Pearl Harbor’s Second Disaster Remembered: West Loch
By Journalist 2nd Class John Watts, Naval Media Center Pearl Harbor Public Affairs
PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii (NNS) — May 21, 1944, for the second time in less than three years, Pearl Harbor’s skies were choked with black smoke and her waters littered with death. Fifty-nine years to the day, Sailors from Naval Magazine Pearl Harbor gathered to commemorate the anniversary and honor those Sailors and Marines who lost their lives in the West Loch Disaster.
“Most people are completely unaware of the event that we are remembering today,” said Capt. John McMahon, commanding officer Naval Magazine Pearl Harbor. “But we remember.” Their memories begin at an isolated and sleepy tree lined portion of Pearl Harbor, where 29 tank landing ships (LSTs) prepared for a major battle during World War II. The United States was planning a massive attack on Saipan. Sailors and Marines hustled to load each LST and prepare for war. It was to be the D-Day of the Pacific. But something went wrong. Amidst the loading of ordnance, hundreds of thousands of gallons of fuel, trucks and small arms, one of the LSTs exploded for a reason never definitively determined.
Quickly, a chain reaction of explosions dealt flaming shards of steel into the air. Thick black smoke billowed into the air, while oil slicks crept across the water. The Sailors and Marines scattered. Some attempted in vain to put out the growing number of fires. Others tried to save themselves and their shipmates. Their mission was complicated by debris in the water that fowled rescue boat’sengines. Once again, Pearl Harbor was in a panic.
“In all, six LSTs were sunk, and several severely damaged. Dead were 163 men, and 396 were wounded,” said Naval Region Hawaii Public Affairs Officer Lt. Cmdr. Jane Campbell. Campbell went on to say that the West Loch disaster was veiled in secrecy so as not to compromise the U.S. operations in the ongoing war. The attack, however, was delayed only by one day and was a major catalyst leading to the surrender of the Japanese. Unfortunately, many Pearl Harbor shipmates could not be a part of the attack.
Today, According to McMahon, the West Loch disaster serves as a reminder to the Sailors working at Naval Magazine of just how important and how dangerous their job can be. While the ships are different, the mission is very much the same. Arm the fleet. Just across from Naval Magazine is the bow of LST 480. Rusted and wrecked, she is the only remaining visible evidence of the heroic actions and mournful loss of life during Pearl Harbor’s second disaster.
Snapshot photo by Robert L. Dennebaum, U. S. Navy, taken from LST-272
Story Number: NNS030527-07 Release Date: 5/27/2003 2:54:00 PM