Everyone within a 50-mile radius of Port Chicago – located in Contra Costa County, felt a tremendous blast. At first most residents in the Bay Area, including Napa County, thought it was an earthquake. The night was Monday, July 17, 1944. Port Chicago has now been named the Concord Naval Weapons Station.
The Hiroshima blast was a year later, in August 1945. Not until the Hiroshima and the Nagasaki blasts was the general population of the world aware of terms such as “bright white light” and “mushroom cloud” in reference to a military explosion.
The coincidences and the oddities surrounding the Port Chicago explosion are only surfacing today. Some of those are:
- The U.S. claimed it could not test the Hiroshima bomb because it only had a small supply of U-235, allowing for the making of only two bombs. Records obtained from the U.S. Government indicate that enough U-235 existed in 1944 to make several bombs, and more in 1945.
- The head of Port Chicago was promoted to commodore immediately after the explosion and also headed up tests in the Pacific, and was also aboard the Enola Gay when it dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. After Hiroshima he was made a rear admiral. He was Captain Parsons – who had been stationed at Los Alamos Laboratories before the explosion at Port Chicago.
- Liberty ships were loaded while crews remained aboard the vessel. The Liberty ship that exploded at Port Chicago had no crew aboard.
- Documents from Los Alamos show that at the time of the Port Chicago explosion it was believed that the only way to deliver an atomic bomb to the enemy was by ship, detonating in the harbor. It was called the Hydrodynamic Theory of Surface Explosions.
- Records of contents of two box cars unloaded at Port Chicago are missing. A complete list of all box cars were kept – except those two. Did it contain the 9000 pound bomb?
- Port Chicago was rebuilt in one week after its destruction. Two hundred black sailors died in the explosion.
- There was a Navy mutiny at Port Chicago after the blast.
- The Navy was photographing the entire blast from across the Bay.
- In a top secret report on a nuclear detonation after Port Chicago, the notes state that it was a “Port Chicago-type” explosion in similarity and form.
- One of the highest rates of cancer in the United States is in Contra Costa County.
The story seems too incredible to believe – that the U.S. would test a weapon on itself. In order to ascertain the truth of this matter, one must study old reports. In the beginning of this series, the simplest reports to study are the uncensored news reports of local newspapers, such as the St. Helena Star and the Napa Journal – The Napa Journal was bought out in the 1950’s and became the Napa Register. These eye witness reports were made in the pre-atomic age, when no one knew about atomic weapons – what they were, how they worked, what devastation they created, what they looked like, or for that matter, that they even existed. It was one of the most closely guarded top secrets of World War Two.
“One of the few to see the flash from here was Tom Street, who happened to be standing in the patio if his Spring Mountain home when the blast came,” reported the July 21, 1944 edition of the St. Helena Star. “First there was a sudden mushroom of white light, followed an instant later by another, then a few moments later the intense roar and the concussion of the blast. At the rate of about a mile for every 5 seconds, it required a little over 4 minutes for the blast to reach St. Helena.” In another account in the same newspaper, it states. “The force of the explosion was felt at the Mt. St. Helena observation tower, but apparently the range of the mountains at the end of the valley stopped the concussion, for Lake County residents didn’t feel it.”
“The hills of the Napa Valley were momentarily illuminated by sunlight.” reported the Napa Journal.
A major disaster, such as that of Port Chicago, can always remain a mystery – and often time sparks the interest of “conspiracy theorists.” In most cases, time erodes the evidence, But in the case of Port Chicago time has not wiped out the evidence – the U.S. military and scientific community are good record keepers. Because of the existing records on Port Chicago, the court martial of 50 black sailors, various records from Los Alamos, and reports from nuclear agencies and the media provide a succinct road map to the Port Chicago disaster.
The local news accounts of the blast on July 17, 1944, all focus on a flashing bright light and a mushroom cloud – all written before the general public or the news media were even aware of the dawn of the nuclear age. One of the critical points of contention in the theory that Port Chicago’s explosion may have been nuclear, is the radiation factor. The purported bomb would have been a low-yield weapon detonated in shallow water. One of the key authorities on the effect of nuclear weapons is a publication prepared by the United States Department of Defense and published by the United States Atomic Energy Commission in April 1962. Entitled, “The Effects of Nuclear Weapons”, the publication states on page 60, “There may well be some fallout or rainout onto the surface of the water (or a ship or shore station) from the radioactive base surge, but in many cases it is expected to pass over without depositing any debris. Thus, according to circumstances, there may or may not be radioactive contamination on the surfaces of objects in the vicinity of a shallow underwater nuclear burst.” The theory advanced by Peter Vogel – who is a journalist and who also studied physics with nuclear physicist Edward Teller – is that a nuclear weapon was in the hold of a Liberty Ship.
