California’s smallest national park service outlet covers a mere half-acre in Concord on San Francisco Bay’s east shore—but it tells a very big story. The Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial commemorates a tragic World War II disaster that cast a crucial light on civil rights issues and changed the military’s segregation policies.
In July 1944, a massive explosion occurred as sailors loaded bombs and ammunition onto ships bound for the Pacific Theater, killing 300 enlisted men and injuring 390 others. Most of the victims were segregated black troops. A month later, members of the surviving battalion refused orders to load munitions because of safety hazards, resulting in the so-called Port Chicago Mutiny. Fifty men—the Port Chicago 50—were convicted of mutiny and sentenced up to 15 years of hard labor. Their trial exposed the military’s institutional racism and forced the Navy to desegregate its ranks and shore up safety protocols.
To see this little-known piece of American history, you must plan ahead. Reserve a spot at least two weeks in advance in order to obtain military clearance (this is an active Navy base). Each small-group tour begins with a short film at the John Muir National Historic Site in Martinez. A shuttle transports you to the Concord Naval Weapons Station, where a park ranger accompanies you to the bay’s edge. Near the ruined pier pilings of the deep-water port, the victims’ names are etched on granite tablets, and an American flag flies above their final resting place. It’s a beautiful, contemplative spot, a solemn tribute to those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.