Sadly this massive loss of American lives as almost been forgotten.
Ships sank without enemy action.
Every American knows about the Day of Infamy: the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Most, however, are not aware of the West Loch disaster, another event during the war that lead to great loss of life not far from the site where the U.S. fleet was hit.
On May 21, 1944 West Loch, the body of water located west of the 1941 attack, was teeming with activity. Preparations for Operation Forager, the invasion of the Mariana Islands, was underway and the area was full of long, ungainly LSTs (Landing Ship, Tank) nested and lashed together. Each vessel had a crew of 199 and carried another 200 Marines or soldiers as well as trucks, jeeps and tanks which themselves were loaded up with fuel and ammunition. LSTs could navigate water as shallow as 14 ft, but they also carried smaller landing craft to cover the last stretch of water during a beach assault.
LSTs also had an additional purpose. Any mechanized invasion would need huge amounts of fuel, but proper tankers couldn’t be allowed into combat zones. As a result, LSTs also carried extra fuel reserves to supply the troops during the initial stages of an attack. In this case, each ship carried 80 to 100 drums of high-octane gas (55 gallons per drum), close to 200,000 gallons of diesel oil, 5,000 pounds of flammable lubricating oil and large stores of ammo. Many of the men loading the fleet were new to the job and had no experience or proper training in handling explosives. Some ships had welding operations going on right next to the fuel stores and some crewmen were smoking despite orders.
At 3:08 p.m. a massive explosion shook LST-353. The exact cause was never identified, as all men nearby were killed in the initial blast. It could have been gas fumes reaching a welder or a smoking man but it also might have been caused by a dropped mortar round: earlier during the preparations, the ship participated in an unsuccessful experiment of firing mortars from onboard and the ammo used for the test was being unloaded at the time.
The detonation destroyed 11 wooden buildings on shore and turned vehicles on their sides. Even worse, the heat, pressure and flying splinters created a chain reaction, with two more particularly large explosion occurring at 3:11 p.m. and 3:22 p.m. Some ships were cut loose and moved to a safe distance but others were trapped by their tethers and were consumed by the fire. Foam-carrying boats moved in to fight the flames, while some LSTs lowered their landing craft to aid in the rescue of men who jumped overboard. Those who couldn’t be picked up in time burned to death when leaking fuel spread across the water and caught on fire.
Impossible to extinguish, the fire raged for 24 hours. Six LSTs sunk and two were damaged beyond repair. Several smaller landing craft, already lashed to their LSTs, were also lost as well as a number of tracked vehicles. The official death toll was 163, with another 396 injured. A more recent study, however, suggests this number only accounted for sailors and the total death toll, including Marines and soldiers, is close to 400.
Though the disaster was tragic, its immediate aftermath was also a tribute to America’s resiliency and determination during the war. The lost ships were quickly replaced and the fleet sailed only a single day late, making up for lost time on the way to the Marianas.
In order to maintain morale and keep sensitive information from getting into the hands of the enemy, a news blackout about the disaster was ordered and survivors were forbidden from writing home about the event. The catastrophe was only declassified in 1960.
During the salvage operations to clear the loch, the remains of a Japanese midget submarine were discovered by accident. This was probably the long sought-after fifth midget submarine, the last of the five that were involved in the Japanese attack in December 1941.
The West Loch disaster was horrifying as it was but it claimed one more life months after it concluded. On February 17, 1945, two Navy divers were using jet nozzle to tunnel through the mud under one of the sunken LSTs during the salvage operation. The wreckage of the ship caved in above them, entangling their air hoses and lifelines and burying them under 40 ft of water and 20 ft of mud. One of their comrades, Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Owen Francis Patrick Hammerberg, went after them paying no heed to the danger. He managed to free both divers in distress but he himself got pinned down by a heavy piece of metal, dying in agony 18 hours after entering the water. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his ultimate sacrifice, making his the only Medal of Honor during World War II and the last one ever since to be awarded to a serviceman who died outside of combat.