61.2, May 2014

Dangerous Neighbors: Erasive Rhetoric and Communities at Risk

Sam Dragga and Gwendolyn Gong


Purpose: The risk to the safety, identity, and vitality of a community is important for every citizen with a dangerous neighbor, be it military installations, oil refineries, nuclear power facilities, fertilizer factories, airports, or train stations. The historical case of Port Chicago—a failed relationship of a military facility and its neighboring civilian community—offers important lessons regarding the nefarious practice of erasive rhetoric and the missed opportunities for cultivating cooperation and communication.

Method: A critical review of historical records and pertinent communications from military and civilian sources uncovers a series of rhetorical practices damaging to the safety, identity, and vitality of a community.

Results: The language practices of name-changing, dismissive and derogatory descriptions, passive voice, negative claims, tactical omissions, and elaborate pejorative detail, separately and collectively, serve to fortify the source of danger while erasing the object of danger.

Conclusion: This provocative and still timely case challenges technical communicators to bring together officials from military, industrial, and transportation facilities with the residents of neighboring cities for instructive and productive interactions that generate trust, save lives, and preserve communities.

Keywords: dangerous neighbors; erasive rhetoric; risk communication; safe distance; community; taking

Practitioner’s Takeaway

  • Citizens in neighboring communities are widely unaware of the risks to health, safety, and the environment created by military, industrial, and transportation facilities.
  • Technical communicators possess the skills necessary to bring together communities and dangerous neighboring facilities for informative and cooperative interactions that build trust, avoid erasive rhetoric, share knowledge, and minimize risk.
  • Historical cases such as Port Chicago serve as vivid reminders to technical communicators that their continuing conscientious efforts are important and necessary.


Across the world, the daily operations of military, industrial, and transportation facilities create potential dangers for their neighboring communities. The dangers might be physical, economic, psychological, or all of the above, putting at risk the ability of their neighbors to thrive. In this fragile relationship is a key opportunity for technical communicators to serve as a facility’s representative to neighboring communities or as the voice of neighboring communities in their ongoing interactions and negotiations with military, industrial, and transportation facilities. Sensitive to the perils that rhetoric itself might generate, technical communicators could explain a facility’s operating practices, advise neighboring communities regarding potential dangers, identify appropriate actions for local residents to take in a crisis or emergency, and encourage facility-community cooperation. Technical communicators serving as community representatives could give voice to the questions and anxieties of local residents, explain answers offered by facility officials, mediate disputes, develop accords and reciprocities, and cultivate joint missions and projects.

The opportunities we propose intersect obviously with the field of risk communication as it has evolved to emphasize industry-community relationship building (Fischhoff, 1995; Leiss, 1996) and the creation of a convergence of differing perspectives (Sellnow et al., 2009). The theory and practice of this field have developed on a foundation of community-right-to-know regulations, especially the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act of 1986 (EPCRA) and its creation of Local Emergency Planning Committees (LEPCs) as well as the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe’s 1998 Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (more familiar as the Aarhus Convention). Studies across a wide array of disciplines (for example, biology, chemistry, communications, economics, education, engineering, political science, law, medicine, psychology, public relations, sociology) have guided the important efforts of risk communicators in addressing the multiplicity of hazards to health, safety, and the environment (for example, Heath & O’Hair, 2010; Morgan et al., 2011).

In spite of extensive regulations and research, however, the public is widely unaware and unappreciative of the risk information available to it regarding the dangers of neighboring facilities (Palenchar, 2008). The majority of citizens are typically inattentive to local industrial, transportation, and military activities unless a crisis occurs and allow little or no time in their daily lives to participate in public meetings or review published materials about potential dangers.

In a world of ubiquitous technological perils, technical communicators are thus vital to the effective explication of risk and the creation of productive and trusting relationships for communities and their dangerous neighbors. Technical communicators bring to this challenge extraordinary diversity of education and experience: knowledge of verbal and visual rhetoric, usability research, and participatory design as well as pertinent skills in analyzing audiences, interpreting and adapting quantitative and qualitative information from subject specialists in science and engineering for nonspecialists (and vice versa), and developing lucid instructions, policies, and warnings.

This article examines a historical case from a time prior to the rise of risk communication as a field. It is a case of a failed relationship—a cautionary case that is potentially as instructive for the field of technical communication as is the case of the Challenger (for example, Dombrowski, 1991, 1992, 1995; Moore, 1992a, 1992b; Winsor, 1990) and its lessons regarding interdisciplinary/intercultural communication, the impact of rhetoric and relationships of power on judgment and decision making, and the ethical obligations of communicating parties in conditions of urgency or uncertainty. (Also instructive on this score are Denise Tillery’s studies of the communications related to the nuclear materials repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, and Beverly Sauer’s examination of the rhetoric of mining operations and investigations in the United States, England, and South Africa.) The case we discuss here is little recognized, but it makes obvious the risks to communities from dangerous neighboring facilities and from rhetoric itself. It is a tragic case that also reinforces why community right-to-know initiatives are necessary and deserve the vigorous support of technical communicators.

On July 17, 1944, at the U.S. Naval Magazine at Port Chicago, California, a rapid pair of ammunition explosions killed 320, injured 390, and disintegrated vessels, vehicles, and buildings. The two explosions also injured 113 civilians and damaged every building in the adjacent unincorporated community of Port Chicago, a population of 3,000 located within two miles of the site of the explosions. No accident in the United States during World War II was as serious as that at Port Chicago. Following the subsequent repair and expansion of the facility, the Navy claimed a two-mile barrier from the piers was necessary to insure public safety. It proposed the taking of the city—a proposal that itself initiated a loss of residents and businesses in spite of wide and vocal civilian opposition. In 1969, the entire community of Port Chicago was appropriated: buildings were bought and demolished and residents were dispersed.

