Sixty-eight years have passed since an explosion at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine rocked the Bay Area and took 320 lives. Historians say the accident that destroyed two wartime ships loaded with 5,000 tons of ammunition and bombs was so violent that pieces of white, hot metal were seen by a pilot flying at 9,000 feet.

The blast, which was felt hundreds of miles away, smashed buildings and rail cars, splintered wood piers and sent a column of smoke that stretched for more than a mile in the night sky. It was a signature moment in military history, emphasizing the dangers of transporting huge caches of weaponry.

"The Port Chicago incident made the whole military community do it safer," said Lt. Col. Ken Sheets, commander of the Army's 834th transportation battalion.

Sheets is currently stationed at Port Chicago, where he oversees the Military Ocean Terminal, the primary military ammunition port on the West Coast. That's right, munitions are still being shipped through the Delta port of the former Naval Weapons Station.

While this may come as a surprise to East Bay residents, it's hardly a secret. A spokesman for Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, said the congressman is fully aware of the operation.

"What we move through here is mainly bullets and artillery rounds," Sheets said, explaining that shipments arrive in sealed containers, identified only by their explosive classification, ranging from 1.1 (run for cover) to 1.4 (cover your ears).


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Munitions come by truck, rail or ship and stay in the East Bay only long enough to be rerouted. Much of what is handled is outdated ammunition being returned from the field and shipped to facilities where it's destroyed and metal casings are recycled. Live ammunition generally arrives by rail or truck and is loaded onto ships headed for Korea, Hawaii, Guam and other Pacific destinations. Sheets said ships dock about five or six times a year for five to 10 days at a time.

Before you start digging an underground shelter and herding your family inside, you will be comforted to know that military safety measures have vastly improved since the infamous disaster of 1944.

Trucks use bridges to cross active railways to prevent collisions with trains. Stevedores from Oakland and San Francisco who are hired to work the docks receive safety briefings from ammunitions experts before each shift. And no population center or industrial complex is within range of any potential explosion.

"We have what we call net explosive weight and arc," Sheets said. "The arc is how far the shrapnel will travel when something blows up. The Port of Chicago incident made the military realize it can't do munitions operations with civilian population in the arc."

Those safety precautions affect the days on which the nearby Port Chicago National Monument is open to the public. Tom Leatherman of the National Park Service sets dates that don't conflict with military operations.

Munitions have been flowing in and out of Port Chicago for nearly as long as the facility has been around, spanning the Korean War, Vietnam and Middle East operations. When the Navy left the site in 2005 -- it uses ports in San Diego and Washington state to handle naval munitions -- the Department of Defense turned it over the Army, which services the Army and Air Force.

Concord Councilman Dan Helix, a retired Army general, has no problem with the limited munitions traffic but he thinks the public deserves to know what's going on -- particularly as Concord edges closer to developing a huge swath of the old Naval Weapons Station just south and across Highway 4 from the site.

A lot has changed at the base in 68 years. But the reason it exists is the same as ever.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.