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Survivors recall West Loch


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POSTED: Friday, May 22, 2009

Machinist Mate 1st Class Wood Beeghly was on the deck of the minelayer USS Terror and saw the first explosion that rocked West Loch 65 years ago.

;[Preview]  West Loch 65th Anniversary
 

Today we honor those who risked their lives 65 years ago during a series of explosions that rocked Pearl Harbor's West Loch leaving 163 dead and 396 wounded.

Watch ]

 

“;It is still fresh in my memory,”; said Beeghly, 86, who believes his boat was about 500 yards away from the source of the explosion, Landing Ship Tank 353, as barrels of aviation fuel exploded and debris flew through the air.

He was among five survivors who returned to Pearl Harbor yesterday to commemorate the May 21, 1944, disaster, which killed 163 people and destroyed six amphibious landing ships.

Daniel Martinez, chief historian at the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, said yesterday that “;debate will always be there”; over the cause of the West Loch disaster.

“;The general consensus, however, is that it was caused by the mishandling of mortar ammunition while they were being unloaded,”; Martinez said. “;One fell and detonated. The shrapnel hit a 50-gallon drum of high-octane aviation fuel, setting off a chain reaction.”;

Twenty-nine LSTs were moored close together at West Loch's Walker Bay. Each LST was packed with 50-gallon drums of aviation fuel, grenades and ammunition as the Navy prepared for “;Operation Forager,”; the invasion of Saipan.

The first explosion occurred at 3:08 p.m. as soldiers of the 29th Chemical Decontamination Company unloaded mortar ammunition from the decks of smaller landing craft.

Beeghly ran to the engine room of the USS Terror and ordered the engines to be started.

Seaman 1st Class Alex Bernal, 84, was on duty on a small boat shuttling personnel from Waipio Point to the ships in West Loch.

“;There was a big dark cloud overhead,”; said Bernal, “;and debris coming down on us. There was fire everywhere. Even the water was on fire.”;

Bernal said his boat spent most of the afternoon picking up survivors. “;There were two men trapped on an anchor chain near the fantail. Another man was on a life raft. When we weren't able to bring it on board, we towed the raft to the dock.”;

Finally, several hours later, an exhausted Bernal passed out at a Pearl Harbor dock and was taken to Aiea Heights hospital, where he was told his eardrums were broken.

Ship's Cook 2nd Class Roy Sannella, 83, was shooting craps on a pier in Middle Loch when the explosions occurred. He boarded the tug YT 129 to help fight fires and rescue sailors.

Gunner's Mate 2nd Class Harry Horn, 85, was assigned to LST 242.

“;My only thought then,”; Horn said, “;was forget everything, just cut the lines. Let's get out of here.”;

Cmdr. Todd Chipman, executive officer of the Navy Munitions Command, said the West Loch disaster resulted in changes to the way the Navy loads and unloads munitions.

Vessels are no longer berthed so close to each other, and ordnance workers receive formalized training today and have to be recertified.