But before entering Vogel’s scenario, which has some contradiction with official records, it is important to note how Vogel was drawn to such a theory. It started innocently enough in Santa Fe, New Mexico – a town across the Rio Grande from Los Alamos. Vogel was at a rummage sale conducted by the Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church. At the bottom of a box of equipment, which had been donated to the church, he found a photocopied document taken from Los Alamos Laboratories in the Autumn of 1944 – a few months after the Port Chicago explosion. The document is entitled, “History of 10,000 ton gadget.”
Vogel traced the document to Paul Masters, who was employed at the Laboratories as a photographic darkroom technician and photographer. Part of Masters’ duties was to operate a large blueprint-type machine upon which were made copies of bomb drawings and other originals too large for conventional copying machines. The document is the earliest known description of the progression of the explosion of an atomic bomb. It is very concise and contains previously top secret information about the actual design of an atomic bomb. On the bottom line in Step 11, the document reads, “Ball of fire mushroom out at 18,000 ft, in typical Port Chicago fashion.” The Port Chicago explosion was characterized by a brilliant white flash, and a ball of fire which mushroomed out above Suisun Bay to an observed altitude of 10,000 feet before its ascent was obscured by the dark of night.
What is so important about this particular document? It compared a hypothetical nuclear explosion to the actual explosion at Port Chicago, possibly implying that the Port Chicago disaster, itself may have been due to a nuclear detonation. Vogel found that document in 1980 – he has followed the trail of Port Chicago ever since.
The U.S. government had never made an official “finding” on Port Chicago. It speculated that the black sailors had handled the ammunition carelessly. One factor the U.S. government has been emphatic about, is that there was not sufficient U-235 in 1945, and that the Hiroshima bomb was dropped untested. If there was not sufficient U-235 available to make a bomb, how could Vogel theorize that the Port Chicago blast was nuclear?
Apparently few, if anyone, had bothered to check the records of the United States Department of Energy on U-235 production. The results are very surprising – and reflect on the possibility that the U.S. government was not forthright in its statements. The minimum critical mass for U-235 is approximately 15.5 kilograms. The Hiroshima bomb might have contained up to 60 kilograms of U-235. In checking the official data from the Enriching Operations Division of the Department of Energy at Oak Ridge, the records reveal that in 1943 the U.S. had 74 kg. of U-235 available for a bomb – six times that of the minimum requirement. By 1944 it had 93 kg. or seven times the minimum, and by 1945, 289 kg. were available. According to official government records, sufficient U-235 was processed in 1944 – the date of the Port Chicago blast – to make six minimum nuclear bombs.
The American public has grown to visualize nuclear weapons being dropped from B-29s or from missiles. But in 1944, at the time of the Port Chicago blast, the belief was that the United States did not have any type of aircraft capable of carrying a bomb, nor airfields close enough to Japan to carry such a weapon. The B-29 was not operational, nor was the island of Tinian, in the Mariana Islands, under U.S. control. Documents from Los Alamos show that at the time of the Port Chicago explosion, it was believed that the only way to deliver an atomic bomb to the enemy was by ship, detonating it in the harbor. It was called the Hydrodynamic Theory of Surface Explosions.
Vogel’s theory, based on the documents he had found – compared with official government documents and eye witness reports – is plausible. But a lot more evidence is needed. Has that evidence been found? If Vogel’s theories are totally false, why then is a Bay Area television station preparing a documentary. Several major news organizations are after the story and why has the U.S. Government suddenly retroactively reclassified Technical Paper #6 entitled Port Chicago Explosion so that it is now top secret after nearly half a century?
At 10:18 p.m. on Monday evening, July 17, 1944, a giant explosion rocked Suisun Bay. The blast killed 320 Naval personnel and registered 3.4 on the Richter Scale in parts of Nevada. The Liberty Ship E. A. Bryan was being loaded at Port Chicago in northern Contra Costa County. Its reported cargo was 4600 tons of ammunition, including 1780 tons of high explosives. The nighttime explosion was reported as a bright white light over the sky of the San Francisco Bay Area, followed by a mushroom cloud and a strong concussion. Windows in Vacaville, Concord, Vallejo, Benicia, Martinez, Napa, and San Francisco were all blown out. Heavy doors and locks in Yountville and ship hatches at Mare Island were blown off because of the resulting concussion from the explosion.
