The West Loch Disaster was a catastrophic naval accident that occurred on May 21, 1944, in the West Loch area of Pearl Harbor.

The massive explosion lead to a fire that lasted for 24 hours and destroyed six LSTs (Landing Ship Tanks) and damaged several others.

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Background

Before World War II, Pearl Harbor was already an important U.S. naval base, serving as the home port for the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Its strategic location in the central Pacific Ocean made it a pivotal point for naval operations in the region. The harbor’s facilities were equipped to support a large number of ships and personnel, making it a key asset for the U.S. Navy’s preparedness and response strategies.

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The attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese Imperial Navy on December 7, 1941, marked a turning point in World War II. This surprise attack led to the United States’ formal entry into the war. The attack significantly damaged the Pacific Fleet, but crucially, it did not destroy the repair facilities and fuel reserves at Pearl Harbor.

Following the 1941 attack, Pearl Harbor’s importance grew exponentially. It became the launching point for many significant U.S. military operations in the Pacific. The harbor was expanded and fortified, with increased capacity for ship repair, maintenance, and resupply operations. It was not just a naval base but also a crucial assembly and staging area for troops, equipment, and supplies destined for battles across the Pacific.

One of the LST’s burning during the West Loch disaster.

Within Pearl Harbor, the West Loch area was particularly important. It was used as a staging and training area for amphibious assaults. The ships anchored at West Loch, especially the Landing Ship Tanks (LSTs), were vital for these operations. LSTs were designed to transport large quantities of vehicles, cargo, and troops directly onto shore, playing a crucial role in numerous island invasions. The preparations at West Loch for Operation Forager, aimed at capturing the Mariana Islands, were a part of this broader strategic effort.

The atmosphere in Pearl Harbor in early 1944 was tense and busy, characterized by constant activity and heightened security. The Pacific Theater was seeing some of the fiercest battles of World War II, and the importance of successful naval operations was paramount. This urgency and focus on operational success set the stage for the West Loch Disaster. The high level of activity and the concentration of personnel and materiel in a confined area increased the risk of accidents, while the war’s demands pushed the limits of safety protocols and procedures.

Explosion in the West Loch

On May 21, 1944, Pearl Harbor’s West Loch was bustling with activity as preparations were underway for Operation Forager, the planned assault on the Mariana Islands. This operation was critical to the Allied strategy in the Pacific, aiming to establish airfields within bombing range of the Japanese mainland. The Landing Ship Tanks (LSTs) at West Loch were being loaded with ammunition, fuel, and other supplies essential for the invasion. These LSTs were crucial for their ability to land heavy equipment, vehicles, and troops directly onto beaches, making them indispensable for amphibious operations.

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The disaster began with a sudden and massive explosion on LST-353. The ship was packed with munitions and fuel, which likely contributed to the intensity of the blast. The exact cause of this initial explosion remains unclear, with speculation ranging from an accidental ignition of fuel vapors to mishandling of munitions. What is known is that the explosion was powerful enough to trigger a chain reaction.

The burnt out wreck of LST-480 a day after the explosion.

Following the initial blast on LST-353, fires rapidly spread to adjacent ships. The close proximity of the LSTs, all loaded with similar volatile materials, created a domino effect. Secondary explosions occurred as the fire reached other ships’ fuel and ammunition stores. Eyewitness accounts describe the scene as chaotic and devastating, with flames engulfing the harbor and thick smoke blanketing the area.

The response to the disaster was immediate and frantic. Nearby ships and personnel sprang into action, attempting to fight the fires and rescue their comrades. Despite the danger, many acts of bravery and selflessness were reported, as sailors and soldiers risked their lives in rescue efforts. Firefighting efforts were complicated by the ongoing explosions and the need to prevent the spread of fire to even more ships in the harbor.

One of the significant challenges during the disaster was dealing with the burning and exploding ammunition. The presence of live munitions created an extremely hazardous environment, causing secondary explosions and posing severe risks to the rescue and firefighting teams. Additionally, the layout of the harbor and the positioning of the ships added to the difficulty of containing the disaster. The narrow confines of West Loch made it hard to maneuver ships away from the affected area, and the dense smoke hindered visibility.

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The human cost of the West Loch Disaster was severe. Official records state that 163 military personnel lost their lives, and an additional 396 were injured.

In terms of material damage, six LSTs (Landing Ship Tanks) were completely destroyed, and three others were severely damaged.

Aftermath of the West Loch Disaster

In the wake of the disaster, the U.S. Navy imposed a strict information blackout. The event was classified, and details were not released to the public. This secrecy was maintained for several reasons. Primarily, it was intended to prevent the enemy from gaining any strategic advantage or information about vulnerabilities in U.S. naval operations. Additionally, there was a concern about the potential impact on morale, both among the troops and on the home front, if the full extent of the disaster were known.

LST-480 burns as crews remove cargo and fight the blaze.

An official investigation was launched to determine the cause of the explosion and to assess the response to the disaster. The Navy convened a board of inquiry, which examined witness testimonies, physical evidence, and operational procedures in place at the time. The exact cause of the initial explosion remained undetermined, but the investigation believes the cause may have been a dropped mortar round aboard LST-353, or the ignition of fuel stored in barrels on board the ship.

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As a result of the investigation, the Navy implemented several changes in its procedures, especially regarding the handling and storage of munitions and fuel. These changes were aimed at preventing similar accidents in the future. Enhanced training programs were developed, focusing on safety and emergency response. There was also a review of the design and layout of naval facilities to improve safety standards and reduce the risk of similar accidents.