Across a 25-year period, successive generations of military officials and community residents engaged in addressing issues of risk, identity, visibility, safety, and vitality. The language practices of name-changing, of dismissive and derogatory descriptions, of passive voice and negative claims, of tactical omissions and elaborate detail, separately and collectively, served to fortify the source of danger while erasing the object of danger.

Using the research techniques characteristic of histories as well as of descriptive case studies (Yin, 2014, p. 12), this article incorporates primary and secondary materials in its examination of specific episodes that occurred in California in the period during and following World War II. In this research process, we examined military manuals and reports, newspaper articles, published books, and transcripts and audio recordings of interviews with witnesses, piecing together a lucid chronicle from the available sources. A close reading of the materials allowed us to 1) explicate the narrative and (2) identify and evaluate stylistic features in the language practices. From this contextualized historical critical perspective, we observed how the materials reveal a progressive pattern of erasive rhetoric—of wording and phrasing that ultimately contributes to the obliteration of Port Chicago.

The lessons for technical communicators from this salient case are clear and still timely: multiple opportunities for cooperation and communication were missed—opportunities that might have saved lives, avoided injuries, and preserved a community.


California’s Suisun Bay has a long history, from the Suisun people who thrived in the region for thousands of years, to the transient Spanish explorers and missionaries of the 1700s and the French, Spanish, and Russian fur traders of the early 1800s. Sitting at the intersection of two rivers, shielded by four islands, and enjoying a tide of eight feet, the south shore of Suisun Bay is especially suited for water transport. The Americans who arrived about 1851 with intentions of building a lasting community were focused initially on farming, ranching, and mining and were soon supported by trains as well as ships for the carry of cargo. A major lumber mill, factories, and smelting and petrochemical operations joined the community in the early 1900s, generating a growing vitality and diversity in the local economy. During World War I, this was a choice site for the building of freighters for the U.S. Navy (McLeod, 2007, p. 31).

This community identified itself in 1908 as Bay Point because of its location, and by 1918 included 250 families or 1500 people. Following the worldwide financial collapse of 1929 and its rippling impact across the United States, civic officials and business leaders in 1931 sought to invigorate Bay Point’s torpid commercial activity through a change of name to Chicago. Their objective was to cultivate a wider reputation for industrial capacity and bring exciting new enterprises to the city. The U.S. Post Office, however, resisted the new name and the resulting compromise was Port Chicago (McLeod, 2007, p. 59; Rand, 2008, p. 30).

The Arrival of the U.S. Navy

The 1930s were dismal years everywhere, including Port Chicago, but World War II brought a revival of economic activity. In 1942, the U.S. Navy established the Port Chicago Naval Magazine to serve as a transport facility (that is, rapid passage versus temporary storage) in support of the war effort. The magazine was located within two miles of the city. Ammunition of all kinds (including bombs, bullets, torpedoes, and mines) were brought to the magazine by freight trains and loaded on cargo ships for operations in the Pacific Ocean. The citizens of Port Chicago were pleased to support the war effort and pleased with the boost to the city’s economy that the military facility supplied, but virtually none were aware of the extraordinary risk to their community arising from the magazine’s improper design, ill-equipped officers, and untrained sailors as well as the rhetorical effort to minimize the size, history, and tenacity of local civilian life.

Urgency was a key factor in the choice of location and the construction of the naval facility. In the summer of 1941, war was imminent. At the Mare Island Naval Shipyard (a facility created in 1852 twenty-five miles northeast of San Francisco for the design, building, and repair of ships), the ammunition depot was already at capacity. The director of the port at Mare Island advised the building of a new ammunitions transport facility at Port Chicago, declaring “The great value of this site is its complete isolation from habitation and industrial activity” (Allen, 2006, p. 38; McLeod, 2007, p. 69). This is the earliest occurrence of the dismissive and erasive rhetoric that will characterize the U.S. Navy’s discourse regarding the community and its 1500 citizens.

The issue of proximity to the public was important because the location and condition of explosive storage facilities were monitored by the Joint Army-Navy Ammunition Storage Board, a committee of military officers created by the U.S. Congress in 1928 following the 1926 explosion at the Naval Ammunition Depot, Lake Denmark, New Jersey, which killed 21 people and injured 53 in addition to $84 million in property loss and damage (Department of Defense, 2012). The Board adopted as its guide the American Table of Distances, a list published in 1910 by the explosives industry using available information compiled from 117 noteworthy accidents during the years 1854 to 1909 (U.S. Army-Navy Explosives Safety Board, 1945). The ATD specified safe distances to inhabited buildings from both barricaded and unbarricaded explosives, though waivers, exemptions, and deviations were allowed.

The United States declared war on December 8, 1941, and the following day a committee that was investigating potential sites for the expansion of naval operations—a committee that included the port director of the Mare Island facility—submitted its official proposal for a magazine at Port Chicago (Allen, 2006, p. 39; U.S. Navy, Bureau of Yards and Docks, 1947, p. 344). The necessary land for the facility was acquired and construction initiated by February of 1942. Ships were being loaded with ammunition by December. On opening day, the magazine comprised the following:

  • a ship pier (500 feet long by 70 feet wide) for loading two ships at the time
  • a barge pier
  • 27 barricaded sidings for up to 203 railroad cars
  • 9 storage buildings
  • a boiler house
  • a machine shop
  • a fire pump house and electric shop
  • a commissary
  • 4 Barracks for enlisted (up to 232 each)
  • a barracks for U.S. Marine guards
  • a Magazine Administration Building (includes officers’ quarters)
  • a Naval Barracks Administration Building (includes officers’ quarters, dispensary, and ship’s service store) (U.S. Navy, Bureau of Ordnance, 1945)

Screen Shot 2014-06-10 at 5.14.20 PMThe facility was never entirely satisfactory, however, developed as it was with temporary buildings principally on filled-in marsh land and thus subject to sporadic subsidence “so bad in the inert-storage area that it was necessary to abandon construction of one storehouse. As much as three feet of subsidence occurred in some of those which were built, entailing considerable extra work” (U.S. Navy, Bureau of Yards and Docks, 1947, p. 344). Repair and renovation were routine activities (U.S. Navy, Bureau of Ordnance, 1945):

After the first two months of operations, it became apparent that the loading platforms at the ships pier were too narrow for efficient and safe handling of ammunition. Consequently, in March 1943 the loading platform on the inboard berth was moved and joined to the outboard loading platform, thereby providing a 20 ft loading platform with resulting increased efficiency and safety. To accomplish this, one railroad track on the ships pier was sacrificed and the inboard berth no longer was available for loading. . . .

