Feb 27

Pearl Harbor's Second, Secret Disaster

Thursday, February 27, 2020 11:30 AM

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The attack on the naval base at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 was not the only fiery tragedy that befell the bustling Hawaiian hub throughout the duration of the Second World War. Some 3 and a half years following the deadly Japanese-led strike, Pearl Harbor found itself in the midst of another deadly inferno that tore through the previously untouched West Loch, destroying six LSTs, killing 163 personnel, and injuring a further 396. Despite the large loss of life, knowledge of this explosive catastrophe was and continues to be limited, as an immediate press blackout surrounding the incident was declared by the U.S. Military. This is the story of the 21 May 1944 West Loch Disaster.

An undated mooring and berthing plan of Pearl Harbor. West Loch can be seen at the left. (NHHC)

U.S. Naval Base Pearl Harbor was devastated by the 1941 attack, which ravaged two out of three of the base’s lochs, East and Middle. Despite the heavy damages to both ships and personnel, the base bounced back with ferocity, and Pearl Harbor served as a major staging area for ships bound for the Pacific Theater during the war. On 21 May 1944, the base’s West Loch buzzed with frenzied activity as personnel prepared for Operation Forager, the invasion of the Japanese-controlled Mariana Islands. On that day, a total of 29 LSTs were tied up beam to beam across six Tare piers in the loch. Dockhands scurried to load the massive landing vessels with munitions, fuel, provisions, vehicles, and other assorted equipment to aid landing forces in their invasion of enemy territory. Many of the LSTs carried enough fuel and munitions for both their own usage, as well as for the usage of the 2nd and 4th Marine Divisions they were to carry into action at the Marianas. For a country enmeshed in the throes of war, it was by all accounts a perfectly normal day.

An elevated starboard broadside view of the LST-353 moving through the South Carolina Navy Yard on 17 December 1942. (USNI Photo Archives)

That afternoon on the deck of LST-353, men of the Army’s 29th Chemical Decontamination Company worked to tirelessly to unload mortars from an LCT tied to the ship’s deck. The men of the 29th were not formally trained to handle munitions, as their primary role was decontamination and clean-up following an enemy chemical attack. However, manpower was in high demand, and it was not uncommon for the Company to be assigned duties outside of their main objective. According to a later Navy board of inquiry on the incident, nearly every available space on board the LST was jam packed with drums of fuel, grenades, and ammunition. At 15:08, a massive fireball erupted into the sky from Tare 8, where LST-353 was moored. As heads all over the immediate area turned to stare at the chaos unfolding at T-8, another explosion ripped through LST-353, sending shrapnel, cargo, and body parts flying in all directions. Two accounts of men of the 29th aboard the LST, as outlined in a 2009 San Diego Union-Tribune article by Herbert A. Sample, describe the harrowing moments of the first and second explosions that tore through the LST. Tech 5 James Caldwell had just bent over to pick up some cargo when he noticed a “bright yellow flame” and heard a “deafening noise” coming from a nearby elevator. Another man of the 29th, Pvt. James R. Cleveland, sat in the LCT at the moment of the second explosion and stated, “I went up in the air, and some rails, metal objects, went up in the air with me… I could see fire all around, just nothing but fire all around me. I thought I was dead.”

Flaming debris and fuel from the initial blasts rained down on the other LSTs moored at T-8, setting some of them ablaze. One of T-8’s LSTs broke free from her mooring and drifted to T-9, causing a third, even more deafening explosion as another LST full of fuel and ammunition detonated. Crewmen aboard the vessels tried to fight through the fires to cut them free of their moorings, while others flung themselves overboard in a desperate attempt to escape the heat and flames. According the NHHC summary of the disaster, LSTs at the neighboring berthing area, T-9, hastily steered their ships to other corners of the loch, while some made way directly to the open sea. As numerous LSTs tied up at T-8 started to sink, oil bloomed to the surface and quickly ignited, spreading the fires even further to the neighboring berthing areas T-7 and T-9.

Aerial photograph of Pearl Harbor’s West Loch, showing the burning LSTs at berths T-8 and T-9. Some LSTs are maneuvering in the foreground, leaving the vicinity of the explosions and fire, while other ships have yet to get underway. (Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.)

Only moments after the initial explosion ripped through the air, West Loch was clogged with thick, black smoke as flaming LSTs drifted aimlessly through the harbor. Harbor tugs and fireboats from the neighboring East Loch charged to the area to aid vessels and personnel fleeing the chaos. In a 2002 oral history, Paul E. Cooper, a Marine on a nearby LST, described an absolutely hellish scene. “The smoke was so thick, you couldn’t see much in any direction”, he recalled. In fact, visibility was so poor that the skippers of smaller vessels aiding in the rescue efforts were unable to notice men drifting in the water, some of whom were still alive. Cooper noted that due to the smoke, some of these men were “run over by the boats trying to rescue them.”

Sailors on fireboats fighting the fires aboard the stricken LSTs in Pearl Harbor’s West Loch, during the night of 21-22 May 1944. (Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.)

At the southern shore of the loch was a sizable ammunition depot, where men aboard the cargo ship Joseph B. Francis received quite the fright as a phosphorous shell plummeted towards their ship’s deck and detonated on impact. Crews aboard the vessel extinguished the flames, only to have it ignite once again. Despite the fires on board, the Francis managed to flee the scene to relative safety. With the cargo ship gone, nothing stood between the ammunition depot and the three flaming LSTs, LST-43, LST-179, and LST-69 that drifted threateningly close to the facility. The heat from the vessels was near unbearable, and smaller explosions menacingly popped through the air as they approached. Personnel in the depot held their breath and prepared for the worst, only to watch as the flaming vessels slowed to a stop a mere 500 feet away from their doors. Firefighting efforts spanned long into the night, as blazes were extinguished, reignited, and extinguished again. By 0510 the following day, the Pearl Harbor signal tower still reported the site of smoke and flame at West Loch. It was not until 0800 that the blazes were brought under complete control, though some of the fires aboard the ruined ships smoldered for days. When all was said and done, six LSTs, 3 LCTs, 17 amphibious tractors, and 8 Howitzers were lost, in addition to an unknown quantity of smaller material losses. Operation Forager was delayed by one day as a result of the disaster.

USS LST-39 Afire in Pearl Harbor on 22 May 1944, the day after the explosion. Men are visible on her bow ramp, probably removing cargo. Other vessels are alongside and nearby, engaged in firefighting. (Photograph from the Army Signal Corps Collection in the U.S. National Archives.)

The U.S. military issued an immediate press blackout following the incident, preventing survivors and witnesses alike from saying so much as a peep about the disaster in letters to their loved ones. While a vague press release was released four days following the incident, little details were issued to the public regarding the numbers of the dead and injured. Naval Board of Inquiries were carried out in secret, and the direct cause(s) of the disaster were never determined. After the conclusion of Operation Forager, a more detailed account of the events of 21 May was released to the media. However, it was not until 1960 that the entire event was officially declassified.

For more information on the West Loch Disaster, see:

“Navy recalls bravery at WWII’s West Loch Disaster” by Herbert A. Sample in The San Diego Union-Tribune

Pearl Harbor Ablaze Again: The West Loch Disaster by the Naval History and Heritage Command