Exploring the Unexplained Explosion

Preview of Upcoming Posts

July 17, 2019 will mark the 75th anniversary of the Port Chicago disaster.

“Lighting the Fuse to Civil Rights”
San Francisco Public Library 2019

Each Friday leading up to July 12th, The Port Chicago Witness (PCW) will post an article relating to the Port Chicago / Manhattan Project connection. This new information provides a fresh perspective of the theory and examines the possibility that the explosion that killed 320 Americans on July 17, 1944 was in fact the result of the first real-world nuclear test.

Perspective: what you see depends on where you stand, what you’re looking at and what you’re looking for.   

The Port Chicago Witness explores the human aspects of the theory. Using a variety of resources, including declassified documents and other primary sources from World War II, we ask: Was it possible for someone to test an atomic bomb* at Port Chicago? Who would have done it? Why? Who could have done it? How? And how on earth could they have kept it secret all these years?  

The PCW will put the nuclear theory in perspective by providing a different approach to these historical issues:

Designed for Large Explosions”: The Questionable Theory of a Nuclear Conspiracy  

FDR’s Legacy, 1: Nothing to Fear – America’s Destiny

Hidden in History, 1: Unexplained Explosion – Unknowable Cause, Unknown Facts

Hidden in History, 1: The Race for the Bomb – Real (Alternative) Reasons

FDR’s Legacy, 2: The Sailor in the White House – FDR and the Navy

Hidden in History, 2: Prophets of Doom (or Glory) – Who wrote the Einstein Letter?

FDR’s Legacy, 3: The Ethiopian in the Woodpile – FDR and Negroes* in the Navy

Offensive “Others”: The Role of Race in The Race for the Bomb

FDR’s Legacy, 4: Birth Father – FDR and the Atomic Bomb

Activated by Fear”: The Port Chicago Mutiny Conspiracy or Coincidence?

Hidden in History, 5: Without a Haircut – Albert Einstein in the U. S. Navy

Hidden in History, 6: That Masked Man – The first “Atomic Admiral

Hidden in History, 7: The Port Chicago Captains – Powerful Persons of Interest

* The Port Chicago Witness uses the authentic language of the 1940s. The first nuclear weapon was called an “atomic bomb”. In that era, “Negro” and “colored” were socially correct terms for the U.S. citizens whose descendants are “Black or African-American”.   

The following summaries will give you a sneak preview of the upcoming posts. They’ll be chock full of pictures and information you won’t find anywhere else. (But you can always click on the links to access the sources.)

The United States during and after World War II

Traditional view:

The U.S.A, “Arsenal of Democracy”, rose to the challenge of helping the Allies to make the world safe for democracy, thereby defending Western civilization from the Axis powers. America (the Allies, that is) won the war by using the necessary, life-saving weapon that ended the war.

FDR, “We must be the great arsenal of democracy.”
National Archives

An alternative perspective:  

Due in large part to FDR’s visionary leadership, America’s gains from World War II ultimately outweighed the losses. The casualties and costs other nations suffered far exceeded those of the United States; yet America emerged from the conflict as the superpower in a new world order.

The PCW takeaway:
Use of the atomic is the one thing that most distinguishes America from the other countries that fought in World War II. If anyone could have predicted that it would enhance America’s post-war status, that could have been a compelling reason to build the first atomic bomb — and, perhaps, to test it at Port Chicago. 

The Race for the Bomb –
Real (Alternative) Reasons  

Traditional account:

The United States had to win the “race for the bomb” in order to keep it out of Hitler’s hands. The bomb ended the war and  saved up to a millions lives.

An alternative perspective:

  • There’s more than a semantic difference between keeping someone from obtaining something and racing them to get it.
  • Most historians now acknowledge that the bomb did not end the war. (The Soviet Union declared war on Japan on August 8th and the U.S. resumed firebombing on August 13th . Japan surrendered on the 15th.)
  • The number of lives that may have been saved is indeterminable. (Nor does anyone know how many lives were lost in the Pacific war, including the atomic attacks on Japan.)
  • America’s tremendous investment in the Manhattan Project shows that there were several compelling reasons to create the bomb quite apart from fear of a German bomb.

