In a speech in 1899, William Jennings Bryan said: "Destiny is not a matter of chance; it is a matter of choice. It is not something to be waited for; it's something to be achieved." I believe it!
On the 6th day of May 2002, aboard the Regal Princess en route from Bangkok to San Francisco, I arrived at Saipan, the main island of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. It suddenly struck me that some 58 years previous Operation Forager, the U.S. assault landings on Saipan, Tinian and Guam beginning 15 June 1944, played a significant role in defining the course of the rest of my life.
While my autobiography depicts the chronological events in 1944 and subsequent periods, the significance of those events didn't occur to me until I stood on the deck of the ship looking out over the invitingly verdant, now-tranquil, island. The flash-back was like watching an old movie of a different person caught up in a different world in a different age.
I was a staff sergeant on the Fleet Marine Force Pacific headquarters staff which scheduled the V Amphibious Corps to make the assault landings, first on Saipan, then Tinian. I was assigned to the Top Secret section preparing the Operation Orders. Scant weeks before the scheduled departure date we were notified that the reduced number of freighters now available to us was a grossly inadequate amount of tonnage.
Working around the clock, amidst much grumbling about the short-sightedness and inefficiency of the high-up Navy planners, we reconfigured the loading diagrams and manifests to fit the particular ships now available. We had no way of knowing, of course, that "D-Day" at Normandy in Europe was set for 6 June 1944, 9 days ahead of the Saipan invasion, which siphoned off all available ships.
To complicate matters, a terrible accident occurred at Pearl Harbor: The Other Tragedy At Pearl Harbor.
West Lock, one of the three large arms of Pearl Harbor, contained the main ammunition depot for the Pacific Fleet, a giant powder keg. One of the errors committed by the Japanese on "The Date That Will Live In Infamy," 7 December 1941, was not destroying that site during their otherwise devastating attack on shipping and other military installations that fateful day.
Even before the horrible accident the Japanese, with their extensive intelligence sources on Oahu, knew something was afoot, but not specifically what. Tokyo Rose, in needling U.S. forces, proclaimed that "The Second Marine Division will receive many casualties before it ever reaches its destination." (The 2nd Marine Division, together with the 4th Marine Division, the 27th Army Division, and supporting elements, made up the V Amphibious Corps).
On a quiet Sunday, 21 May 1944, I was at work in Fleet Marine Force Pacific Headquarters located near Pearl Harbor in Camp Catlin, helping to revise and finalize segments of the operation orders for Operation Forager. Suddenly, at 1508 (i.e. 3:08 pm), a horrendous explosion nearly blew me off my chair.
Over two dozen LSTs (Landing Ship Tanks) were being loaded with ammunition and gasoline for easy off-loading on the assault beaches, sacrificing safety in the process. Since the combat-loading of ammunition and gasoline for early-wave assault troops was not in accordance with safety regulations, USCG captain Robert Leary of LST 69 had gone ashore to complain to the harbor command about the unsafe conditions. Ships were tied beam to beam during the loading process. Among those nearby were LSTs numbered 353 and 179. Also nearby were Coast Guard sailors aboard LST 23, grumbling about having to stand routine watch that balmy afternoon instead of having shore leave. LST 353 about 40 yards away from LST 23 was the first to explode. LST 69, together with LST 23, escaped the initial blasts and ensuing fire. The ships and their personnel remained able to participate in the forthcoming assault landing.
Three minutes after the initial explosion, LST 179 blew up from artillery ammunition. Other explosions occurred until twelve minutes after the
first explosion when the largest explosion occurred, sending smoke and debris about 1,200 feet into the air.
Countless men were blown, or jumped, from their ships into the water. So many men tried to climb aboard a Higgins boat that the boat turned over on top of them, trapping them underneath. Shrapnel rained all around those who did make it to shore, causing more casualties. Many men tried to swim into open water to avoid being burned to death. So-far unaffected LSTs were cut loose and scrambled. PT boats were dispatched with orders to torpedo those which had been cast adrift. Fortunately a Fireboat arrived at 1640 and the PT boats were called off, but not before another LST exploded and sank.
