• General Douglas MacArthur
    General Douglas MacArthur

    Supreme Commander, Southwest Pacific Area during World War II.

  • John C. Niedermair
    John C. Niedermair

    The naval architect that helped design the LST.

  • USS LST 374
    USS LST 374

    Loading for the Normandy invasion in 1944 (navsource.org)

  • The West Loch Disaster
    The West Loch Disaster
  • USS Hunterdon County (LST-838)
    USS Hunterdon County (LST-838)

    Re-commissioning ceremony, 10 September 1966, at Mare Island Naval Shipyard, Vallejo, CA. (Vallejo Naval and History Museum; navsource.org)

LST Memories: Leyte: MacArthur's Return

Leyte: MacArthur's Return
By Mel Barger, LST-555

When Japanese forces were closing in on key defensive positions in the Philippines in March 1942, General Douglas MacArthur was ordered out by President Roosevelt. His great promise to the Philippines, “I shall return,” was fulfilled two and one/half years later when soldiers of the U.S. Sixth Army came ashore at Leyte.

MacArthur, with his wife and young son, had left Corregidor in a PT boat. PT boats were with General MacArthur when he returned, but also in the background as he waded ashore were the blunt bows of LSTs, ships that had not yet been built when he left the Philippines in early 1942. More than 26 LSTs were at Leyte on D-Day, 20 October 1944, and within a few days they were joined by nearly 100 others. It was now an accepted part of amphibious doctrine that the LSTs would carry in the heavy vehicles and equipment needed to mount a major landing. In the first day of operations at Leyte, more than 125,000 men were put ashore, along with 200,000 tons of equipment. While heavy transports accounted for much of this effort, the LSTs were very much in evidence. Beaching conditions were poor for LSTs at Leyte, but crews quickly adapted to the situation and managed to speed up the unloading with the objective of leaving the area as quickly as possible.

At Leyte, LSTs that remained in the area after 24 October actually were at great risk, although the full danger was not understood until much later. The LSTs and other transport ships of the landing operations survived largely because of superb actions by an outgunned portion of the U.S. fleet and a decision by Japanese Admiral Kurita to withdraw at the very hour he could have entered Leyte Bay and raised havoc with the transport ships anchored there. This threat happened because of Admiral William Halsey’s still-disputed decision to take the main fleet north to fight what proved to be a decoy group of carriers. For a short time, the amphibious forces at Leyte were in far greater danger than they knew.

LSTs at Leyte also found themselves under frequent attack by Japanese aircraft, and came to feel the first effects of the “kamikaze” strategy. Leyte was well within reach of land-based Japanese aircraft from other islands in the Philippines.

The following LSTs are credited with the action of Leyte: LST-18; LST-20; LST-22; LST-24; LST-26; LST-34; LST-66; LST-67; LST-68; LST-177; LST-118; LST-123; LST-125; LST-126; LST-168; LST-169; LST-170; LST-171; LST-181; LST-201; LST-202; LST-204; LST-205; LST-206; LST-207; LST-213; LST-219; LST-220; LST-223; LST-242; LST-245; LST-269; LST-270; LST-277; LST-341; LST-397; LST-451; LST-452; LST-454; LST-455; LST-456; LST-457; LST-458; LST-459; LST-460; LST-461; LST-462; LST-463; LST-464; LST-465; LST-466; LST-467; LST-468; LST-469; LST-470; LST-471; LST-473; LST-474; LST-475; LST-478; LST-482; LST-483; LST-486; LST-488; LST-549; LST-552; LST-552; LST-554; LST-555; LST-556; LST-557; LST-558; LST-559; LST-564; LST-565; LST-567; LST-568; LST-569; LST-573; LST-574; LST-577; LST-578; LST-579; LST-586; LST-605; LST-606; LST-608; LST-609; LST-610; LST-611; LST-612; LST-613; LST-614; LST-615; LST-616; LST-617; LST-618; LST-619; LST-623; LST-626; LST-658; LST-660; LST-663; LST-666; LST-667; LST-668; LST-669; LST-670; LST-671; LST-672; LST-673; LST-679; LST-686; LST-687; SLT-688; LST-693; LST-694; LST-695; LST-696; LST-697; LST-698; LST-699; LST-700; LST-703; LST-704; LST-705; LST-706; LST-707; LST-709; LST-714; LST-744; LST-745; LST-746; LST-748; LST-749; LST-750; LST-751; LST-775; LST-908; LST-911; LST-912; LST-913; LST-916; LST-917; LST-918; LST-919; LST-924; LST-990; LST-991; LST-993; LST-999; LST-1006; LST-1013; LST-1014; LST-1015; LST-1017; LST-1018; LST-1024; LST-1025; LST-1026; LST-1027.

