PEARL HARBOR (NNS) -- Military service members and civilians attended a ceremony for the victims of the West Loch disaster during a special boat visit to the site of the incident, May 20, and at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl Crater, May 21.
The West Loch disaster was previously classified top secret as an American World War II maritime accident and now with this year marking the 70th anniversary of the event, it is only the fifth time an official remembrance ceremony was held.
"West Loch is an event that happened 70 years ago and it was classified until 1962 and so not a lot of people know about it," said Jim Neuman, Navy Region Hawaii Historian. Even today, not a lot of people know about it, because it happened during the war. We're just trying to use this opportunity to let people know about what happened here and hopefully educate people a little bit more."
One of the survivors of the disaster was able to attend this year's ceremony.
"We also have with us survivor Jack Sampson," said Neuman. "We wanted to make sure that he had an opportunity to come out here. This is an opportunity to honor him."
Sampson was assigned to LST 222 (Landing Ships, Tank) and was aboard the ship during the time of the disaster.
On May 21, 1944, 34 ships were gathered in Pearl Harbor's West Loch to load ammunition and supplies in preparation for the invasion of Saipan. The LSTs, or ships designed to land battle-ready tanks, were close together along six berths. At 3:08 p.m., an explosion occurred aboard LST 353. A chain reaction of massive explosions followed that left six LSTs sunk and several more severely damaged. In all at least 163 men were killed and 396 wounded.
Sailors, Marines and Soldiers were preparing the vessels for the upcoming operation. Nearly one-third of the casualties came from the Army's segregated African American 29th Chemical Decontamination Company.
Because of the tragedy at West Loch, the mission was delayed - but by only one day. In fact, the Northern Attack Force LSTs were able to make up that one day in route to the western Pacific. The invasion of Saipan was a major victory for U.S. amphibious forces, further constraining the enemy and taking America closer to victory in the war.
The West Loch Disaster was Pearl Harbor's second greatest disaster in terms of casualties. The exact cause was never determined.
"It's up to each generation to remember the history of its country and its people and in particularly here, our military," said Will Espero, Hawaii State Senator. "All of the sacrifices and commitment and dedication that our Soldiers and servicemen had not only in World War II but all the years that we have been able to remember. May we continue to remember these soldiers and these moments in our history so that future generations will never forget and we will always remember the courageous soldiers-men and women-who died for our country and to have the freedoms that we have today."
Official ceremonies with military honors to remember the West Loch disaster were held at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. The event featured Gen. Vincent Brooks, commander of U.S. Army Pacific, as the keynote speaker during the one-hour service.
Participants conducted an ancestral libation pouring ceremony as well as a wreath laying, 21-gun salute and the playing of Taps.
The commemoration was hosted by the African-American Diversity Cultural Center Hawaii (AADCCH) to honor the service members who died during the West Loch disaster.
The AADCCH was founded in 1997 as a museum repository to archive 200 years of African-American history in Hawaii, to share the collections by displaying and exhibiting artifacts, educating the people in Hawaii about the cultural heritage of African-Americans in the U.S.
For more news from Navy Public Affairs Support Element West, Det. Hawaii, visit www.navy.mil/local/pacenhawaii/.