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Port Chicago survivor provides perspective to Veterans Day ceremony

Port Chicago survivor provides perspective to Veterans Day ceremony
World War II Navy Veteran William Tucker shares with Naval Weapons Station Yorktown Executive Officer, Lt. Cmdr. Christian Dillard the story of a photo taken from Concord Naval Weapons Station in the 1940s. Tucker was stationed at NWS Concord during the Port Chicago explosion which claimed the lives of 320 sailors, merchant seamen and civilians working at the pier. Tucker served as the impromptu speaker at the Hampton VA Hospital's Veterans Day ceremony, 10 Nov. (U.S. Navy photo by Michael Vernon Voss)

11/14/16

By Michael Vernon Voss
Naval Weapons Station Yorktown Public Affairs Officer

WPNSTA Yorktown, Va. -- Naval Weapons Station Yorktown Sailors, including Executive Officer Lt. Cmdr. Christian Dillard and Command Master Chief Petty Officer Lee Friedlander, joined more than 400 local Soldiers, Marines and government officials in recognizing local veterans at the Hampton Virginia Veterans Administration Hospital, 10 Nov.

As the fourth oldest facility in the Veterans Administration, the Hampton VA Hospital cares for survivors of every U.S. military conflict, and each year, the Veterans Day ceremony honors those who served in the Armed Forces.

According to hospital staff, the annual event is special, but not because of the pomp and circumstance, or even the elected officials who attend, but because of the stories shared by those who have paid a heavy price in the name of freedom.

This year’s impromptu speaker Seaman William Tucker stole the show as he shared stories from his experience at Concord Naval Weapons Station in California.  Tucker, a World War II Veteran, was assigned in the early 1940s to the World War II armament storage depot and loading port located on an arm of the San Francisco Bay named Port Chicago.

While, Tucker’s story of serving in a newly desegregated Navy would be enough to fill any 10 minute speaking block, it was his account of the Port Chicago Disaster that brought Veterans Day into perspective and tears to the crowd.

On the evening of July 17, 1944, the 1,400 black enlisted men, 71 officers, 106 marine guards, and 230 civilian employees assigned to Port Chicago were changed forever by a massive explosion that could be felt 30 miles away.   

“In that instant those of us who survived lost 360 friends who we served with every day,” recalled Tucker. “That’s a pain that no one should have to bear.”

As was common in WWII the men of Port Chicago worked around the clock, moving  ammunition by hand trucks and rolling larger bombs down a ramp from boxcars to cargo netting spread out on the pier where it would be loaded into ships assigned to the Pacific Fleet.

“The working conditions were hard during those days,” said Tucker. “We were under a lot of pressure; pressure from the war and even self-imposed pressure. As part of a racially segregated unit, we felt we had to live up to the pressure of our community as well.”

The Port Chicago explosion resulted in the largest number of casualties among African Americans in any one incident during World War II. The blast was so powerful, that in addition to killing the 320 sailors, merchant seamen and civilians working at the pier, it injured many of the townspeople. Though no cause for the explosion was ever determined, it changed the way the U.S. Navy handled ordnance forever.

According to Tucker, change doesn’t come easy. In the months that followed the explosion, many of the survivors in Tucker’s unit were charged with mutiny after refusing to return to loading bombs out of fear.

“They were not honored. They were court-martialed,” explained Tucker. “It took until President Clinton pardoned them before their honor was restored, but by then some of the survivors had passed away. That’s the reason I share this story with you today,” said Tucker. “They are not here to tell their stories.”

Although the program continued as the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command Band assigned to Joint Base Langley Eustis played the Service songs, Mr. Tucker’s story of Port Chicago haunted those in attendance.

“Each year, on November 11, we formally honor the service and sacrifice of more than 20 million American veterans,” said Dillard.  “As with Mr. Tucker and those who served in Port Chicago, our veterans represent the best of America, and WPNSTA Yorktown is honored to be a part of recognizing these heroes.”

Guest Speaker, Donnie Tuck, Mayor of the City of Hampton, explained as a military spouse he understands and admires the comradery service members and veterans experience.

“Whether you were assigned to an outpost or abroad on a ship, you have a relationship with your country and fellow service members that many don’t understand.” said Tuck. “I am not sure everyone can truly understand the injuries, both physical and mental, you have endured, but it is our goal as elected officials to ensure we recognize the sacrifices you and your families have made. Thank you Veterans.”

 

Naval Weapons Station Yorktown Sailors, including Executive Officer Lt. Cmdr. Christian Dillard and Command Master Chief Petty Officer Lee Friedlander, joined more than 400 local Soldiers, Marines and government officials in recognizing local veterans at the Hampton Virginia Veterans Administration Hospital, 10 Nov.

 

 

Naval Weapons Station Yorktown Sailors, including Executive Officer Lt. Cmdr. Christian Dillard and Command Master Chief Petty Officer Lee Friedlander, joined more than 400 local Soldiers, Marines and government officials in recognizing local veterans at the Hampton Virginia Veterans Administration Hospital, 10 Nov.

 

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