Anticipating an increase in tonnage to be loaded at Port Chicago in the future, recommendations were made in the spring of 1943 to construct a marginal wharf inboard of the first pier to accommodate an additional two vessels. However, no action was taken on this proposal until approximately November 1943, when the Commandant, Twelfth Naval District, visited Port Chicago.

As a result of this visit and apparent need of increased loading capacity at Port Chicago, construction of the marginal wharf was expedited. Meanwhile, as an expedient to get two berths in operation at pier #1 in the shortest possible time, it was concluded to widen both the inboard and outboard berths ten (10) feet each, thereby permitting 20 feet loading platforms at each berth and enabling two ships to load simultaneously.

Work on this widening was instituted shortly thereafter with loading operations continuing at one berth while the other was being widened. The widening of the berths was completed so that two ships could be simultaneously loaded for the first time on 10 May 1944.

Screen Shot 2014-06-10 at 5.14.34 PMScreen Shot 2014-06-10 at 5.14.45 PMScreen Shot 2014-06-10 at 5.14.53 PMLater it would be acknowledged that the renovations raised efficiency but also the level of risk: “When loading two ships simultaneously, there was considerable crowding and congestion on the pier” (U.S. Navy, Court of Inquiry, 1946, p. 1207).

Meanwhile, a March 1943 letter to the Secretary of War and the Secretary of the Navy from the Joint Army-Navy Ammunition Storage Board cautioned that the American Table of Distances (the basis of existing safety regulations) was without adequate scientific foundation and urged immediate testing to assure greater accuracy (Freund, 1978, I: 12).

None of the potential dangers arising from the original defective design and continuing changes to the facility were communicated to local civilians. And the facility was growing in the scope of its operations. A second two-berth wharf was under construction in the summer of 1944 and land for a third was being acquired—extensions that would double and triple the number of officers and officers’ quarters, of enlisted sailors and barracks, of auxiliary buildings and barricaded sidings (U.S. Navy, Bureau of Yards and Docks, 1947).
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In addition, the majority of the officers assigned to the magazine were activated reservists or entirely new—new to managing enlisted sailors, new to working with ammunition, and new to the loading of ships. Their training for their dangerous jobs was inconsistent and improvised: it might include taking classes in office duties related to shipping, observing activities at Mare Island, visiting commercial shiploading facilities, or working with experienced officers. It might also include “a course of instruction at Great Lakes [a training facility] in negro psychology” (U.S. Navy, Court of Inquiry, 1946, p. 1203). Because of the segregation of the military at the time, all of the enlisted sailors loading the ships but none of the officers were African American, creating greater opportunities for miscommunication, misinterpretation, and miscalculation. The inexperienced and ill-trained officers would yield to pressure to load ammunition as quickly as possible: each division’s average rate of loading was tracked on a bulletin board and incentives (positive and negative) offered to the sailors to stimulate competition and encourage efficiency, with wagering among the officers (Allen, 2006, p. 48).

Equally dangerous itself was the decision to utilize inexperienced African American sailors to unload the ammunition from trains and load it on ships instead of hiring civilian stevedores to do the job. While civilian winch operators must have years of experience with ordinary cargo to qualify for the loading and unloading of explosives, none of the sailors were experienced with operating winches and were given a single week of training (and ad hoc training thereafter). Ammunition was loaded 24 hours a day in three eight-hour shifts for three consecutive days, followed by a day of barracks duty, followed by three consecutive days of loading, followed by a day of liberty (Allen, 2006, pp. 46-47). The sailors were ill-equipped, working without clear and consistent instructions, as the entire ammunitions transport process operated without official regulations or guidelines. As the later investigation would acknowledge (U.S. Navy, Court of Inquiry, 1946, p. 1207), the only instruction manual was that available from the U.S. Coast Guard and published in October 1943: Regulations Governing Transportation of Military Explosives on Board Vessels during the Present Emergency. This is a 55-page pocket-size book (approximately 3 X 6.5 inches) with tiny text printed on thin paper: the ink on both sides of the page is visible, making laborious the physical process of reading. The regulations are written as paragraphs in passive voice without illustrations, making interpretation of the instructions a challenge (see Figure 1).

Note that rhetorical techniques for user-friendly instructions were readily available and widely practiced. For example, A Handbook for Air Raid Wardens, published in 1942 by the U.S. Office of Civil Defense, displays instructions in numbered and alphabetized lists with adjacent pictorial illustrations. Serial illustrations are also integrated, as are icons in tables of information for quick access with little reading (see Figures 2 and 3). Earlier manuals of the U.S Coast Guard (for example, the 1921 Instructions for United States Coast Guard Stations) included pictorial illustrations, making their omission from the 1943 explosives manual altogether curious and tragic (a related bibliographic issue that itself deserves investigation). And the U.S. War Department published a wide array of technical manuals during this period that incorporated annotated pictorial illustrations and numbered and alphabetized lists of instructions (see Figures 4, 5, and 6).

While a manual of lucid pictorial instructions for the loading and unloading of explosives could thus have been designed and distributed, the reduction of risk to the lives of the sailors—and civilians in neighboring communities—was neither as vital nor necessary to the operation of the facility and the operation of the war as were urgency and expediency in getting the explosives to sea.

