The West Loch Disaster, May 21, 1944 By Robert H. McKinnon, 93-year-old WWII Veteran
Hello Joey, Please share my husband. Robert McKinnon’s story with your readers. He is 93 years old and a WWII Navy Veteran, served in the Asiatic Pacific as a Motor Machinist Mate on LCTs, Landing Craft Transports, transporting troops and supplies to battle. This little know event was kept secret for 60 years. MAY 21st is the 71st Anniversary of this event. The mystery remains today. What caused the explosion at West Loch, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Were fumes from the gasoline drums ignited by careless smoking? Was a 4.2″ motor dropped accidentally? Was it the midget Japanese submarine was in the found in the wreckage removal? No witnesses survived the explosion.
The West Loch Disaster, May 21, 1944
By Robert H. McKinnon, 93-year-old WWII Veteran
Before the invasion of Saipan, Operation Forage (the invasion of the of the Mariana Islands), scheduled for June 12, 1944, a full blown five-day rehearsal was to take place. A well-trained invasion around Hawaii in mid-May 1944. The biggest and longest held to date in the Pacific Campaigns. The five-day rehearsal was set for 14-15 of May at Maalaca Bay on Maui and at Kahoolawe Islands, Territory of Hawaii.
Admiral Hill turned three LCT’s (Landing Craft Transports) into floating gunships, equipping each with eight 4.2” mortars. The (motor-laden) LCT’s would travel slowly parallel to the beaches with a blanket of heavy motor fire, while the assault waves were being formed. Loaded up and ready to go with the LCT’s chained to their decks, the large LST’s (Landing Ship Transports) set off for the rehearsal beach, never suspecting that trouble was just around the corner.
Unfortunately, the weather was very rough on the night of 14-15 of May, akin to a hurricane. The heavy seas suddenly became killer seas, men were sleeping in an LCT, which was secured on the deck of the LST with cables. The weather was rough and the stain on the cables was too great. The one LCT was pitched overboard with the sleeping men aboard. Nineteen men were either missing or killed, as the craft was rammed and sunk by the next LST in the column. A second LCT’s straps parted, sixty men went missing. A third LCT was launched prematurely, when it hit the water the troops sleeping there never know what hit them. The missing men went into the heavy sea in the dark without life jackets. Throughout the night the many ships in the area continued to search the heavy seas in the dark for survivors from all three LCT’s. When morning light came, and the ocean waves died down the searches found most of the men floating in the water, but no survivors from the three lost LCT’s. My LCT 963, chained to LST 353, was the only one to survive the storm. This night continues to haunt me today, I have many nightmares of hearing the screams of sailors in the water in the darkness and heavy seas. I felt so helpless, unable to save anyone.
The West Loch Disaster
One of the best kept secrets during World War II was the tragedy that occurred in West Loch, Pearl Harbor on May 21, 1944. On the morning of May 21, 1944, twenty-nine LST’s were nestled together in six berths reading for an invasion of Saipan in the Marianna Islands. It was to be the D-Day of the Pacific. A decision was made to have my LCT 963 equipped with eight 4.2” motors to be the floating gunship, very slowly patrolling the shore of Saipan, while assault waves were being formed. I imagined this as a suicide mission, as there was very little chance my LCT would survive.
My commanding officer advised me to take liberty and to go ashore and take some time to relax. Leaving my ship, I observed a crew on board LST 353, unloading the 50-gallon oil drums from my LCT 963, which was chained to the LST 353 and the oil drums were to be replaced with the 4.2” motors for the invasion of Saipan. Returning to my ship I witnessed an explosion. Something went wrong. Apparently, the blast originated near the bow of my ship LCT 963, where Army troops had been unloading the oil drums. I watched as six LST’s blew up and sank. Red hot fragments showered the clustered LSTs igniting gasoline drums. In minutes the explosion began to rip the invasion fleet apart, damaging 209 buildings shore side at the West Loch facility. For 24 hours fire raged aboard the stricken ships. The explosion threw body parts and chunks of wood and metal hundreds of feet. 163 men died and 365 were wounded. There was no recognition of survivors. No one believed me when I spoke of the horrors I had witnessed. The battle of Saipan was only delayed by one day on June 15th- and was a major catalyst in the surrender of the Japanese.
The West Loch Disaster was a real event and veiled secrecy for sixty years until 2006, so as not to compromise the United States operation of World War II. 44 sets of unidentified remains marked unknown in graves at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu. Grave markers were changed in 2003 by Congress to read “Unknown, West Loch Disaster, May 24, 1944” In recent years the Navy has held annual commutative ceremonies in West Loch.
“The West Loch Story” was written in 1986 by William L.C. Johnson and “The Second Pearl Harbor, The West Loch Disaster, May 21, 1944” by Gene Eric Salecher in 2014. Both authors detailing eyewitness accounts of this tragic event.
Virginia Frontiero McKinnon May 2018