Above, a copy of a photograph shows an LST landing craft at West Loch exploding on May 21, 1944. The boat was loaded for an attack on Saipan. The boat shown in silhouette at center was trying to aid in the rescue effort during a series of explosions that day that killed 163 people. CLICK FOR LARGE
Secret at West Loch
Tomorrow marks the 63rd anniversary of 'the second attack on Pearl Harbor'
Tomorrow is the 63rd anniversary of the "second attack on Pearl Harbor," when a devastating series of explosions in West Loch destroyed several Navy ships and caused hundreds of casualties. J. Arthur Rath, author of the memoir "Lost Generations: A Boy, a School, a Princess," experienced the disaster safely from the hillside campus of Kamehameha Schools. He later befriended historian Henry W. Schramm, a seaman on a minesweeper inside the harbor that day, who recorded his first-hand account for Rath. We asked Rath to summarize the 1944 West Loch disaster for us.
IN THOSE DAYS, Kamehameha School for Boys was mainly a vocational school; we had two years of eleventh grade (low- and high-eleventh) so students in the welding, machine and other shops could receive on-the-job training.
We heard explosions from our hilltop campus, saw smoke rising and ships escaping to sea. On May 21, 1944, we boarding students at Kamehameha Schools believed enemy submarines had returned to Pearl Harbor.
The harbor was swollen with combat ships, cargo vessels and even old World War I four-stackers. Something big was under way.
Henry Schramm, a seaman from Syracuse, N.Y., said his minesweeper was back from January's Marshall Islands campaign. It had joined a large task force of battlewagons, cruisers, landing ships and troop carriers holding a major dress rehearsal off Maui for the invasion of Saipan.
The fleet loaded its war supplies in Pearl prior to invading the Marianas. While other sailors were on shore leave, Schramm was on the bridge reading at about 1430 hours. A sailor on watch rushed over.
"There's a base fire alert. Can you two-block the fire flag?"
He ran up the signal flag. In a few seconds every ship at Pearl Harbor had raised signals on otherwise naked masts.
Schramm grabbed a pair of binoculars, scanned around the horizon and watched as a gigantic explosion rocked the area.
A truck, then a jeep rose above the blast, seemed to hang forever, then tumbled back into the inferno. Six LST landing ships loaded with ammunition exploded. Other normally land- or sea-based items -- mostly large -- made brief appearances as flying objects, then dropped from sight.
With all the explosives at Pearl, Schramm was worried the whole place would go up.
"Someone said, 'No, the big stuff is in the ammo depot near the harbor mouth.'"
Someone else added, "'Mines and torpedoes are stored there,'" Schramm remembered.
With the rising crescendo of sirens and ships' horns, Schramm glimpsed a massive cloud of black smoke rising from West Loch. Great orange flames flickered. Heavy smoke poured out of a large cargo ship. No tugs accompanied her; she appeared to be a runaway drifting toward that ammunition depot.
The cargo ship lost steerage and drove ever closer to the depot, probably a thousand yards away, then jolted to a stop. It apparently had run aground in the one area from which it could do no damage to the base's stored explosives, nor would it block the channel. It continued to burn at a slower pace, losing the breeze from its forward motion.
Schramm returned to the binoculars and their view of a billowing black and orange foreground superimposed on a deep blue Hawaiian sky.
"The explosions continued, each new burst of flame accompanied by a distinctive boom, reaching us several seconds later," Schramm recalled. "More and more of the northern sky was blotted out by the thick, oily clouds. Fireboats and seagoing tugs with high-pressure hose mounts proceeded up the channel with sirens going, cutting fierce wakes as they roared forward."
STAR-BULLETIN / 2004
The rusting bow of LST 480 is left at Hanaloa Point in Pearl Harbor as a reminder of the West Loch disaster. CLICK FOR LARGE
Ships headed out to sea, a remarkable feat by the few who were on board. Dozens of harbor craft began a grim parade from West Loch down the channel, skirting Ford Island, making for Fleet Landing. Shipmates returning from liberty witnessed the unloading of scores of bodies along the pier. Despite the minimal numbers of people aboard the ships, 163 were killed and 396 others were injured.
As darkness approached, Schramm looked to the northwest where fire still glowed. Higgins boats continued to trek toward the fire site and return with more depressing cargo.
In just six hours, hundreds of lives had been snuffed out or changed forever; millions of dollars in Navy ships and war materiel had been destroyed.
What had caused the disaster? Initial thoughts went toward a Japanese suicide mission or sabotage. Kamehameha seniors apprenticing at Pearl Harbor brought back a story circulating around the base that a Japanese welder had purposely set off anti-aircraft shells in an ammunition locker with sparks from his torch.
The U.S. Navy's investigation report, declassified many years after the event, states that explosions actually originated from the cigarettes of servicemen working on the LSTs, roughly handling ammunition -- including five-inch projectiles and phosphorous bombs -- while smoking. A prominent sign in the area stated "No Smoking." No welding was being performed in the indicated areas of the initial explosion. There was no evidence of sabotage.
Other islanders knew nothing more than what was relegated to a single paragraph on newspapers' front pages, advising readers of an "insignificant" fire with few casualties at the Navy base. News was controlled by martial law governing the Territory of Hawaii.
In reality, the disaster was big enough to delay the attack on the Marianas, giving more than 15,000 invading Americans and more than 45,000 defending Japanese an additional week of life.
J. Arthur Rath is a retired public relations executive and university adjunct professor.