War Disaster at Home Remembered
This article appeared on the AP wire and the Tribune newspaper on July 16, 1989.
CONCORD- More than 300 service men and civilians who died when a huge explosion rocked a Navy ammunition depot finally will receive permanent recognition Sunday, 45 years after the worst home-front disaster of World War II.
"They've been forgotten, but they died during wartime, doing their duty to their country like anyone else. It's certainly a recognition that is due to them," said Gordon Koller of San Jose, who was a Chief Boatswain's Mate at the Port Chicago Magazine then.
Koller, 73, and four other survivors will take part in a serivce and dedication of a memorial at the depot, now the Concord Naval Weapons Station, thirty miles northeast of San Francisco.
The simple marker, the first part of a larger planned memorial, stands on the shore of Suisun Bay, where the 10,000 ton ammunition explosion occurred on July 17, 1944. It killed 320 people and injured another 390, some as far as 15 miles away.
Koller, whose job was loading ammunition on ships, was headed for work, waiting for a bus five miles away in Concord, when the blast occurred.
"We got a great deal of underground concussion in the place I was waiting. It shook one quite hard, like someone took you by the shoulders and shook you", Koller remembers. "Then the overground concussion came and it was like someone slapped you across the face."
The explosion, which was actually three blasts, occurred as men loaded two cargo ships. It destroyed the pier, the cargo ships SS E.A. Bryan and SS Quinalt Victory, sunk a Coast Guard barge, caused extensive damage in the nearby town of Port Chicago, and rattled windows in San Jose, over 35 miles south.
The blast was considered to be the most powerful man-made explosion until the dropping of the atomic bomb the following year.
Koller, assigned immediately after the blast to make sure no boxcars were in danger of blowing up, found two bodies on what remained of the pier. He and other men immediately began loading ships with ammunition at Mare Island near Vallejo until new piers could be built at Port Chicago.
"We practically did not stop loading. They needed it in the Pacific", he said.
"I didn't feel any different," Koller recalled. "I knew it could explode at any time. It was just part of the job, something you didn't dwell on."
Those who died also included members of the US Coast Guard, US Merchant Marine and Marine Corps, as well as civil service employees and civilians. Among the Navy men killed were 30 members of the Naval Armed Guard, sailors assigned as radiomen, signalmen and gunners aboard merchant ships during the First and Second World Wars.
The West Coast Division of the Navy Armed Guard Veterans last year held a memorial service at Port Chicago and this led the drive for the memorial.
Over the past year, division commander Carl Winder of Mountain View has raised $ 5,000, enough for the first part of the memorial- a concrete slab embedded with a dedication plaque, yardarm and a piece of twisted metal from one of the destroyed ships.
Editor's Note: If anyone has a photo of the Memorial, please send me a copy for inclusion on this page.
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