The PCW takeaway:  
If there were compelling reasons to test the “special weapon” under real-world, combat-like conditions, that may have been the (defensible?) rationale for a nuclear experiment at Port Chicago.

about the Port Chicago Explosion

Traditional view:

Most historical accounts say or  imply that the Court blamed the accidental explosion on the Black sailors who mishandled ammunition. Some writers report that the Court exonerated the White officers who upped the risks by gambling on how fast the men could load the ships.

An alternative perspective:

Among other findings the Court decreed “That the evidence does not show that there was any intent, fault, negligence, or inefficiency of any person or person in the naval services or connected therewith, or any other person, which caused the explosions.”  [emphasis added]

The COI found that the cause of the explosion could not be determined and that the most probable cause of the initial explosion was

a. Presence of a supersensitive element which was detonated in the course of handling . . .”

The PCW takeaway:  
If there was a nuclear detonation at Port Chicago it would certainly have been caused by the presence of a special explosive.

The Questionable Theory of a Nuclear Conspiracy

Traditional view:

Many people (including some — but not all — of the Wikipedia editors who deleted references to the Port Chicago nuclear theory)  dismiss the claim as a “crackpot idea” or “conspiracy theory.”

An alternative perspective:

Sensationalized presentations of the the Port Chicago nuclear theory only trivialize the serious charge and make it seem ridiculous. These mixtures of fact and falsehood give a bad name to legitimate theories of conspiracy.

In recent years historians and other professionals from various fields, who have previously avoided anything that sounded like a conspiracy theory, have begun to study them and the people who believe in them. Serious investigation by reputable researchers may help people distinguish between an unbelievable conspiracy theory and the credible hypothesis of a possible one.

” . . . can be attributed to the fact that Port Chicago was designed for large explosions.”

The PCW takeaway:

An unexamined conspiracy theory is an idea that can’t get a job because it lacks experience and can’t gain experience because it can’t get a job. The proposition that a nuclear experiment was conducted at Port Chicago is probable — i.e., able to be probed — and a body of probative evidence may prove that such a proof test was not improbable.

The Port Chicago Mutiny – Conspiracy or Coincidence?

Traditional view:

The trial of the Port Chicago 50 was an unfortunate miscarriage of justice, but in the end the men served reduced sentences and were restored to active duty. With the help of Thurgood Marshall (then lead attorney for the NAACP), the trial helped spearhead the civil rights movement and led to integration of the Navy.

An alternative picture:

A number of things about the court martial still need to be looked into:

  • Citing fear in the aftermath of the explosion — not unfair work conditions or racial injustice — the seamen chose not to obey one specific order. Failure to obey is a serious violation of Navy regulations. Why did the Navy choose to try them on the more severe charge of mutiny?
  • News about the mutiny trial immediately diverted public attention away from the explosion; the story of the disaster has focused on the trial ever since.
  • Military trials, which have their own set of rules, are generally not open to the public. Why did the Navy publicize this trial and permit Thurgood Marshall, a civilian attorney, to observe the proceedings and file an appeal?
Precept for General Court Martial – July 14, 1944
  • The court martial was authorized by a memo dated July 14, 1944 ordering that a general court martial be set established the next day –the Saturday before the explosion. Is that a remarkable coincidence?

The PCW takeaway:
If someone was planning to conduct  a secret nuclear experiment at Port Chicago, one clever way to set up a durable red herring would be to activate a group reaction that would result in a mutiny trial.

The men who wrote the “Einstein letter”

Einstein’s revolutionary equation, E = mc2, predicts the possibility of nuclear fission (the process that converts uranium into explosive energy).

Traditional view:

Albert Einstein was a great humanitarian whose only contribution to the war was his 1939 letter to FDR.

Though most accounts of the Manhattan Project open with “the Einstein letter”, historians now agree that the Einstein–Szilard letter was prepared for Einstein’s signature by Leo Szilard. The famous document warning FDR that Germany might be working on an atomic bomb was delivered to the White House by Alexander Sachs, an economic adviser to FDR.

