Monday, July 27, 2009
Behind the Barbed Wire: by John Keibel
After interviewing local author John Keibel I decided to check out his book from the library (currently 10 copies available located at various libraries in the C.C.C. Library system). Behind the Barbed Wire is an incredibly extensive and inclusive history of the Naval Weapons Station that was located in Concord, CA from 1942-2005. The book includes every last detail you could possibly want to know about this important part of US and California history that is sitting right in our backyard.
The book provides hundreds of primary source documents. Some of the most impressive items are the dozens of maps and historical photos of the area and the people who worked at this site. Additionally, there are incredible details on housing, entertainment for the personnel (including a movie schedule from December of 1983), flora and fauna, the railroad (including the surprisingly fascinating "10 Commandments of Diesel Engine Maintenance"), workforce (demographics, pay scales, etc.),and community activities (the Pet Parade and the city of Concord's Pow Wow Parade).
Moreover, Behind the Barbed Wire gives a detailed account of social issues that have not only greatly affected the Naval Weapons Station over the past sixty-plus years but the United States as well. The book talks about various labor disputes, the economic impact of the station, the Red Scare during the Cold War, and the multiple protest rallies outside of their gates from the War in Vietnam to the illegal weapons sales to Central America all the way up to our current war in Iraq. Other social issues the book gives compelling history to are impact of the civil rights act of 1964, atomic weapons, and modernization.
On top of all this great historical text we get some pretty interesting stories of events that happened on the base during these sixty three years. One story tells about the time when an eccentric millionaire, who was traveling around the world in a hot air balloon, crashed onto the base. This would probably would not be so note worthy if it wasn't for the fact that this happened at the height of the the Cold War and he happened to be traveling with a photographer from East Germany!
Another very compelling story is the recounting of the Great Port Chicago Explosion of July 17th, 1944. There are great interviews with those who survived this explosion that left hundreds either dead of severely wounded.
When I finished the book I was so impressed with it that I wanted to ask the author some questions about his experience writing it.
What inspired you to write the book?
My basic inspiration for this or any undertaking may be summarized best with two Bible passages. Because "God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16) I aim to respond in gratitude for this free gift by working at whatever I do "with all [my] heart, as working for the Lord, not for men" (Colossians 3:23).
With the foregoing, prerequisite understanding, it was a so-called "Historic Resource Study" (1996) written by Harlan D. Unrau of the National Park Service that most impacted how I went about Behind the Barbed Wire: History of Naval Weapons Station Concord. The title of Unrau's momentous two-volume, 910-page study is: The Evacuation and Relocation of Persons of Japanese Ancestry During World War II: A Historical Study of the Manzanar War Relocation Center. Its format, level of detail, use of photographs and incorporation of human interest accounts were in the back of mind throughout Behind the Barbed Wire.
Do you have any connections to the US Navy or US military?
I am not a veteran, if that is what you are asking. In my immediate family, two uncles served in the US Armed Forces (Air Force - Korea; Army - Vietnam). Despite lack of a direct, personal connection with our military, I have a high regard for the men and women who have served and serve in the US Armed Forces.
The initial connection with the US Navy that ultimately led to Behind the Barbed Wire occurred in May 1997. I wanted to re-photograph the town of Port Chicago--what remained of it as compared with historic images of the town. I wished to make comparative "then & now" photographs. This site was within Naval Weapons Station Concord's "Tidal Area" and required permission from the Navy. The connections that resulted from this exercise laid the groundwork for what became Behind the Barbed Wire.
What challenges did you face in your research?
Certainly assimilation of the great amount of data was a challenge not soon forgotten. Nearly 50 years worth of base newsletters, hundreds of reports and various documents and thousands of newspaper clippings had to be read or skimmed and summarized in a retrievable fashion. I interviewed some 24 individuals whose lives were connected in some fashion with the weapons station. These recorded interviews required transcription and summarization.
Closely tied to the challenge of assimilation was the writing--and selecting what to include and what to exclude. I hope and pray I did a good job.
What surprised you the most in your research?
I was pleasantly surprised by the cooperation of the US Navy when it came to getting information on and gaining access to Naval Weapons Station Concord. Understandably, there remain some sensitive matters to which access was limited, but by and large I felt welcome. Thank you Navy!
Was it hard to find people to interview?
Surprisingly, no. As word got out that I was interested in the station's history and that of the land before it was Navy-owned, contact was established readily and interviews ensued.
Now that Behind the Barbed Wire is out, I'm finding still more that I would like to interview if circumstances permit.
Who was your most compelling interview?
Oh boy! Each interview was compelling in its own way. Which do I choose: Dudley Knisley's eyewitness account of what he found on base following the Port Chicago Explosion, Harold Bollman's story of his father's business struggles and accomplishments thwarted by the Navy's expansion, Wilfred Scott's details of missile maintenance, Nancy Weiser's memories of a little girl's life interrupted by WWII? If I must choose one, let it be Morris Rich.
Morris Rich was assigned to the ill-fated SS Quinault Victory. Recounting the night of the Port Chicago Explosion (July 17, 1944), Morris recounted for me:
There were eight of us men off duty that night. All eight of us went ashore and were the only survivors of the SS Quinault Victory crew. My shipmate Richie and I tried getting off the ship three different times. Each time the gangplank had not yet been lowered. After the second attempt, we agreed to try once more. If the gangplank had not been lowered, we would stay aboard and save our leave for another time. The plank was finally lowered and we, Richie and I, departed the ship at 9:20 p.m. (The other six that also took leave followed soon after.) We invited others to join us, but they opted to stay aboard. Most of the men were already in their bunks. They never knew what hit them.
How long did this process take from start to finish?
Photography that made its way into the book goes back to 1997. Research, writing draft and further photography began in 2000. Full time writing commenced in August 2007 and concluded in December 2008. Following revision work, design and printing, Behind the Barbed Wire: History of Naval Weapons Station Concord came out in late May 2009.
For more information on the book please visit www.behindthebarbedwire.com.
Book signing and sale at the August 1st Concord Naval Weapons Station Neighborhood Alliance block party, 4-6 p.m., at the end of Denkinger Road adjacent to the station.