LST Memories: The Second Pearl Harbor Disaster

The Second Pearl Harbor Disaster
LST Veterans Still Remember the West Loch Tragedy
By Mel Barger, LST-555

On 21 May 1989, fifteen former crewmembers of LST-69, along with their wives and guests, boarded a U.S. Coast Guard cutter in Honolulu for a day-long trip to West Loch, Pearl Harbor. It was a sunny day and a festive excursion, with children of the cutter’s crew joining a pleasant cruise that would include a buffet luncheon served on deck.

But it was also a somber occasion, because the LST veterans were returning to the scene of a tragedy of forty-five years earlier, to the very day. Sometimes called the “second Pearl Harbor disaster,” this was the 21 May 1944 West Loch tragedy that destroyed LST-69 and five other landing ships being readied for the assault on Saipan in the Marianas. Three LCTs also were lost in the series of explosions that shook West Loch that afternoon.

No crew member from LST-69 had been among the 163 killed in the disaster, though some had been injured by shrapnel. Among the wounded had been Don Kinney, a storekeeper aboard LST-69 and, with his wife, Norma, one of those who came back for the 45th anniversary ceremony.

Kinney, a florist in Toledo, Ohio, and also the founding president of the United States LST Association, had traveled a long way for this symbolic return. He and his shipmates made this pilgrimage to pay tribute to those who had died at West Loch. At exactly 3 p.m., prayers were said and a wreath was cast on the quiet waters. “It was timed to the second of when the disaster occurred,” Kinney said.

Official reports actually gave 1508 (or 3:08 p.m.) as the probable time the first explosion was heard. But two other explosions, one at 1511 and the second at 1522, probably resulted in much of the damage and prevented crews from taking needed action to save their ships. The 1522 explosion was believed to have doomed LST-69, closing off any chance of escape.

In returning to West Loch, the LST-69 veterans found it much the same as it had been in 1944, though the surrounding area now had much development. But West Loch is a little-used part of Pearl Harbor, where most of the activity is in the other two parts: East and Middle Lochs (which were also the scene of the 7 December 1941 attack that left the Pacific Fleet badly crippled and drew the U.S. into World War II). But though West Loch is a lonely body of water today, more than a hundred ships and smaller craft were gathered there on 21 May 1944.

West Loch was a busy area that day in 1944. Many of the ships were being loaded with ammunition, gasoline, and other cargo in preparation for the Marianas campaign. Marines and soldiers were also aboard the ships. And twenty-nine LSTs were berthed there to receive supplies from the West Loch Naval Ammunition Depot. LST-69 was berthed in a row identified as T-8, along with LSTs -205, -225, -274, -43, -179, -353, and -39. Next to them was T-9, which berthed LSTs -480, -140, -224, -340, -23, -462, and -222. The ships that would be lost in the disaster were LSTs -353, -179, -43, -480, and -69. Though LSTs had only been in operation for about a year, some of them already had impressive combat records, and LST-69, a Coast Guard ship, had made landings in the Aleutian Islands campaign and bloody Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands.

As the loading progressed, there was apparently considerable carelessness in the handling of ammunition and other explosive cargo. At the same time, few of the officers and men involved in the loading operations had real experience or training in handling such dangerous cargo. Not only were welding operations being carried on, but smoking was also suspected as a possible cause of the explosions.

The scene had everything that was needed for an accident about to happen. As author Howard E. Shuman noted in the Summer 1988 issue of Naval History, it was a euphemism to say that the LSTs were combat loaded. “They were floating ammunition dumps, floating gasoline storage tanks, floating vehicle garages, floating ship repair yards, and floating overcrowded hotels,” he wrote. “The ships’ magazines were loaded. The ready boxes for their guns were full. Six thousand cubic feet of cargo ammunition were stowed on the tank decks aft and under the guns and some amphibious craft known as dukws. The trucks, jeeps, and weapons carriers on the main decks were loaded with ammunition and fuel. Each LST carried 80 to 100 drums each containing fifty-five gallons of high-octane gas on her forecastle, as well as nearly 200,000 gallons of diesel fuel and 5,000 pounds of lubricating oil for her own engines. Drums of fog oil, smoke pots, and floats were on the fantails. Each LST had a 199-man crew and carried about 200 Marines or soldiers as passengers.”