Because of the FBI’s extensive file on him, Einstein was banned from participation in the Project.

Einstein later said that his one regret was signing the letter that led to the atomic bomb.

An alternative view:

Alexander Sachs was more than the middleman who delivered the Einstein letter to President Roosevelt. Sachs, a long-time adviser to FDR, had been following atomic research for some time. Believing that the government should be involved in harnessing nuclear energy, Sachs kept the President abreast of developments in the field.

After the discovery of nuclear fission (smashing an atom releases massive energy) in 1939, Sachs met with a few emigrant scientists including Leo Szilard, the Hungarian physicist who first conceived the idea of a nuclear chain reaction and the possibility of constructing an atomic bomb. The scientists wanted to make sure Hitler never got such a weapon — hopefully by disproving Szilard’s hypothesis. Szilard needed funding to continue his uranium research. Sachs recommended writing to FDR and having the letter signed by Albert Einstein, Szilard’s famous friend and former business partner.

The letter is construed as a warning that Germany might be working on an atomic bomb, but its explicit purpose was to gain government support for uranium research. The prospect of a powerful new form of energy was incentive for FDR to follow the recommendations specified in the letter. Among other things it might be necessary to act quickly to assure that the U.S. would have access to uranium from other countries.

The letter also says that

“A single bomb of this type, carried by boat and exploded in a port, might very well destroy the whole port together with some of the surrounding territory. However, such bombs might very well prove to be too heavy for transportation by air.”

The Einstein-Szilard Letter to FDR, 1939

Five years later, the Port Chicago Court of Inquiry investigating the explosion reported that

“ . . . the E. A. BRYAN exploded as one large bomb.”

Port Chicago Court of Inquiry

The PCW takeaway:  
Historians don’t just a report events, the interpret them. From a different perspective a new interpretation is likely. Propositions that seem outlandish in one scenario are logical conclusions in another.

If it is possible to reinterpret the Einstein letter, then it is may be necessary to revisit the conclusions based on the old interpretation.

If there were unidentified reasons for the Manhattan Project, those reasons would likely have been strong enough to overcome any obstacles.

If, for instance, there was a need to verify the effects of the new unprecedented weapon in combat-like circumstances — how it would affect personnel, for example — that might call for a test in a manageable, real-world setting like the handy new naval depot at Port Chicago.

Albert Einstein in the U. S. Navy

Traditional view:

Einstein, a lifelong pacifist, wrote the famous letter to FDR out of fear that Germany might get the bomb. Ironically, someone — the Army, the FBI or Vannevar Bush — considered him a security risk. Other than “some minor theoretical calculations for the Navy,” Einstein was banned from working on the Project.     


The little known fact that Einstein worked on torpedo design as a consultant for the Navy during World War II is usually associated with the torpedo scandal that came to a head in 1943.

Lieutenant Stephen Brunauer, one of Einstein’s Navy connections, would later become the officer in charge of the Navy’s participation in Operation Crossroads, the 1946 experiment testing nuclear weapons against ships.   

The PCW takeaway:

If there was a nuclear test at Port Chicago, Einstein’s work on torpedo design might help explain how it was done.

If Einstein’s little-known work for the Navy had anything to do with the Manhattan Project, that would be one good reason to keep quiet about it.

FDR’s Legacy
President Roosevelt and America’s Destiny

Traditional view:

Franklin D. Roosevelt, the charming four-term President whose New Deal led the nation out of Depression, was one of America’s greatest presidents. The intrepid statesman — loved by the common man, loathed by the capitalist — coaxed Americans to prepare for  the approaching war; his fireside chats coached the nation on to victory.

MacArthur, FDR, Nimitz – July 1944

Another view:

The visionary President ultimately realized his personal ambition: to lead America out of the Depression and — through the war — into international supremacy. FDR was a complex, secretive person, a self-proclaimed liar who didn’t let his right hand know what his left hand was doing. He was curious, fearless, noted for his artful double-speak. When crossed, FDR could be patient and vindictive.

