BOOK REVIEW – The Second Pearl Harbor: The West Loch Disaster, May 21, 1944

Gene Salecker, The Second Pearl Harbor: The West Loch Disaster, May 21, 1944. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2014. 296 pp.

Review by CPT Andrew Ziebell, USAResearch Assistant, National War College

The Second Pearl Harbor is Gene Salecker’s commendable effort to bring to light the disastrous events that attended American preparations for the invasion of the Mariana Islands in 1944. The disaster refers to a series of explosions and subsequent fires, that coupled with a landing rehearsal catastrophe that claimed the lives of an entire platoon of Marines in early May, 1944, were horrific not only for their loss of life, but also for the way in which they were accepted as part of the price of victory. Salecker presents all of this and, yet, the reader is still left unprepared for the magnitude of the disaster at West Loch on May 21st, 1944 in which over one hundred sailors and Marines perished and hundreds more were badly injured.

The first thing that catches the reader’s attention was the sheer scope of the Pacific Theater of Operations.  It was 3700 miles from Hawaii to the Japanese stronghold on Saipan, with an additional 1270 miles remaining for B-29s to fly from Saipan to Tokyo. Planners, based upon previous experience at Tarawa and the Marshall Islands, projected that Operation Forager, the invasion of the Mariana Islands, would require 719 Landing Vehicles, Tank (LVT), just one of the vital pieces of equipment needed by the assaulting Marines, and the one at the center of the West Lock calamity.

The title, The Second Pearl Harbor, evokes images of the Japanese attack on December 7th, 1941, and seems to suggest that Japan may have played a role in the destruction. Rumors abounded that Japanese saboteurs were active in Hawaii and it certainly would have been an aspirational goal to inflict so much damage upon the US Navy. Some believed, even years after the incident, that a torpedo from a Japanese submarine caused the first of the three explosions. But Salecker is quick to point out that the likelihood of Japanese involvement is purely speculative and has no basis in fact.

Rather, Salecker paints a picture of impending doom as he lays out the potential causes: decks loaded with countless oil and gas drums; high explosive ammunition carelessly tossed about; Marines, seamen and stevedores openly disregarding the prohibition on smoking. Compounding the problem was the fact that so many ships were berthed in such a tight space that a fire on one could not help but spread to the others around it. It is no small wonder that accidents like that at West Loch did not occur more frequently.

While skeptical of the cause determined by the official inquiry, Salecker does not definitively answer what led to the initial explosion upon LST #353. The immediate catalyst does not seem to matter. Salecker questions, instead, the shortcuts allowed by Navy leaders in the interest of time. Any delay in the preparations for the invasion of Saipan could have set the campaign back several months, thus prolonging the war. He is also highly critical of the lax enforcement of the regulations concerning where the Marines slept. Many chose the fresh, open air of the main deck over the dark, stifling quarters below decks and paid for it with their lives.

There was plenty of blame to go around. But no one can fault the almost superhuman heroism that so many displayed in the immediate aftermath of the explosions. Salecker fills page after page with well-researched, first-hand accounts of men risking their own lives to save as many others as possible. In doing so, he admirably brings some order out of the chaos that must have existed on that day. The reader is reminded that a conflagration aboard ship was just as deadly and terrifying in 1944 as it would have been in 1800.

Ultimately, the incident had surprisingly little impact upon the overall campaign. There was little time to pause in a war which was far from over. Even the official inquiry recognized that, while some actions were regrettable and the event possibly preventable, in many other ways, they simply had no choice but to put both men and ships at risk for the good of the mission. But the catastrophe at West Loch had a profound impact upon the survivors who, along with their fallen comrades, deserve to be remembered every bit as much as those who perished on that other day at Pearl Harbor. Salecker’s work is a worthy tribute to those men.

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