The Second Pearl Harbor Disaster
LST Veterans Still Remember the West Loch Tragedy
By Mel Barger, LST-555
On 21 May 1989, fifteen former crewmembers of LST-69, along with their wives and guests, boarded a U.S. Coast Guard cutter in Honolulu for a day-long trip to West Loch, Pearl Harbor. It was a sunny day and a festive excursion, with children of the cutter’s crew joining a pleasant cruise that would include a buffet luncheon served on deck.
But it was also a somber occasion, because the LST veterans were returning to the scene of a tragedy of forty-five years earlier, to the very day. Sometimes called the “second Pearl Harbor disaster,” this was the 21 May 1944 West Loch tragedy that destroyed LST-69 and five other landing ships being readied for the assault on Saipan in the Marianas. Three LCTs also were lost in the series of explosions that shook West Loch that afternoon.
No crew member from LST-69 had been among the 163 killed in the disaster, though some had been injured by shrapnel. Among the wounded had been Don Kinney, a storekeeper aboard LST-69 and, with his wife, Norma, one of those who came back for the 45th anniversary ceremony.
Kinney, a florist in Toledo, Ohio, and also the founding president of the United States LST Association, had traveled a long way for this symbolic return. He and his shipmates made this pilgrimage to pay tribute to those who had died at West Loch. At exactly 3 p.m., prayers were said and a wreath was cast on the quiet waters. “It was timed to the second of when the disaster occurred,” Kinney said.
Official reports actually gave 1508 (or 3:08 p.m.) as the probable time the first explosion was heard. But two other explosions, one at 1511 and the second at 1522, probably resulted in much of the damage and prevented crews from taking needed action to save their ships. The 1522 explosion was believed to have doomed LST-69, closing off any chance of escape.
In returning to West Loch, the LST-69 veterans found it much the same as it had been in 1944, though the surrounding area now had much development. But West Loch is a little-used part of Pearl Harbor, where most of the activity is in the other two parts: East and Middle Lochs (which were also the scene of the 7 December 1941 attack that left the Pacific Fleet badly crippled and drew the U.S. into World War II). But though West Loch is a lonely body of water today, more than a hundred ships and smaller craft were gathered there on 21 May 1944.
West Loch was a busy area that day in 1944. Many of the ships were being loaded with ammunition, gasoline, and other cargo in preparation for the Marianas campaign. Marines and soldiers were also aboard the ships. And twenty-nine LSTs were berthed there to receive supplies from the West Loch Naval Ammunition Depot. LST-69 was berthed in a row identified as T-8, along with LSTs -205, -225, -274, -43, -179, -353, and -39. Next to them was T-9, which berthed LSTs -480, -140, -224, -340, -23, -462, and -222. The ships that would be lost in the disaster were LSTs -353, -179, -43, -480, and -69. Though LSTs had only been in operation for about a year, some of them already had impressive combat records, and LST-69, a Coast Guard ship, had made landings in the Aleutian Islands campaign and bloody Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands.
As the loading progressed, there was apparently considerable carelessness in the handling of ammunition and other explosive cargo. At the same time, few of the officers and men involved in the loading operations had real experience or training in handling such dangerous cargo. Not only were welding operations being carried on, but smoking was also suspected as a possible cause of the explosions.
The scene had everything that was needed for an accident about to happen. As author Howard E. Shuman noted in the Summer 1988 issue of Naval History, it was a euphemism to say that the LSTs were combat loaded. “They were floating ammunition dumps, floating gasoline storage tanks, floating vehicle garages, floating ship repair yards, and floating overcrowded hotels,” he wrote. “The ships’ magazines were loaded. The ready boxes for their guns were full. Six thousand cubic feet of cargo ammunition were stowed on the tank decks aft and under the guns and some amphibious craft known as dukws. The trucks, jeeps, and weapons carriers on the main decks were loaded with ammunition and fuel. Each LST carried 80 to 100 drums each containing fifty-five gallons of high-octane gas on her forecastle, as well as nearly 200,000 gallons of diesel fuel and 5,000 pounds of lubricating oil for her own engines. Drums of fog oil, smoke pots, and floats were on the fantails. Each LST had a 199-man crew and carried about 200 Marines or soldiers as passengers.”
According to the official investigation that followed the disaster, the first explosion occurred on board LST-353, where heavy ammunition was being unloaded. This ignited gasoline stored in drums on adjoining ships, and in moments several LSTs were ablaze and clouds of smoke were billowing up from West Loch. The flames prevented crews from casting off lines and breading free of the other ships. Then a second explosion came at 1511, and a third—the most violent—followed at 1522. The enire scene was a melee of smoke and confusion, with men either being blown overboard or leaping into the water to escape the flames.
Kinney, a storekeeper, first class, was below decks completing inventories of ships’ supplies when the first explosion came. He rushed topside to his battle station just in time to catch another explosion that blew him overboard. He was rescued and taken to the hospital, where his injuries were treated. Three weeks later, he was sent back to the U.S. mainland, where he was assigned to a shore base for the duration of the war. Though wounded by shrapnel, he was never awarded the standard Purple Heart decoration, since the West Loch explosions did not occur from enemy action. (Kinney always suspected, however, that sabotage may have been a factor in the disaster.)
While the thousands of service persons based in Hawaii as well as civilian residents knew about the disaster, it received very little publicity then or later. Howard Shuman offered three reasons why news about the tragedy was suppressed: 1) to protect the buildup for the Saipan invasion; 2) the secret classification of the report from the court of inquiry; and 3) the fact that the report was not declassified until 1 January 1960. “By then the disaster was forgotten,” he said.
But Kinney and the hundreds of other LST sailors who were at West Loch that day never forgot the disaster. It was the formation of the U.S. LST Association in 1985 that indirectly led to the LST-69 crew’s return to West Loch four years later. Through the Association, Kinney was put in touch with former shipmates, and they had the first LST-69 reunion in Toledo in 1985. Attending the reunion was Robert Leary, skipper of LST-69 and a resident of Hawaii. Thanks to Robert Leary, the LST-69 veterans and their wives were able to have the 1090 reunion in Hawaii, with the cooperation and support of the Coast Guard.
There was little to see at West Loch, other than the rusted prow of an LST beached on the shore. Nobody knows its number, and Kinney is sure that LST-69 lies on the bottom. But the rusted prow is still there, as a reminder of the “second Pearl Harbor disaster” which took 163 lives.