50 Yard Line Seats ...
LtCdr Bernard M. Hillman, USN Ret.
On May 21, 1944, the armed forces of the United States were preparing to invade Saipan and Guam. The Saipan invasion was the Pacific front's version of D-day. Called "Operation Forager," it was to take place on June 14, 1944, eight days after the Normandy invasion.
My shipmates and I aboard LST-126, already seasoned veterans, knew that something big was brewing even though some still didn’t shave yet. West Loch, Hawaii, where we were moored, was the staging area for the invasion fleets of the Pacific. For weeks we had watched the 29 or so LSTs attached to Northern Attack Force, Task Force 52 being loaded with combat stores and ammunition at West Loch’s Lualualei Naval Ammunition Depot.
At 327 feet, an LST was approximately as long as football field. Drawing only 14 feet fully loaded aft and 8 feet at the bow, it rode high in the water, not exactly a ship one prone to sea sickness wanted to be on, but their short drafts had one distinct advantage, torpedoes aimed at LSTs often passed harmlessly underneath.
The LST's flat bows and bottoms allowed closer access to the beach for ease in loading and unloading. Things such as troops, tanks, munitions and even railroad cars were transported on LSTs because they could be unloaded without the benefit of a pier or dock. With a maximum speed of 11 knots, they referred to by their crews as ‘Long Slow Targets.’
My ship, LST-126, was laid down on June 11, 1943 at Evansville, Indiana, by the Missouri Valley Bridge & Iron Co. She was launched on August 28, 1943 and commissioned on October 2, 1943, Lt. M. A. Cassell in command. Less then three months later, we saw our first action in the Marshall Islands, were we precipitated in the invasions of Kwajalein and Majuro Atolls.
Sunday morning, May 21, 1944, 29 LSTs were nestled together at six berths, readied for the invasion of Saipan. While at the time we did not know our destination, we did know we would be leaving in a day or too. We were berthed at T-5 with LST-242 inboard and LST-121 outboard plus two other LSTs. Like most ships that day, two thirds of our crew on liberty.
The morning passed peacefully, and while as Boatswain mate 2nd class I had lots of work to do, I still nevertheless found time to enjoy the warm winds of the topical paradise I was in - I was a long way from my home in Camp May, New Jersey and I knew it.
After lunch I was assigned to Assistant 1st LT, Ensign Claussen in inspecting the lashings that held LCT-926 to our main deck. The week before, during practice landing maneuvers off Maui, several LSTs lost their LCTs overboard as a result of heavy rolls the LST’s took in bad weather. Thankfully we were not one of those and the captain wanted to make sure we never would be.
After verifying its securing lashing, Ensign Claussen and I moved on to inspect the 50 drums of aviation gas stored above deck on the port bow. The gas was used in the ship’s 18 LVTs (Landing Vehicle Track a.k.a. Alligator) air cooled aircraft engines. The gas was stored above deck because there was no place to store it below decks. Everyone knew it was a safety hazard, but we had no other choice, as bringing a tanker into an combat zone was out of the question. Instead, LSTs served as a the fleets "just-n-time" supply source."
Like every other LST, we were fully loaded with ammunition for ourselves and other ships such as 750 rounds of 5" 38 ammo for destroyers. The projectile were stored in the open under the LCT-in 375 wooden boxes, two shells to a box. All the powder was stored in the forward 40mm magazine locker or the 3" 50mm aft magazine.
After concluding the inspection I headed to the mess hall for a can of soda, I was sipping it when I heard a loud noise sounding like an explosion. It was exactly 3:08 pm. Everybody cleared out from below decks and headed to the main deck to see what had happened. I could see a large cloud of smoke coming from a group of LSTs moored about 300 yards away in a nest of 8 LST-berthed at ___ #8. I would later learn the smoke was coming from LST-353.
I climbed up to the boat deck to get a better look, and I had no sooner reached the deck when explosions began to rip the invasion fleet apart. All hell was breaking loose. Explosions were sending fiery debris high into the air, and onto the decks of nearby moored ships causing a chain reaction of fire and fury. After the third explosion, everyone knew this was not place to be, especially with all the exposed gas and explosives on our deck. Unless we got underway, it was only a matter of time before we became part of the conflagration.
With explosions echoing off the surrounding hills, general quarters was sounded. Ensign Claussin came running down the deck hollering for me and Seaman Steven ‘Sack’ Sacoolidge to man the LCVP (Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel) that was tied off our stern. We didn’t need to be told twice. Scampering down the Jacob’s Ladder, I rushed to the engine controls and started the engine while Sack hurriedly untied the lines.
Once in mid-channel, we could clearly see the disaster that was taking place about 300 yards away. Red-hot fragments showered the clustered LSTs (LST 39, 353, 179, 43, 69, 274, 225, 205), igniting gasoline drums lined up on their exposed forecastles. Ships everywhere were burning. The sky was quickly filling with thick black smoke. I could see men huddled on the sterns, as well as in the water alongside the ships.
