Review: Daisy B. Herndon’s American Nuclear Deception: Why the Port Chicago Experiment Must be Investigated , Lee Basham

As the African proverb says, until the Lion tells the story, the glory goes to the hunter. — Daisy B. Herndon

As I understand, the Lion was needlessly assassinated, and the hunter thought the hero.[1] Epistemology studies the acquisition and creation of evidentially justified and/or warranted beliefs. Part of this is the social element of prior probability. A government with a history of abusive behavior and few significant punitive consequences for this, like any criminal enterprise, is likely to preserve its destructive habits. So there is a high prior probability of this conduct continuing, ad infinitum. … [please read below the rest of the article].

Image credit: Port Chicago Witness

Article Citation:

Basham, Lee. 2023. “Review: Daisy B. Herndon’s American Nuclear Deception, Why the Port Chicago Experiment Must be Investigated.Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 12 (2): 13–16.

🔹 The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.

American Nuclear Deception: Why the Port Chicago Experiment Must Be Investigated
Daisy B. Herndon
Port Chicago Witness, 2022
358 pp.

In July, 1944, there was a devastating, multi-kiloton blast in Port Chicago, California. Port Chicago was a US Naval facility that distributed fuel, food and munitions in the final days of the US war with Japan, a war ended with nuclear weapons designed at Los Alamos National Laboratories. D. B. Herndon has offered us a nexus of evidence for the thesis that there was either an accidental or intentional detonation of a novel, economical nuclear fission weapon at Port Chicago, California. Her argument is plausible. The book is fast paced and well-written. She frames it with, “Today, America seems to be unraveling; and we wonder why. But, as with our individual lives, where we are today is a direct result of where we have been and what we have done in the past.”.

Herndon’s American Nuclear Deception: Why the Port Chicago Experiment Must Be Investigated finds roots in lengthy research conducted by historian Peter Vogel and his “The Last Wave from Port Chicago” (1982). Vogel’s research started with discovery of a discarded War Department document, History of the Ten Thousand Ton Gadget (“gadget” in the military jargon meant “atomic bomb”). It compares the distinctive blast effects of an atomic bomb test with Port Chicago: “A ball of fire mushroom out at 18,000 feet in typical Port Chicago fashion”. This is a suggestive comparison. Vogel reports,

There was at least one 12-ton diesel locomotive operating on the pier at the time of the explosion. Not a single piece of the locomotive car was ever identified: the locomotive simply vanished. In the river stream, several small boats half a mile distant from the pier reported being hit by a 30-foot wall of water.[2]

Herndon’s research extends and enriches Vogel’s in many ways. The plausibility of Vogel and Herndon’s joint case is especially clear when we also consider the evidence collected by computer scientist Ian Kluft of strong residual radioactive fallout in the Port Chicago area.

Herndon points out that governmental behavior can be positive and moral. Yet it also often strays far from this. Then a horizontal system of epistemology is called upon, not trust in a hierarchy of redacted government reports, top-secret research withheld for decades and Mainstream Media omission. Herndon uses this horizontal information epistemology with skill. Herndon approach is that steeply hierarchical information systems—mainstream media/governments—are unreliable in critical cases and given our alternatives, appear to be obsolete. The alternative is a more horizontal information system of information exchange. This horizontal public epistemology can be recognized by what we might term the Mainstream Media Failure Argument,

1) Mainstream Media, a hierarchical corporate system of information dissemination and “curation” of has consistently failed in its proper role of providing the epistemic, evidential information required for the conduct of a functional democracy. This failure is often simple suppressions of the facts.

2) Another method of epistemic, evidential acquisition of information must be developed.

3) A new horizontal, mutualistic system of information distribution should be embraced to secure the epistemic, evidential information required for a functional democracy.

This is Herndon’s template. Her book enjoys a clear, three-part structure; foreground, event and background: (a) The allegation of the Port Chicago disaster is the detonation of a fission weapon and direct evidence for this; (b) the multi-kiloton blast itself; (c) the background evidence of the likelihood of a mass intentional killing to better understand this brand new horizon; atomic weapons. African American dock workers could contribute much more here than loading ships, especially now that the war was decided in the Pacific and Japan was clearly doomed.