In addition, naval officers considered the regulations of the Coast Guard’s manual to be only advisory and ordinarily adapted or ignored instructions (for example, allowing bombs to be dropped and rolled instead of carried). Neither was the Coast Guard allowed to monitor or regulate safety practices at the magazine as it ordinarily would at sea transport facilities (Allen, 2006, pp. 45-46).

To summarize, this was a defective transport facility being operated without necessary regulations or appropriate monitoring by inexperienced officers managing individuals untrained for dangerous duties—conditions that would never have been allowed were the facility in a major city. A disaster was looming, a disaster anticipated by the sailors loading the ships but to which their officers were inattentive, a disaster of the military’s making during a time of war in disregard for African American lives and the safety of neighboring civilian communities. It was as though the promised “isolation from human habitation” of the Port Chicago Naval Magazine was perceived by military officials as permission to engage in negligence: that is, erasive rhetoric inspired erasive action.

It is also important to note that this inattention to safe practices persisted following a notorious explosives accident on September 17, 1943, at Naval Operating Base Norfolk in Virginia. In this accident, 24 aerial depth charges (that is, anti-submarine weapons) were being rapidly transported by a single truck pulling four trailers (with six canisters to a trailer instead of the usual four) from the piers across the station’s airfield taxiway to the ammunition magazine: 40 were killed and 386 injured. And, again, on November 16, 1943, six people (five African American) were killed in a horrific explosion at the Yorktown Naval Mine Depot (a weapons production and storage facility), while moving weapons inside a storage building of only 500 square feet that housed approximately 100,000 pounds of volatile materials.

The Explosions

With the conditions for disaster thus established, on the night of July 17, 1944, two explosions (at 10:18:47 p.m. and 10:18:54 p.m.) would leave 320 people dead and 503 injured and cause damage for miles in every direction (see Figures 7 and 8).

At the time, two ships were at the pier. The S.S. E.A. Bryan, a cargo ship of the Liberty class on its second voyage, was being loaded with projectiles, bombs, and cartridges. Earlier in the day, critical repairs were made to two of its five winches. The S.S. Quinault Victory, a cargo ship of the Victory class on its first voyage, was newly arrived at the pier and was being rigged for loading. Sixteen railroad cars filled with explosives were on the pier.

It is impossible to know the immediate cause or causes of the explosions as every human being within 1,000 feet was killed and almost all of the pertinent physical evidence obliterated. The Bryan was in slivers, the Quinault Victory in sections inverted in the water 500 feet from its original position; the railroad cars were twisted pieces of sizzling debris, while the pier vanished altogether (Allen, 2006, p. 64). Of the 320 killed, the bodies of only 51 could be identified: we believe it is important to include their names here in their memory (see Table 1 and Table 2).

Losses exceeding $9 million in military property included damage to buildings, fences, roads, railroads, tanks, power and water systems, telephone service, automotive equipment, machinery, and tools (U.S. Navy, Court of Inquiry, 1946).

In the community of Port Chicago, the losses were also striking. Injuries were both major and minor (see Table 3). Of the civilians injured, 53 would file claims for compensation totaling $121,000. Property loss averaged $1,000 and included shattered windows, collapsed walls and ceilings, and ripped utility lines: 650 buildings were damaged—each of the community’s 450 homes as well as stores, barns, schools, and churches (Rand, 2008, p. 44).

Screen Shot 2014-06-10 at 5.30.17 PMThe residents of Port Chicago were uninformed about the potential hazards created by their military neighbor and were untrained for disaster: their ignorance would have tragic consequences. The first-person reports of multiple survivors indicate that they did not immediately drop to the ground or seek shelter after hearing the first explosion but looked out a window, opened the door to the house, or walked outside to investigate the noise and were injured by flying glass and debris from the second explosion seven seconds later (Rand, 2008, p. 38). For example, according to survivor Keith Grover,

Monday evening July 17, 10:19 p.m., the family was all in bed and I was quietly reading by the radio when suddenly the lights flickered and went out. Immediately there was a tremendous jarring explosion, and it flashed through my mind that something had blown up down at the base. I walked to the front door and looked out and there, down at the base, were great flashes of lights and streaks of fire going high in the sky like rockets.

Suddenly the whole sky was a sheet of white flame and the whole world seemed to be ripped apart by a sound so great and terrifying that it defied description, something like thunder real close, multiplied a hundred times, accompanied by a great rending sound.

I felt the air press on me from head to foot, then squeeze like a giant hand and I had a sensation of being roughly handled and the next thing I knew I was on the floor choking from the dust. I guess I was partly blown and partly shaken down. (Rand, 2008, pp. 52-53)

Of the 320 killed, 202 were the African Americans loading ammunition. While officers were given thirty days of survivor’s leave, none of the African American sailors were awarded release time, including individuals who were injured in the explosions, who were in obvious shock thereafter, or who courageously joined in the evacuation of the injured, the search for bodies, and salvage and repair efforts. Several divisions were transferred temporarily to military facilities in the region.

Investigation of the Explosions

The official naval investigation of the disaster was initiated on July 21—a three-officer Court of Inquiry that would take till October 30 to question witnesses, examine all evidence, and issue a report of its findings, conclusions, and recommendations.

Meanwhile, the war was ongoing and the loading of ammunition was still vital. The resumption of operations at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine and a major expansion of the facility were announced by the U.S. Navy within a week of the explosions, still without knowing the cause or taking the remedial actions necessary to avoid equally catastrophic consequences.

On August 9, the surviving African American sailors, transferred to the Mare Island facility following the explosions, were directed to load ammunition; still in stress and believing that the existing loading practices were unequivocally dangerous, 258 declined. The court martial and discharge of 208 and the extraordinary joint trial and conviction of 50 for mutiny constituted the immediate rhetorical environment of September and October of 1944—the time in which the official investigative report on the Port Chicago explosions was being written by the three naval officers. (For a picture of the wider rhetorical environment of the period, Neil Wynn’s The African American Experience during World War II is essential reading.)

