May 21, 1944 Hammerberg

Let the man’s Medal of Honor citation tell his story. He didn’t live long enough to read it for himself.

From June to November 1944, forces of the United States Marine Corps and US Army conducted an offensive intended to dislodge Japanese forces from the Mariana Islands and the island nation of Palau, with operations supported by elements of the US Navy and code named, Operation Forager.

Part of the island-hopping strategy employed to defeat the Japanese empire, Operation Forager followed the Gilbert and Marshall Islands campaign and had as its objective the neutralization of Japanese bases in the central Pacific, support for the Allied drive to retake the Philippines, and to provide bases for strategic bombing raids against the Japanese home islands.

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LST in Sicily

In May 1944, the naval anchorage at Pearl Harbor was a rush of activity, building up for the planned invasion.  78 years ago today, twenty-nine LSTs (Landing Ships, Tank) were tied beam-to-beam on six piers in the “West Loch” loading munitions, high octane gasoline and other equipment.

Shortly after 15:00 local time, LST-353 exploded causing a chain reaction down the line. Munitions exploded hurling men and equipment into the air. 200 men and more were hurled into the water in explosions powerful enough to knock over vehicles. On shore eleven buildings were destroyed altogether. Another nine were damaged.

Firefighting efforts were slow to get underway due to the heat and the inexperience of many of the crew. Some LSTs were able to move away under their own power or with the assistance of tugs. Others were left adrift and afire and slowly sinking, into the channel.

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A NASA image of Pearl Harbor. The disaster occurred in West Loch which is to the left side of the photo, where the water is lighter in color.

Burning gasoline spread across the water and ignited other ships, left unharmed by the initial explosions. Fires burned for twenty-four hours as yet other vessels were intentionally sunk to contain the disaster.

Casualty figures are surprisingly inexact. Most sources report 163 personnel killed in the incident in West Loch and another 396, wounded. Some sources put the number of dead as high as 392.  Eleven tugboats were damaged while engaged in fire control efforts.  Six LSTs were sunk, two already carrying smaller, fully loaded Landing Craft Tanks (LCTs) lashed to their decks.  Several others were heavily damaged and/or run aground.

A press blackout was ordered immediately after the incident, and military personnel were ordered not to talk. A Naval Board of Inquiry was opened the following day. The disaster at West Loch was initially believed to be caused by Japanese submarines. The idea was dismissed due to the shallow depth of the harbor, and the presence of anti-submarine nets.

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The wreckage of the LST 480 following the West Loch Disaster.

The precise cause of the accident remained elusive, as everyone near the initial explosion was dead. Army stevedores were unloading mortar ammunition at the time, using an elevator just fifteen feet from 80 drums of fuel. Some believe a mortar round was accidentally dropped and exploded. Others contend that fuel vapors were ignited by a cigarette, or welder’s torch.

Subsequent salvage and removal efforts on the West Loch brought up the remains of a Japanese midget submarine, now believed to be the fifth such sub used in the attack from two years prior.

Details of the West Loch disaster would remain classified until 1960, explaining why the incident is so little known about the incident, today.

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Less still is remembered about the men who came to clean up the mess. The last fatality from the disaster at West Loch occurred nine months later during salvage operations, for a sunken LST.

In February 1945, five teams of hardhat divers were brought in to raise these hulks and clear the channel. Working under the mud and the water of West Loch, four teams using jet nozzles successfully cleared tunnels under some of the wrecks, the first stage in refloating the sunken hulls.

Disaster struck as the fifth team labored to clear a tunnel under one sunken LST. We can only imagine the blackness down there in all that swirling mud as divers George Fuller and Earl Brown labored with jet nozzles, to clear the way. Suddenly steel wreckage overhead, caved in. Buried alive with lifelines and air hoses hopelessly tangled in jagged shards of steel, the pair was trapped under 40-feet of water and some 20-feet of muck. 

Other divers attempted t0 reach the pair but only stirred up more mud. A US Department of Defense website page describing the event relates that even a special dive team, declined to take further risk.

There seemed no chance for either man’s survival when fellow Navy diver Owen Francis Patrick Hammerberg slipped into the water.

Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Owen Francis Patrick Hammerberg

Owen Hammerberg had nothing to prove when it came to guts, and cold courage. Once stationed aboard the USS Advent Hammerberg dove into the water to free cables, snarled about a live mine. Imagine being down there, so close as to touch a mine powerful enough to blow himself to rags and atoms and sink the ship, on which he was stationed. And yet the man patiently labored until finally freeing the cable, without explosion.

Now working in the swirling mud and pitch blackness beneath the bottom of Pearl Harbor, the diver worked desperately to wash another tunnel under the sunken LST.  After five hours of exhausting labor Hammerberg was able to locate and free the first man, George Fuller. Following later inquiry congressional records state “Fuller, who had been pinned by a steel plate, shook Hammerberg’s hand underwater before heading to the surface for safety”.

Though physically tired Hammerberg labored on to reach Earl Brown, the second trapped diver. Eighteen grueling hours after the rescue began he finally found his man.

I do office work and I’m worn out after an eighteen hour day. What one man experienced after such a span of time down there, we will never know. Suddenly the whole mess caved in and a great piece of steel pinned Owen Hammerberg on top of Earl Brown.

Two days later a Filipino father and son team of divers at last rescued one of them and recovered the dead body, of the other. The cave-in had killed Owen Hammerberg even as his body protected that of the second man.

Navy diver and Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Owen Francis Patrick Hammerberg was the only service member in all of World War 2 and the last man ever to receive the Medal of Honor as the result of heroism performed outside of combat.

Let the man’s Medal of Honor citation tell his story. He didn’t live long enough to read it for himself.

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“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as a diver engaged in rescue operations at West Loch, Pearl Harbor, 17 February 1945. Aware of the danger when 2 fellow divers were hopelessly trapped in a cave-in of steel wreckage while tunneling with jet nozzles under an LST sunk in 40 feet of water and 20 feet of mud. Hammerberg unhesitatingly went overboard in a valiant attempt to effect their rescue despite the certain hazard of additional cave-ins and the risk of fouling his lifeline on jagged pieces of steel imbedded in the shifting mud. Washing a passage through the original excavation, he reached the first of the trapped men, freed him from the wreckage and, working desperately in pitch-black darkness, finally effected his release from fouled lines, thereby enabling him to reach the surface. Wearied but undaunted after several hours of arduous labor, Hammerberg resolved to continue his struggle to wash through the oozing submarine, subterranean mud in a determined effort to save the second diver. Venturing still farther under the buried hulk, he held tenaciously to his purpose, reaching a place immediately above the other man just as another cave-in occurred and a heavy piece of steel pinned him crosswise over his shipmate in a position which protected the man beneath from further injury while placing the full brunt of terrific pressure on himself. Although he succumbed in agony 18 hours after he had gone to the aid of his fellow divers, Hammerberg, by his cool judgment, unfaltering professional skill and consistent disregard of all personal danger in the face of tremendous odds, had contributed effectively to the saving of his 2 comrades. His heroic spirit of self-sacrifice throughout enhanced and sustained the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life in the service of his country.”

Author’s note: I have searched without success for the names of the Filipino father and son divers who rescued Earl Brown and recovered the body of Owen Hammerberg. Kindly let me know if you find that information. They too have earned the right to be remembered.

Feature image top of page: “Divers are lowered into Bikini Lagoon during an Operation Crossroads survey in July 1947”. Hat tip Naval History and Heritage Command

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