PhM3c John Andrew Haskins

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Sailors at the Port Chicago Magazine, circa 1944.

Located on the southern banks of Suisun Bay, just over six miles outside of Martinez, California, Port Chicago was one of the Navy’s busiest and most vital munitions magazines during the Second World War.  Each day, tons of munitions destined for the Pacific Theater were received in Port Chicago by rail and packed aboard ships moored pierside.

This was grinding and hazardous duty for the Sailors attached to the ordnance battalions at Port Chicago, most of who were African-Americans in a still segregated Navy. And this danger would be realized in the summer of 1944.

At about 10:18 p.m. on July 17, 1944 disaster struck the naval magazine when more than 4,600 tons of high explosive and incendiary bombs, depth charges, and ammunition ignited.  Instantly the night sky was lit up by a succession of orange and red flashes set to earth rattling, cacophonous booms.

Five miles away one individual reported that the resulting concussion pushed his car over to the “wrong side of the highway” batting him around like a toy. Twenty miles away a massive fireball could be seen rising upwards of 12,000 feet leading many in neighboring towns to think that the Japanese Navy had executed a second surprise attack on American soil. Seismic shocks could be felt some 576 miles away in Boulder City, Nevada.

At the time of the blast, Pharmacist’s Mate Third Class John Andrew Haskins, Jr., was based at the nearby Naval Ammunition Depot in Mare Island, California. The 21-year old Sailor from Alexandria, Virginia, had only enlisted a year earlier and was part of the first class of African- American hospital corpsmen to serve in World War II.

Haskins would be among the first responders to see the devastated remains of Port Chicago. It was said that upon his arrival, Haskins “immediately” and “unhesitatingly” rushed through the dangerous gasses and flaming ammunition box cars seeking out survivors, providing first aid and, as it was later reported, “working tirelessly and with cool courage in bringing the flames under control” while minimizing any further loss of life.

With more than 320 reported deaths, the incident at Port Chicago would go down as one of the deadliest events in naval history. Today, a National Historic Memorial marks the site of the old naval magazine memorializing the many lives lost that day. For his actions, Haskins was bestowed the Navy and Marine Corps Medal in October 1944, becoming the first African-American hospital corpsman to be honored for a wartime act of heroism.

Haskins would continue to serve in the Navy until 1946, two years before the service was finally desegregated. Dying prematurely in his hometown of Alexandria on March 12, 1969 at the age of 47, Haskins would be survived by his wife and daughter. He was laid to rest at Coleman Cemetery in Fort Hunt, Virginia.

SN James Lawrence Blaskis

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James Blaskis was one of the 134 men killed in the 1967 USS Forrestal fire. It was a devastating fire and series of chain-reaction explosions on 29 July 1967, that not only killed 134 sailors, but injured 161 on the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal (CVA-59), after an electrical anomaly discharged a Zuni rocket on the flight deck. Forrestal was engaged in combat operations in the Gulf of Tonkin during the Vietnam War at the time.

Blaskis was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal (Posthumously) for his heroism that day. Seaman Blaskis was manning the port steering area in the extreme port quarter of the ship when fire broke out on the flight deck causing several explosions. One of the initial explosions hurled shrapnel into the port compartment, killing one man and seriously wounding Seaman Blaskis and his other shipmate. Despite his wounds, he administered first aid to his companion until he succumbed to his own wounds.

We honor you James Blaskis.

(#Repost @Together We Served)

LT John A. Pritchard

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John A. Pritchard, Jr., was born on 12 January 1914 at Redfield, South Dakota.  He graduated from Beverly Hills High School, California, in 1931 and continued with a postgraduate course the following term.  Meanwhile he was employed as a district collector for the Los Angeles Times newspaper. 

Searching for a career, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy from 1 March 1932 until 17 August 1934.  While attending the Naval Academy Prep School, he was honorably discharged in order for him to accept an appointment to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy on 20 August 1934.  He graduated from the Academy on 2 June 1938. 

In February 1942 he was temporarily assigned as the aviation officer aboard CGC Northland on the war-time Greenland Patrol.  After returning to Air Station Miami for a brief period, rejoined the Northland.  He was promoted to Lieutenant on 15 June 1942.  While with Northland only a short time, Pritchard performed his first heroic rescue on 23 November 1942, only a few days before another daring rescue was to take his life.  This first rescue involved saving three members of the Royal Canadian Air Force who had been stranded on the Greenland ice cap for 13 days.  He was posthumously awarded the Navy & Marine Corps Medal for this rescue.  Five days later he volunteered to attempt the rescue of the crew of a B-17 that had crashed on the treacherous ice cap on the west side of Greenland, about 40 miles from Comanche Bay, using Northland’s J2F-4 Grumman amphibian.  Accompanied by Radioman First Class Benjamin A. Bottoms, they landed near the crash site without mishap, the first successful landing on the 2,000 foot ice cap.  After recovering two injured survivors, Pritchard and Bottoms took off safely and returned to Northland.  They volunteered to fly out to the crash site again the following day, 29 November.  After again landing safely and recovering another survivor, they took off but were never heard from again.  The wreckage of their amphibian was later spotted from the air but a rescue party could get no closer than 6 miles.  LT Pritchard was declared as missing in action as of 29 November 1942 and was declared dead as of 30 November 1943.  For his heroism on this last rescue he was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

In addition to the Navy & Marine Corps Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross, LT Pritchard had earned the American Defense Service Medal with Sea Clasp, American Campaign Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, and the World War II Victory Medal.

LT Pritchard’s classmate, VADM Thomas R. Sargent, III, USCG (Ret.), remembered Pritchard as:

 . . .not only my Classmate but he was my room mate for our last year at the Academy. . .John was unique–he was the happiest man I have ever known.  At reveille, he would practically jump out of his bunk and, in spite of rain, snow or darkness, he would say “Good morning Tom, what a great day” and break out in song.  He had a good singing voice and his favorite rendition was “The Grandfather’s Clock”-he knew all the verses.  At first, starting the day like this was a little wearing but, his enthusiasm for life was so infectious, I actually looked forward to reveille!!!  John was an outstanding seaman and a Coast Guardsman of the highest order.  During that last year at the Academy, we became as close as brothers but, unfortunately, after graduation, I never saw him again.  I received word of his death while I was Commanding Officer of the USS PC-469 based in Trinidad–[his death] was a real shock to me.  The man with the incredible zest for life was gone.  He was our only war casualty [Class of 1938].  At Coast Guard Air Station Mobile there is a barracks and BOQ called the Pritchard-Bottoms Hall and I had the great privilege of presiding at the dedication in 1971.  John and RM1c Benjamin Bottoms were kindred spirits so the building, housing both enlisted men and officers, is very aptly named.  John’s mother attended and unveiled the dedication plaque.  The last words of the chorus of John’s song are “and the clock stopped, never to run again when the old man died.”  John, the clock stopped too soon for you.

We honor you, John Pritchard Jr.

(#Repost @USCG)