According to the official investigation that followed the disaster, the first explosion occurred on board LST-353, where heavy ammunition was being unloaded. This ignited gasoline stored in drums on adjoining ships, and in moments several LSTs were ablaze and clouds of smoke were billowing up from West Loch. The flames prevented crews from casting off lines and breading free of the other ships. Then a second explosion came at 1511, and a third—the most violent—followed at 1522. The enire scene was a melee of smoke and confusion, with men either being blown overboard or leaping into the water to escape the flames.

Kinney, a storekeeper, first class, was below decks completing inventories of ships’ supplies when the first explosion came. He rushed topside to his battle station just in time to catch another explosion that blew him overboard. He was rescued and taken to the hospital, where his injuries were treated. Three weeks later, he was sent back to the U.S. mainland, where he was assigned to a shore base for the duration of the war. Though wounded by shrapnel, he was never awarded the standard Purple Heart decoration, since the West Loch explosions did not occur from enemy action. (Kinney always suspected, however, that sabotage may have been a factor in the disaster.)

While the thousands of service persons based in Hawaii as well as civilian residents knew about the disaster, it received very little publicity then or later. Howard Shuman offered three reasons why news about the tragedy was suppressed: 1) to protect the buildup for the Saipan invasion; 2) the secret classification of the report from the court of inquiry; and 3) the fact that the report was not declassified until 1 January 1960. “By then the disaster was forgotten,” he said.

But Kinney and the hundreds of other LST sailors who were at West Loch that day never forgot the disaster. It was the formation of the U.S. LST Association in 1985 that indirectly led to the LST-69 crew’s return to West Loch four years later. Through the Association, Kinney was put in touch with former shipmates, and they had the first LST-69 reunion in Toledo in 1985. Attending the reunion was Robert Leary, skipper of LST-69 and a resident of Hawaii. Thanks to Robert Leary, the LST-69 veterans and their wives were able to have the 1090 reunion in Hawaii, with the cooperation and support of the Coast Guard.

There was little to see at West Loch, other than the rusted prow of an LST beached on the shore. Nobody knows its number, and Kinney is sure that LST-69 lies on the bottom. But the rusted prow is still there, as a reminder of the “second Pearl Harbor disaster” which took 163 lives.

LST Memories: The United States LST Association

The United States LST Association
Forming It Was The Right Idea At The Time
By Mel Barger, LST-555

Although more of the difficult organizing work was done by others, I love to tell people that the United States LST Association was established in January 1985 in the living room of my home in Toledo.

It had really started the previous year when G. Wayne Hessemer, a retired Naval Reserve commander, organized an informal meeting of former LST sailors living in the Toledo area. He was skipper of LST-573, which had earned three battle stars for World War II Pacific landings, and he had gone on to command another landing ship in the Korean War. Others attending the first meeting were Don Kinney (LST-69), Bob Busch (LST-851), and Johnny Jarzeboski (LST-681).

That first informal meeting seemed charged with strong feelings of shared experience. Though none of us had been previously acquainted, our LST service created a bond. We held other meetings and by January, 1985, had formally launched the United States LST Association to include all LST veterans. All of us except Hessemer had been enlisted men, but we could now call him by his first name and weren’t even required to salute when he arrived for the meetings!

The mission of the Association was to bring LST veterans together, to help men locate their former shipmates and to publicize the role of the LST in amphibious warfare. Plans were also set to publish a book titled “Large Slow Target.” The Association would also work to bring more recognition to the role of LSTs and their crews in World War II and subsequent actions including the Korean and Vietnam wars.
The Association was fortunate in the very beginning to have a name and an attractive logo supplied by Charles Patton, the son of John Patton (LST-1153). Mr. Patton, though no longer active in the Association, also turned over rights to the logotype, which is now officially trademarked and owned by the Association.

Most of the Association’s early organizers lived in or around Toledo, including Mike Gunjak (LST-1149, converted to ARL-38), Karl Peterson (LST-911), Ralph Rogers (LST-267), and two others who are now deceased: Verle Bettinger (LST-209) and LST-378) and William Homan (LST-758). Don Kinney became our fist president and carried on much of the initial correspondence with prospective members from his florist’s shop in Toledo.

News of the LST Association traveled with surprising speed, and by 1986 we had enough members to hold our first convention, held in Toledo, with 800 persons attending.

This set the stage for our 1987 convention in Norfolk, Va., at the Omni Hotel on the Elizabeth River. Eleven hundred persons attended and the Navy cooperated by dispatching the U.S.S. Sumter (LST-1181) to the area for tours.

