The Port Chicago Disaster: Race and the Navy in World War II

This summer marks the 70th anniversary of the tragic events of Port Chicago, California, the worst home front disaster of World War II. 320 people were killed, most of them US Navy sailors, in an explosion at a naval munitions loading station, but it was more than just a tragic accident – the events leading up to and following the explosion exposed the appalling racial discrimination and mistreatment faced by African-American sailors during the war.

Located on central California’s Suisun Bay, Port Chicago was one of the largest and busiest weapons stations in the country, loading explosives onto ships bound for the Pacific Theater. All of the enlisted sailors carrying out these dangerous operations were African-American; all of their commanding officers were white. While many of these men had received training to pursue a naval rating, or a specific skill, they, like most of their black counterparts across the Navy, were employed only for manual labor. And the conditions at the port were incredibly dangerous. Commanders utilized “speed contests” to push the men to load more quickly, and almost none of the men had received specific instructions in ammunition loading or proper safety training.>> Continue reading

USS Slater Celebrates History of Destroyer Escorts

USS Slater at Caddell Dry Dock. Credit: Cindy VandenBosch

As I write this, the USS Slater, a World War II-era destroyer escort, is steaming its way (actually, being pushed by a tugboat) up the Hudson River back to its usual home in Albany. For the past 12 weeks, the Slater has been a visitor to New York City, laid up for repairs at Staten Island’s Caddell Dry Dock.

Since 1997, the Slater has been a been a museum ship, showcasing the important history of these humble vessels. More than 500 destroyer escorts were built in World War II, and Slater is one the last still afloat. But in order to continue to share the story of these ships and the men who served aboard them, Slater was in need of some repair work, including repairing the hull, interior spaces, and the anchor chain. The project cost roughly $1.3 million dollars, and probably would have cost a lot more were it not for the countless hours donated by volunteers (read about their work in the latest newsletter).>> Continue reading

Brooklyn Navy Yard Visitors Share Memories and Mementos

Earlier this month, we hosted a group of retirees from central New Jersey on a tour of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. On nearly every tour we lead, we have visitors who have personal connections to the Yard – they’ve worked or served there, or had family members who did – but this tour was special for the sheer number and depth of people’s connections to the site.

One woman said she used to babysit the children of naval officers at the homes along Admirals Row; another went on a date at the old Officers Club. Two women had fathers who worked at the Yard, and in their spare time (and with a little spare metal), they fashioned jewelry for their daughters in the Yard’s workshops, which they still have – one was even wearing it on the tour!

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D-Day Landings and Brooklyn Navy Yard Ships

Around the world today, people are commemorating the anniversary of D-Day, the largest amphibious invasion in history. The landings finally cracked open “Fortress Europe” and marked the beginning of the end of the war with Germany. World leaders, including President Obama, gathered in Normandy today, joined by veterans of the pivotal battle, who’s numbers are shrinking dramatically with each passing anniversary.

We remember and honor the heroism of the soldiers who waded through the surf or dropped in by parachute, pouring 150,000 Allied personnel into France in just the first day, and establishing a vital toehold on the continent that would allow in millions more. But D-Day was not just a triumph of courage or valor or military strategy – it was a triumph of industrial might and human labor, bringing the full force of the Allies’ factories, farms, and shipyards onto a narrow stretch of beach. It’s important to remember, as the saying goes, the men (and women) behind the man behind the gun, and in this case, we remember the shipbuilders of Brooklyn.>> Continue reading

“The Wind Rises,” Japan Falls

The Academy Awards are tomorrow night, and nominated is a film that has only hit American cinemas in wide release this weekend, Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises, up for Best Animated Feature. I had the opportunity to see the film during its limited release back in November, a three-day run that made it eligible for an Oscar this year, and I saw it again during its official premiere on Friday. While its love story is beautiful, its engineering story is fascinating, it’s the moral and historical drama that unfolds almost in the background that I found most compelling.>> Continue reading

WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY Exhibit Reveals Brooklyn Navy Yard Stories of WWII

If you have not yet been to the Brooklyn Museum to see their stunning exhibition WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY, make no delay – the show closes on Sunday, February 2, when its three-city tour will also come an end.

Rather than arranging the works of journalistic, artistic, and combat photography by conflict or photographer, in this show they are instead arranged into thematic clusters that draw links between war’s common denominators through the ages.  Images range from the Crimean War of the 1850’s to present-day conflicts around the world.  And beside the images of fighting are those of the more mundane daily life in a war zone – “Camp Life,” “Leisure Time” – as well as the human costs beyond the battlefield – “Executions,” “POWs,” “Refugees.”>> Continue reading

USS Iowa: Brooklyn-Built Battleship Lives on in LA

Earlier this year, Cindy and I had the privilege of visiting one of the largest and most decorated ships ever built at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the battleship USS Iowa. Launched from the Yard in 1942, for more than a year she has resided in Los Angeles as a fantastic museum ship. Thanks to the wonderful hospitality of the Iowa‘s staff, we got an up-close view of this historic piece of Brooklyn handiwork.

When we arrived at the Iowa last spring, we were greeted by Dave Way, the museum’s curator. Over the course of two days, Dave spent several hours with us showing off the ship’s exhibits and archives, and even taking us around some of the areas of the ship that most visitors don’t get to see. Transforming the Iowa into a museum was a monumental task, and Dave has been part of this project for several years. Along with a core group of volunteers, he spent nine months living ins spartan conditions on board the ship up in the Bay Area, working tens of thousands to fix and clean the mothballed vessel. Once the work was done, the Iowa was then towed down to her berth in San Pedro, where she finally opened to the public on July 4, 2012.>> Continue reading

NYC Fleet Week Canceled, but USS Franklin Not Forgotten

The Brooklyn Navy Yard has been a place of refuge for much of its history. During its 165-year run as a naval shipyard, it did not just send ships down the ways and off to war; it took in ships in the most desperate, hopeless shape, and put them back into fighting order. During World War II, more than 5,000 vessels were steamed, limped, towed, and dragged into the safe waters of Wallabout Bay to be tended to by the 72,000 men and women of the yard.

Of all the wounded ships to steam up the East River, none were more so than the aircraft carrier USS Franklin.

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Merchant Marines, Unsung Heroes of World War II

Tour group standing in front of the gates of the Commandant's House with WWII veteran Paul Mager standing on the right.

While developing our new tour about the World War II history of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, we encountered a fascinating – and largely untold – history of the oft-forgotten service branch, the Merchant Marines. While the wartime exploits of the Army, Navy, Marines, and Army Air Corps are often celebrated, merchant seamen have received short shrift, both in the history books and in real life.

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Pouring Concrete: The Brooklyn Navy Yard Prepares for War

Times of war have always brought the biggest transformations to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and none were bigger than those that took place during World War II. But long before the attack on Pearl Harbor plunged America into the global war, US military planners saw the need to expand the country’s navy in order to fight on two oceanic fronts. A larger navy required larger facilities not just to build ships, but to outfit, service, and repair them. In short, the navy needed more dry docks in more places around the world.

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