Without giving it a second thought, I told Sack that we were going in and gunned the engine and headed for outboard and nearest LST: LST-39. As we headed in fiery debris rained all about us. Sack hurriedly tossed overboard the garbage cans that crowded our VP’s deck, he no sooner threw the last can over then we began to pull in men that were in the water. Once everyone in the water was aboard, we moved alongside LST-39's starboard quarter.
In spite of the height, sailors and marines jump directly into our boat. I’m sure many suffered broken arms or legs, but at the time, no one seemed to care. They were safe and that’s all that mattered. Once safely aboard, they turned their attention to helping Sack help their shipmates aboard. Once we had collected everyone we could at a particle LST, I maneuvered to another LST to picked up survivors. How long I stayed next to the group of LST, I’ll never know.
With the boat full and no one else in sight, I gunned the engines and started to pull away to safety. As I did, I saw somebody running aft on LST-39 and hollering something - I was about to turn around when LST-39 was rocked by another explosion. The man on deck turned and ran away and I never saw him again.
I headed across West Loch to the ammo wharf. Where we were greeted by the ammo handling crews. Those not injured helped those that were out of the boat. We all turned and looked at what we had escaped. Even from that distance, I could see more men jumping off the LSTs we had just left. Realizing that certain death awaited them in the flaming, oil-soaked waters, I asked several of the men we had pulled from the water if they would stay and help us rescue them. No one refused. We never had time to exchange names, and I never met them again, but they are heroes to me just the same.
We headed for the middle of burning group of LST. About 100 yards from it we began pulling men from the water, however the oil slick that now covered the bay made it hard getting them into the boat. Out of the corner of my eye I saw another LCVP that had lowered its bow ramp to the level of the water, allowing its crew to stand on the ramp and to literally ‘scoop’ men out of the water. It looked like a good idea so I followed suit.
Putting the ramp down in the middle of the harbor, even in the best of situations was not without its risks. All that was needed to sink us was a small wave. We had managed to only get in a few men when an LST, attempting to escape the area, passed us going flank speed, which created a large wake which rolled into the boat. As the boat filled with water, the sight of my LVCT sinking to the bottom of the bay flashed before my eyes. Sack & I jumped to the cable winch that raised the ramp and cranked for all our worth. By the time we got the ramp closed, we had about a foot of water over the floor boards.
To add injury to insult, the propeller was becoming fouled with debris. I was still able to maneuver but at a slower speed. For the next 25 minutes we continued to pull men from the water, but with the oil all around us now catching on fire, it was time to head for safety.
As we left the area to leave, I saw one poor fellow hanging off the stern anchor on an LST-100 feet away. Everyone in the boat yelled for him to jump and swim, but before you could blink your eye, the oil around the ship caught fire he disappeared into the flames. There was nothing more we could do. I turned away from the burning ships and once again headed toward to the ammo wharf.
Sack and I never counted how many men we pulled from the water that afternoon. We never had time to. But if I had to guess, it was between 30 to 40.
Once everyone was safely ashore, Sack and I tied up to the ammo wharf trying to figure out what to do next. Our boat was covered with debris. Water from the flooded deck was leaking into the engine compartment which was now close to half full, and the propeller was fouled.
As our LST-had headed out to sea moments after we had untied, we had no place to go. And with all the explosions going on about us, we knew two guys in a garbage scow were not top priority.
With the burning LSTs were now drifting towards us and the Ammo dock, I made my mind to head across the channel the morning berth where my LST had been tied too. Once secured we turned our attention to the water in the boat. Using a hand bilge pump and a battle helmet we tried to dewater her, but after half and hour and not much showing for all our work, we quit.
Now all but disabled, we could do nothing but stand and watch the destruction happening before us. We had 50-yard line seats 200 yards from the action - but it was a show we would rather not have seen.
LST-39 was now adrift and in the middle of the channel, lees then 200 yards from us. A tug boat was alongside her pumping hundreds of gallons of water a minute onto her in a desperate attempt to put out the fire raging on her deck. It was like spitting into a fire. As flames lapped at the deckhouse, the control center of the ship, her 3" magazine exploded. The explosion lifted the deckhouse skywards and onto the tug boat. Remarkably, the tug boat survived. It was now approximately six o’clock. The bright sunshine that greeted me in the morning seemed an eternity ago.
Seeing LST-39 exploded before our eyes re-energized Sack and I. Casting about for some way to get the boat out of the water, we caught sight of four old four-stack destroyers (APDs) and a LST, still tied together and unscathed by the events of the day. Unable to get steam up to get underway, they were forced to stay put.
I was unable to approach her because the LST was tied inboard, so I continued on. As I did, I saw another LST about 200 feet further in in Walker Bay. LST-274 had been part of the original group that had caught fire in the morning. She had managed to break free and ran herself into Walker Bay and beached herself. Unlike here sister LSTs, she had managed to put out her fires.
