LETTERS FROM PORT CHICAGO, BACKGROUND

December 9, 1941, two days after Pearl Harbor was attacked, authorization was given to construct the Port Chicago Naval Magazine. The operation of loading ships from Port Chicago with ammunition destined for the Pacific was started in November 1942.  Located on the Sacramento River where it flows into San Francisco Bay and named for the small town that bordered it, the dock was in a perfect strategic position.[1]

Three shifts of about 125 men each, worked around the clock loading all types of weapons and ammunition into two ships at the dock. The work was difficult and dangerous, and most of the hands-on loading was assigned to African American Navy personnel. As was normal for all of the U.S. Military during World War II, the officers were white.

On the evening of July 17, 1944, the empty SS Quinalt Victory prepared for loading on her maiden voyage. The SS E.A. Bryan had just returned from her first voyage and was loading across the platform from the Quinalt Victory. The holds were packed with high explosive and incendiary bombs, depth charges, and ammunition - 4,606 tons of munitions in all. There were sixteen rail cars on the pier with another 429 tons. 320 cargo handlers, crewman, and sailors were working in the area.

And then, the unthinkable happened . . . At about 10:19 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 report. 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 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.

The reason for the explosion was never proven, but it is 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.  As horrific as it may seem, historian Peter Vogel and others have argued that the explosion may have actually been the first test of a nuclear weapon.[2]

Three hundred and twenty men 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.  After the explosion, most of the surviving African American enlisted men refused to go back to work.  Fifty of these men were tried and convicted of mutiny and sent to prison. 

Since the war, most of the focus on the Port Chicago disaster, including a movie and several television specials, has been on the African American experience, and that experience was truly tragic.  The book, Port Chicago Mutiny by Robert L. Allen, is considered to be the definitive work on this experience.  But Port Chicago was tragic for others as well, including my father, Lt. Richard J. Rendleman, who was fortunate enough to be off duty on the night of the explosion, fourteen miles away.  During the aftermath, while the Seabees were rebuilding the base, he wrote a number of beautifully crafted letters describing how he and his officer friends were affected by this tragic event.[3] He also began to write a novel but never finished it. 

After my father died, I began to write the libretto and music of a musical play based, mainly, on these letters, Dad’s unfinished book, and letters that he also wrote from Hawaii, Okinawa and Guam.  I have also drawn on material written about my father by his best friend, Bob White and his wife, Inez, in their letters home from Port Chicago.[4]  Bob, tragically, did not survive the explosion. Although the play needs much work, and will probably never be produced, I have included sketches of several songs from the play in this section of my website.

My immediate family did not know about Dad’s letters until after he died in January, 2002.  But soon thereafter, we found a manila envelope laid out in full sight on his desk with “Port Chicago” written on the front, containing a 16-page single-spaced typewritten letter describing his train trip to escort Bob White’s body back to Springfield, Missouri.  Dad obviously wanted us to see the letter.  After a weekend of search, we found more letters from Port Chicago and other points of service along with several chapters of a novel, Port Chicago Story, which my father had started to write, but never finished.  He had also sketched a voluminous set of notes for the book.  So here is Port Chicago Story many years later, now in the form of a musical play, Letters from Port Chicago, a story from an officer’s perspective of the tragic events surrounding the Port Chicago explosion. 

[1] Except for the references to the nuclear test theory and the mutiny, all of the material in the first six paragraphs of this introduction is taken directly from The Port Chicago Disaster:  a resource for students and teachers, http://www.cccoe.k12.ca.us/pc.

[2] See Peter Vogel, The Last Wave from Port Chicago, http://www.portchicago.org/lastwave/index.htm.

[3] My family donated my father’s letters to the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  I have transcribed all of the letters and have provided the transcriptions on my website, http://www.rendleman.com/wwii.

 

[4] I gratefully acknowledge Bob’s brother, Bill White, for providing me with copies of these letters.