“All ammunition intended for the Pacific was funneled through Port Chicago on the Carquinez Strait north of San Francisco, midway between the cities of Benicia and Pittsburg.
“ … On the night of Monday, 17 July 1944, shortly after ten o’clock, a horrendous explosion racked Port Chicago as two Liberty ships, a fire barge, and a loading pier disappeared in a blast that was equivalent to five kilotons of TNT, which is to say, an explosion comparable to that of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima thirteen months later. An Army Air Force crew flying overhead at the time reported a fireball that covered approximately three miles and sent metal fragments nine thousand feet into the air. Three hundred and twenty men—202 of them black enlisted stevedores—lost their lives in an instant. Only fifty-one bodies were recovered sufficiently intact to be identified. Another 390 military and civilian personnel, including 233 black enlisted men, suffered injuries, many of them serious. It was the most significant home-front catastrophe of the war." Kevin Starr, Embattled Dreams; California in War and Peace, 1940-1950 (2002).
My cousin Joanne lived in Vallejo during WWII, just a short distance from Port Chicago. She heard and felt the disastrous explosion at the facility. The memory of it is what comes to mind when she thinks about WWII. My family, however, lived inland, away from the Coast. I have absolutely no memory of that or any other big explosion. For me the war was far away, “over there,” across the ocean. I had no idea how close it really was.
For me the war was sugar rationing and the need for coupons for new shoes. It was Victory Gardens and War Bond drives, cleaning and crushing cans for scrap metal collections. It meant no rubber doll for Christmas and waiting until the war was over for my first taste of a banana split. But none of this was onerous or scary. Unlike Joanne, everyone around me seemed upbeat. All I felt in the grown-ups who populated my world was confidence—“of course we’ll win.” There is a memory of my mother reading a letter and crying and my asking her what was wrong. She replied that Uncle Frank had been wounded, but assured me that he was going to be ok. I believed her and didn’t think about it anymore. If my mom and dad felt fear or anxiety, they never handed it on to me.
Eventually war did become real to me. I began to fear it. But that actually was after WWII was over, when we began to see newsreels about Hiroshima and Nagasaki and hear about what an atomic bomb really was. This was something that could not only wipe out a city with one bomb. Even if you survived the initial explosion this bomb could make you sick and kill you years later. Suddenly those old-fashioned WWII bombs felt somehow clean. If you survived those bombs you could rejoice. You knew you’d survived. With the A-bomb, there could never be that relief. The effects would linger and linger. And I was angry. Why would anyone make such a bomb! It shouldn’t be allowed. And I was afraid, because unlike the fighting in WWII, this was not something “over there.” We were no longer protected by distance and oceans. This was something that could happen here, in this country. I was no longer safe simply because I lived in North America.
The A-Bomb not something I talked about with anyone, nor did I think about it very much during the day. This fear, this anger, belonged to the night when I lay in bed in the dark. It belonged to feelings that surfaced just before sleep, which often took a long time coming even when I was a girl. I don’t want to overstate my fear. I didn’t lie awake every night worrying about the bomb. It did not set the tone of my days. It was just a shadow in what was basically a sunny landscape.
My fear of the A-Bomb came quite a while after the bombs were actually dropped. There was no television to instantly bring pictures of the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki into our homes. All we knew was that six days after the bombing of Nagasaki, on August 15, Japan surrendered. The war was over and the men could come home. For the military personnel stationed in the Pacific that surrender meant that that they would not have to participate in an invasion of Japan, an invasion that was expected to be brutal and hard with a high casualty rate. The military knew that the Japanese would be defending their homeland, and there was fear that fighting there would go on and on with no real surrender. Uncle Frank was one of the men waiting in Okinawa, waiting to board ship for the invasion of the Japanese homeland.
“I was sworn in on October 27, 1942, and reported to the Presidio of Monterey on November 11. After a couple of weeks there, we went to Oakland from where we got on board a ship and went to Oahu, Hawaii, where we got our basic training. After basic I was assigned to the Anti-tank Co., 105th Infantry, 27th Division. We received extended training in Hawaii before we went into combat. It was while getting this training that our first son, Joe, was born on April 7th, 1943.
“We sailed for Saipan in either April or May of 1944. On this campaign I drove a Jeep pulling a trailer hauling ammunition for the anti-tank guns. Even though we didn’t get into any tank battles we did have some difficult times. Our biggest danger was that we drew a lot of artillery and mortar fire. Sleeping in open fox holes in heavy rain with artillery fire didn’t make for much sleep.
“I believe it was on July 7, the day the island was secured that we ran into a heavy battle. The Japanese made a desperate Banzai attack. Since we had dug in for the night after dark, the placing of weapons was not well organized. We set up our guns to cover a good area and crawled into our foxholes with men on guard. After we were settled, another outfit came in and parked their equipment in front of our guns making them useless. Thousands of Japanese soldiers came swarming down all liquored up in a final attack. If we could have used our guns we could have done a lot for that day. We had anti-personnel ammo that would have made our anti-tank guns into giant shotguns. As it was, we got driven back to the beach. That was the day I got wounded, but the Island was secured.
“We left Saipan for some R&R on the island of Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides. While we were there we got training on bigger guns. We went from 37mm to 57mm guns, from jeeps to 1 ½ ton trucks. Again I drove the ammo truck. After a rest of a few months, we went to Okinawa. Here we got more shelling because our bigger guns were taken for Artillery. I didn’t get any wounds here. I only lost a lot of weight from what was scared out of me.
“We had secured the island and were back at a rest camp packing our bags for an assault on Japan when the Atomic bomb was dropped. Talk about a bunch of happy people when we heard that we weren’t going to Japan! The war was over. Around the first of October we set sail for home. We landed in the States in Seattle, Washington. After physicals and shots we got on a long slow train for California. When we got to Camp Beale we got more physicals and finally our discharges. I phoned Jack who was then living in Stockton. Velma was there to meet me. We drove back to Dinuba that night. It was September 24, 1945 when I got my discharge papers.
“I had reported to the Army on October 27, 1942 and got out September 24, 1945. In that time I got to see Velma one time before we shipped out, and I didn’t see Madeline from the time I left till I got out. The first time I saw Joe was when he was almost three years old.”*
*A Short History of Frank J. Willems and Family of Hillsboro, Kansas (March 24, 1997). Uncle Frank was one of the soldiers processed through Camp Stoneman, which was practically next-door to Port Chicago. The rail stop was Pittsburg, about forty miles northeast of San Francisco where the San Joaquin River flows into Carquinez Strait. “For three years, Camp Stoneman remained one of the best-kept secrets of the war. All in all, a million soldiers were processed en route to the Pacific through Camp Stoneman between 25 May 1942 and 11 August 1945. Covering one thousand acres, Camp Stoneman…billeted an average of thirty thousand troops each day of the war” (Kevin Starr).
____Copyright: Loretta Willems, November 2011