Following the highly successful Norfolk convention, others were scheduled for major cities around the country: San Francisco (1988); Pittsburgh (1989); St. Louis (1990); New Orleans (1991); Arlington, Va. (1992); Orlando, Fl. (1993); Las Vegas (1994); Cincinnati (1995); Boston (1996); Chicago (1997); Washington, D.C. (1998); and San Diego (1999). Buffalo has been selected for the Year 2000.

The Association outgrew the confines of my Toledo living room a long time ago, and we now have board members from other parts of the country and nearly 10,000 members.

In reviewing the Association’s accomplishments, we can say today that we’ve achieved the goals in our original mission. The Association has enabled hundreds of LST sailors to get in touch with their former shipmates. We have also been able to publicize the role of the LST in warfare; indeed, immediately after the Association was formed, the Associated Press carried an important story about our venture that resulted in national coverage. Association members also have formed state chapters and several memorials have been placed in honor of LSTs. There are still plans underway to have an LST for a historic memorial, and we are on record at the Navy Memorial in Washington.

At the time the Association was formed, we had access to a good list of LST men who had served as reunion coordinators for their own ships’ crews. My own ship, LST-555, didn’t begin having reunions until 1982, and some have bemoaned the fact that we didn’t begin meeting earlier. I suspect, however, that many of us wouldn’t have been interested in the years when we were actively employed and raising families. So it’s likely that 1985 was also a good time to launch the national Association. It was the right idea at the right time, and perhaps Toledo was even the right place. As yet, however, nobody has suggested placing a memorial plaque in our living room!

LST Memories: The Genius Behind The LST

The Genius Behind The LST
John C. Niedermair Was A Giant in the Field Of Naval Architecture
By Mel Barger, LST-555

When John C. Niedermair was chosen for a high national honor in 1956, it was noted that more than 8,000 ships had been built from designs originated under his guidance—a record that is never likely to be equaled. As Technical Director of Preliminary Ship Design at the U.S. Navy’s Bureau of Ships, Niedermair had been responsible for the basic designs of battleships, aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, submarines, patrol and mine craft, and numerous auxiliaries.

Yet, the great love of his life was the LST. “Worthy of particular mention is the part he played in the design of the LST,” a press notice said at the time of the award, terming the ship “in large measure the product of Mr. Niedermair’s originality and fine engineering judgment.” Although the LST had none of the graceful lines of the Essex carriers and other ships to which Mr. Niedermair made design contributions, it was said that his role in designing the “Large Slow Target” brought him the most professional satisfaction of his career.

Niedermair was born November 2, 1893 in Union Hill, New Jersey and lived in Staten Island, New York, as a youth. He was selected for a scholarship to and entered Webb Institute of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering in 1914. He graduated at the head of his class in 1918.

After serving briefly as a Naval Officer candidate, he accepted a permanent appointment in December 1918 as a ship draftsman at the New York Navy Yard and served there until joining the Preliminary Design branch at the Navy’s Bureau of Ships, where he would ultimately become the highest ranking civilian in the Bureau.

While working at the New York Navy yard, Niedermair was assigned to the salvage of the S-51, a submarine sunk at sea in a collision. His calculations and engineering techniques finally resulted in the raising of the sub, and incredible feat in view of the primitive diving equipment and methods then available. In describing this first scientific salvage job, one high-ranking Navy man said that Niedermair had raised the sub “with a lead pencil.”

At the Bureau of Ships, Niedermair became the Navy’s resident expert on watertight integrity and ship salvage jobs. In 1929, he attended the International Safety of Life on Sea Convention in London, and was one of the signers of the resulting agreement. His ideas and standards on watertight integrity and ship stability were adopted for every passenger ship constructed in the United States. He authored numerous papers on ship construction and stability, and occupied such a preeminent position in the field of basic ship design, that he could well have been termed the father of the modern United States Navy. For his outstanding services to the Navy both prior to, and during World War II, Niedermair was presented the Distinguished Civilian Service Award, the Navy’s highest honorary award, in 1945.

Niedermair’s work also spanned the nuclear age. He had a role in designing the first nuclear-powered submarines, Nautilus and Skate, the carriers Forrestal and Enterprise, and guided missile ships as well as Polaris-type submarines.

A devoted family man, Niedermair had eight children. He explained, “It’s just as easy to raise a big family as a small one, if you have a good wife.” And when his doctor ordered him to take a rest after the way, he ended up, it was said, by building a seaside house—not a cottage, but a two-story house which he put up with his own hands.

Niedermair retired from the Bureau of Ships in 1958. He died in 1982, leaving a legacy of Naval architecture that at least influenced two generations of ship designers.


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