Friday, May 20, 2016

The Other Pearl Harbor Disaster

On a quiet Sunday afternoon in May of 1944, a vast armada of warships filled Pearl Harbor in preparation for the invasion of Saipan named Operation Forager.  With the seizure of bases in Marianas islands, American B-29s would be able to reach Japan only 1,500 miles away.
The invasion force included twenty-nine amphibious landing ships called LSTs.  These vessels landed troops and supplies on the beaches to directly engage the enemy.  On board LST 353, Army personnel of the 29th Chemical Decontamination Company busily unloaded mortars. 
Suddenly from her deck, at approximately 1508, an explosion rocked the calm waters of the harbor, scattering hot shrapnel and other debris throughout the landing fleet.  A mix of panic and confusion ensued.  Urgent efforts to extinguish fires and to remove other LSTs out of harm’s way were initiated.  Two more increasingly violent explosions erupted at 1511 and 1522 respectively; the last one said to have been heard more than fifteen miles away.   Vessels all around the harbor rushed to the scene to help battle the fires and rescue crewmen from the water. 
 “I was on the docks playing craps with the guys…we heard the first two explosions but they were far away and so we didn’t think much of it.  With the third explosion, I knew something was going on,” said Roy Sannella of Port Charlotte, Fl., a young sailor assigned to the tugboat YT-129 in Pearl Harbor.   Roy and his shipmates boarded YT-129 and were ordered out to West Loch to help contain the fires that were by now threatening to rage out of control. “As we approached the site we saw bodies in the water.  I told the skipper but he said that we would have to keep going forward to help in the fight.  When we got there we were able to cut some of the LSTs loose, but eventually we had to back away because of the inferno.  When we went back in we rescued several survivors from the burning waters.”
By the next day, a total of 163 men lost their lives in the disaster and 396 men were wounded.   Of the 34 LSTs in the area 6 had been lost completely and several more suffered extensive damage.  Amazingly, replacements in men and material were quickly rounded up and the invasion of Saipan took place as planned on June 15, 1944.
Following the disaster, Admiral Nimitz wrote of the circumstances leading up to the mishap was a “calculated risk” made necessary by the high tempo of wartime operations and that “positive corrective action” was ensured so that it would not happen again.  The times have changed, and the valuable lessons learned from the incident in West Loch have been put to practical use. 
“In 1944, the Navy did not have a clear definition of how munitions should best be loaded,” comments Captain Debra A. Bodenstedt a former Commanding Officer of the Navy Munitions Command East Asia Division.  “Work on the piers and other Navy facilities was done by the men of the ordnance battalions who had received very little training in cargo handling, let alone work with high explosives.  Today’s ordnance workers are all trained and certified to handle ordnance and are required to re-certify each year.”  Furthermore she adds, “The open fields surrounding the Naval Magazine represent the Explosive Safety Quantity Distance or ESQD which safeguard personnel and the inhabitants of nearby communities from possible fires or explosions.”
It is noteworthy that the Navy has not had another explosion of the magnitude of West Loch since the conclusion of World War Two.   All that remains of the West Loch disaster is the rusted hulk of LST 480, jutting silently off the Waipio Peninsula.
            For men like Roy Sannella,  who passed away in 2011, memories of the West Loch disaster were bittersweet.  “I’ve been doing my best to talk to school kids and other organizations about what happened and the sacrifices made.”  Although he lamented, “Not enough people know.  That’s a shame.” 

LST 480 lies in the waters of West Loch to this day

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Solemn Occasion Leads to Continued Partnership in Pacific

On the morning of September 2, 1945 U.S.S.Missouri lay at anchor in Tokyo Bay. The scene was the surrender of Imperial Japan to the allied forces and the end of World War Two. On the veranda deck bulkhead above the hatch that led to the Captains in-port cabin hung a framed 31-star American flag in a glass case.
For nearly four years the United States and her allies had fought the Japanese Empire over the issue of the control of East Asia and the destiny of the millions of people who inhabited this increasingly important part of the world.

The significance of the 31-star flag lies in its connection to Americas first treaty with Japan and the events that would bring the two nations together as competitors, enemies and friends.
When does Americas Story in the Pacific Begin?

The story of the U.S. Navy in the Pacific has its beginnings as early as the War of 1812 when the famed frigate Essex, under Captain David Porter, rounded Cape Horn and decimated the unprotected British commerce along the West Coast of South America. Her crew ventured as far out as the Marquesas Islands before being captured in Valparaiso in March of 1814.

Americas own seaborne commerce was the key to U.S. naval presence in the Pacific in the greater part of the 19th Century. Initially, trade with the lucrative Chinese market consisted of animal skins from the Northwest and sandalwood, largely from Hawaii in exchange for prized Chinese tea, silk and spices, but the commercial focus would soon shift to the whaling industry.

New England whalers plowed the Pacific hunting grounds in record numbers between 1820 and 1860, precipitating the need to call on the U.S. Navy for protection.

In essence, until the geographical shifts in American foreign policy that were wrought by the Spanish-American War, Mahanian Theory and the ascendancy of the Japanese Empire, Americas fixed military presence in the Pacific consisted of small assemblies of ships formed into intermittent squadrons or stations operating along the Western Coasts of North and South America and in the East Indies.