Nursing the boat forward, I pulled alongside her and asked if they could lend us a hand. The crew lost no time in lending us a hand. Once clear of the water the bilge plugs were pulled and the water that covered our deck began to drain. Once over the LST’s deck, I jumped off to inspect the propeller, which as I suspected, was ensnared with rope, sewage, and other trash.
As the water drained, we inspected the damage. On the floor boards inside the coxswain station between where my feet would be when maneuvering the boat, I found was a piece of steel about the size of a baker's rolling pin imbedded into the wood. It took a crow bar to pry it loose. It must have hit while I was busy helping pull sailors on board. Had I been in the coxswain’s station when it had hit, I would not be writing this today.
While cleaning the boat, the Captain of the 274 came by and told us he wanted us to stay as he had no boats of his own at the time. It was not exactly an order to stay, rather, it was more of a request, but as we had no other place to go, it seemed a good idea to us at the time. The crew treated us as one of their own. Sack and I did not sleep much that night, mostly we watched ships burn and explode and we thanked God we were still alive.
The following afternoon, the 126 came back into port. Thanking the crew of the 274, we headed back to our own ship. Upon reporting aboard we were called to the wardroom where our CO: Lt. Kruger, sat us down and poured us some coffee. The last time he saw us, he was headed out to sea as we were headed toward an exploding LST. He wanted to hear about it first hand what we had done.
While fires smoldered for several more days, life soon returned to normal, normal of course being all relative. Military authorities warned survivors not to discuss the incident to protect the scheduled invasion of the Marianas.
Four days after the disaster, authorities released a one paragraph statement acknowledging only that an explosion had caused "some loss of life, a number of injuries and resulted in the destruction of several small vessels." Despite the tragedy, the invasion fleet was able to set sail, delayed by only one day.
The ever present dangers of the war soon made the events of May 21st a distant memory.
But while we might have forgotten, the Navy had not. A few weeks after the invasion of Leyte, while the ship was in Holandia, New Guinea, a large envelope addressed to Lt. Cassell, now the ship’s CO, arrived. In it were temporary citations for me and Sack. My citation read:
On November 15, 1944, an award ceremony was held on the main deck where we presented the Navy and Marine Corps medal for Heroism for our actions at West Loch. It would be another two years before I received a official citation signed by the Secretary of the Navy, for the President of the United States himself.
Much as everyone would have like to celebrate, the war was never far from our minds. Less then six weeks later weeks later, LST 126 was once again in the thick of it during the invasion of Luzon. Little did I know at the time, it would be the last time I would see action on her. In February, 1945, I received temporary orders to report to the Philadelphia Naval Bases, where I was to awaited while permanent orders to a armored cargo ship where cut. In the meantime I enjoyed a month of liberty on the balmy Jersey coast of my youth, where the war, the explosions a West Loch, the friends I had made, and those I had lost, seemed like a world unto itself.
Soon after my departure, LST 126 was ordered home also, where she underwent conversion into a ammo carrier, as the navy prepared for what would be the biggest battle yet: the invasion of Japan. LST 126 had no sooner finished her conversion when the war ended. She was decommissioned on June 17, 1946 and struck from the Navy list on June 23, 1947. On June 14, 1948, she was sold to the Oil Transport Co., of New Orleans, Louisiana, for conversion to merchant service. What happened to that old gal, I don't know. But she earned three battle stars for her service in World War II.
Today, only a few reminders of the West Loch disaster remain. For years, both during the war and after, the disaster at West Loch was veiled in secrecy and mystery. Several investigations sought to find the reason for such a disaster, but no conclusive evidence as to how it occurred. Two major reasons have emerged as to the possible cause: the initial explosion was caused by gasoline vapor, or one or more mortar shells exploded while being handled.
No attempt had been made to salvage most of the damaged LSTs. When the war was over, the Navy Bureau of Ordnance seeking to test a new torpedo magnetic exploder, chose to use one of the damaged LST-as the target for the first live test. Towed to sea with a couple of big pumps pumping like mad to keep her afloat, the LST stood silently, waiting for her end.
But as to show providence was on her side, the torpedo malfunctioned and never approached the waiting LST. When the pumps that kept her afloat ran out of fuel, the LST, which had suffered so much on that fateful day in May 1944, slid peacefully below the waves.
I was lucky to spend VE and VJ day at home. But as all my shipmates were being discharged with points, I being regular Navy, still had three years more service to complete on my six year hitch. Many, in later life, wish they had been in my shoes and made the Armed Service a career. Twenty-seven years later I retired as a Commander, USN retired, having risen from Seaman, to Chief Boatswain's Mate, to Commissioned Officer.
Over the next 25 years, I was given the opportunity to attend many service schools, including ship salvage and deep sea diving. I served on many ships, including LST 857, four Submarine Rescue Vessels, two Submarine Tenders, not to mention numerous shore assignment that allowed my wonderful wife and I to expose our family of seven to the wonders of this great country.
My twenty-seven years in the navy are full of many memories of great times, and great friends, more about them next time ... Until then.
If you're an old shipmate of Barney's