In a noteworthy exercise in erasive rhetoric, the Court of Inquiry’s report acknowledges the defective design of the facility and the inadequate training of officers but reserves its harshest criticism for the African American sailors:

Screen Shot 2014-06-10 at 5.36.18 PMScreen Shot 2014-06-10 at 5.36.31 PMThese enlisted personnel were unreliable, emotional, lacked capacity to understand or remember orders or instructions, were particularly susceptible to mass psychology and moods, lacked mechanical aptitude, were suspicious of strange officers, disliked receiving orders of any kind, particularly from white officers or petty officers, and were inclined to look for and make an issue of discrimination. For the most part, they were quite young and of limited education. (U.S. Navy, Court of Inquiry, 1946, p. 1203)

The report also makes extraordinary efforts to excuse the officers:

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Because of the level of intelligence and education of the enlisted personnel, it was impracticable to train them by any method other than by actual demonstration. Many of the men were incapable of reading and understanding the most simple directions. Division officers were responsible for the actual training of the men and they carried out their duties by personally instructing and demonstrating with the material being handled, the proper methods of procedure. The division officers attempted to impress on the men the need for care and safety, and the highly dangerous nature of material being handled. (U.S. Navy, Court of Inquiry, 1946, p. 1203)

The specificity of the rhetoric here (that is, detailing the failures of the sailors and the virtually heroic efforts of the officers) makes the disaster something isolated in time and space instead of systemic, a consequence of the inability of individuals instead of the ineptitude of the institution, and erases the potential perception that the naval installation itself might be a growing and inherent danger to its neighbors.

The effort to exonerate the officers is also achieved through tactical omissions. In its findings of facts, for example, the report makes no mention of loading competitions or wagering by officers with the exception of the innocuously worded “There was a record maintained and posted of the tonnage loaded by each division” (pp. 1208-1209). And the list of opinions declares “the posting of the amounts loaded by each division did not operate to increase the hazards of loading” (p. 1256). In its recommendations, however, the report curiously declares “the loading of explosives should never be a matter of competition” (p. 1261).

The report is also informative in its stylistic choices. In its finding of facts, for example, the report claims “the evidence does not show that there was any intent, fault, negligence, or inefficiency of any person or person in the naval services or connected therewith, or any other person, which caused the explosions” (p. 1198)—a negative assertion, typical of judicial inquiries, about the failure of the evidence instead of a positive assertion about the ability and integrity of individuals or the institution itself.

And though claiming to discover insufficient evidence of negligence in the finding of facts, the report includes in its list of recommendations that “the methods used by commercial stevedores in loading explosives be carefully reviewed by competent persons and only those methods meeting acceptable standards of safety be permitted” (p. 1260)—a tacit admission of a conspicuous failure to institute necessary and appropriate practices.

And its positive assertions about safety training constitute horrific revelations of how extraordinarily ad hoc was the operation, how ignorant officers were of existing practice, and how sailors were made the unknowing human subjects of dangerous experiments:

He [the commanding officer] and his subordinates studied the various handling methods and gear in use by similar activities. They conducted experiments toward improving these methods and the gear used. From these studies and experiments a standard method of handling each item was evolved. In arriving at these standard methods, safety was given primary consideration. This program of study and experimentation was a continuing process. (U.S. Navy, Court of Inquiry, p. 1204)

The ambiguities of tactical omissions, negative claims, and passive assertions come together in the following telling paragraph:

Careless and some unsafe acts by individuals have occurred in the past. (The Commanding Officer, Naval Ammunition Depot, Mare Island, recognized this and issued timely memoranda and orders that such practices be corrected.) Unsafe practices and speed at the expense of safety were not permitted by anyone in authority. Efforts were made to determine the safest way, to make that method standard, and to have the work done carefully. (U.S. Navy, Court of Inquiry, 1946, p. 1207)

The initial assertion here leaves unidentified the “individuals” (sailors? officers?) engaging in dangerous behaviors. The only active voice claim in the paragraph comes in the parenthetical assertion that attributes awareness and indirect action to the commanding officer. The third sentence about “unsafe practices” might be easily misinterpreted as vindicating the officers (or “anyone in authority”), but it is a negative claim that acknowledges only the absence of official approval for dangerous behaviors instead of conscientious action to stop dangerous behaviors (as the commanding officer directed). And the final sentence is a positive but still passive assertion: following as it does the negative claim about “anyone in authority,” it implies that efforts to establish safety were authorized by appropriate officials but nevertheless leaves the agents of action anonymous: that is, who made the efforts in question is suspiciously unspecified.

In the later list of opinions “careless and some unsafe acts by individuals in the past”—a phrase that could apply to officers as well as sailors loading ammunition—changes to praise of the officers and reprimand only of the sailors: “a very sustained and vigorous effort was made to train these men [the African American sailors] in the proper handling of munitions. Despite this, there was a considerable history of rough and careless handling by individuals” (p. 1255). The liability of the officers is thus erased.

The report also adopts erasive rhetoric regarding the civilian community of Port Chicago. While injuries to the sailors were identified in the finding of facts strictly as “personal injuries,” the language regarding civilian injuries is dismissive and distrusting in its specificity: “personal injuries, superficial and permanent, to 113 civilians, of whom 69 have filed claims, 54 of the latter having designated damages in the total sum of $121,999.04” (p. 1198).

The community itself is described as “remote from industrial facilities, in a sparsely settled area,” thus erasing its extensive history of commercial and social activity while also noting—without awareness of the obvious contradiction—that it is “served by two transcontinental railways” (p. 1199). The report later cites “the isolation of Port Chicago” and “the lack of adequate housing” (p. 1204), again minimizing the civilian community.

