Each month, an interesting aspect of the world’s oldest continuous maritime service will be highlighted. The men and women of the United States Coast Guard follow in the fine tradition of the brave mariners who have served before them. As sentinels and saviors of the seas, the United States Coast Guard proudly continues its commitment to honor, respect & devotion to duty to maintain their vigil - Semper Paratus.
The Second Pearl Harbor
The two men had their orders. The min-sub, eighty feet in length, glided slowly through the clear waters on the way to its target. Armed with deadly torpedoes, the min-sub was maneuvered into position in Battleship Row. One of the crewmen looked at his watch. They had successfully transitioned from the I-16 mother submarine and had reached the target destination. Soon, the men realized, they, along with the crews of four other min-subs would be joined by the first wave of fighter aircraft and torpedo bombers that collectively would reign fire upon the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet as they lay at anchor in Pearl Harbor. Only the passage of time distanced the crew of the min-sub with the deadly and swift action of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s Operation Z and the day that would live in infamy.
Three years later, on May 21, 1944, the necessary supply line’s twenty-nine LST’s and other support vessels for the next major movement in the Pacific Theatre of Operations, was nestled tightly together, beam to beam, in West Loch at the U.S. Navy base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The loch was serving as the primary ammunition and loading area for the vessels that had gathered to transfer the necessary equipment and munitions that would serve as the back-bone of Operation Forager – the invasion of the Mariana Islands. One of the LST’s moored alongside her sister vessels, was the LST-69.
The LST-69, a “Landing Ships, tank” vessel, had been commissioned a year and a day earlier. Three hundred and twenty-seven feet in length, she was designed to transport men and material to forward destinations. After her commissioning, the LST-69 was assigned to the Asiatic-Pacific Theatre and in November and December of 1943, she supported operations in the Gilbert Islands. She received orders in April of 1944 to return from Funafuti to Pearl Harbor. During the voyage, the LST-69 suffered major engine issues and was towed into port so that repairs could be completed. The repairs would continue for several weeks as orders were passed to her commanding officer, LT. Robert T. Leary of the United States Coast Guard Reserve, that his vessel would be utilized in the upcoming advance of Allied Forces against the Mariana Islands.
On May 21, 1944, the LST-69 was still undergoing repairs to ensure that she would be ready to meet the mission needs of Operation Forager. While her normal complement was one hundred and eleven men, she was also ferrying two hundred U.S. Marines for the pending operation. While many of the ship’s complement had been provided shore-leave, the remaining men aboard stood watch and continued myriad training and loading operations. Nearby, aboard the LST-353, the executive officer watched as crewmen from a smaller LCT were actively unloading mortar rounds on the deck of his ship. Without warning, a massive fireball erupted aboard the LST-353. It was fifteen zero eight. The Second Pearl Harbor had commenced in a horrific conflagration. The men handling the cargo of mortar shells were incinerated in the maelstrom of flame.
A furious flurry of fiery debris rained down onto the decks and bridge of the LST-353 and her closely wed sister vessels. Deck cargoes of high octane fuel and other war material quickly ignited and exploded in a horrific-ear shattering crescendo. Shrapnel from the cargo containers rained death and destruction throughout the loch. The Coastguardsmen and Navy personnel aboard the tightly packed LST’s rushed to their decks to begin to assess the situation and save their vessels from destruction as the flames spread quickly from LST to LST. The officers and men aboard the LST-69 immediately determined that the only way to try and survive was to sever the lines of the LST-69 from her sister ships so that they could free themselves from the spreading fires. Word was passed to the LST-274 requesting that she pull the LST-69, which was still without power due to her repairs, free from the nestled funeral pyre of LST’s. Coastguardsmen worked diligently to cut the lines but the flames made the tasking nearly impossible. Walls of fire and airborne debris rifled through the air making their tasking difficult and dangerous.
Finally, with the bulk of the LST-69’s decks engulfed in flame, her crew was finally able to free her from the rest of the LST’s. Their escape from the onslaught though was too late. The LST-69 would not be able to be saved and word was passed to abandon ship. Less than five minutes had elapsed from the time of the explosion aboard the LST-353 to the order to abandon ship. The remaining crewmen alighted to small boats and assisted other sailors and Coastguardsmen who had been blown into the water by explosions or had jumped ship to escape the flames of the horrible fires fueled by ammunition and high octane fuel. The small boats of the LST-69, after ferrying survivors to shore, returned to the flame covered waters to assist others to shore. The rescue operations continued to ensure that the men in the water were returned to the safety of land.
