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FTR#1308 Interview with Dean McLeod and Peter Vogel About Port Chicago (A Reprise of FTR#605 Because of the Interest Generated by the Movie “Oppenheimer”)

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Intro­duc­tion: Revis­it­ing a sub­ject Mr. Emory has researched for years, this pro­gram sup­ple­ments Peter Vogel’s hero­ic research on the Port Chica­go explo­sion of July 17th of 1944. For decades, Peter has researched that event, devel­op­ing a com­pelling body of evi­dence that the explo­sion was actu­al­ly the test of an ear­ly atom­ic bomb—the Mark II. (Peter’s research is avail­able in an online book: The Last Wave from Port Chica­go.) In this broad­cast, author Dean McLeod, whose book Images of Amer­i­ca: Port Chica­go is due for release on 9/15/2007, joins him. (An advance look at the con­tents of his book, includ­ing some very impor­tant doc­u­ments that com­ple­ment and rein­force Peter’s work on the explo­sion, are avail­able on DEAN’S WEBSITE.) After a syn­op­sis of the Port Chica­go explo­sion, inves­ti­ga­tion and mutiny, Dean sum­ma­rizes the his­to­ry of the town of Port Chica­go, includ­ing the fact that the town was relo­cat­ed in its entire­ty dur­ing the Viet­nam War, in order (osten­si­bly) to safe­guard the res­i­dents in the event of a future explo­sion like the one at Port Chica­go. Dean notes that, dur­ing the Cold War, Port Chica­go became a major trans­ship­ment point for nuclear weapons bound for the Pacif­ic the­ater. The sec­ond half of the pro­gram sum­ma­rizes Peter’s inves­ti­ga­tion into the explo­sion itself and the evi­dence that the blast was a test of an atom­ic bomb. Dean presents doc­u­ments that he has uncov­ered which strong­ly rein­force Peter’s argu­ment.

Pro­gram High­lights Include: The neg­a­tive reac­tions of Edward Teller (father of the H‑bomb) and Don­ald Kerr (direc­tor of Los Alam­os Nation­al Lab­o­ra­to­ry) to Peter’s inquiries about Port Chica­go; the tremen­dous inter­est of the Los Alam­os Nation­al Lab­o­ra­to­ry in this (sup­pos­ed­ly con­ven­tion­al) explo­sion; the back­ground of Cap­tain William Par­sons (the point man for the Los Alam­os research on Port Chica­go); Par­sons’ role as bomb­ing offi­cer aboard the Eno­la Gay—the plane that dropped the first atom­ic bomb on Hiroshi­ma; the char­ac­ter­is­tics of the explo­sion that pin­point it as being a nuclear fis­sion blast; an August, 1944 mem­o­ran­dum con­grat­u­lat­ing par­tic­i­pants in the inves­ti­ga­tion for advanc­ing a “high­ly clas­si­fied and urgent project.” It is dif­fi­cult to imag­ine that the inves­ti­ga­tion of the explo­sion of an ammu­ni­tion ship would be con­sid­ered “high­ly clas­si­fied and urgent!”

1. The broad­cast begins with a syn­op­tic overview of the Port Chica­go explo­sion as an his­tor­i­cal event—in par­tic­u­lar as a water­mark in the strug­gle of African-Amer­i­cans for civ­il rights. On the evening of July 17th, 1944 the ammu­ni­tion ship U.S.S. E.A. Bryan explod­ed at Port Chica­go, com­plete­ly demol­ish­ing the ship, much of the adja­cent port facil­i­ties and sink­ing and rend­ing apart the U.S.S. Quinalt Vic­to­ry, which was anchored some dis­tance away. (Port Chica­go is part of the Con­cord Naval Weapons facil­i­ty on Suisun Bay—an inland sec­tion of San Fran­cis­co Bay.) African-Amer­i­can sailors ordered to resume ammu­ni­tion-load­ing duties after the explo­sion mutinied, refus­ing the order on the grounds that the work­ing con­di­tions were unsafe. (African-Amer­i­can sailors han­dled much of the dan­ger­ous duty of load­ing ammu­ni­tion bound for the war in the Pacif­ic.) In a legal pro­ceed­ing in which they were rep­re­sent­ed by future Supreme Court Jus­tice Thur­good Mar­shall, the sailors were con­vict­ed of mutiny. Even­tu­al­ly, those con­vic­tions were reversed in recog­ni­tion of the exces­sive, grind­ing con­di­tions in which they had been ordered to work. The mutiny, con­vic­tion and rever­sal of the con­vic­tion in recog­ni­tion of the unfair work­ing con­di­tions in which the muti­neers had been oblig­ed to work have made the event a land­mark in the strug­gle for African-Amer­i­can civ­il rights. As dis­cussed in—among oth­er programs—FTR#444, infor­ma­tion sur­faced decades after the event indi­cat­ing that the Port Chica­go explo­sion was a test of an ear­ly atom­ic weapon—the Mark II. For a more detailed analy­sis of the explo­sion itself than can be pre­sent­ed here, see the descrip­tion for that pro­gram and Peter Vogel’s online book The Last Wave from Port Chica­go.