Spilled gasoline from ruptured drums and ships' fuel oil burned on the surface of the water, consuming body parts and floundering sailors and Marines. A sailor named Alex Bernal, who had been ferrying officers ashore before the first blast, received a Navy Commendation for his heroism in saving 10 lives plucking them out of the path of the inferno.
Across Pearl Harbor Harold Weinberger, a former Hollywood cinematographer and then Marine Combat Photographer, with natural knee-jerk instinct, began photographing the unfolding drama with a 16mm camera until his supply of film was exhausted. It was this footage that was a prime source of information. Sketchy as it was, the Court of Inquiry relied upon it for determination of cause and responsibility. It was a miracle that his footage exists, because a Navy patrol had tried in vain to turn him back from the scene.
The fireworks lasted into the night and essentially ended with the final explosion nine hours after the first.
The net cost was 163 dead (raised to 164 when a diver was lost saving two others while later inspecting the sunken hulls seeking answers), 396 wounded, 6 LSTs sunk, 3 LSTs badly damaged; with 20 LSTs heroically saved.
A gag order was issued to all military personnel, though the cover-up was very difficult. The authorities obviously didn't want the Japanese to learn the magnitude of the disaster and fortunately they did not. A Marine I had known at Camp Elliott came to me the next morning seeking replacement of his clothing and gear, all of which had been lost in the disaster. I didn't learn from him, even if he knew, the extent of loss.
Sabotage, immediately considered, was ruled out and the next day the Navy began a campaign of misinformation. Next of kin were sent evasive and puzzling telegrams that announced that a loved one was missing, without even stating whether it was combat related or unauthorized absence. Two days after the event Admiral Nimitz issued an innocuous press release to the effect that there had been a small explosion at Pearl Harbor, with some casualties. Even Coral and Brass, the 1948-published memoirs of the V Amphibious Corps commander, Lt. Gen. Holland M. (Howlin' Mad) Smith, contained only minimal reference to the disaster.
During the course of the Court of Inquiry, various potential causes were explored: earlier welding on LST 358, careless smoking (smoking in the vicinity being against regulations entirely), and careless handling of ammunition being loaded. It was finally surmised that a dropped mortar shell was the probable proximate cause of the disaster. No one will ever know for sure, since all key witnesses were lost in the initial blast or ensuing fire.
Details of the event were kept in sealed secret documents, even from those of us working on the operation, to prevent knowledge reaching the Japanese of the pending operation and extent of damage to men and materiel. These files were quietly declassified in 1960, still escaping public notice, and weren't uncovered until 1987 by a historian by the name of Howard Shuman. As a Naval Officer many years before, Shuman had been curious about sunken hulks in West Lock, prompting him to search archives in an attempt to uncover these details from the Court of Inquiry. His curiosity became a quest.
The accident seriously jeopardized proceeding with Operation Forester (the taking of Saipan, Tinian and Guam). The operation was five months in the planning, involved a total of 250,000 men and 535 ships of all types. Operation Forager against Japanese forces in the Marianas involved as much amphibious lift as Operation Overlord, the Normandy "D-Day" invasion occurring 9 days before, which garnered more public awareness. Taking its place in the Pacific War scheme of
things, this operation was, indeed, the Pacific version of Europe's Operation Overlord at Normandy. Forager, as in the case of the better-known operation in the European Theater, signaled the turning point in the Pacific War.
It was quite literally a logistics miracle. Over one-half of the operation's combat vessels were loaded at West Lock where the terrible accident occurred. The invasion plan itself was threatened. In spite of these severe difficulties the operation's departure was delayed only one day Time was made up en route and the Saipan landing was made on schedule, 15 June 1944. It became "The Greatest Disaster You Never Heard Of."
