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Wednesday, May 21, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Second Tragedy At Pearl Harbor Is Little-Known -- Survivor Of May 21, 1944, Explosion Wants Public To Know

Dallas Morning News

DALLAS - Jim Reed will always remember the tragedy at Pearl Harbor.

"When I go to these veteran reunions, I tell them, `I'm not a December 7th survivor of Pearl Harbor, I'm a May 21st survivor,' " said Reed, 72.

Often, he said, he receives only puzzled looks.

His reference is to May 21, 1944, when a chain of explosions aboard a group of ships in Pearl Harbor's West Loch killed at least 127 servicemen and injured at least 380 other people, including 19 civilians.

Unlike the Japanese attack of Dec. 7, 1941, which was immediately broadcast to the outside world, detailed news of the West Loch disaster was suppressed by military authorities for several weeks. Even today it remains largely unknown.

Reed, a retired locomotive engineer who now lives in suburban Mesquite, Texas, has been trying to change that.

"I would like the public to know what happened. I'm not seeking any kind of compensation from the government, no, no . . . ," he said.

His memories of the warm Sunday afternoon of May 21, 1944, are similar to those of other survivors. The ships, known as LSTs (landing ship, tank), had recently concluded maneuvers off Maui. Most of the troops were relaxing before being shipped out for the invasion of SaiHpan.

Reed, then a Marine corporal, was sleeping aboard one of 34 LSTs.

About 3 p.m., he said, "there was a terrific explosion. I looked up and saw the canvas canopy above me was on fire."

Jesse Kirkes, also a Marine corporal, was nearby, sunning himself in a gun turret with another serviceman.

"We jumped up when we heard the explosion, and then a second explosion followed and blew away the blanket we were lying on," said Kirkes, now a retired potash-mine manager in Carlsbad, N.M.

The two men fled to a nearby ship.

"Someone lowered a rope ladder down the side of the ship so we wouldn't have to jump, but I was in a hurry, so I jumped," Kirkes said.

Once in the water, he and Reed found pandemonium. Many men who survived the blast were killed when they were run over by ships trying to pull away from the destruction.

The explosions triggered fires on the adjacent LSTs, which were laden with munitions and gasoline in preparation for the Saipan invasion.

Official figures by a Navy board of inquiry found that six LSTs were destroyed and that most of the 34 at anchor in West Loch received damage. The official casualty count listed 27 dead, 100 missing.

Because the explosion had been so violent, there was little of the victims to find.

Military authorities warned survivors not to discuss the incident.

"Back then, everything we wrote back home was censored," Kirkes said. "We were told not to say anything about it."

Kirkes and other survivors said they thought authorities were trying only to protect the Saipan invasion, which was successfully executed the following month.

Four days after the West Loch disaster, authorities released a one-paragraph statement acknowledging only that an explosion had caused "some loss of life, a number of injuries and resulted in the destruction of several small vessels."

Only after the Saipan invasion did the authorities release a more complete description. The only book about the incident, "The West Loch Story," was privately published in 1986 by William L.C. Johnson, a survivor. In a radio interview, the late Johnson said a full accounting of the incident was not released by the Navy until 1964.

But the secrecy and the power of the explosion left many questions.

A board of inquiry concluded that "the initial explosion resulted from one or more 4.2-inch mortar shells exploding while they were being loaded into a truck on the elevator of LST No. 353."

But Johnson said he thought careless smoking ignited fumes from high-octane fuel stored in the ships.

Richardson, now a retired postal worker in Minneapolis, dismisses both theories.

"I thought it was sabotage; I still do," he said.

The only monument to the disaster is a table-size plaque erected on the shore of the loch in April 1995.

"None of us are seeking glory, nothing like that," Reed said.

Still, he added, "I think it bothers a lot of us guys, what we went through, and there's been no recognition."

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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