In the absence of more permanent bases and diplomatic presence in the region, naval captains were called upon to sail the vast Pacific Ocean, ensuring respect for the American flag and acting in a sense as armed diplomats. The manner in which a naval captain carried on his responsibilities could either damage American credibility or establish a foundation that could be cultivated for the future.

One example is Commodore Matthew Perry who sailed into Tokyo Bay in 1853 with a set of demands seeking diplomatic and trade relations between the United States and Japan. The issues were largely commercial in nature, such as: better treatment for shipwrecked sailors, harbors of refuge and access to fuel and provisions, but the overall effect was to open Japan to the world for the first time in hundreds of years.

It was the flag from Matthew Perrys ship that was transported from Washington D.C. to Tokyo Bay in September of 1945 to be put on display aboard the Missouri during the surrender.

Within forty years of the opening of Japan and the closing of the American West, the United States began to develop an increasing interest in the Pacific and the need for a more permanent U.S. naval presence. The Spanish-American War of 1898 brought the Philippines and Guam under Americas aegis as territories. Hawaii was shortly thereafter annexed, and Pearl Harbor developed as Americas intermediary point between the West Coast and the Orient.

The Clash that Became World War Two

In many ways the United States and Japan would grow up together at the beginning of the 20th Century as relatively new players in the search for commercial markets and raw materials in the Pacific region. Ironically, it was Japan on the West and the United States on the East that formed the boundaries of the region and therefore had the most to gain or to lose in discussions of the regions security. The clash that became the Pacific Theater of World War Two was largely a result of, to quote General MacArthur, the divergent ideals, and ideologies that divided the two nations.

Though divided by six-thousand miles of ocean, unique cultural values and sometimes "divergent" national policy, the goal for peace established seventy years ago has stood the test. Japan and America's relationship proves that, differences aside, regional stability is attainable when our "most cherished wishes" lead to partnership and a commitment to understanding, no matter which flag we fly.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

America's Turning Point in the Pacific

Six months following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the forces of Imperial Japan seemed all but invincible and poised to continue the conquest of Southeast Asia and the former colonial empires of France, Britain and the Dutch East Indies.
Indeed, the destruction of the U.S. Pacific Fleet in Pearl was only an attempt to prevent the United States from standing in the way of the Japanese empire’s seizure of the rich resources the former colonies would bring.  Adm. Yamamoto, the mastermind of the Pearl Harbor attack, gambled that by destroying the bulk of America’s naval power in the Pacific, Japan could buy itself six months to a year for the conquest of these valuable possessions.
America was still reeling from the blow that launched us into the war and was scrambling to prepare industrially and militarily to not only prevent Nazi Germany from conquering Europe, but also to strike back at Japan and bring what was largely viewed as a criminal regime to justice. 
The American people were growing tired of defeat after defeat and wanted to see our armed forces on the offensive.  The table would soon be turned at a point roughly midway between the west coast of the United States and the home islands of Japan.
Considering the large disparity in the forces available to the United States compared to those of the Japanese Empire, the chances were long that America would be able to make much of a dent  in that island nation’s newly acquired fortress.  In May of 1942, the U.S. had lost its forward presence in the Philippines and Guam, leaving only the aircraft carriers Enterprise, Yorktown, Lexington, Hornet and Saratoga as valid platforms from which to launch strikes at the Japanese.  To make matters worse, Lexington would be lost at the Battle of the Coral Sea on May 8 and Saratoga, which was torpedoed in early January, was laid up on the west coast for repairs, leaving three of her air groups on Oahu.
But what America lacked in military assets, she made up for in crack communications intelligence and level-headed leadership.  As early as May 15, Adm. Nimitz received solid intelligence from Station Hypo based out of building one at Pearl Harbor that the Japanese intended to occupy Midway atoll, located 1,300 miles northwest of Oahu.
From there, the Japanese would to be able to threaten Oahu and bring out the American carriers for what they hoped to be a final death blow to the Pacific Fleet.  Little did the Japan know that not only did Nimitz have the knowledge that they were coming with four carriers, but when and from what direction.   In essence, he intended to ambush their ambush.
The admiral knew that our carriers were the most valuable military asset available to the United States, and he would not waste them on a guess.  But he trusted his intelligence staff and the commanders, pilots and crews of the two task forces he sent to wait for the unsuspecting invaders. He knew that by concentrating his forces at the right place at the right time he could strike a counter blow to the Japanese that would even the score in the Pacific.
Hiryu burns on June 5
On June 4, 1942, the hammer fell on the Japanese Navy.  Dive bombers from the carriers Yorktown and Enterprise destroyed Japan’s frontline carriers Hiryu, Soryu, Akagi and Kaga.  All four had participated in the attack on Pearl Harbor just six months before, and all four now lay at the bottom of the Pacific.
America had won a decisive battle against a seemingly invincible foe but not without scars, as surviving Japanese aircraft from Hiryu, the last Japanese carrier to be sunk that day, found Yorktown and inflicted damage that would eventually lead to her destruction.
Nonetheless, the Battle of Midway would be remembered as a turning point, if not the turning point in the Pacific Theater of World War Two.  As a result of the battle, the United States had crippled Japan’s ability to launch further large-scale mobile strikes against Allied forces, and American forces would soon take the offensive.  The American people now had the decisive victory they had been longing for since December of 1941.