Celebration of Life and Memory for West Loch Internees, National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl, May 21, 2014

On May 21 we attended the dedication ceremony commemorating the 70th Anniversary of the  West Loch Disaster.  More than 130 Army personnel of African American descent died in an explosion at West Loch on May 21, 1944.   The event was classified as Top Secret until the 1960s.    The Navy put together a great presentation, and we would also like to thank all of those who participated in the ceremony at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl.   At this time we felt it would be more than appropriate  to share with you, in its entirety, the speech made by Cmdr. Tim Wilke, Commanding Officer, Afloat Training Group MIDPAC.    The speech was very informative and provides an education on the subject of the West Loch disaster.  The Carroll Cox Show applauds the United States Navy and its personnel for the kind and generous way they presented and accommodated those of us who attended the wreath laying ceremony.   While many of us over the years have expressed concern with the lack of public attention brought to this incident, the past three years have been positive.    The openess and attention the United States Navy has given to this very important matter, working with various segments of the African American Community and  especially African American Diversity Cultural Center President and Founder,  Ms. Delores Guttman, is very much appreciated.  We would also like to acknowledge the consideration and support given to this effort by Hawaii State Senator Will Espero and Honolulu City Councilman Stanley Chang.  We would also like to thank United States Army General Vincent Brooks, Commander, U.S. Army Pacific,  Capt. Mark Manfredi, Navy Region Hawaii, and Ray Emory, Retired, U.S. Navy.


Ray Emory at Memorial Ceremony



 70th Anniversary of the West Loch Disaster

May 21, 2014

Remarks by Cmdr. Tim Wilke, Commanding Officer, Afloat Training Group MIDPAC 


It is an honor and a privilege to be attending and offering remarks at todayís solemn commemoration ceremony to mark the tragedy that took place in these very waters 70 years ago.  We take the time to look back on what happened and to honor our brave countrymen who were injured or lost their lives in the 1944 West Loch disaster.  I am extremely honored and humbled to be in the presence of a few survivors and their family members today.  Mr. Doug (Wocter) is here from Jensen Beach, Florida.  His father Joseph was a young sailor on one of the LSTs that was nested here that fateful day.  Also, Mr. Jack Sampson who now resides in (Knee-hay-lem) Oregon made the trip out today.  He was a Pharmacists mate serving with the 4th Marine Division on LST 222. I would also like to recognize Mr. Allen Bodenlos a Pearl Harbor survivor who made the trip out here with us today.


The West Loch disaster for various reasons went unspoken and unrecognized for over 25 years. As a result, very little was written about this event and all the details are still not exactly clear.  I would like to take a few moments to try to detail what took place that Sunday afternoon May 21st 1944.


In the spring of 1944, two and a half years after the first Pearl Harbor tragedy of December 7th, United States Pacific forces had seized the initiative and were on the march westward engaging the empire of Japan on the seas, in the air and on the shores across the Pacific.  It was this offensive thrust that brought 34 large amphibious landing ships, 29 of which were Landing Ship Tank referred to as LSTs to West Loch, an ordinarily much quieter section of Pearl Harbor.  LSTs were no stranger to danger.  These ships went directly into the action, right up to the beaches to offload their combat stores and troops directly to the beach.  Often loaded out to the gunnels with volatile fuel, ammunition, rockets and oil these ships brought and kept our troops in the fight. Each LST had a 199-man crew and carried about 200 Marines or soldiers as passengers.  Gathered on that day were twenty nine LSTs here for their final load out of combat stores in preparation of the upcoming offensive in the Marianas Islands of Saipan and Tinian.  Two strategic islands that subsequently provided the land bases needed to support our new B-29 bombers as they carried out strategic bombing missions over the Japanese home islands and ultimately served as the airbase that supported the final United States air combat mission of the war which led to the surrender of all Japanese forces.  