Also among the report’s 19 recommendations is that “a loading manual setting forth acceptable methods for loading each type of explosive item, and to include the gear to be used, be drawn up and promulgated” (p. 1260)—a telling admission of a failure to take obvious and fitting action. And the report again adopts erasive rhetoric as it details a process for the writing of this manual:

The board or committee to draw up such a manual should have representatives from the Navy thoroughly familiar with all components in use and their structural weaknesses, representatives of the Navy and possibly from stevedoring firms, thoroughly familiar with loading, stowing, and rigging, and representatives from the Coast Guard familiar with the laws governing such subjects. (U.S. Navy, Court of Inquiry, p. 1260)

No mention is made of including officials from Port Chicago—the neighboring community most at risk of damage and injury from unsatisfactory loading practices. And no recommendation is made in the investigative report regarding risk communication with local civilian populations. The implicit message here of ignoring the citizens of Port Chicago as unimportant would later evolve to explicit proposals for the taking of the community.

Erasive rhetoric inspiring erasive action is also unambiguous in the legislation of the U.S. Congress that allowed no compensation in excess of $3,000 (versus the usual $5,000) for each military and civilian victim of the explosions (Allen, 2006, pp. 67-68). The fatalities, injuries, and damage from this disaster were thus minimized with a low ceiling for reparations. (A later civil suit, however, would yield a total award of $390,000 to the heirs of 18 of the sailors killed [The New York Times, 1949]).

The U.S. Navy, however, did stop the practice of using only African American sailors for the loading and unloading of explosives. It issued in February of 1945 a 15-page Guide to the Command of Negro Naval Personnel that affirmed a policy of integration: “The Navy accepts no theories of racial differences in inborn ability, but expects that every man wearing its uniform be trained and used in accordance with his maximum individual capacity determined on the basis of individual performance.” (If implemented only 15 weeks earlier, this policy would have disallowed the sweeping generalizations made in the Court of Inquiry’s report about the African American sailors at Port Chicago.) The new guide, however, denied the institution’s liability for earlier racial incidents:

Rumor and misunderstanding have contributed most seriously to public criticism of the Navy’s policies and practices regarding the Negro. They have also been a critical factor in every instance of racial tension leading to incidents requiring disciplinary action. Investigation of such incidents suggests that in every case prompt action to check rumor and misunderstanding by seeing to it that the full and true circumstances were known to the men would probably have prevented or minimized open disturbance and restored morale during the period while any needed corrective administrative action was being taken. (U.S. Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, 1945)

This assertion reinforced the erasive claim in the Court of Inquiry’s report: “The ordnance battalions were administered and trained in the same manner as are all other enlisted men in the Navy. There was no discrimination or unusual treatment of these men” (U.S. Navy, Court of Inquiry, 1946, p. 1204).

The Expansion of the Naval Magazine

Meanwhile, the repair and aggressive expansion of the Port Chicago Naval Magazine was proceeding. The facility on Suisun Bay, the tidal area, swelled from its original 640 acres to 1,170, from 1,000 sailors to 4,500. The first of its three new two-berth piers was operating by early October of 1944, the second by January of 1945, and the third by April. The new inland area for ammunition storage was also operating by January of 1945: it occupied 6,300 acres located three miles to the south and was joined to the tidal area by a dedicated military highway and railroad (U.S. Navy, Bureau of Ordnance, 1945).

In July of 1945, a technical report to the newly titled Army-Navy Explosives Safety Board (previously the Joint Army-Navy Ammunition Storage Board), examining accidents from 1910 to 1944 (including the Port Chicago disaster), cautioned that the established guidelines regarding safe distances from explosives storage facilities to inhabited buildings were insufficient:

. . . the unavoidable concentrations of explosives at shipping points and ports of embarkation may necessitate the presence of many millions of pounds of high explosives at a single such location with the corresponding increased hazard to the public and to public property. And since safety distances for the public are at present based almost exclusively on the American Table of Distances, the possibility of a major catastrophe is by no means negligible. The safety distances prescribed by the British War Office recognize this situation and (where great concentrations are involved) require from 3 to 4 times the distance required in this country. (U.S. Army-Navy Explosives Safety Board 1945)

It was thus clear to military officials that the rapid expansion of the Port Chicago Naval Magazine was putting the existence of the neighboring community of Port Chicago in growing jeopardy. Years of erasive rhetoric—of minimizing the community—would validate the looming erasive action.

By 1946, the Port Chicago Naval Magazine comprised the following:

  • Tidal Area
  • 3 piers (6 berths)
  • 1 barge pier
  • Additional mooring facilities
  • 40 barricaded sidings accommodating a total of 298 cars
  • 9 Inert Storage Buildings
  • Returned Ammunition Segregation Facilities
  • Joiner Shop
  • Battery Charging Building and Electric Shop
  • Tidal Area Administration Building
  • Pump House
  • Civilian Employment Office and Labor Board Branch
  • Civilian Lunchroom
  • Miscellaneous shops and auxiliary facilities
  • Dispatcher’s Tower
  • Incinerator
  • Lumber Bearing
  • 18 barracks for approximately 4,500 enlisted men
  • 2 Commissary Buildings
  • 2 Boiler Houses
  • Officers’ Quarters for approximately 74 officers
  • Recreation Building (combined auditorium, movie theatre, and gymnasium, swimming pool, pool room, bowling alleys, exercise room, and Ships Service shops, soda fountain and store)
  • Laundry and Dry Cleaning Buildings
  • Brig
  • Naval Barracks Administration Building
  • Fire House
  • Joiner Shop

Inland Area:

  • 93 gun ammunition magazines
  • 60 high explosive magazines
  • 10 fuse and detonator magazines
  • 6 black powder magazines
  • 2 smoke drum magazines
  • 1 Mk 8 depth charge test building
  • 10 inert storage buildings
  • 30 5-car high explosive barricades for 150 cars
  • Surveillance Test Building
  • Administration Building
  • Marine Barracks for 300 (with self-contained recreation facilities)
  • Dispensary and Dental Clinic
  • Ships Building
  • Locomotive Storage Building
  • Paint shop
  • Electric Battery Charging Building
  • Field Office
  • Storehouse
  • Boiler House
  • Civilian Lunchroom (U.S. Navy, Bureau of Ordnance, 1945)

