. This resulted in the "First Revision" of the Regulations Governing the Transportation of Military Explosives on Board Vessels During the Present Emergency, NAVG 108. This publication had not been received at this station upon the cessation of hostilities in August 1945.
    16. Also, no loading manual was available for the guidance of naval personnel engaged in loading explosives. Recognizing the need for such standardized instructions, the Commandant of the Twelfth Naval District appointed a board to compile such a manual. This manual has been prepared and submitted to higher authorities in Washington, but as yet the official status of same is not known. Profiting from this experience, it is recommended that an agency in the Navy Department be designated and given the responsibility to prepare safe and practical regulations that meet the requirements of the forces afloat for the transportation of military explosives aboard cargo vessels in time of war, and to prepare an adequate loading manual for the guidance of naval activities required to handle and load ammunition and high explosives. This manual should provide explicit instructions as to the type of gear and methods to be used for loading each type of explosive. In connection with the foregoing, machinery should be set up so that new types of ammunition, packaging, loading methods, etc., may be promptly incorporated in such publications and information concerning same immediately disseminated. Furthermore, these regulations should be drafted in such form that they are not subject to different interpretations by the various loading stations and agencies responsible for their enforcement. Thus, loading operations wherever undertaken will be conducted in a uniform and relatively standardized manner to meet all requirement of safety, efficiency, and practicability.
    17. It is suggested that the policy of charging representatives of the U. S. Coast Guard with the enforcement of such regulations at naval loading facilities be further studied. While it may be desirable to charge the Coast Guard with these responsibilities when loading is performed at a commercial facility by professional civilian stevedores, it is believed such policy is unnecessary at naval loading stations where qualified naval personnel should be available to perform these functions.

Port Chicago History [Return to Part One]

Published: Mon Feb 29 15:38:32 EST 2016