The PCW takeaway:
If he did authorize a nuclear experiment at Port Chicago, in the unlikely event that someone would find out (and speak up) about it, FDR’s certain denial would be convincing.

FDR’s Legacy
FDR and “The Negro Problem”

Traditional view:

FDR was a “friend of the Negro”. He helped improve life for the Negro through the New Deal and through other progressive programs.  

Another view:

The widespread belief that FDR was a “friend of the Negro” is based largely on 1) the fact that in 1936 Negroes abandoned “the party of Lincoln” to vote for the Democratic candidate, and 2) the mistaken idea that the New Deal improved the lot of Negroes. Additionally, people who accept his excuse that he dare not alienate the Southern Democrats in Congress give him a pass on his refusal to support legislation against lynching and for integration.

His wife, Eleanor, and certain members of his administration were sympathetic to essential Negro causes; there’s evidence that FDR was not. Some time after his public run-in with leading Negro “trouble-makers”, FDR chose his long-time friend, James “Jimmy” Byrnes — a self-avowed segregationist — to serve as “Assistant President”.

The complex, Janus-faced President is known both as a liberal (progressive) and as the executive who supported redlining legislation. He was, after all, a wealthy White man who came to power in the Jim Crow America.

The PCW takeaway:

If one of his many anonymous advisers had recommended that FDR authorize a nuclear test at Port Chicago, FDR would — (Hmm. What would FDR do?) —  probably say one thing and do another.

FDR’s Legacy
FDR and the Atomic Bomb

Traditional view:  

In conventional wisdom FDR is barely associated with the bomb. Some suggest that he was out of the loop for one reason or another. Perhaps he

  • didn’t understand the science;
  • was preoccupied with the war overseas;
  • didn’t believe the bomb would be available in time;
  • was simply not interested;
  • was limited by his declining health.

Historians don’t know what FDR’s position on using the bomb would have been. Would he have used it against Germany? Against Japan? Would he have favored a demonstration first? Or would he have used it at all? He left no clues.

“…atomic bomb!” “…tube alloy!”

Alternate view:

  • It was FDR’s deliberate decision to leave few documents connecting him to the bomb.
  • FDR collaborated with Winston Churchill on the bomb project.
  • By authorizing the bomb FDR made the initial decision to use it.
  • FDR had personal stake in the bomb: the “exponential weapon” would catapult the U.S. into world leadership. American ascendancy would be his legacy.
  • FDR had his own ways to keep abreast of things (of all sorts).
  • Roosevelt often toured the country because, he said, “sometimes you have to see things for yourself.”

The PCW takeaway:
If there was a need to conduct a real-world test of an atomic bomb at Port Chicago, FDR may have authorized it. He may have even gone out of his way to observe it.

The Role of Race in The Race for the Bomb

Traditional view:

Historians have debated whether or not racism impacted the decision to use the bomb against Japan; most of them deny it. Sure, Americans expressed hatred toward the “Japs”, but only because of the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor.

A minority view:

Some call it a conspiracy theory; others have decided it’s “A story too good to kill”. In any case the nuclear theory of the Port Chicago explosion is far too important to ignore.

Most accounts of the disaster emphasize discrimination and focus on the mutiny trial. Not enough has been or can be said about the 202 African-American sailors — young men, single, childless –who were killed in the Port Chicago explosion.

And too little is said about the other people — White people — who died in the blast. If there was a nuclear explosion at Port Chicago then 320 Americans — and, some would say, American democracy itself — were the first victims of the atomic bomb.

The Port Chicago story is not only about discrimination against Negro sailors in the U.S. Navy, it’s a morality tale about the self-defeating nature of racism and other forms of otherization.

The PCW takeaway:
Whether or not we discover that the Port Chicago explosion was caused by a nuclear test, we can learn a lot — about nuclear history, war, race relations and the value of human life as we examine the evidence about the explosion at Port Chicago and follow the facts wherever they lead.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s