MidWeek April 9, 2014 McDermott’s Message by Rep. Bob McDermott
As we approach Memorial Day, it is proper to take a moment to reflect upon all those who have served, and those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. All of us are aware of the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. However, most of us are unaware of the other wartime disaster that took place here: the West Loch Disaster.
The disaster occurred in the West Loch part of the harbor, which at the time was used as a staging area for a fleet of Landing Ship, Tank (LSTs) and other amphibious assault ships being prepared for the upcoming Operation Forager, an invasion of the Japanese-held Mariana Islands.
On May 21, 1944, 29 ships gathered in the harbor’s West Loch to load ammunition and supplies in preparation for the operation. The LSTs, or ships designed to land battle-ready tanks, were closely nested together along six berths. At 3:08 p.m., an explosion rocked the deck of LST 353 and subsequently spread fire among the tightly packed ships loaded with fuel and munitions, including a volatile cargo of 20mm, 40mm and small-arms ammunition, 200,000 gallons of diesel fuel, drums of lubricating oil, flares, signal rockets and fog oil smoke pots. The chain reaction of explosions that followed left six sunken LSTs and several more severely damaged. The resulting fires lasted 24 hours.
In all, at least 163 men were killed and 396 wounded.
Today, 44 sets of unidentified remains from the disaster lie in 36 graves at Punchbowl cemetery. The grave markers once read simply “Unknown,” but that was changed a few years ago at the behest of Congress to “Unknown, West Loch Disaster, May 21, 1944.”
At the time, the Navy did not want the world to know that we had been badly damaged by this accident. Therefore, the West Loch Disaster was previously classified as a top-secret American World War II maritime accident. This explains why the incident is not as well-known as the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The wreckage quickly was cleared and dumped at sea three miles south of Hawaii, leaving only the rusted hull of the partially beached wreck of LST-480 in the loch as present-day evidence of the disaster. The continuing effort to win WWII, the top-secret classification of the disaster, the expeditious recovery efforts, combined with the eventual successful execution of Operation Forager, served to ameliorate official interest in the disaster.
The Navy conducted an exhaustive investigation into the exact cause of the explosion, but it was never determined. It is believed, however, that a mortar round exploded during an unloading operation, setting off the chain reaction. The round either exploded because it was dropped during handling or ignited by a gasoline explosion.
As we honor the courage of our brave men and women, let us pause to remember that Sunday afternoon when, suddenly, a deafening explosion killed or wounded hundreds of men right here in West Loch. We must ensure that their memory, honor and noble sacrifices are not forgotten.
State Rep. Bob McDermott is a Marine Corps and Desert Storm veteran and current executive director of the Navy League in Honolulu. The Navy League is a 501 (c) (3) charity founded by Teddy Roosevelt in 1902, with the mission to support the Sea Services through education.
He serves District 40. Call 586-9730 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.