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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 21, 2006

Remembering nameless of West Loch disaster

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

An explosion on May, 21, 1944, in the West Loch area of Pearl Harbor caused a chain of fires aboard LST vessels that had been loading fuel and goods for the invasion of Saipan and Guam.

U.S. Navy photos from the collection of Ray Emory

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Military personnel tried to extinguish the ships in West Loch. The cause of the initial blast is unknown. Six of the landing ships were sunk, 163 men died and 396 were wounded.

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Men battle a blaze in the 1944 West Loch disaster. Ray Emory of Kahala wants 36 "unknown" graves at Punchbowl to get due honor.

U.S. Navy from the collection of Ray Emory

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It may take an act of Congress to get more information on the Punchbowl graves of military men who died in the Pearl Harbor West Loch disaster of 1944 — 62 years ago today — but if that's the case, Ray Emory says, so be it.

He's done it before.

Research by the Kahala resident and Pearl Harbor survivor led to the identification of three "unknowns" buried at Punchbowl, and additional information being listed on the graves of several hundred more.

One of his ongoing quests is to add a bit of history and context to the markers of 36 men who perished in a series of West Loch explosions and fires on May 21, 1944, but whose individual identities remain marked "unknown."

He is seeking to add "Pearl Harbor — West Loch Disaster," and the date, "May 21, 1944."

As Memorial Day approaches, Emory says he can't think of a better way to honor some of the nation's war dead.

"I'm going to put it this way: Put yourself in a sailor uniform for a second. You get killed. There are several things on that grave marker you want right," Emory said. "You want your name, rate, when you were born and died, and I think you'd be damn proud for the government to say I was on the (ship) San Francisco or someplace."

It's no different than military people buried at Arlington National Cemetery and at Punchbowl who have "Operation Iraqi Freedom" on their graves, he said.

In seeking the change, the amateur historian has re-ignited a debate involving the Army, the Department of Veterans Affairs and Congress over what information should be on National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific graves.

The West Loch event itself is less well-known.

On that long-ago May 21, 29 landing ships were being loaded in the west end of Pearl Harbor with fuel, weapons and ammunition for the invasion of Saipan and Guam, when an explosion occurred.

Each vessel carried 80 to 100 drums of high-octane fuel. At 3:08 p.m., an explosion shuddered across the anchorage from a location near where soldiers had been unloading mortar ammunition.

The ships were moored alongside one another, and flying sparks ignited other ships. Six of the LSTs sank, 163 men died, and 396 were wounded.

In 2001, survivor Bill Montague remembered that "the powers of the explosions were like mini atomic bombs. They could be heard throughout the entire island." The cause was never positively identified.

The 85-year-old Emory, whose efforts to identify Punchbowl unknowns has become a vocation occupying much of his time, wants changes on the 36 markers he can verify as memorializing West Loch dead.

In 2003, the Army's Mortuary Affairs and Casualty Support Division said it would be "appropriate" to change the markers, and a year later the agency wrote to the Department of Veterans Affairs saying the change should be made.

Of the 36 "unknowns," some of which also have a date as their only other marking, five have the wrong date, Emory said.


But in an Oct. 25 letter, the VA said that while Emory's intent is "admirable," the National Cemetery Administration could not change the inscriptions. Policy states that replacement markers only are furnished if an identification is made, if there was a mistake, or if there is excessive wear or damage. Replaced markers would match the original as closely as possible, the agency said.

That position conflicts with two previous sets of inscription changes at Punchbowl, Emory said.

The late U.S. Rep. Patsy Mink, a Hawai'i Democrat, pursued legislation to get 70 headstones changed at Punchbowl to add ship information for unknowns who died aboard the USS Arizona on Dec. 7, 1941.

Another 177 replacement gravestones for unknowns were added in 2002 bearing ship names including California, Oklahoma, Utah, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Nevada and Curtiss after the Army's then chief of staff, Gen. Eric Shinseki, apparently wrote a letter to the VA seeking the changes.

Emory, who was aboard the USS Honolulu on Dec. 7, 1941, talked to a VA official and said, "If it takes a law to change (the West Loch markers), please tell me, because I can prove to you it didn't take an act of Congress (once before)."


If it does take an act of Congress, that may be possible, too.

U.S. Rep. Ed Case, D-Hawai'i, who replaced Mink and who took up Emory's cause in late 2003, said he's seeking the inscription updates.

"Clearly at this point we have an inter-department disagreement between the Department of Defense, through the Department of the Army, which supports adding the inscriptions, and the Department of Veterans Affairs, through the National Cemetery Administration, which does not," Case said.

Case said he's writing to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and VA Secretary Jim Nicholson, asking them to resolve the disagreement in favor of the revised inscriptions.

"If this does not yield the desired result, then I will pursue legislative action," Case said.

Case added that it is important "that we do so because we want to remember and memorialize as well as we can, for them, their families and all of us, for this and future generations, those who gave their lives for our country."

Mink "said it well" in legislation requiring the addition of date and ship information on Punchbowl's Dec. 7, 1941, unknowns, Case said.

He quoted Mink as saying: "My bill directs the (VA) to add this new information to the grave markers, so that they will be remembered for their specific service on a specific ship, on a specific day in history."


Punchbowl director Gene Castagnetti, a retired Marine colonel, opposes Emory's efforts to change the West Loch markers, and previously expressed concern about the 2002 changes.

There are 2,923 sets of "unknown" remains in Punchbowl dating from World War II, he said.

Inscribing tombstones with what he calls "circumstances of death" does not lend anything to the identification of remains.

"Ray (Emory) is a historian, so he would like to see historical data — which is available in the national archives — placed on the grave markers," Castagnetti said. "I understand where Ray is coming from, and I respect his position, but we're not in the business of giving historical perspective at a national cemetery."

At the 24 American battle monument cemeteries overseas, Castagnetti said, engraved markers read: "Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God."

When those who could not be identified were buried at Punchbowl, "they selected the term —simple and majestic — 'unknown,' " Castagnetti said.

The cemetery director also questions where the inscription changes would stop, noting that locations such as Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, Saipan and other battlefields where U.S. military people died could be added.

"That's great," Emory replies in full support.

He volunteered to pay the $80 to $100 apiece it would cost to change the West Loch markers.

Emory agrees with Castagnetti that he wants the changes for history's sake.

"When you walk through a cemetery and there are unknowns, like all those Pearl Harbor ones, and when you walk through and you can see where they came from and what ship they were on — that means a hell of a lot," he said.

Reach William Cole at wcole@honoluluadvertiser.com.