Graves of 7 December 1941 and 21 May 1944 victims lie side-by-side at the Pearl Harbor Memorial Cemetery. One is a hallowed event and the other barely known. Still, in perspective, this latter event was but a small obstacle in pursuit of the larger goal, the taking of Japan.
The disaster took personnel, equipment and supplies destined for the assault landing out of service. Casualties were heavy in the initial assault. Marine units held in reserve, not ordinarily committed this early, were put ashore on D-Day. The Army units held in floating reserve were put ashore the following day. Casualties the first twenty-four hours were 2,500. The first week there were 6,000. The assault on Guam, originally scheduled for 18 June, was postponed indefinitely; eventually to be rescheduled for 21 July.
As the beachhead was being expanded, U.S. submarines sighted a large Japanese fleet (Japan's First Mobile Fleet supported six carriers) heading for Saipan to reinforce their beleaguered defenses, a daunting 29,662 troops. Admiral Spruance, correctly assessing the problem, knew that the Japanese could not afford to lose the Marianas, the Japanese Homeland main outer line of defense. This would be one of the more crucial battles of the entire war. Leaving behind adequate support for the assault troops, he dispatched the huge Task Force 58 to meet the oncoming enemy.The interception and subsequent Naval action became fficially known as The Battle of the Philippine Sea, unofficially known as "The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot". Against U.S. losses of 76 crewmen and 130 planes, Japanese sustained losses of 476 planes, 3 carriers sunk and 3 carriers badly damaged. After having
decimated the Japanese Navy, Spruance returned with Task Force 58 on 21 June to continue support of the U.S. forces ashore at Saipan.
During the super-sized melee the call came back to fly out all available corporals and below to fill the holes in the ranks. As a staff sergeant in so called essential work, I stood by while my friends were being shot up. Due to the nature of my work I knew that the III Amphibious Corps was scheduled to land on Guam 21 July 1944. Being young and foolish in those days I asked their personnel officer, with whom I had become acquainted in my work, to have me transferred to his outfit so I could at least participate in the Guam part of the operation. There were other plans of interest to me for the long range utilization of Guam in our relentless push toward the main islands of Japan and I wanted to be a part of that piece of the plan.
When the personnel officer and I approached my colonel for my transfer we received a flat: "No; he's indispensable."
That upset me immensely. "I'll show the colonel who's indispensable," I thought. I quickly gathered together personal data and on 23 June 1944 submitted, through official channels, my application for Officer Candidates' School.
The colonel could determine my future while in the Fleet Marine Force Pacific, but he could not stop my letter to the Commandant of the Marine Corps. It was obligatory for him to forward it: "recommending approval," "recommending disapproval", or "without recommendation". I do not have access to his forwarding remarks.
The question is moot, however, because eight weeks later, about noon on 18 August 1944 (never did get lunch that day), the First Sergeant came charging into my tent. He informed me that I had one hour to pack and be picked up to catch the first available transportation back to the United States, to report by 31 August 1944 for pre-OCS screening at Camp Le Jeune, North Carolina. My life had heretofore been a reaction to circumstances as they arose. Now, aboard the Union Oil Company Tanker SS Albert J. Berres, the first available transportation en route back to the United States, I began a new life. My letter of 23 June 1944 had set me on course to my destiny.
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1. Coral and Brass; Lt. Gen. Holland M. (Howlin' Mad) Smith;
2. History of the US Marines; Jack Murphy; World Publications Group,Inc.
3. The Battle History of the U.S. Marines; Col. Joseph H. Alexander,
USMC (Ret.), with Don Horan and Norman C. Stahl; Harper
Perennial, a division of Harper Collins Publishers.
4. The Other Tragedy At Pearl Harbor: The History Channel in their
documentary series History Undercover.
5. United States Overseas Basing: An Anatomy of the Dilemma;
James R. Blaker; Praeger Publishers.