Peter Vogel, a journalist and a man who also studied with the father of the American H-bomb, Dr. Edward Teller, told a KVON audience a few weeks ago that the explosion was that of a nuclear bomb and that it was purposefully set off as a test. Vogel’s theory is based on the strength of the explosion, the secrecy after it happened, and documents from Los Alamos Laboratories which described a nuclear test blast as having simulated the Port Chicago explosion – that test was conducted a few months after the Port Chicago disaster. Of critical importance to Vogel’s theory that the United States used its’ own sailors as a test for the first nuclear device, was the number to explosions that occurred. He claims there was only one explosion.
THERE WERE TWO EXPLOSIONS – NOT ONE
News accounts in 1944 of eye witnesses all universally state there were two explosions. Articles from the Napa Journal, St. Helena Star Bulletin, Martinez Gazette, Vallejo Times Herald, Vallejo News-Chronicle, Oakland Tribune and San Francisco newspapers, all report two explosions. The Second explosion was mightier than the first. It was during the second explosion that the white flash and the mushroom cloud was reported.
In 1964 No Share the Glory was published by native Vallejoen Robert H. Pearson. Pearson’s book, which was the untold story of the great Port Chicago disaster of 1944, focuses on black American sailors who mutinied after the Port Chicago explosion. Black sailors were not allowed to sail on U.S. warships during the war and were used for the task of loading munitions on the ships. Pearson’s book describes the eye witness accounts of people who saw the Port Chicago blast first hand – from Coast Guard men on patrol, a tanker crew that was nearby, the commander of Port Chicago, and those who somehow escaped the carnage, but nonetheless saw it happen.
Before the explosion, the E.A. Bryan was low in the water – heavily laden with tons of ammunition. When the Bryan exploded 323 men, five ships, a diesel engine, 16 boxcars and a small town were totally destroyed. Twelve other cities were damaged. Damage was reported as far away as 200 miles. Pearson stated on page 19 of his book. “It is estimated that the force of the blast was greater than that of a five kiloton atomic bomb.” That estimate was provided in the 1960s – when the world knew atomic weapons. The contents that were loaded into the Bryan consisted of 4600 tons of fuses, Detonators, guncotton, and 10 tons of smokeless powder in bulk, The most critical and most unstable of the explosives on the ship’s manifest – 1780 tons of high explosives – were loaded last. Hold Number One held incendiary bombs and small arms ammunition; Hold Number Two contained 3-inch 0.50 shells; Hold Number Three held serial bombs, some tail vanes and 5-inch 0.38 naval shells; and Hold Number Four contained fragmentation cluster bombs and a few 14-inch naval shells; The closed Hold Number Five was reported to have contained 40mm shells and small arms ammunition.
It is important to establish some critical historical points to embrace or reject Vogel’s KVON discussion. The building of Port Chicago as a Naval Ammunitions Depot commenced in June 1943. The first loading pier was completed for use in May of 1944 – two days before the explosion – the Port was only 80 percent finished. the reason the Port had not been completed by then was the fact that there was a material and labor shortage – common in wartime.
NEW SHIP REFITTED
The Bryan had been launched at the Richmond Kaiser Shipyard in March 1944 and had just finished her maiden voyage to the South Pacific. Though it was a brand new ship, the Navy ordered the Bryan to dock at the Alameda shipyard two days before its reporting to Port Chicago. The Navy installed two 10-ton booms at the Number One and Number Five holds – replacing the 5-ton booms. The Captain of the Port in San Francisco, Lt. E. J. Carswell, boarded the Bryan and found it completely safe, and then issued a permit to load ammunition aboard the vessel.
The loading plan was filed. All the records of the munitions loaded aboard the Bryan are still available – except information about the contents of two box cars. The government claims that somehow, the record of those two boxcars are missing – yet they should have been part and parcel of the first manifest, which is still available.
Lt. Commander Glen Linqueist, naval inspection officer for the 12th Naval District, also found everything satisfactory aboard the Bryan prior to the loading of munitions. The new gear installed at Alameda Shipyards was also found to be in satisfactory working order.
Most of the crew from the Bryan took leave from the ship. On several occasions during the three day loading process, shells and bombs were accidentally dropped – but none resulted in any type of explosion or damage. Along side the Bryan was the S. S. Quinalt Victory, a 7606 ton vessel which had only been commissioned a week before the blast.