In the brief period of only four years, the Port Chicago Naval Magazine easily eclipsed the civilian community of Port Chicago. The physical presence of the military facility was unequalled, its psychological presence pervasive. It established itself as the largest employer of the region with the greatest influence on economic, political, and social activities and aspirations. With growing restrictions on the storage and transport of explosives at Mare Island because of its proximity to San Francisco, the Port Chicago Naval Magazine would quickly develop as “the principal ammunition loading port and storage point for ammunition and high explosives on the Pacific Coast” (U.S. Navy, Bureau of Ordnance, 1945).

The Zone of Safety

The expansion of the Port Chicago Naval Magazine persisted through the Korean War. By 1954 it employed 1,000 civilians, covered a payroll of $5 million, and injected the local economy with $1.5 million a year (Rand, 2008, p. 74). It was also transporting ammunition of fifty times the explosive power as it did during World War II. And military officials decided at this time to declare the facility a danger to its neighbors, proposing to ring it with a safety zone of two miles in radius. That is, during the years that the ammunition depot was growing, the U.S. Navy attributed the facility’s dangers to unique and individual errors; at maturity, however, with the facility unrivaled in size and influence, military officials declared it a danger so serious that neighboring civilian communities would have to be dissolved and their residents dispersed.

As mentioned earlier, this notion of a “zone of safety” has its origins in the American Table of Distances created by the explosives industry and later adopted by the Joint Army-Navy Ammunition Storage Board (identified 1945-1948 as the Army-Navy Explosives Safety Board, 1948-1970 as the Armed Services Explosives Safety Board, and thereafter as the Department of Defense Explosives Safety Board—changes of title that also constitute erasive rhetoric, substituting the generic and the theoretical for the original vivid and material specificity).

Minutes of the Board’s meetings across a 50-year period (1928-77) make clear that

  • the Navy has a history of unsafe practices including deficient conditions of facilities and violations of recognized safe distances (Freund, 1978, II: 18, 31, 32, 44, 45, 77, 86, 102, 104, 113, 125, 132, 134, 136, 148, 160, 167, 172, 175, 176, 179, 182, 183, 185, 187, 190, 193, 195-198)
  • the Navy has a history of giving waivers and exemptions for “safe distance” specifications (Freund, 1978, II: 102, 104, 105, 131, 135, 136, 139, 148, 174)
  • the designation of “safe distance” anticipates a degree of injury and property damage (Freund, 1978, II: 62, , 18083, 91, 96, 109, 111, 114, 120, 121, 189)

The records also prove that the specifications of “safe distance” have always been subject to continuing discussion and negotiation (that is, “safe distance” is a rhetorical creation instead of a scientific finding):

As problems arose and changes to the standards seem warranted, a pattern seemed to emerge. A Board-appointed work group quantitatively stated the problem, analyzed it, and made recommendations for its solution. Such efforts were usually presented to the Board both as an oral presentation and written report. Modifications to the report were next made in an effort to achieve unanimous agreement by the Board members, followed by formal approval by each service. Where unanimous Board agreement was not forthcoming, a decision (subject to appeal) would be made by the Chairman. Thus, although reference may be made to Board standards for quantity-distance separation as adopted as of a specific date, long and often-involved study, discussion, and compromise decisions usually precede such rulings. Disagreements occur because data are frequently incomplete or ambiguous and service needs for mission fulfillment are often at odds with the Board’s primary concern for protection to life and property. (Freund, 1978, I: p. 11)

The “zone of safety” proposed for the naval station at Port Chicago was thus a creation of choice: it was neither objectively determined nor stringently regulated, neither a universal standard nor without persistent exception. It was a considered exercise of erasive rhetoric.

The Erasive Proposal

The U.S. Navy’s proposal for the taking of Port Chicago generated animosity and anxiety and divided neighbor from neighbor. Residents opposed to the loss of their community were supported by their U.S. Representative, John Baldwin, as well as a wide array of regional organizations including the Chamber of Commerce of virtually every city in Contra Costa County, the Ninth District of the American Legion, the American Federation of Labor, and the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Their position was that the U.S. Navy ought to divest itself of its Port Chicago location because it contributed little to national security and constituted a growing danger to human life and economic vitality.

In 1956, however, the Navy tripled its effort:

  1. Changing the name of the military facility to Concord Naval Ammunition Depot, thus severing the facility’s association with the identity and history of Port Chicago.
  2. Preparing to build 20 new ammunition storage magazines and a guided missile facility (for converting ships from conventional guns to guided missiles), thus choosing to grow the facility in spite of civilian opposition.
  3. Asking the U.S. Congress in its 1957 budget for $23 million with which to acquire all of the property in Port Chicago and immediately thereafter, without the funds yet authorized, opening a real estate office in the community to offer residents information and appraisals, thus making the acquisition appear already ordained.

The Navy insisted publicly again and again that the existing location of the ammunition depot was the only satisfactory location on the Pacific Coast, but the U.S. Congress directed that a study be made of all potential locations. This study was completed by Arthur D. Little, Inc., in 1957, noting the hazardous conditions at the facility in violation of 51 specifications of the Armed Services Explosives Safety Board but also advising that major renovations (and costs) would be necessary at each of the locations investigated. The study thus failed to give unequivocal support to civilian proposals for moving the ammunition depot to a new location, and the Navy declared its position vindicated by the study. In 1958, as a consequence, a multi-million dollar expansion program for the facility was initiated, including $2 million for a missile storage facility, $2 million for a state-of-the art electronics testing building, and $1.3 million in pier renovations (Rand, 2008, p. 95). Without the two-mile barrier it desired, the Navy issued a waiver for Port Chicago of the ASESB guidelines.

