In May of 1944, preparations were underway for the US Marine invasion of the island of Saipan. The planned invasion force for the first act of Operation Forager, the conquest of the Marianas, consisted of of two Marine Divisions, a US Army Division, and the required force and support units from an amphibious armada of nearly 600 ships and craft. Inherent in projecting a landing force of such size was the loading and preparation of the massive logistical effort to project and sustain the invasion force.
At the US Pacific Fleet base at Pearl Harbor, the LSTs that would support the initial landings and follow-on operations ashore were being crammed to the gunwales with every conceivable item of warfare. That list of items for such things includes munitions of all calibers and types, propellants, aviation gasoline, vehicle fuel, and a variety of other volatile cargoes. In West Loch, more than two dozen LSTs were tightly clustered while their hulls and decks filled with ammunition, supplies, and materiel.
On the afternoon of 21 May, 1944, while Army Ordnance troops loaded mortar ammunition on the fantail of LST-353, there was an explosion, followed by two more minutes later, that sprayed hot splinters into the highly flammable aviation drums on LST-480 and LST-39 nearby. Predictably, flaming gasoline and exploding ammunition soon began to take a frightful toll of the Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines loading and manning the ships. Fires and explosions drove back ships and craft engaged in firefighting efforts, but each time those vessels re-entered the inferno to contain the fires and keep the disaster from spreading to the rest of the Fleet anchorage.
The fires burned for more than 24 hours, finally being extinguished on the afternoon of 22 May. As the fires died away, the cost of the catastrophe was counted. One-hundred and sixty three men lost their lives, with another 400 injured, including several fighting the fires. Six LSTs were destroyed, two damaged beyond repair. Three LCTs, lashed to the decks of sunken LSTs, were also lost, as were a number of LVT’s parked nearby.
In examining the impact of the tragedy, there are interesting facts that stagger our concept of that war and the effort our nation put forth:
Despite the loss of virtually all of the cargo on eight LSTs and the ships themselves, the Saipan invasion force put to sea as scheduled on 5 June 1944, just as the largest invasion armada ever to sail was crossing the English Channel en route to the Normandy beaches.
Admiral Chester Nimitz, CINCPAC, was asked if the practice of “nesting” landing ships while loading such volatile cargo should be ended. Admiral Nimitz answered in the negative. The exigencies of war and the tempo demanded by the campaign in the Central Pacific required such “calculated risks”.
Neither of those occurrences is imaginable today. The loss of a single MPF ship, or a JLOTS vessel, and their respective cargoes, would likely have crippling effects on US power projection operations, even without a simultaneous and much larger effort halfway around the world. Our highly risk-averse senior military and civilian leadership would not countenance Admiral Nimitz’s willingness to assume such risk to maintain operational tempo.
We would do well to reflect on both of those points.