75th anniversary of deadly Port Chicago explosion remembered in Concord

CONCORD, Calif. (KGO) -- Seventy-five years ago, the entire Bay Area shook from the force of a gigantic explosion. Ground zero was the Port Chicago Naval Magazine in Concord. The blast killed 320 service members, most of them black. On Wednesday, a ceremony at the blast site remembered the tragedy and honored the victims.

A bagpiper played Amazing Grace. And later, a soldier solemnly rang a bell in honor of the 320 victims. One of them, sailor Rafel Beason, had a daughter born 4 months after his death.

"There was no grave, no memorial, only pictures," said his daughter, Orville Ray Beason.

During World War II, Port Chicago became a major facility for shipping bombs, missiles and explosives to troops fighting in the Pacific. Back then, the Navy was strictly segregated, with white officers supervising African American sailors.

"All of the sailors who directly handled the munitions were black," said National Park Service Ranger Kelli English.

On the night of July 17, 1944, something went terribly wrong. Two-thousand tons of ordinance loaded into one of two cargo ships went up in a massive blast. Nothing was left of the EA Bryan.

A neighboring ship, the 455 foot long Quinault Victory, was ripped apart.

What was left landed 500 feet away, upside down.

There were no survivors.

"I was very hurt," said Beason. "I was quite disappointed as a child. And as I learned the story of Port Chicago, I was angry."

The black sailors had no training in handling explosives and 200 refused to return to work. Fifty were court-martialed and convicted of mutiny.

A bill by Congressman Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, to exonerate the men passed in the House but may face an uphill battle in the Senate.
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