It took him nearly 60 years to get the answer – Roy Sannella wondered what caused ships to explode at Pearl

Roy Sannella of Port Charlotte feels like Sherlock Holmes.

Truth is, I made that up. But I’m sure that’s the way he must feel now that he has the answer to a question that’s been nagging at him for 58 years.

On May 21, 1944, a number of LSTs (landing ships) blew up at Pearl Harbor. He was serving aboard a sea-going tug at Pearl when the incident happened.

Sannella and his buddies were at dockside when the first explosion took place. An hour later, when the fourth ship immolated, Sannella and the others were pulling badly injured Marines aboard their tug.

Immediately after the incident the only thing he saw about the disaster was a very small piece in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin the next day.

On May 13, I wrote a column on Sannella’s unanswered question: What caused the five LSTs to blow up? Actually, there were six. Once the column appeared in the Sun he began to receive phone calls and e-mails.

Sannella then made connections with two guys that were on LSTs in Pearl when these ships blew up. He met with a Charlotte County LST group that gathers at the Moose Lodge in Port Charlotte on a monthly basis.

LeRoy Zeedyk, a Venice LSTer, provided Sannella with a written list of all the LSTs anchored in West Loch at Pearl at the time of the disaster. Harry Horn of Punta Gorda sent him a letter noting that it was the tugboats that kept the burning LSTs away from the ammunition depot.

CTY WEST LOCH -Ship's cook second class Roy Sannella crossed his chest just prior to throwing in two long stemmed roses during the 60th Commemoration Ceremony of the West Loch Disaster held in Pearl Harbor yesterday. Honolulou Star-Bulletin Photo by Cindy Ellen Russell, 05-21-04

CTY WEST LOCH -Ship’s cook second class Roy Sannella crossed his chest just prior to throwing in two long stemmed roses during the 60th Commemoration Ceremony of the West Loch Disaster held in Pearl Harbor yesterday. Honolulou Star-Bulletin Photo by Cindy Ellen Russell, 05-21-04

Others who got in touch with Sannella were Robert Arieta, a Marine who provided an article on the incident; Gerald Primeau, a Navy pharmacist mate who was there and said he treated upward of 700 injured servicemen; Charles Sheehan, a Marine who gave him another story on West Loch; and Don Rowley of Punta Gorda, who was on Adm. Turner’s flagship. The admiral was in charge of the pending invasion of Saipan.

Then there was William McConnell of Merritt Island, who while in the 4th Marine Division watched some shipboard workers come aboard LST 353 with welding equipment an hour before it exploded. It was the first LST to go up.

He sent Sannella a copy of a TV program that appeared on the History Channel on Dec. 3, 2001. It gave the “scoop” on the second ship disaster at Pearl Harbor more than two years after the Japanese attack on the Pacific Fleet, Dec. 7, 1941.

According to the History Channel’s account of the disaster, 164 were killed in the six LST explosions and 393 were wounded. But these numbers don’t square with the figure of somewhere around 700 people being injured, according to Pharmacist Mate Primeau.

The documentary makes it clear that Fleet Adm. Chester Nimitz ordered all details of the explosions be kept under wraps. He was concerned that the enemy might find out and the information might aid them. He was very successful on that score.

Records on the incident weren’t declassified until the 1960s, and it wasn’t until the 1980s that anyone in the general public got the real rundown on what the Navy said actually happened when William Johnson, a Marine who was there at the time, wrote a book on the incident called “The West Loch Story” published in 1986 by West Loch Publications of Seattle, Wash.

What was really interesting: Even before the six LSTs exploded, Tokyo Rose was broadcasting that members of the 2nd Marine Division would suffer many casualties even before they went into battle. It was the 2nd Marine Division’s men who were aboard the LSTs; many were injured or killed when the ships went up.

So what did the Navy’s “secret report” say was the cause of the disaster? There were three possibilities:

1. Sabotage (that was dismissed without comment).

2. An accidental explosion.

3. Sparks from a cigarette.

The Navy apparently believes the chain-reaction explosions aboard the LSTs at Pearl were the result of a “mortar shell that somehow accidentally detonated on LST 353,” the first ship to blow up.

All Sannella knows is that he found out enough about the incident to satisfy his curiosity. He is a happy old salt.

That’s what Roy Sannella wants to know

On May 21, 1944, five LSTs (landing ships) blew up at Pearl Harbor. Roy Sannella of Port Charlotte was serving in the Navy aboard a sea-going tug in the harbor at the time.

“At 3 p.m. we were on a dock at Pearl and heard an explosion. We didn’t think much about it,” he said. “Then there was another big explosion about 15 minutes later. Then a third explosion went off 15 minutes later. We jumped in the tug and started looking around.

“We didn’t go far before we started seeing lots of smoke,” Sannella said. “Then we started seeing lots of bodies floating in the water. There was a fourth explosion and we had to back off because there was debris flying all over the place.

