Submarine in the West Loch
The West Loch
I sent my thoughts about the West Loch to Terry Kerby and Steve Price at HURL. Steve responded immediately, saying that they too were thinking about the West Loch because of something they had found during earlier dives on the wreck site...damaged and discarded LVT wrecks intermingled on the ocean floor with the three disconnected sub wreck sections. When Steve drew a line through the plot of the three submarine sections on a chart, as many as 8 LVT wrecks (provisionally identified as LVT-2s) lay within 50m of the line. There were even an unknown number of other LVTs in the area outside that 50m range that flowed along the same direction. In Steve's opinion, "it almost looks as if the ship or barge was drifting on a course of 250 shoving these items off as they went." Farther away from the sub wreck, but still in the NDSA, were two LCTs that could also have come from the West Loch disaster.
LVT wrecks imaged during the March 2009 dive. Upside-down LVT (left), right-side up (centre), close-up of damage to glacis plate of upturned LVT (right).
HURL's Arcview plot of debris in the NDSA. The red dots indicate the position of the 3-piece midget sub. The olive-green dots represent vehicles, mostly LVT-2s. Steve Price noticed a general flow in the debris trail and suggested the possibility that the debris was dumped from a barge headed on a constant bearing.
The West Loch disaster is not as well known as the 7 Dec 41 attack, due mainly to the Top Secret classification imposed on both the accident and clean-up efforts. In May of 1944, the Americans were preparing a major invasion of the Marianas island group, which included Saipan, Guam and Tinian, under the code name, "Operation Forager." Preparations were being conducted in Pearl Harbor, far away from the prying eyes of the Japanese. The West Loch at that time was a beehive of activity, as a fleet of LSTs were nested close together to take on vehicles, fuel and ammunition needed to support the amphibious invasion. On 21 May, an accident caused the fuel and ammunition stores aboard the LST-353 to ignite, creating an inferno that spread from ship to nested ship. Before the day was done, six LSTs were lost, along with the lives of close to 200 men. Reaction from the Navy was swift...Rear Admiral John F. Shafroth, Jr., was immediately appointed to preside over an enquiry into the accident and take charge of the clean-up activities. The enquiry convened the very next day and Shafroth imposed a Top Secret classification over the proceedings so that information about the invasion preparations would not be revealed to the Japanese. A press blackout was imposed, all photographs and motion-picture footage taken of the disaster were confiscated (even that taken by Naval Intelligence) and a cover story developed to satisfy a public that could not fail to have some curiosity over the massive explosions that were seen and felt from Barber's Point to Waikiki. In the meantime, the Navy scrambled to replace the lost men and material to keep Operation Forager on schedule.
Their efforts paid off. There is no indication that either the West Loch disaster or the aftermath gave the Japanese any actionable intelligence about the impending invasion. Once imposed, though, the Top Secret classification and public misdirection have had the unintended consequence of keeping the public from becoming more familiar with the West Loch disaster, even long after the war had been won. The Court of Inquiry (COI) transcripts were not declassified until 1960 and the confiscated motion-picture footage has only in recent years come to light. As far as I could determine, only one book has ever been published on the subject... a self-published paperback, written by a veteran of the disaster, with only a limited run of copies. Veterans of the disaster do not often congregate like the veterans of the 7 Dec 41 attack; oftentimes, they depend solely on personal contacts to stay in touch. If we wanted to dig deeper into the disaster, we were going to have to make due with a limited amount of reference material.
Steve Price suggested that I check the deck logs of the dive and salvage ships that would have led the salvage effort in the Loch. Those could not be immediately found, as the records from the auxiliaries were not as sought after – and therefore allowed to become more "buried" in the archives – as some of the more prestigious warships. We eventually located the deck logs of the USS Valve (ARS-28) and Vent (ARS-29), among others, in the NARA II archives at College Park, MD. Other supporting ships, along with Vent, proved to have nothing of interest in their diaries/logs. The USS Valve, however, served as the primary salvor of the LST-353 wreck, and it was in her deck log that we found some interesting entries.