Memorial honors victims of blast at arms base

July 18, 1994|By New York Times News Service

CONCORD, Calif. -- Just six weeks after the Normandy invasion and three days before U.S. forces landed on Guam to retake the island from the Japanese, World War II brought its deadly havoc home to an ammunition base here with a huge explosion that killed 320 people and wounded 390 others.

The explosion at the U.S. Naval Magazine at Port Chicago, 25 miles northeast of San Francisco, had the force of 5,000 tons of TNT, enough to be felt as far away as Nevada and to vaporize the bodies of those closest to the blast.

It also sank two ships that were being loaded and destroyed a train, a 1,200-foot pier and most of the ammunition depot. Of the 320 killed, 202 were black sailors working as stevedores.

In a windy, outdoor ceremony yesterday, the National Park Service dedicated the Port Chicago National Memorial to the memory of those killed and wounded at the depot, which is now part of the Concord Naval Weapons Station.

About 400 survivors, family members and veterans listened to speakers honoring those who lost their lives in the explosion.

"For them there was no dramatic storming of the beaches, no parachute drops into occupied French towns," said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif.

"Instead, they performed the meticulous and tedious job of loading the weapons of war."

For some, the ceremony was a bitter reminder of what happened three weeks after the explosion, when a group of 258 black sailors marched out once they realized they were going to load ammunition.

Although the 50 sailors who were convicted of mutiny were freed after 16 months of hard labor, recent efforts to exonerate the men have failed.

Last January, Navy Secretary John Dalton refused to clear the men's records after reviewing their cases.

Mr. Miller and other California lawmakers have petitioned President Clinton to review the case and issue a presidential order expunging the convictions from the records of all 258 black men.

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