Port Chicago’s National ­Memorial a key step in ­remembering the tragedy

Port Chicago’s National ­Memorial a key step in ­remembering the tragedy

Port Chicago’s National ­Memorial a key step in ­remembering the tragedy
The Port Chicago National Memorial lists the names of those who died there on July 17, 1944.

Ten years ago this month, the official dedication of America’s newest national park ended a lifetime of waiting for a formal way to honor those lost at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine (PCNM).

For years, Concord’s historic site held only affiliate status, which proponents viewed as a slight. The Friends of Port Chicago is now collaborating with the East Bay Regional Park District for a visitor center that will further tell the story of the horrific events of July 17, 1944, and the racial injustice that Black service personnel endured.

In all, 320 men died in the accident, including 202 Black enlisted men. Just 51 bodies were sufficiently intact to be identified in the aftermath of the late evening explosions. Another 390 sailors and civilians were injured, including 233 Black enlisted men.

Heroic poses

Unlike other memorials defined by statues in heroic poses, the PCNM National Memorial site has four granite placards with the names of those who perished. It overlooks the dock’s original pilings that extend out into Suisun Bay.

“The starkness of it’’ stands out for the Rev. Diana McDaniel, who since the early 2000s has helped carry the torch of making the Port Chicago Memorial a reality. “You can almost feel one of those lost in the explosions.”

The National Park Service will hold is annual observance virtually this year. Go to nps.gov/poch at 1 p.m. July 17 to find the link.

The local group’s plans for the visitor center to educate the community about the events at Port Chicago include having a quiet space for reflection with a display of the chapel’s original stained-glass windows.

“They are beautiful depictions of what was going on,” said McDaniel, whose uncle, Irvin Lowery, was among the survivors. He told her he was sitting in a chair in the barracks when the explosion occurred, and he was blown against a wall of windows.

Long-term plans

Port Chicago’s National ­Memorial a key step in ­remembering the tragedy
The original stained glass windows from the chapel show sailors loading munitions at Port Chicago Naval Magazine.

Long-term plans also call for artifacts, maps, audio and video presentations, and classrooms in the center. She envisions visitors taking a card with a sailor’s picture and the name of his hometown to hold as they move through the exhibits.

“I would like the people to have the experience of what it felt like – the racism and discrimination of the time,” said McDaniel. “I will keep putting my toe in there to make sure we get the Port Chicago story told.”

Port Chicago Naval National Memorial

  • Project started early 1993.
  • Awarded to Daniel Quan Design
  • Budget roughly $250k (close to $500k in today’s dollars)
  • Design criteria – simple, dignified, and contemplative. It was to be interpretive as well as commemorative.
  • Be very low maintenance and made of highly durable and weather-resistant materials.
  • Accommodate small groups such as school classes, and gatherings up to 500.
  • Views around the site were purposely kept wide open
    so that visitors could better imagine the historic scene
    in 1944.
  • The granite markers are oriented outward to the explosion site and the bay.

Donations to the Friends of Port Chicago can be made at portchicagomemorial.org.