The West Loch Disaster – the ‘2nd Pearl Harbor?’

On May 21, 1944, in Pearl Harbor, a formation of 34 ships docked at West Loch, all loaded with cargoes of ammunition and fuel, were prepping for the invasion of Saipan. The LSTs were made to carry ten tanks, as well as tons of supplies. When a fire broke out on LST-353, it started a chain reaction of destruction.

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West Loch Disaster

Soldiers were unloading mortar shells from LCT-963 and onto trucks on LST-353 on May 21 when a fireball suddenly erupted from LST-353.

The Navy was never able to identify a definite cause, but an accident with a cigarette or a mortar round going off and igniting the gasoline fumes have been advanced as probable causes.

Regardless of how the first fire started, its progress through LST-353 was fierce, and the rising heat triggered a second, larger explosion that filled nearby ships with hot shrapnel and spread flaming debris through the docking area

The other ships, also filled with fuel, ammunition, and other supplies, began trying to get clear while rescue vehicles rushed in to try to save sailors, Marines, and soldiers and put out the flames.

Logan Nye, We Are The Mighty

Ultimately, 5 LST ships were lost, one of which still rests on the beach at West Loch (LST-480) as a grim reminder of that day. Three LCTS, 17 tracked vehicles and 8 artillery pieces were also lost in the conflagration. But it was the heavy toll of death that made the West Loch disaster come to be known as the ‘2nd Pearl Harbor.’ The Army’s 29th Chemical Decontamination Company – an all Black unit- lost 58 of its men. The death toll from the day was 163, with 396 injured.

The LST-39 burns on May 21, 1944, during the West Loch disaster at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. (Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)

The fires raged through most of the day at West Loch. A media blackout kept Americans from knowing what happened until the incident was declassified in 1960. As for the invasion of Saipan, the Navy was able to find new ships and personnel…the invasion occurred on June 15, 1944, after missing a launch date from Pearl Harbor by only one day.

LST = Landing Ship Tank; LCT = Landing Craft Tank. They were built to carry combat ready tanks and pre-loaded trucks or other equipment during the war. The LSTs could carry 1,900 tons of cargo. Other versions, such as the LCI ( Landing Craft Infantry) carried troops.

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Featured photo: “Navy ships continue to burn on May 22, 1944, following the West Loch disaster the previous day at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The center plume of smoke is coming from LST-480 whose wreckage is still present at West Loch. (Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)”

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