Remembering Port Chicago, Part I: The Tragedy That Helped End Segregation in the Armed Forces

By Vernon Case Gauntt

Editor’s Introduction: Earlier this year, we posted a fascinating three-part article written by Vernon Case Gauntt about the remarkable life of his third great aunt, Mary Sawyers Swan, whose life story reads like unbelievable fiction – except every word Vernon (he goes by Casey) wrote was true.

Now we post another incredible tale from Casey’s family tree, proving once again that truth is stranger than fiction – and that genealogy is endlessly fascinating. Today’s story involves a WWII disaster, when munitions exploded while being loaded on a pier in California on 17 July 1944, killing 320 and wounding another 390. Most of the victims were African American sailors.

Casey’s Introduction: July 17 marks the 75th anniversary of the disaster at Port Chicago in the San Francisco Bay Area of California, when 320 men were killed loading munitions onto two ships bound for the South Pacific. Never heard of Port Chicago, California?  Neither had I until this January when my uncle Stan Case, my wife, and I were on a road trip to Willits to meet with the folks who were of immense help to me with the Mary Sawyers story.  As we drove over the back bay into San Francisco, my uncle reminisced:

“Back in the 1940s during WWII, my dad’s company, Case Construction, was building a pier in Port Chicago. There was a huge explosion at another pier close by, and a lot of men were killed including, I believe, some Case employees.”

My interest was piqued and I began to do some research.  My GenealogyBank subscription came in handy as I found several newspaper articles about the explosion, the Case project, and the resulting fight led by Thurgood Marshall to end the Navy’s policy of strict segregation. Here is that story.

Port Chicago

The late evening of 17 July 1944 was clear and warm. The merchant ships SS E. A. Bryan and SS Quinault Victory were docked at the 1,200-foot wooden pier at Port Chicago, about 30 miles north of Oakland, California. They were being loaded with munitions desperately needed by the soldiers, pilots, and sailors fighting the Japanese in the South Pacific.

Map: Port Chicago, California
Map: Port Chicago, California. Credit: Google Maps.

World War II in the Pacific Theatre was raging. My father, Major Grover Gauntt, and his men of the Cannon Company, 145th Army Infantry Regiment, were locked in close-quartered, ferocious battles with 25,000 deeply entrenched soldiers of the Japanese Imperial Army on Bougainville in the Solomon Islands. The need for re-supply of ammunition was deeply personal for my father and his men.

Photo: Capt. Grover Gauntt
Photo: Capt. Grover Gauntt. Credit: from Vernon Case Gauntt.

There were 320 men working on or near the pier in Port Chicago that night of July 17, including 203 African American sailors tasked with the back-breaking job of off-loading munitions from railcars into the huge holds of the ships. Several crew members remained on the ships. Nine white Naval officers drove their men hard to win bets with fellow officers as to whose crew loaded the most tonnage in a shift.

Seventeen million pounds of bombs, depth charges, and all calibers of ammunition were packed into the hold of the E. A. Bryan. Another million pounds were in the 16 railcars spanning the length of the pier ready to be moved into the Quinault Victory.

Photo: sailors loading munitions at Port Chicago, California
Photo: sailors loading munitions at Port Chicago, California. Credit: from Vernon Case Gauntt.

At that time, there were 1,400 black enlisted men and 71 white officers stationed at Naval Magazine Port Chicago. The base was guarded by 106 Marines – all white.

The ships that docked at Port Chicago were loaded with explosives at a frenetic pace 24-7. The men were divided into three shifts and worked six days a week, with one day off. At 10 p.m. on the evening of July 17 the sailors who weren’t loading ships were either in their bunks or off base on leave.

About 100 yards away, a new loading pier was being built for the Department of the Navy by Macco-Case. Macco-Case was a joint venture between the Macco and Case Construction Companies, based in Long Beach and owned by my grandfather, Vernon D. Case. At the time, Vern’s companies were doing a lot of work for the War Department, including a huge project to dredge San Diego Bay to enable deep-draft warships to enter the protected waters. Vern Case personally oversaw that job. He and his wife, Henrietta, and their teenage son, Sandy, lived in San Diego for most of 1944 and 1945.

Photo: Vernon Drury Case
Photo: Vernon Drury Case. Credit: from Vernon Case Gauntt.

Three Macco-Case employees were working that evening of July 17 in the construction trailer adjacent to the pier.

Lawrence Clifford “L. C.” Bustrack, age 43, was from Fresno, California. His parents were Norwegian and settled in North Dakota where Bustrack was born. He was the project office manager. Gunder “Gundee” Havlverson was from Cambridge, Iowa. He was 30 years old and married Dagmar Viola Carlson in 1937. He was the timekeeper and handled payroll.

Thomas “David” Hunt, 25, was from nearby Berkeley and a recent graduate of the University of California at Berkeley, “Cal,” with a degree in engineering. He and his older brother, Daniel, were classmates and members of the Kappa Delta Rho fraternity. Their father had been a professor at Cal before his death in 1941. Before joining Case Construction, David was working as an engineer in Honolulu.

In May 1941, five months after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Daniel enlisted in the Navy. He would have graduated in June. He became a pilot and was stationed in Honolulu. The following year, Ensign Hunt’s plane crashed during a training exercise and he was killed. He was 24 years old. Shortly following Daniel’s death, David came back home to Berkeley to live with his mother. David was the project engineer for the Macco-Case pier project at Port Chicago.

L. C., Gundee and David were working late that evening to complete some paperwork.

The Explosions

At 10:18 p.m. on 17 July 1944, there was an explosion, followed seconds later by a much more massive blast. It is believed the first explosion occurred in one of the rail cars, which then ignited the munitions in the hold of the E. A. Bryan and the rest of the rail cars.