Despite the horrible explosions and quickly spreading fires aboard the LST-69, none of her officers or crew were lost. Two officers and eleven crewmen had received serious injuries and two other officers and twenty-five crewmen had received minor injuries but amazingly, they were alive. In total, the two hundred U.S. Marines and the crew of the LCT-983, which had been lashed aboard the LST-69’s main deck, had survived the fire and the subsequent loss of the LST-69. Other LST officers and crew and U.S. Marines were not as lucky as the officers and men aboard the LST-69. In total, one hundred and sixty-three personnel perished as a result of the fires at West Loch and nearly four hundred were injured.
U.S. Navy tugboats and fireboats arrived on scene and valiantly fought the fires for nearly twenty-four hours. While the U.S. Navy and United States Coast Guard reeled from the terrible disaster at West Loch, salvage operations swiftly began to address the carnage left in its wake. A total of six LSTs were sunk, several were heavily damaged, and others required extensive repairs to return to the fleet. On shore, eleven wooden structures had been destroyed with a total of twenty buildings damaged by the explosions and fire aboard the ships. The explosive force of the fires and disaster had also blown many vehicles onto their sides. Despite the horrible tragedy, due to the herculean efforts of the personnel of the U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard, Operation Forager was delayed only one day from its original plans. While planning and preparation for the attack on the Mariana’s continued, while clearing the West Loch, a min-sub, eighty feet in length was discovered. The min-sub, like the wreckage of the other vessels sunk and damaged from the horrific disaster, were all salvaged and then shifted to their final watery grave, three miles south of Pearl Harbor.
On May 22, 1944, while efforts to ensure that the fires were completely under control and as the damaged and wrecked LST’s were being attended to by salvage boats and teams, Rear Admiral John F. Shafroth, Jr, commenced a Naval Board of Inquiry to investigate the tragedy. The Board reviewed testimony by several witnesses including the Executive Officer of the LST-353 who indicated that he believed that the incident occurred when U.S. Army stevedores were handling M2 mortar rounds on the deck of his LST. Based on all of the collected testimony, the Board concluded that a final determination could not be made as all of the men at the center of the initial explosion had been killed. The most plausible explanation provided by the Board was that the incident occurred by the “accidental dropping of a mortar round being unloaded from the LCT on the LST-353” and the subsequent “ignition of gasoline vapors from high-octane fuel drums stored on the deck of the LST-353.”
In addition, it was believed that the spark may have been a lit cigarette or the arc from welding equipment that though not permitted, was observed at the time of the incident.
While the Board of Inquiry never assigned any specific blame on any officers or crew involved in the disaster, recommendations to avoid the nesting of LST’s or other supply vessels engaged in loading operations went unheeded as it was deemed impractical during wartime. The lessons of the Second Pearl Harbor had fallen on deaf ears. Details of the West Loch disaster were completely censured by authorities as a war-time security measure and the details of the incident were not de-classified until 1960. Overshadowed by the December 7th, 1941 attack by the Japanese on the U.S. Pacific Fleet, the West Loch disaster of May 21, 1944 is often referred to by historians as the Second Pearl Harbor and the officers and sailors who perished as a result of the horrible incident, were forever memorialized with a plague placed on the shore of West Loch in April of 1995. The U.S. Congress, later ordered that the men killed during the tragedy have their gravestones amended from “unknown” to “unknown, West Loch Disaster, May 21, 1944.” The only visible remains to the public, in addition to the plague, is the rusted hulk of the protruding bow of the LST-480. The steel ship, slowly rusting away due to exposure to the elements, is one of the last reminders of the terrible tragedy.
The West Loch disaster or the Second Pearl Harbor is a reminder of the long chain of men and equipment that must be in place to effect a strategic victory. The U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard personnel aboard the small boats and vessels were as integral to the success of the Allied Forces as the U.S. Marines that were face to face with the enemy on the islands throughout the Pacific. Each member of the Armed Forces, whether ensuring logistical support or charging up a sandy atoll with fixed bayonet, was a vital link in the chain of victory as the Allied Forces pushed across the islands of the Pacific Ocean toward mainland Japan. The men of the U.S. Navy and United States Coast Guard exemplified the spirit of their duty and brotherhood during the West Loch disaster and it is that spirit of connectedness and joint mission readiness that remains a vital link in the chain of success as the various services of our nation’s military combat threats on a global scale. The men and women of the United States Coast Guard, as the brethren and sisters before them, remain ever-ready to ensure that the missions and goals of the nation are met with success as they serve as the world’s current day sentinels and saviors of the seas.