2. Much of the first side of the pro­gram fea­tures author Dean McLeod’s dis­cus­sion of the his­to­ry of Port Chica­go. A major trans­ship­ment point for muni­tions to be used in the Pacif­ic, the Port Chica­go facil­i­ty became, in time, one of the most impor­tant ship­ping facil­i­ties for nuclear weapons dur­ing the Cold War. Before dis­cussing the emi­nent domain relo­ca­tion of all of the town’s inhab­i­tants dur­ing the Viet­nam War, Mr. McLeod chron­i­cles the his­to­ry of the tiny town, begin­ning with its ori­gins as a log­ging town in 1908. [Many Bay Area towns sprang up at this time, in order to har­vest the plen­ti­ful red­wood trees for the rebuild­ing of San Fran­cis­co and envi­rons after the earth­quake of 1906.] An impor­tant junc­tion for both rail and mar­itime traf­fic, the town was named for the metrop­o­lis of the Mid­way with a view to the func­tion­al sim­i­lar­i­ty between the two towns.

3. In 1968, all of the town’s res­i­dents were relo­cat­ed by the gov­ern­ment, which had appro­pri­at­ed all of the town’s ter­ri­to­ry under the prin­ci­ple of emi­nent domain. Using the ratio­nale that the relo­ca­tion was nec­es­sary to ensure the safe­ty of Port Chicago’s cit­i­zens in the event of a nuclear acci­dent, all of them were oblig­ed to relo­cate. [The town had a pop­u­la­tion of about 3,500 at its peak—considerably few­er at the time that the town was relo­cat­ed.]

4. One of the dis­cov­er­ies that impelled Peter Vogel on his path of dis­cov­ery lead­ing to the real cause of the explo­sion was his dis­cov­ery of a film, pur­port­ing to be a sim­u­la­tion of the Port Chica­go explo­sion. This film and the dev­as­ta­tion pro­duced by the Port Chica­go explo­sion were used to sup­port the government’s argu­ment in favor of the relo­ca­tion of the town’s res­i­dents.

5. The sec­ond side of the broad­cast con­sists almost entire­ly of dis­cus­sion of the Mark II, the ear­ly atom­ic weapon that was test­ed at Port Chica­go. For sub­stan­tive, detailed dis­cus­sion of the Mark II and the indi­ca­tions that the Port Chica­go explo­sion was a test, see the descrip­tion for FTR#444, as well as Peter Vogel’s mag­nif­i­cent online book. One piece of crit­i­cal evi­dence not includ­ed in FTR#444 is the fact that sub­se­quent research has turned up high­er-than-expect­ed radi­a­tion lev­els in areas adja­cent to the blast. NOTE THAT SOMEONE SKEPTICAL OF PETER VOGEL’S WORKING HYPOTHESIS MADE THIS DISCOVERY!! The infor­ma­tion about the ele­vat­ed radi­a­tion lev­els at Port Chica­go is avail­able in FTR#472.

6. After Peter Vogel excerpts some com­pelling doc­u­ments indi­cat­ing that the Port Chica­go explo­sion was indeed a test of the Mark II atom­ic device, Dean McLeod excerpt­ed some doc­u­ments avail­able in his book and on his web­site that com­ple­ment Peter Vogel’s orig­i­nal research in an effec­tive and com­pelling way. After enu­mer­at­ing the many high-rank­ing naval offi­cers and Man­hat­tan Project nota­bles involved with the inves­ti­ga­tion of the Port Chica­go explo­sion, Dean notes a mem­o­ran­dum con­grat­u­lat­ing par­tic­i­pants in the inves­ti­ga­tion for advanc­ing a “high­ly clas­si­fied and urgent project.” It is dif­fi­cult to imag­ine that the inves­ti­ga­tion of the explo­sion of an ammu­ni­tion ship would be con­sid­ered a “high­ly clas­si­fied and urgent project.” BE SURE TO CHECK OUT THESE DOCUMENTS, AVAILABLE ON DEAN’S WEBSITE These doc­u­ments are also avail­able in Dean’s forth­com­ing book Images of Amer­i­ca: Port Chica­go, sched­uled for pub­li­ca­tion on 9/15.