The Bryan was loaded with 5292 barrels of bunker C-type diesel fuel oil. The Navy had recently refitted the Bryan with a 10-ton crane to fit Holds Number One and Five. But, during the entire loading process, Hold Number Five remained closed. The Commander of Port Chicago, Captain Merril T. Kinne, was appointed to his post on April 12, 1944 – three months before the explosion.
What was the Bryan’s destination? It was destined for Tinian, in the Mariana Islands. Tinian was where the Enola Gay took off to drop the first atomic bomb on Japan in 1945.
CAUSE NEVER OFFICIALLY DETERMINED BY NAVY
The actual cause of the Port Chicago disaster was never officially or publicly established. Three days after the explosion, Rear Admiral Carleton H. Wright, commander of the 12th Naval District, convened a board of inquiry in San Francisco. After hearing all the evidence, the board could not determine the exact cause or circumstance of the first explosion, but did issue a list of seven circumstances that might have caused the disaster.
“That the Naval and Coast Guard personnel killed or injured in this explosion and listed in the Finding of the Facts, were killed or injured in the line of duty and not because of their own misconduct. The probable cause of the first explosion listed in the order of chance are:
- Presence of a supersensitive element which was detonated while handling.
- Rough handling by a person or individuals. This might have happened at any stage of the loading process from the breaking out of the cars to the final stowage in the holds.
- Failure of handling gear, such as the falling of a boom, failure of a block or a hook, parting of a whip, etc.
- Collision of the switch engine with an explosive-loaded car, possibly in unloading.
- An accidental incident to the carrying away of the mooring lines of the Quinalt Victory or the bollards which the Quinalt Victory was moored, resulting in damage to an explosive component.
- The result of an act of sabotage. Although there is no proof to support sabotage as a possible cause, it cannot be eliminated as a possibility.
Eye witnesses reported seeing both ships secure and all gear in place moments before the first blast. The theory of the crane or equipment falling, or a ship loose from its mooring cannot be sustained by eye witnesses, thus eliminating those possibilities.
The question of Port Chicago really comes down to two basic questions:
- Was the Port Chicago blast caused by a nuclear explosion?
- If it was, did the United States government purposely set off the bomb as a test?
These are the two allegations which were made on KVON radio by Peter Vogel, a journalist and a man who also studied with the father of the American H-Bomb, Dr. Edward Teller.
In previous articles we have discussed Vogel’s theory, the impact of the blast, the history of the port and the ships involved, the findings of a Board of Review, eye witness accounts, and the fact – established by official records of the U.S. Department of Energy – that the U.S. government did have the capability of producing several nuclear weapons at the time of the Port Chicago blast – despite denials to the contrary. Now we’re down to the nuts and bolts of answering the two basic questions involved. Technical Report No. 6. Army-Navy Explosives Safety Board, on the Port Chicago blast has been reclassified by Los Alamos Lab – it could answer at least one the questions asked. The Napa Sentinel is seeking the documents under the Federal Freedom of Information Act, and may file suit in federal court to have the documents declassified after 45 years.
A research paper was submitted on December 7, 1988 entitled Computational Evaluation for the Energy Released in the Port Chicago Explosion. This report evaluates the energy released by the 1944 explosion at Port Chicago on July 17, 1944. The explosion occurred while the Liberty ship E.A Bryan was loading 1780 tons of high explosives and 4600 tons of ammunition – the shipment was destined for Tinian – the island from which the Enola Gay took off enroute to dropping the first atomic bomb on Japan, the Hiroshima bomb was dropped 13 months after the Port Chicago explosion.
The research document creates the theoretical energy released at Port Chicago, based upon the calculation and probable energy source, using the 1780 tons of high explosive. The paper analyzes detonation of fuel, high explosives and a nuclear bomb. These sources are then compared to the probable energy expended into production of the Bay floor crater, heat energy and seismic energy caused by the 1944 explosion.
The report states simply, “If the probable energy expended markedly exceeded that which a chemical explosion could supply, then an additional source of energy (possible nuclear) must have been present.” The report states, “It is not now possible to determine with certainty the precise nature of the 1944 explosion at Port Chicago. The reclassification of a pertinent document, Technical Report No. 6, Army-Navy Explosives Safety Board, prohibits any such definitive conclusions. However, given the size of the crater formed by the explosion and the distance the debris was scattered, a calculation of the theoretical explosive energy released can be compared to the probable source of the energy.” The report uses a “worst case” scenario to the amount of energy generated. This means that the report provides the benefit of the doubt toward aspects subscribing to a non-nuclear explosion. For instance, it assumes that all 1780 tons of explosives were aboard the ship and went off high order (spontaneously) and all at full power). And that the ship’s fuel was at capacity and detonated. ”
At this point, the only conclusion to be drawn is a follows: While there may have been an additional explosive energy source present (such as a low yield nuclear device), the explosive energy derived from the conventional munitions is in agreement with the lower limit for the calculated total energy given-off by the explosion, and thus, the explosion might have been purely conventional (non-nuclear) in origin.”