Taking Port Chicago

While the appropriations for 1957 failed to include the funds for the Navy’s proposed acquisition of Port Chicago, the community was always thereafter in peril. The residents opposed to selling their houses and businesses were a shrinking majority, while a growing minority thought that selling would sooner or later be either judicious or necessary. Local historian and journalist Ken Rand records the division:

Merchants who wanted to sell were accused of “trying to salvage failing businesses.” Those who led the fight to stay were called “big fish in a little pond who can’t be successful other places.” Boycotts, spontaneous or organized, caused some sell-the-town merchants to close. The save-the-town committee said most residents were “elderly home owners who are convinced they won’t be paid enough for the property to buy elsewhere and besides, their roots are deep here and they don’t want to move.” (Rand, 2008, p. 81)

While the Navy’s proposal was being discussed, studied, espoused, and disputed, its corrosive impact was rising. The proposal discouraged new businesses and people from moving to Port Chicago and encouraged a rapid exodus: from 1954 to 1958, business activity dropped by 30%, the population by 25%, and property values by 15 to 20% (Rand, 2008, p. 92). Potential residents as well as corporate executives and investors were unnerved by the Navy’s continuing claims regarding the unique attributes of the Port Chicago location and the necessity of a two-mile barrier. Loans for houses and businesses were either unavailable or exceptionally restrictive. The community was restive and resistive, but it was also withering on the vine.

In 1963, the name of the military facility was changed again, this time to Concord Naval Weapons Station, thus erasing the specificity in its title and all associations with the facility’s original identity and history. Residents of the civilian community as well as Baldwin’s successor, U.S. Representative Jerome Waldie, persisted in their opposition to the taking, but appraisers from the Navy, in anticipation of funding for the taking, arrived in 1967 to assess the cost of residential and commercial properties—each appraisal a discouraging exercise of erasive rhetoric. Funding for the taking was approved soon thereafter, and on April 1, 1968 (the insulting and dismissive April Fool’s Day) residents were notified of the opening of the Navy’s real estate office to implement the acquisition of properties (Rand, 2008, p. 286). Hostility to the taking would be ongoing (as would objections to the prices being offered for properties), but ultimately sales were negotiated, resisting residents were evicted, and the community was leveled in 1969—25 years after the 1944 disaster.

Communities at Risk

Port Chicago was a community put in jeopardy by a dangerous neighbor. In this case the neighbor was military, but the risk could apply to cities with industrial facilities such as oil refineries or nuclear power stations or transportation facilities such as train stations and airports. It could as easily be the October 2010 toxic sludge spill from the aluminum facility in Hungary, that flooded the village of Kolontar, killing 10 of the 900 residents, injuring 150, and poisoning soil, water, and air, or the July 2013 72-car oil tanker train that derailed and exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, Canada, killing 47 people and incinerating 40 buildings in the village of 6,000.

The world in which we live is filled with technological risks, necessary and unnecessary. Following the April 2013 explosion at a Texas fertilizer factory in the city of West (population 2,800) that killed 15 people and injured 200, the Associated Press investigated the wider peril to communities across the United States from chemical storage facilities, discovering that the risk is as extensive as it is unexamined, with hundreds of thousands of people unaware of their living within a quarter-mile of a potential explosion, and thousands more children in schools, patients in hospitals, customers in stores, and employees on the job in buildings erected within the radius of a potential explosion—virtually all, including local police officers and fire fighters, uninformed or ill-informed about the potential danger (Cappiello, Gillum, & Plushnickmasti, 2013). And in case of explosion, and barring unequivocal malice or egregious negligence, the source of danger might be excused (because it operates in the national interest or it brings jobs or it is vital to the economy), while the disaster is attributed to tragic and unanticipated error, and the neighboring community is made the object of erasive rhetoric (for example, “only the desperate/deprived/derelict would live here”) to decrease the price of reparations.

The case of Port Chicago with its several tragic consequences challenges us as technical communicators to cultivate a sensitivity to dangerous neighbors and erasive rhetoric as well as to realize that erasive rhetoric is the early warning sign of a growing and looming danger of erasive action and thus must be rapidly and continuously opposed. This case asks us to recognize that communities are typically multivocal, especially across time, and communicate with competing voices while dangerous neighbors strive for the rhetorical power of univocality. This case encourages us to assist communities in developing their single voice (or choir) and to assist dangerous neighbors in thoroughly examining all the strains joined in their single voice. It is a case that drives us to be neither timid nor hostile, neither submissive nor self-righteous, but to be writers and editors of humility and courage who interrogate the implicit policies and tacit practices that put people in jeopardy, who solicit candid answers to incisive questions, who create opportunities for cooperation and communication using available technologies, who bring together local residents and officials from military, industrial, and transportation facilities for instructive and productive interactions that generate trust and minimize risk. This is the job for which we are equipped. This is the way we as a field might truly memorialize the victims and serve the survivors of all the world’s dangerous neighbors.


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About the Authors

Sam Dragga is Professor of Technical Communication at Texas Tech University. He is a Fellow of the Association of Teachers of Technical Writing and a recipient of STC’s Jay R. Gould Award for Excellence in Teaching. He is coauthor of Essentials of Technical Communication (Oxford University Press, 2010, 2012) and author and coauthor of articles on ethics in technical communication. He is available at sam.dragga@ttu.edu.

Gwendolyn Gong is Professor of English at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Chief Editor of the Asian Journal Of English Language Teaching, and Undergraduate Coordinator of Applied English Linguistics.  She has published articles on sociolinguistics, wartime narratives, discourse analysis, and gender and language as well as books on technical editing and rhetoric and composition. She is available at ggong@cuhk.edu.hk.

Manuscript received 11 January 2014; revised 21 April 2014; accepted 23 April 2014.