Remembering The West Loch Disaster
and small-arms ammunition, 200,000 gallons of diesel fuel, drums of lubricating oil, flares, signal rockets and fog oil smoke pots. The chain reaction of explosions that followed left six sunken LSTs and several more severely damaged. The resulting fires lasted 24 hours.
In all, at least 163 men were killed and 396 wounded.
Today, 44 sets of unidentified remains from the disaster lie in 36 graves at Punchbowl cemetery. The grave markers once read simply “Unknown,” but that was changed a few years ago at the behest of Congress to “Unknown, West Loch Disaster, May 21, 1944.”
At the time, the Navy did not want the world to know that we had been badly damaged by this accident. Therefore, the West Loch Disaster was previously classified as a top-secret American World War II maritime accident. This explains why the incident is not as wellknown as the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The wreckage quickly was cleared and dumped at sea three miles south of Hawaii, leaving only the rusted hull of the partially beached wreck of LST480 in the loch as present-day evidence of the disaster. The continuing effort to win WWII, the top-secret classification of the disaster, the expeditious recovery efforts, combined with the eventual successful execution of Operation Forager, served to ameliorate official interest in the disaster.
The Navy conducted an exhaustive investigation into the exact cause of the explosion, but it was never determined. It is believed, however, that a mortar round exploded during an unloading operation, setting off the chain reaction. The round either exploded because it was dropped during handling or ignited by a gasoline explosion.
As we honor the courage of our brave men and women, let us pause to remember that Sunday afternoon when, suddenly, a deafening explosion killed or wounded hundreds of men right here in West Loch. We must ensure that their memory, honor and noble sacrifices are not forgotten.