The specific facts the report could rely on were that the amount of explosives present was 1780 tons, and the size of the crater created by the explosion, was 66 feet deep, 300 feet wide and 700 feet long.
The report did discover that a measurement of the blast crater in 1944 had more than doubled in size by 1946 – indicating that the government may well have made every attempt to retrieve any remains or evidence still at the bottom of Suisun Bay. The report could not confirm the type of fuel used by the Bryan, but selected the probability of diesel fuel. The Sentinel has ascertained that the ship was indeed loaded with 5292 barrels of bunker C-type diesel fuel oil.
The report further states that Vogel’s comment as to the fireball being white does not prove it was nuclear in origin. The report also states that it is unlikely that the fuel aboard the vessel caused the explosion.
The report estimates the magnitude of the blast was between (10)18 to (10)72 ergs. Is this the magnitude of a non-nuclear or a nuclear explosion? The report addresses that issue. If the Port Chicago disaster had been caused by a chemical explosion, the maximum energy expenditure would be expected to approach (10)18 ergs – the low end of the estimated magnitude of the Poet Chicago blast. the report qualifies that statement. “However, the likely expenditure for such a chemical explosion would be a fraction of this value, since the maximum value would require all the explosives and fuel to go off in high order fashion. If the Port Chicago disaster had been caused by a nuclear bomb, the energy expenditure would be expected to approach the order of (10)72 ergs.”
“While the energy expenditure from a nuclear explosion fits this calculation of energy expenditure better than does the chemical explosion, a purely chemical explosion would have produced sufficient energy to be in agreement with the low end of the calculated range. Therefore, no conclusion can be drawn at this time as to the exact nature of the explosion: further information would be required to refine the calculated energy figure and reduce its uncertainty. Unfortunately, since this information has now been reclassified, calculation refinements are no longer possible,” the report concludes.
So what we have in this report is the estimate of a magnitude. The only way a conventional explosion could have caused the blast was if everything had gone off at one time – something that is not too common in munitions explosions. Add this report to other information to:
- the report of a nuclear explosion entitled, History of 10,000 ton gadget, which states on the bottom line of Step 11, “Ball of fire mushroom out a 18,000 ft, in typical Port Chicago fashion.”
- the reclassification four decades later of a report on the Port Chicago blast – which has no military value today:
- and the top government scientists dispatched to Port Chicago after the blast, and their respective role in the building of nuclear weapons:
- the specific destination of the Bryan – Tinian in the Mariana Islands, the same site the Enola Gay used to take off from to drop the first atomic bomb on Japan:
- and the Hydrodynamic Theory of Surface Explosions, which indicated that the bomb would have to be delivered by surface ship because there was no aircraft that could carry the weight, and the U.S. did not have a close enough base to Japan for aircraft delivery.
There is very strong evidence to suggest that a nuclear weapon was indeed at Port Chicago – a bomb enroute to Tinian or some other South Pacific Island. But was Port Chicago a test for the bomb? Would the government purposely destroy a port that was only 80 percent completed? Would it destroy two brand new ships? Would it kill 320 U.S. Naval personnel?
Just because a nuclear weapon probably existed at Port Chicago does not mean the port was a test sight of the bomb. This question is explored in the final article on Tuesday.
More than two years before the United States entered World War II, Albert Einstein sent a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, informing him that a nuclear bomb was possible. That letter was written on August 2, 1939. “A single bomb of this type, carried by boat and exploded in a port, might very well destroy the whole port together with some of the surrounding territory,” Einstein wrote. “However, such bombs might very well prove to be too heavy for transportation by air.”
U.S. government sources have verified that the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945 were transported to Tinian Airstrip in August 1945 enroute to bomb Hiroshima, the B29 barely made it off the ground. The bomb had to be armed in mid-flight. There have been persistent – yet unverified reports – that a heavily guarded compound at Mare Island during World War II contained components of a nuclear weapon. Contrary to public belief, the final specifications of the atomic bomb used on Hiroshima had been completed by mid-February 1944.
This is verified by a 600 page report on the Manhattan District History. The hardware for at least three of the Hiroshima-type weapons were ordered by the end of March, 1944.
Continued on next page…