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.




Posted by UltimaRatioReg in Army, Aviation, History, Marine Corps, Navy, Uncategorized


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  • Chuck Hill

    I notice the third picture shows a Coast Guard 180 ft buoy Tender, nosed against the stern of an LST, possibly pushing it aground.

    The three divisions landed on Saipan equal the US contribution of three divisions to the Normandy invasion (which also of course included two British and one Canadian division).

  • UltimaRatioReg

    Chuck,

    Good eyes. That is indeed a buoy tender, and the vessel being pushed aground is LST-480. It is her bow that is the last visible reminder of the West Loch disaster, and that is what is shown in the last photo.

  • hipowerdens

    An excellent point. I’m reminded of John Boyd’s response to the immaculate safety records of NATO allied air force training squadrons in the 60s and 70s: they weren’t killing enough of their own pilots to be training them right.

    These were different times, obviously. The level of training and high competency of our personnel is an important force multiplier for the U.S. Navy, so I’m not sure if we can afford to burn through good people as fast as we use to in the days of the draft. People will walk earlier if every day could be their last.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    Hipoweredens,

    Nimitz certainly wasn’t advocating recklessness, nor was Boyd. But warfare and the training for war does require significant risk, and it could be said that such risk is becoming increasingly unpalatable to assume.

    Problem is, war and preparation for war require assumption of that risk, whether we find it palatable or not.

  • Chuck Hill

    On the third picture, is that a takeoff ramp for liaison aircraft on the starboard side of the LST? If so, it puts the “ski-jump” back quite a few years from when I thought it had originated.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    Chuck,

    Those long sections are floating causeways that allowed for debarkation from the LST afloat if the tide conditions/beach gradient prohibited beaching the LST stem.

    See photo in link: http://www.albionk12.org/ContentPages/CommunitySchoolofExcellence/HighSchool/Projects/VetransProject/Warne/LST.d.day.JPG

    I believe my Dad told me that those were not used in an opposed landing situation. Though if anyone out there has more info, please roger up.

  • hipowerdens

    I’m right there with you, URR. I completely agree that we are incredibly risk averse. I guess my question is, why? Is it the rising cost of platforms and personnel? Or just the nature of a “peacetime” Navy?

  • Chuck Hill

    URR, Causeway–thanks.

  • Chuck Hill

    There is more information about the disaster here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/West_Loch_Disaster

    Two Coast Guard manned LSTs were involved. LST 69, one of the six LSTs sunk, and LST 205,heavily damaged, missed the invasion.

    This and the Port Chicago disaster two months later lead to stronger Coast Guard oversight of explosive loading.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Port_Chicago_disaster

    This included termination of the practice of nesting.

  • SwitchBlade

    The aversion of “risk” and doing things stupidly are not the same thing!

    This incident, the Port Chicago incident of of 17 July 1944, and the USS Mount Hood explosion at Seeadler Harbor, Manus, Admiralty Islands have all been attributed to people not handling ammunition in accordance with established safety procedures. While some safety procedures may have been modified or added due to these and other incidents; the basic culprit is poor or non-existent supervision and a willingness to use “hurry up” as an excuse to forgo proper procedures.

    This is more of an example of how bypassing safety procedures doesn’t really save time in the long run at all!

  • blackboot

    I don’t think that 180′ would have belonged to the Coast Guard yet. In 1944 it would have still been a Navy ship and it’s pure Navy grey even in B/W.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    Switch,

    Nobody, especially Nimitz, I am sure, would assert that doing things stupidly was the way to go. The question of “nesting” a large number of ammunition/cargo loadings in close proximity was dictated by the need to get vessels loaded quickly and to sea, either for supply of ongoing operations or for those amphibious operations about to begin. There were no facilities for isolating such activity nor time to load one or two ships at a time.

    The risk was inherent that, if someone did have a handling mishap or an ammunition malfunction, there was a high likelihood of an incident like West Loch or Port Chicago.

    Two things made the risk higher. One was that a large portion of the Ordnance units were newly formed and the men in them had been civilians nine or twelve months prior, and experience/training was at a premium. The second was the TNT bursting charge common in mortar and artillery ammunition, and the notoriously sensitive early fuzes for both types of munition.

    Despite these incidents, and several others, including loss of a number of ammunition ships, the risk was both necessary and worth the consequences. And that, with a war to be fought and won, was the point for Nimitz.

  • Rosemary Reed

    We went out for a bike ride this afternoon and were trying to see where the bow of 480 is laying to rest…we could not see it…we were looking from Ewa Beach West Loch park out into the loch…anyone know where it might be exaxctly??

  • Stan Robbins

    Blackboot, all the 180’s were built specifically for the Coast Guard and manned by Coat Guard personnel. Many (perhaps all) CG ships were painted gray during WWII.

  • http://www.westlochmay21.com Deloris Guttman

    We are celebrating the life & memory of West Loch Internees at
    the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl on
    May 21, 2012 at 3pm with full military honors.

    We have some documents with the names of some military personnel
    missing in the West Loch Disaster. We are conducting research
    to find family members of these men. Any information you may
    have will be appreciated.

    Mahalo & Aloha

    • Stephen Robert Wiist

      I believe my father, 2nd Lt. William E. Wiist, 306th Infantry, may have been in charge of the detail which was loading ordinance at the time of the incident. He died on June 8th as a result of a mortar explosion.

  • KayEllen Smith

    My 88 year old father was a Marine on a ship in the West Loch. He had his foot almost blown completely off and a constant reminder of what our soldiers had to endure!! Why was it to be kept a secret?? Every Marine that is still alive today knows that is was NOT a accident but sabotage!! I still believe that these men deserve a purple heart for what they had to endure!! My father still has nightmares about it!!

  • Carolyn

    My Dad was on the LST205 at West Loch and throughout the war. This tragedy haunted him until the day he died.

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