- The Second Pearl Harbor: The West Loch Disaster, May 21, 1944 by Gene Eric Salecker
In hindsight it was a disaster waiting to happen. On May 21, 1944, a small fleet of U.S. Navy landing ship tanks (LST) were anchored off West Loch, Pearl Harbor to prepare for the invasion of Saipan. As a result of the diversion of ammunition vessels to support the Allied invasion of France, these vessels took on not only U.S. Marines and their equipment, but also a volatile cargo of high octane gasoline and munitions. Despite this delicate mix, stevedores that day were careless in loading ammunition. Lax discipline allowed sailors and Marines to smoke cigarettes in close proximity to highly combustible cargoes. At 1508, an explosion occurred on LST 353 and within a matter of seconds, several nearby vessels were quickly engulfed in flames. Within a few short hours, several hundred men were dead or grievously wounded and six [End Page 163] LST turned into burning hulks. Scores of other vessels would need major repairs before they could sail again.
Being docked in West Loch from Battleship Row in East Loch limited the destruction that day but it also took over an hour for firefighting boats to reach the scene. Until outside help arrived, officers and crews aboard the LSTs were on their own. At great personal risk, many officers and their crews stood by their stations and valiantly fought to contain the fires aboard their vessels. Quick-thinking commanders sought to either pilot their crafts out to sea or beach the vessels to save them from destruction. But not all men were brave or attentive to their duty. Many sailors and Marines panicked and often hampered efforts to fight the fires. Men were killed even if they made it to dry land, as several shipboard explosions hurled shrapnel, including parts of vehicles inland as men, often shoeless, stumbled through a sugar plantation at Hanaloa Point.
Gene Eric Salecker’s account of the West Loch disaster deserves a wide audience, especially among general readers interested in the naval history of World War II. This work has several strengths, beginning with an overview of the design and operation of the LST. The maps, diagrams, and chronology of event created for this volume are exceptionally helpful in allowing the reader to understand how the disaster unfolded. Well-researched, Salecker (who has authored several works on military and naval history, including one on the Sultana explosion during American Civil War), has mined a diverse range of sources, including ships’ logs, the findings of the court of inquiry, along with survivors’ letters, diaries, and memoirs.
While Salecker offers an excellent narrative account of the unfolding of the disaster, the analysis of the aftermath is disappointing. For instance, how do procedures for the court of inquiry formed immediately after the disaster differ from ones formed after similar catastrophes? How does this inquiry compare to the investigation that occurred after the Port Chicago disaster? The response by senior naval officer, Admiral Ernest J. King, warrants further elaboration to better understand what lessons and changes were made to ensure this tragedy did not happen again. According to Salecker, King remained highly critical of the report issued by the court of inquiry and found fault with the leadership and organization of the LSTs at West Loch. More could be said about the often tense relationship between the regular navy and the reservists, especially because LSTs remained the domain of the latter. Although no criminal charges were brought against any officers or men involved in the events of May 21, 1944, what happened to the career of the Lt. Commander John F. Dore, who commanded the artillery support group of eight LSTs? Did Dore’s career, one of the few regular naval officers directly involved in the disaster, suffer as a result as result of this tragedy? [End Page 164]
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