Many clusters of death occurred in Oregon during WWII that were not considered to be battle losses but were still dramatic and important to the victory of the U.S. Some concentrations of Oregonians were killed at the Port Chicago ammo ship explosion in California, 11 were executed at Wake Island as civilians employed by Morrison-Knudsen Company to create an airstrip there, and a large number died in stateside plane crashes.
Port Chicago was designated as an ammo ship loading port during WWII. Ammunition was transported to Port Chicago by train and transferred to ships using primarily African-American military units that were well trained in naval warfare, but were poorly or untrained at all in ammunition handling and use of transfer equipment to place the ammo to the ships. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union offered to bring in experienced men to train these units, but were turned down by the Navy fearing higher costs, slower pace and possible sabotage from the civilian longshoremen. The men were pushed to load the ships as quickly as possible. The ammunition would arrive with the fuses in the shells and jammed into the railroad cars. Ammo handlers then had to break these munitions from the tightly packed boxcars with levers and crowbars. The heavy cylindrical shapes coated with grease were rolled along the pier then dropped into place on the ship. These actions were so rough that the naval shells were sometimes damaged and began to leak from the ballistic caps. The accident waiting to happen finally happened on July 17, 1944 killing 320 sailors and civilians and injuring 390 others. The ship was obliterated and the community of Port Chicago was flattened. Most of the dead and injured were enlisted African-American sailors.
Prior to WWII, Morrison-Knudsen was hired by the U.S. government to build airstrips on some islands in the Pacific theater in case the U.S. would have to use military force against an enemy in the Pacific Theater. These airstrips were in the process of being completed when the attack at Pearl Harbor happened. The Japanese quickly took advantage of the partially completed airstrips on these islands and continued to use the civilian workforce to complete them without concern for their well being or safety. As the American military got closer to these islands and the potential of rescue for the 98 civilians still alive on Wake Island grew nearer, the Japanese decided to murder the workers. They were taken to the northern end of the island, blindfolded and executed with a machine gun. One escaped and inscribed 98 US PW 5-10-43 on a large coral rock near where the civilians had been buried. He was later recaptured and personally beheaded by the Japanese commander. Because of Oregon’s proximity to the Pacific Theater, Morrison-Knudsen hired a large number of Oregon civilians therefore the state’s percentage of murdered civilians was high on Wake Island.
Americans perished in a very large number of stateside plane crashes. New pilots, who were not used to the flight capabilities of the airplane, would at times make bad decisions flying into “rocks” in the clouds. The U.S. also felt that the best fuel for their aviation fleet should be sent to the battle front to effectively fight against the enemy. Unfortunately this resulted in stateside pilots flying with inferior fuel which also caused malfunctions on the aircraft causing large numbers of casualties. Many Oregon military members transported by aircraft that later would crash increasing stateside casualties.
Many other Oregonians killed during WWII were considered non-battle losses because of the location or how they died. We salute all who served.
Oregon's "Non-Battle Losses"