One comment for “FTR#1308 Interview with Dean McLeod and Peter Vogel About Port Chicago (A Reprise of FTR#605 Because of the Interest Generated by the Movie “Oppenheimer”)”

  1. In 1993, two his­to­ri­ans pub­lished a flawed and fal­la­cious review of Vogel’s 1982 arti­cle in The Black Schol­ar, call­ing it “A Sto­ry Too Good to Kill.” My research shows that the full sto­ry of the Port Chica­go explo­sion pro­vides a unique lens into ear­ly nuclear his­to­ry.

    Unlike Vogel, most his­to­ri­ans choose not to inves­ti­gate or report on the doc­u­ment­ed link between the Man­hat­tan Project and the Port Chica­go explo­sion. If they did, they might have not­ed that

    1) In a 1948 speech to the Naval War Col­lege, Rear Admi­ral William S. Par­sons acknowl­edged that the data from Port Chica­go pro­vid­ed the first real­is­tic esti­mates of an atom­ic blast. That in itself should make the Port Chica­go explo­sion part of nuclear his­to­ry. The Port Chica­go data was vital to the cre­ation of the bomb, but that vital link has been omit­ted from his­to­ry. Why? The omis­sion is just one of many rea­sons why the Port Chica­go nuclear explo­sion the­o­ry is too impor­tant to ignore.

    In his pre­lim­i­nary memo on the Port Chica­go dis­as­ter dat­ed July 20, 1944, Par­sons said “Port Chica­go was designed for large explo­sions.” For per­spec­tive, Par­sons was not a safe­ty offi­cer, he was an exper­i­men­tal engi­neer, who test­ed explo­sives for a liv­ing. In fact estab­lish­ment of the Neva­da Test Site (Neva­da Prov­ing Grounds) was his idea.

    That’s the back­ground to keep in mind when attempt­ing to under­stand what Par­sons meant when he told the Naval War Col­lege that “with some luck” the for­ti­fi­ca­tion of Port Chica­go helped pre­vent any “sec­ondary fires.” Sec­ondary?

    The Port Chica­go data was of vital impor­tance, accord­ing to Par­sons, because the best data avail­able pri­or to July 1944 was the data from the 1917 Hal­i­fax explo­sion, but that data was not pure enough for their pur­pos­es.

    2) The doc­u­ment autho­riz­ing the Port Chica­go court mar­tial is dat­ed July 14, 1944,the Fri­day before the explo­sion. That hap­pens to be the day Pres­i­dent Franklin D. Roo­sevelt depart­ed Hyde Park for his cross-coun­try trip to the West Coast. FDR was (at least osten­si­bly) head­ed to the Hon­olu­lu Con­fer­ence. It would be help­ful to have a his­to­ri­an’s expla­na­tion for why the Pres­i­den­t’s flag­ship, the USS Bal­ti­more (CA-68) was called from the South Pacif­ic to trans­port him instead of using a ship that was already state­side. They might also explain why the entire COMINCH fleet was anchored at the Mare Island Navy Ship­yard, about 10 nau­ti­cal miles from Port Chica­go, from July 6th to July 17th, depart­ing on the day of the explo­sion.

    It would also be help­ful to have a his­to­ri­an explain the tes­ti­mo­ny of sal­vage divers who described a hole in the hull of the unloaded ship at Port Chica­go, the Quin­ault Vic­to­ry. Although the Court did not men­tion it in the sum­ma­ry of their find­ings, the full 1140 record of the pro­ceed­ings shows at least one wit­ness who tes­ti­fied that the first explo­sion was on board the Quin­ault Vic­to­ry.

    And there is a great deal of addi­tion­al evi­dence that needs to be eval­u­at­ed before we can draw defin­i­tive con­clu­sions about the Port Chica­go dis­as­ter. One thing we must not do is dis­miss it as a ‘mere’ con­spir­a­cy the­o­ry on the basis of unground­ed opin­ions, how­ev­er expert their source.

    Posted by Daisy Brown Herndon | November 11, 2023, 12:18 pm

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