WEST LOCH, Hawaii -- Everyone has heard of the surprise attack on Dec. 7, 1941, but few know about the second disaster at Pearl Harbor.
On May 21st, 1944, over 600 Soldiers from Schofield Barracks were killed or wounded while loading ammunition and fuel onto ships at the West Loch peninsula of Pearl Harbor.
More than half were African-Americans from the 29th Chemical Decontamination Unit.
Six ships sank and many more were damaged. The incident was classified top secret to protect the scheduled invasion of Palau and the Mariana Islands, including, Saipan, Guam and Tinian.
That Sunday afternoon, at 3:08 p.m., LST (Landing Ship, Tank) 353 exploded. Shrapnel, fire and fuel spilled everywhere, setting off new fires in the ammunition and on other LSTs.
Soldiers and Sailors tried to fight the fire. Some even tried to escape out the channel to open ocean.
About 36 ships were in Walker Bay along the West Loch peninsula, lashed together in groups of six to eight. The fires spread rapidly to other ships and burned for 24 hours. The explosions were heard miles away.
Deloris Guttman, president, African-American Diversity Cultural Center of Hawaii, said, "The explosions threw body parts and shrapnel hundreds of feet. Before the day ended, hundreds of men were dead and hundreds more were wounded."
For more than 60 years, the public remained unaware of the heroism and sacrifices of these Soldiers. Guttman is working to change that and to increase awareness of what happened, and to explain why it matters to today's Soldiers.
"They were building infrastructure, fighting fires, protecting combat troops from chemical weapons, loading ammunition and fuel," said Guttman. "Wars couldn't have been won without them."
The Center tells the story of the West Loch tragedy with temporary museum exhibits using photographs, artifacts, memorabilia and audiovisual materials. It conducts oral history interviews with survivors, witnesses, journalists and historians to the West Loch explosion. Uncovering and preserving the eyewitness accounts make the importance of the incident in Army history and Hawaii accessible to the public.
Out of about 200 killed, only 39 body parts were interred at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl. They have no names or unit designations.
In April, the Department of Defense announced that human remains from the USS Oklahoma would be exhumed and identified by the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command.
Guttman hopes the West Loch internees will be exhumed and identified as part of that project. It could give those Soldiers back their names and offer closure to their families after 71 years.
Guttman's organization hosted the 6th annual Celebration of Life & Memory for the West Loch internees at Punchbowl. The public was invited May 21, to honor the legacy of those Soldiers and remember their sacrifice.
Admiral Harry B. Harris, commander of the U.S. Navy Pacific Fleet, was the keynote speaker.