WW II Naval Ammunition Handling Tragedies
BY JAKE JAEKEL
By 1944 American Forces were advancing more rapidly on all fronts. In the Pacific Theater Japanese Forces had been pushed back and we were capturing some of their inner ring of defense islands to establish bases so that our patrol aircraft could keep the sea lanes open to supply our advancing forces and attack the Japanese mainland with our long range B 29 bombers.
Elements of the Saipan landing Force entered Pearl Harbor May 20th, 1944, after practicing for the Saipan Landings off Maui. Twenty-one LSTs (Landing Ship Tanks) proceeded to West Loch and tied up side by side in five rows across the channel from the Naval Ammunition Depot. They were floating bombs crammed with munitions, vehicles and other supplies of the 2nd and 4th Marine divisions, Sea Bees and Army units. More ships were at Pearl Harbor at that time than any other period during WW II.
Sunday morning May 21st, 1944, some of the men went ashore on liberty while others performed shipboard duties or had taken their vehicles and guns ashore for servicing after the salt water dousing they received in rough seas during the invasion rehearsal off Maui. LST 353 was berthed second from the end in the first row and a little after 1500 hours erupted into a huge explosion hurling men, vehicles, pieces of bodies and steel high into the air. Suddenly other LST’s frantically moved away as the fires and explosions spread to other ships.
Six LSTs were destroyed, 163 men killed and 396 injured, the numbers would have been much larger if all personnel had been on duty. This was the second worst disaster in Pearl Harbor during World War II since the Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor December 7, 1941.
A Naval Court of Inquiry concluded the probable cause for the explosion was a defective fuse or carelessness while loading mortar ammunition onto a truck parked on the ship’s elevator.
This could have been a disastrous for the Saipan invasion forces; however replacement men, ships, and equipment were found and the LSTs sailed out of Pearl Harbor on May 25,1944, (only one day late) and that day was made up enroute. The Saipan Invasion was carried out as originally scheduled and became a major supply depot and large airbase for B 29 long-range bombers through the rest of WW II.
In the summer of 1944 with the invasion of Europe, Large sea battles and increased island hopping, allied forces were expending enormous amounts of munitions; Therefore large quantities were being shipped out of Port Chicago, (thirty miles northeast of San Francisco), to all points of the globe.
What many consider the worst home front disaster of World War II happened July 17, 1944, when two cargo ships exploded killing 320 and injuring 390 while loading cluster bombs, depth charges, and 40 millimeter shells onto the E.A. Bryan. The fully loaded Quinalt Victory explosion was recorded as an earthquake on the seismographs at Berkeley.
The Navy Court Of Inquiry ruled out sabotage and the explosion was probably caused by defective ammunition or rough handling. Crews were ordered back to work the next day as other ships had to be loaded to keep up with the demand of our troops fighting on all fronts; however 258 of the men refused to go back to work handling ammunition and were placed under arrest. Later 208 were given 90 days confinement and Bad Conduct Discharges and their 50 leaders put in prison for 15 years and Dishonorable Discharges. When the war was over they were all granted clemency and released.
In a hazardous environment knowing you could be killed, everybody gets scared to some degree. Most do their assigned duty for their comrades and love of country. For those who worked and lived on ammunition ships had no where to run like the S. S. Paul Hamilton that disintegrated instantly when hit by a torpedo killing all 608 on board. They are part of the 78,000 MIAs (Missing in Action) during World War II.
Every combat veteran suffered some degree of shock and fear but went on to serve their country doing what had to be done.