An enormous shockwave tore through the nearby barracks, blowing out the windows and shooting shards of glass into the eyes, faces and bodies of the sailors who had recently retired to their bunks. The men were lifted out of their bunks and thrown into the walls and onto the floors of their barracks.

An Air Force pilot witnessed the blast from 9,000 feet above and said:

“There was a huge ring of fire, spread out on all sides. There were pieces of metal that were white and orange in color, hot, that went a ways above us. Some had to be over 100 pounds.”

Every building in Port Chicago was flattened by the blast, including the movie theater where several sailors on leave were inside watching a war film. People were literally knocked off their feet. Smoke and fire extended two miles into the air.

Photo: Naval Magazine, Port Chicago, California, damage resulting from the Port Chicago ammunition explosion disaster of 17 July 1944
Photo: Naval Magazine, Port Chicago, California, damage resulting from the Port Chicago ammunition explosion disaster of 17 July 1944. From the source: “This view looks south from the Ship Pier, showing the wreckage of Building A-7 (Joiner Shop) at the right. There is a piece of twisted steel plating just to left of the long pole in left center.” Credit: U.S. Naval Historical Center; Wikimedia Commons.

The massive explosions were felt all over the Bay Area and rocked buildings and blew out windows in Oakland and San Francisco. David Hunt’s mother, Jane, was at home a few miles away in Berkeley and was awakened by the blast. She immediately turned on the radio and learned the explosion was very near to where her son was working. Her frantic calls to him were not answered.

Every single person aboard the two ships being loaded, and all the men working on the two piers, were instantly killed. In all, 320 men lost their lives, including 202 black sailors loading ammunition and the three employees of Macco-Case. Another 390 men were injured, most of them sailors in the barracks.

Photo: tombstone of a U.S. sailor who died in the Port Chicago disaster on 17 July 1944
Photo: tombstone of a U.S. sailor who died in the Port Chicago disaster on 17 July 1944. At Golden Gate National Cemetery there are 27 such tombstones, and also 17 more disaster victims who are identified by name. These 44 men, of the 320 who were killed, are buried mostly in Section L, with some in Section H. Credit: Binksternet; Wikimedia Commons.

Both piers were completely obliterated. The ships were blown to bits. The only visible piece of the Quinault Victory was its stern sticking up out of the water. There was nothing left of the E. A. Bryan. The locomotive and 16 railroad cars that were on the pier were gone. It was later estimated that the simultaneous ignition of the 17 million pounds of explosives inside the hold of the E. A. Bryan was the equivalent of a small atomic bomb.

The devastation was horrific. Sailors with only minor injuries took on the gory task of finding bodies. Of the human remains pulled from the bay, only 51 of the 320 killed could be positively identified.

An article about the Port Chicago Disaster, New York Age newspaper article 22 July 1944
New York Age (New York, New York), 22 July 1944, page 1

The loss of life in this single incident at Port Chicago accounted for 15% of all African Americans killed during World War II.

However, this tragedy marked only the beginning of the struggles to be faced by 250 of the surviving sailors. Not only had they suffered the massive, instantaneous loss of almost half of their fellow comrades – their friends, they continued to be victims of the unconscionable discrimination and prejudice inherent in the U.S. Navy’s long-standing policy of strict segregation of whites and blacks.

To be continued tomorrow…

Note: Casey continues this story on tomorrow’s GenealogyBank Blog. In the meantime, if you’d like to read his first story posted earlier this year, here is that original introduction and links to the three-part article about his third great aunt, Mary Sawyers Swan.

Editor’s Introduction: Here is a story that will interest all kinds of readers. This is a tale brimming with drama, history, and incredible events. And for family historians, this narrative is a vivid reminder that our ancestors’ lives were filled with stories just waiting to be discovered – though perhaps not all as astonishing as this one.

The story of this story began back on 12 September 2017, when we published this article on the GenealogyBank blog: A Fortune Lost at Sea: Ship Sinks with CA Gold Rush Treasure. More than a year later, Vernon (he goes by Casey) Gauntt posted this comment: “My third great aunt, Mary Sawyers Swan, was on that fateful voyage of the SS Central America with her husband, Samuel P. Swan, and their 21-month-old daughter, Martha ‘Lizzie.’”

In a follow-up correspondence, Casey said his aunt had a remarkable life: “This woman finds herself in the middle of some of the greatest events in this country’s history: early pioneer, wagon trains, Indian attacks, Gold Rush, one of the most disastrous ship wrecks of all time, Civil War, fires, San Francisco earthquake, and brushing shoulders with a U.S. President.”

Intrigued, we invited Casey to tell our readers his aunt’s story, which you are about to read. (Casey is an accomplished writer. If you enjoy this story, check out his website: Write Me Something Beautiful.) Such a long and eventful life as Mary’s requires a bit of story-telling, and so we are presenting the tale of Mary Sawyers Swan Cook in three parts over the next three days. Enjoy!

2 thoughts on “Remembering Port Chicago, Part I: The Tragedy That Helped End Segregation in the Armed Forces

  1. Thank you, Casey, for the article on Port Chicago. Like you I never heard of this horrendous incident. I am sure my Dad Johnny Sherman Frybarger, who was a Navy medic serving his country/World War II overseas, surely must have known about this accident. Wish I could have talked to Dad about this or to my Grandfather; Dr. C.E. Frybarger of Oak Park hospital who resided at that time in Franklin Park, IL.

    1. Diana- thank you for reading and reacting to the story. If not for driving over the bay in January with my uncle and his infallible memory, the disaster at Port Chicago and our family connection to it would have eluded me. It was big news 75 years ago. To some, that is a long time ago, but in light of the fact we were born 6 years later and graduated Lake Park High 51 years ago, for us not so much! Right? Take good care. Warm regards Casey

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