Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The other Pearl Harbor disaster, 1944

Today is the 70th anniversary of the West Lock disaster at Pearl Harbor, an incident that few of us know much, if anything, about. The accident, which occurred on a quiet Sunday, just after 3 PM on this date in 1944, began following an explosion in a staging area for Landing Ships, Tank (LSTs) and other amphibious assault ships in West Loch.

The West Lock was a scene of great activity in May as ships were being loaded with ammunition, gasoline, and other cargo in preparation for the June invasion of the Mariana Islands in "Operation Forager." An accidental explosion occurred on an LST as she was being loaded with mortar ammunition. Three ships were lost in the explosions and the devastating fire that quickly that spread to other vessels in the harbor.

The cause of the initial explosion is uncertain. However, lack of experience in the handling of ammunition and other explosive cargo was the suspected cause. Few of the officers and men involved in loading the explosives had actual experience or training in handling it. Welding operations being carried on nearby could have been a contributing factor, but smoking was also suspected as triggering the explosions.

Twenty-nine LSTs were berthed in the lock to receive supplies from the West Loch Naval Ammunition Depot. Each LST was loaded with thousands of pounds of fuel and oil along with 6,000 cubic feet of ammunition stowed on the decks, under the guns, and in the amphibious craft onboard. Each LST had a 199-man crew plus about 200 Marines or Soldiers as part of the invasion force. The situation was ripe for disaster.

The official investigation revealed that the first explosion occurred on board LST-353, where heavy ammunition was being loaded. Gasoline stored in drums on adjoining ships was accidentally ignited, and in moments several LSTs were ablaze. The flames prevented crews from casting off lines and breaking free of the other ships. Then a second explosion came moments later, and a third—the most violent—followed shortly thereafter. It was a scene of smoke, chaos, and confusion, with men either blown overboard or leaping into the water to escape the flames.

Smoke billows upward from West Lock on May 21, 1944, when disaster struck
a nest of LSTs readying for the Saipan assault.
National Archives Photo  

The official account listed 27 dead and 100 missing. However, other sources state the final death toll at 163 servicemen, with a further 396 wounded. Six LSTs were sunk, 2 already carrying smaller, fully loaded amphibious crafts. Several more LSTs were damaged and/or run aground. Four could not be repaired in time for the invasion. Seventeen tracked landing vehicles (LVTs) and eight 155 mm guns also were destroyed.

With the reinforcement of the fleet coming from elsewhere, and through quick repair efforts, amazingly Operation Forager was only delayed by a single day, with the invasion commencing essentially as planned 3 weeks later.

While at the time, thousands of service personnel and civilian residents knew about the disaster, it received very little publicity then or later. The incident was cloaked in secrecy, and by the time it was declassified in 1960, most had forgotten about it completely. Even many sailors on duty nearby on the island knew little about it. My dad, Frank Dolan, was stationed onboard the USS Hector* in another area of Pearl Harbor. At the moment of the explosion, he and a few of his buddies were at the recreation area at Aiea Landing, about 4 miles away. From a high ridge they witnessed the LST’s blowing up and the spreading fire that followed. He had all but forgotten the disaster until a few years ago it was brought to mind in a documentary about the discovery of the remains of a fifth Japanese midget submarine used in the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack.

For the Sailors, Marines, and Soldiers present at West Lock on today's date, however, few of them would ever forget the "Second Pearl Harbor Disaster."

The rusted hulk of USS LST-480 still visible at West Loch. The remains honor
the 163, sailors, marines, and soldiers who died and 396 wounded in a fuel
and ammunition explosion on May 21, 1944.
Source: Star Bulletin


Only 2 months later, on July 17, 1944, there was another disastrous explosion at a Navy yard, this one in the San Francisco Bay area. At Port Chicago Naval Magazine, 320 men were instantly killed when ammunition that they were handling blew up. Nearly 400 others were injured. The majority of the dead were African American sailors, at that time serving in the racially segregated military.

Navy crews were loading 2 naval vessels bound for the Pacific Theater with active munitions when the explosives ignited in a horrific series of blasts. Felt throughout the area, the explosions broke windows 30 miles away, hurled debris thousands of feet into the air, and obliterated both ships. Tragically, the blast instantly killed everyone killed at the waterfront—Sailors, Marines, Navy Armed Guard, Coast Guardsmen, Merchant Marines, and working civilians. It was WWII's worst home front disaster.

* While stationed at Pearl Harbor during this period, Dad performed welding repairs to many of these LSTs for the upcoming campaign.

Sources: United States LST Organization"Pearl Harbor's Second Disaster Remembered," US NavyLST-225 War Diary, May 1944

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