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West Loch's lost tale


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POSTED: Wednesday, May 20, 2009

It is a forgotten tale from an almost forgotten saga.

By May 21, 1944, about 2 1/2 years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. military was island hopping through the South Pacific, slowly whittling away at Japan's war-fighting ability.

Back at Pearl Harbor, a Navy armada was a few days away from the start of a voyage to the Mariana Islands, for what was expected to be a brutal invasion, code-named “;Operation Forager.”;

In an area of the vast naval base known as West Loch, almost three dozen large landing ships sat lashed together in a half-dozen groups, brimming with fuel, ammunition and other material. Last-minute preparations were under way, but many crewmen were ashore getting their final hours of R&R, so it was a relatively quiet Sunday in the small bay.

But at 3:08 p.m. that tranquility was shattered by an explosion on one of the vessels. Within minutes, more explosions ripped open several other ships as flames engulfed men and machinery. Before the day ended, 163 were dead and 396 lay wounded. Nine of the landing ships were destroyed and several others damaged.

When the Navy holds a private commemoration tomorrow of the 65th anniversary of what became known as the “;West Loch Disaster,”; the horror of May 21 and the bravery it inspired will be remembered.

But interviews and a review of dozens of decades-old military documents tell the widely unknown story of a nearly all-black Army unit that was handling ammunition on the ship where the first explosions broke out.

That unit's death toll on May 21, 1944, comprised more than a third of the total number who perished.

The disaster foreshadowed an even larger conflagration two months later at the Port Chicago naval base near San Francisco that killed 320 people, more than 200 of them black sailors who also were loading ammunition. That incident spawned decades of controversy over the refusal of 50 survivors to resume work and their subsequent conviction on mutiny charges.

Wartime secrecy hid the tragedy

There was no such aftermath at West Loch. Wartime secrecy cloaked the disaster's details until they were declassified in the early 1960s. Yet almost 65 years after the tragedy, few people have heard of it, much less the fact that an African-American Army unit was at ground zero.

“;The Army part of this thing is just kinda like a vacuum to me,”; said David Smith, an Oregon researcher who has devoted years to studying the disaster since learning that his father was second-in-command of the ship where the first explosions occurred. “;It doesn't seem to have had much recognition.”;

That is one reason Honolulu resident Deloris Guttman is pushing for a museum near Pearl Harbor dedicated to the contributions of black servicemen during World War II, including those at West Loch.

“;If we don't tell the story, guess what? Nobody else is going to give it any highlights,”; said Guttman, president of the African American Diversity Cultural Center Hawaii.

Though there were high-profile exceptions, many blacks serving in segregated units during the war were relegated to less glorious tasks far from combat, such as messmen or gravediggers.

But some black units, such as the 29th Chemical Decontamination Company, faced great dangers for which the enemy was not responsible. The 29th arrived at Schofield Barracks in June 1942. Its mission was to decontaminate men and equipment after an enemy chemical attack, but its soldiers also were a handy source of manual labor, such as when brush fires erupted or an outbreak of dengue fever required extensive spraying of insecticide.

So it probably came as no surprise when the orders came down on May 21, 1944, for the unit to unload ammunition from a small Navy assault vessel, known as a landing craft, tank, or LCT, even if they were not trained for such work.

One of those was LCT 963. It was tied to the top of Landing Ship Tank 353, one of the nearly three dozen LSTs that were to sail to the Mariana Islands and one of 21 that were resting side by side in three tight “;nests”; across a narrow channel from the West Loch Naval Ammunition Depot.

Ships filled to brim with explosives

Later testimony before a secret Navy board of inquiry described how every available space on every LST was crammed with 50-gallon fuel drums, grenades and ammo. On the morning of May 21, welders worked on some of the ships, and while smoking was barred, enforcement was lax, survivors testified.

It was in this environment that about 100 enlisted men and one officer from the 29th backed a succession of heavy trucks into LST 353, raised them on an elevator and slid boxes of mortar ammo down a chute from LCT 963 into the truck beds. The morning's work went well, but the afternoon would be vastly different.

Just after 3 p.m., Tech 5 James Caldwell of the 29th stooped down to pick up a box of mortar ammo when he saw a “;bright yellow flame”; and heard “;a deafening noise”; coming from the elevator, according to his testimony before the Navy inquiry panel.

Pvt. James R. Cleveland was inside the LCT when the initial explosion hit.

“;I went up in the air, and some rails, metal objects, went up in the air with me,”; he said. After falling to the deck, “;I could see fire all around, just nothing but fire all around me. I thought I was dead.”;

Tech 5 Clarence Henry Morgan witnessed a “;big ball of fire”; rise from LST 353 from a vantage point on a small vessel nearby. Minutes later a larger explosion occurred. “;That was when it just seemed like the whole ship blew apart,”; he recalled.

As LST 353's fuel and ammo exploded, red-hot shrapnel and flames hurtled toward neighboring LSTs, setting off new fires. Some sailors fought the flames; others tried to get their LSTs moving away from the fire-engulfed vessels. Some escaping ships and arriving rescue vessels ran over men who had jumped into the water.

The explosions threw body parts and chunks of wood and metal hundreds of feet. A few of the LSTs, including 353, started drifting uncontrollably. One would have rammed an ammo ship moored at the ammunition depot dock if another vessel had not managed to steer it away.

LST 353 ended up across the channel from the ammunition depot dock. Her rusty bow is still there, poking out of the water in an area off limits to the public but still a symbol of that day's tragedy.

The Navy determined that a mortar round exploded on LST 353, but could not pinpoint why. Sabotage was officially discounted, but the panel noted that careless smoking or a welder's wayward spark could have ignited gasoline fumes.

No one will ever know for sure because the men closest to the initial explosion perished.

In any case, the inquiry concluded, the close berthing of so many ships crammed with so much fuel and ammunition was “;extremely hazardous. ... A disaster of much greater magnitude was narrowly averted.”;

Still, Operation Forager went ahead, pretty much as planned, and the Mariana Islands were captured.

The bodies of eight men from the 29th were found, and almost 50 others were classified missing and presumed dead. Twenty-eight of its soldiers were injured.

Some 44 sets of unidentified remains from the disaster lie in 36 graves at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl. Some of them undoubtedly were from the men of the 29th.

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.”;