The preparations for the upcoming invasion were conducted at a feverish pace as equipment; fuel and ammo were being loaded on the LSTs that filled the harbor.   Berthed in rows, the LSTs of row T-8 consisted of LSTs 205, 225, 274, 43, 179, 353 and 39 with Pharmacist Mate Sampsonís LST, number 222 being berthed in the next row over T-9.  The evolution was not just a Navy Marine Corp team effort rather it also included, civilians, Army and Coast Guardsmen.  One unit in particular, the Armyís 29th Chemical Decontamination Unit assigned to Schofield Barracks was called upon to assist in loading operations aboard LST 353.  The 29th was a segregated African-American unit during the war.  As were many African American units they were often called on to do the less glamorous and often dangerous jobs which for the 29th entailed manual labor involved with dangerous materials, toxic chemicals and volatile explosives.


Loading and unloading operations continued throughout the day with several LSTs having smaller Landing Craft Tanks also known as LCTs tied to them. At 1508 on the afternoon of 21 May 1944, during the loading of ammunition from LCT 963 to trucks on LST 353 a large explosion originating from LST 353 was heard and felt throughout the Harbor.  The explosion and subsequent fire from the ammunition and fuel stores showered West Loch with burning shrapnel.  Bearing the initial brunt of the explosion and subsequent fires from the numerous fuel drums aboard LST 353 were the men of the 29th and the crews of all the LSTs nested in row T-8.  Those soldiers, sailors and coast guards that were not killed outright, blown overboard or forced into the water from the inferno sprang into action, running to the sound of the explosion and the roar of the fire to save their shipmates and ships. In the fray that ensued, crews desperately worked to cut away mooring lines, start-up engines, direct firefighting efforts on the flames, retrieve and triage the wounded on the ships and those that were blown overboard in the water.  As fires started erupting aboard several LSTs, crews advanced on the fires only to be driven back as more fuel and ammunition cooked off in the fires.  Tugs in the harbor closed in on the stricken ships with water cannons while towing away other LSTs to help them escape the violent fires and explosions.  At 1511, three minutes after the initial explosion on LST 353, and in a chocking cloud of black billowing smoke a second and louder explosion occurred which was followed by a third tremendous explosion 11 minutes later carrying with it a shock wave that overturned vehicles ashore, destroyed buildings and could be heard 15 miles away.   The resulting fires burned for over 24 hours afterward and in the carnage, 6 LSTs to include 353, 179, 43, 480, and 69 were destroyed along with 3 LCTs.  11 buildings were destroyed with several others being damaged.  163 solders sailors and coast guardsmen lost their lives.  Reports indicate that off the 104 soldiers of the 29th Chemical Decontamination Unit that were handling ammo on LST 353, approx. 58 perished in the dayís events while 28 suffered injuries.

Due in part to the classification of the event and the nature of the tragedy many fallen were never identified.  However they are not forgotten.  The rusted hulk of what is believed to be LST-480 still sits here as a solemn reminder of that dayís events.  Additionally, 44 sets of unidentified remains from the disaster lie in 36 graves at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl. As a result of this event and a few other subsequent ammunition handling incidents a change was called for and explosive safety requirements were enacted and enforced.  As a former Ordnance Officer responsible for the safe handling and storage of ammunition I can attest to the Navyís rigorous requirements in handling and storage of ammunition.  Standards that were born from the tragic events of this day.  And Standards that have kept generations of sailors safe from incidents like this one.


I am well versed in what took place during the Marianas campaign.  I know about the strategic importance of those islands.  However, I will admit, despite being a student World War Two studies, I did not know about the West Loch disaster till a few months ago.  As I head into this Memorial day weekend, I approach it knowing that for the first time in my life I will be recalling the sacrifices of the survivors and the fallen from the second Pearl Harbor disaster and the sacrifices of their families on a day set aside to honor our fallen service members. 

As we do in the Naval service in times like these we pause, lay too and honor those who have fallen and I ask God to continue to watch over the heroes and families of West Loch.  Thank you.




Thanks to Ray Emory for all his valuable  research