The book includes a particularly revealing discussion of the Los Alamos National Laboratory interest, a concise autobiography of William Parsons, fascinating analysis of Albert Einstein’s role in the atomic bombs and several other key players including Presidents Roosevelt and Truman (see, “The Truth about Truman”). Herndon provides a rich amount of source material. Her citing of original documents is impressive. The book would make a welcome text in any upper division History course on the mid-1940s US. Among the key moves in Herndon’s argument is the fact Los Alamos was actively exploring the effectiveness of a ship delivered fission weapon, Los Alamos’ immediate interest in the effects. The result of her narrative is disturbing but captivating.

So of significant interest is Herndon’s historical back-drop of Port Chicago “atomization”. In a particularly poignant passage Herndon, along with Vogel, quote this witness,

I was there the next morning. We went back to the dock. Man, it was awful; that was a sight. You’d see a shoe with a foot in it, and then you’d remember how you’d joked about who was gonna be the first one out of the hold. You’d see a head floating across the water—just the head—or an arm. Bodies … just awful.

The official account states body parts of African American sailors were strewn across an island hundreds of yards away. What’s remarkable is how few Americans know about the Port Chicago disaster.

Herndon’s efforts to remedy this lack of awareness are well placed. The reason we are discussing this in the context of epistemology, not just history, is that it illustrates the epistemic difficulties of hierarchical systems of information. The military reported that 320 people were “atomized” and most were African Americans. Surviving workers were subsequently censored for “mutiny”—they went on strike—caused by their over-work, abuse and the basic failure of trust. They had struck a deal with the US Government; they would be allowed to fight and prove their value to America. Instead, they were sequestered as dock workers in an endless chore of loading ships. This discontent exponentially increased after the detonation shredded their friends.

Herndon recognizes that hierarchical information systems often fail the public, as our examples are intended to demonstrate. But a new system of ideas and explanation dissemination has appeared. Such a system has recently gained massive participation but also suffered institutional reaction and repression. This epistemic repression shows the conflict between hierarchy and horizontal information systems. Collectively, we call the horizontal system “the internet”. This horizontal, nonhierarchical information interconnectivity is a powerful interwoven social undertaking. Hence the term “internet” is appropriate, even though after endless repetition its original, descriptive nature has lost some recollection; with some, even has a negative connotation. The Port Chicago, California detonation and the nuclear Nevada Test Site’s massive cancer footprint in downwind farms and towns, particularly in Utah (equally both South and North) are mutually reinforcing.

Herndon’s deeper thesis is that to the political and corporate powers we created, we are now expendable: Both the Port Chicago detonation and the Nevada Test Site’s down-wind cancer victims illustrate this[3]. They have been widely discussed in local media and the internet. Yet the evidence for both has been suppressed by omission or explicitly dismissed in mainstream media and by the US Government. Herndon’s book takes its place next to the compelling research in Peter Vogel’s The Last Wave from Port Chicago. Herndon finds herself in good company. American Nuclear Deception, Why the Port Chicago Experiment Must Be Investigated is a fascinating adventure into a bold yet reasonable hypothesis. It is also an unsilenced canary in a toxic mine of silencing.

Author Information:

Lee Basham,, is a professor at South Texas College known for his research on conspiracy theories, conspiracy in a hierarchical society and its significant implications for a functional democracy.

[1] An apparent cultural parallel is the Hebrew remark, “There is a Lion in Zion – One who’s mountain and authority is matched by no man. Yet, fueled by an evil one, men still try in their flesh to build their own kingdoms. … I look to the mountains from where my hope comes.”

[2] Allen, Robert L. 1982. “The Last Wave From Port Chicago.” The Black Scholar 13 (2/3): 30-47. See also Allen, Robert L. and Peter Vogel. 1982. The Black Scholar 13 (2/3). Special issue on “The Port Chicago Disaster: Was It a Nuclear Explosion?”

[3] More recent alleged events are beyond the scope of this review.

Categories: Books and Book Reviews

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply