Navy veteran recalls the second tragedy at Pearl Harbor

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Paul Greenwell, a Navy veteran, who lives at National Church Residences Lincoln Village in Columbus.

By LANCE CRANMER                                                                   lcranmer@nationalchurchresidences.org

COLUMBUS – Paul Greenwell has no shortage of stories about his time in the Navy.

Diving in Connecticut’s Thames River wearing a homemade helmet constructed out of a five-gallon bucket … time spent on Midway Island in the Pacific watching the rising tide swallow up half of the base airport’s runway for a few hours each day … making a 320-foot dive while in deep sea diving school in Washington D.C. … and so many more.

But it’s the one that almost no one knows about that really brings out the passion in his voice.

“I’ll tell you something that is not in history books,” Greenwell said with a knowing grin as he sat in the community room at National Church Residences Lincoln Village on the west side of Columbus, Ohio. “May 21, 1944 was the second tragedy of Pearl Harbor.”

Known today as the “West Loch disaster,” the incident was kept a classified secret by the United States government for nearly two decades. Details of the disaster were released in 1960, but by then, enough time had passed that it failed to draw much public attention.

“There were 10 LSTs (Landing Ship Tank) loading ammunition at night, at dusk,” Greenwell said.

Although the government never announced an official cause, it is believed that the initial explosion happened when a mortar round on LST-353 detonated during an unloading operation.

The explosion rocked several of the ships, which were being packed with ammunitions in advance of an upcoming mission. Fire quickly spread from ship-to-ship as Sailors and Marines scrambled to get to safety.

“When I got there they were just raising (LST-480),” Greenwell said. “They sent us in, about 12 to 14 divers. We welded patches onto the ship to try and make it water tight.”

As a 2nd Class Diver, Greenwell had extensive experience diving to patch ships that had been damaged.

“One of my jobs was to crawl inside the torpedo tube and slide down inside it to see if there were any nicks,” he said.

This time, the situation was far more dire.

“(Many) lives were lost when those ships went down,” he said. “They were swimming through the burning oil on top of the water.”

As Greenwell and his fellow divers worked frantically to repair the sinking LST 480, he remembers the moment that changed everything.

“I was using a cutting torch on the bulkhead of the ship. I cut into an oil line,” he said. “The two didn’t mix. It exploded.”

Greenwell said a buddy of his was coming out of one of the ship’s hatches with his arms up in the air when the explosion happened.

“He wound up on the tank deck,” he said. “I blew up about 50 foot through the water. I was bleeding bad.”

An injured Greenwell made his way to safety and was examined by a doctor.

“The doctor said I had a slight concussion and I had a perforated ear drum,” he said. “The doctor said I’d get a Purple Heart. I never did get that. It’s OK. I didn’t want one.”

Officially it is said that 163 naval personnel died that day. Other sources have estimated the overall death total to be as high as 392 with an additional 400 wounded – including Greenwell.

A little more than a year later – the day before Thanksgiving 1945, in fact – Greenwell’s three-year Navy career was over and he returned to his job as a lake patrol officer on Illinois’ Lake Decatur before moving on to a bigger career.

“I worked for the federal government for 28 years as an industrial engineer,” he said.

He spent 22 years in active ministry as a pastor and finally became a counsellor at Reynoldsburg High School near Columbus before retiring to Lincoln Village.

“I always wanted to be a diver,” he said, looking back on his military career. “I weighed 119 pounds and the suit weighed 190.”

During his time in the Navy, Greenwell said that he “worked on every submarine in the Pacific fleet.”

Years after his retirement, he toured a decommissioned sub that was on display in Alabama.

“When I was in Mobile on that sub, they had pictures of the old crew members on display,” he said. “I recognized some of the faces.”

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