By André B. Sobocinski, Historian, U.S. Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery
Located on the southern banks of Suisun Bay, just over six miles outside of Martinez, California, Port Chicago was one of the Navy’s busiest and most vital munitions magazines during the Second World War. Each day, tons of munitions destined for the Pacific Theater were received in Port Chicago by rail and packed aboard ships moored pierside.
This was grinding and hazardous duty for the Sailors attached to the ordnance battalions at Port Chicago, most of who were African-Americans in a still segregated Navy. And this danger would be realized in the summer of 1944.
At about 10:18 p.m. on July 17, 1944 disaster struck the naval magazine when more than 4,600 tons of high explosive and incendiary bombs, depth charges, and ammunition ignited. Instantly the night sky was lit up by a succession of orange and red flashes set to earth rattling, cacophonous booms.
Five miles away one individual reported that the resulting concussion pushed his car over to the “wrong side of the highway” batting him around like a toy.
Twenty miles away a massive fireball could be seen rising upwards of 12,000 feet leading many in neighboring towns to think that the Japanese Navy had executed a second surprise attack on American soil.
Seismic shocks could be felt some 576 miles away in Boulder City, Nevada.
The magnitude of the first explosion was so great it was reported that anyone who could have witnessed its cause was “immediately lost.”
At the time of the blast, Pharmacist’s Mate Third Class John Andrew Haskins, Jr., was based at the nearby Naval Ammunition Depot in Mare Island, California. The 21-year old Sailor from Alexandria, Virginia, had only enlisted a year earlier and was part of the first class of African- American hospital corpsmen to serve in World War II.
Haskins would be among the first responders to see the devastated remains of Port Chicago.
It was said that upon his arrival, Haskins “immediately” and “unhesitatingly” rushed through the dangerous gasses and flaming ammunition box cars seeking out survivors, providing first aid and, as it was later reported, “working tirelessly and with cool courage in bringing the flames under control” while minimizing any further loss of life.
With more than 320 reported deaths, the incident at Port Chicago would go down as one of the deadliest events in naval history. Today, a National Historic Memorial marks the site of the old naval magazine memorializing the many lives lost that day.
For his actions, Haskins was bestowed the Navy and Marine Corps Medal in October 1944, becoming the first African-American hospital corpsman to be honored for a wartime act of heroism.
Haskins would continue to serve in the Navy until 1946, two years before the service was finally desegregated.
Dying prematurely in his hometown of Alexandria on March 12, 1969 at the age of 47, Haskins would be survived by his wife and daughter. He was laid to rest at Coleman Cemetery in Fort Hunt, Virginia.
“Haskins, J.A., Jr.” Navy and Marine Corps Medal Citation. Awards Collection, BUMED Archives.
National Park Service. Port Chicago National Historic Memorial (Unigrid Brochure). Author’s Collection.
Parsons, William to W.R. Purnell. Memorandum on Port Chicago Disaster, 24 July 1944. Navy History and Heritage Command Reading Room (Accessed on January 25, 2018, https://www.history.navy.mil/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/p/port-chicago-ca-explosion/online-documents/william-s-parsons-memorandum-on-port-chicago-disaster.html)
“[Port Chicago Blast]: Reporter was Impressed.” The New York Times, Jul 19, 1944, pg 14.