“On the way back to the dock I helped pull five or six injured Marines out of the water. They were badly wounded and burned. We took them to sick bay,” he said.

At the time, the only thing Sannella read in the newspaper was on the front page of the Honolulu Start-Bulletin the next day. It said there was an explosion at the port and that was it.

Almost six decades later he wanted to find out more about what happened to the LSTs.

“I wrote letters to the commanding officer in Hawaii and the Navy Department and received no reply,” Sannella said. “Then I contacted the newspaper and also got nothing.”

It wasn’t until he joined the local chapter of the Marine Corps League he hit a little pay dirt. In the first Leatherneck magazine he received, there was a story about Robert Arieta of Pleasant Hill, Calif. He said he was transferred to the Naval Ammunition Depot at Pearl in 1943.

“On May 21, 1944, we were waiting for Adm. Nimitz to come aboard the Depot to inspect 60 or more LSTs loaded with ammunition for Saipan and Tinian. I saw the first LST blow up right below where I was on duty. We were showered with tracers, 30- and 50-caliber ammo, red-hot hunks of metal. Five LSTs blew up. Over 500 Marines were killed.”

Then Sannella learned about a local LST group. He attended one of the organization’s meetings and found three guys who had been aboard ships in the harbor when the five LSTs exploded. They knew no more about the incident that Sannella. The LST group has a newsletter called Scuttlebutt. In the July/August 1999 edition, the five LSTs that blew up are listed: LSTs 43, 69,179, 353 and 480.

According to a report Sannella acquired along the way from Adm. Richmond Kelly Turner, who was at Pearl when the ships went up, the first explosion took place aboard LST 353 when some mortars accidentally exploded. The other explosions were caused by debris from the first LST that blew up.

What Sannella wants to know is, did the five LSTs explode because of an accident or was it sabotage? He questions the admiral’s account of what happened that day because he says the five LSTs blew up one at a time every 15 minutes.

That’s not likely to happen unless someone planned it that way, he believes. Then there is a another nagging question: Why can’t he get any straight answers out of the Department of the Navy about the incident?

This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on July 1, 2002 and is republished with permission.

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Roy Sannella, sailor, marine and writer, dead at 85

Charlotte Sun (Port Charlotte, FL) – Monday, February 7, 2011
Author: JAMES ABRAHAM and DON MOORE; Sun Correspondents

Roy Sannella, a veteran’s veteran who lived for more than a decade in Port Charlotte, died peacefully Thursday evening at his home surrounded by his family. He was 85. Born Oct. 14, 1925 in Revere, Mass., he moved here in 1999 from San Francisco, Calif.

The World War II sailor and Korean War marine is best remembered in Charlotte County for supporting veterans’ causes and writing two books: “My Nine Lives,” his autobiography, and “Home for Heroes,” the story of the Douglas T. Jacobson Veterans’ Nursing Home in Port Charlotte.

Much of his life in recent years revolved around local veterans’ activities and charitable causes. He was a member or officer of Marine Corps League 36; DAV 82, Port Charlotte; The Military Heritage and Aviation Museum; Sons of Italy 2507; The Peace River Center for Writers; WWII Memorial Organization; USS Arizona memorial organization; Charlotte County Veterans Council; Douglas T. Jacobson Residents’ Fund; San Francisco Hotel Association; Masonic Shrine of San Francisco; Veterans of Foreign Wars; Hawaii Lions Club, Guam; Fraternal Order of Eagles; VA Clinic of Port Charlotte; and Toys for Tots, among other organizations.

During World War II he survived what became known as “The Second Pearl Harbor.” It was a disastrous explosion that took place in the harbor among the LST (landing craft) at West Loch on May 24, 1944, just before the Allied invasion of Saipan. The Navy lists 163 sailors and marines who were killed and 396 injured.

Sannella was in the thick of it. A 17-year-old sailor serving aboard a Navy tugboat when the explosion occurred, he rescued a number of injured service personnel and took aboard the dead from the disaster.

What he could not understand and didn’t learn for decades is why there was only a small story in the Honolulu Star Bulletin at the time about the explosion. The lack of coverage about the WWII incident was still bothering him when he convinced the Sun to write a column about the explosion at West Loch.

What Sannella eventually learned, as a result of that column, was that Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz ordered details of the disaster suppressed because the Navy thought the holocaust might have been caused by a Japanese saboteur.

Tokyo Rose broadcast, shortly before the explosion, that the 2nd Division Marines would suffer many casualties before going into battle. It was the 2nd Division that sustained most of the injuries at West Loch.

An investigation at the time revealed that the initial explosion aboard LST 353 was accidentally caused by sparks from a welder’s torch that ignited 55-gallon drums of gasoline.

Because of that column, Sannella also discovered the Navy had scheduled a 60th anniversary memorial at West Loch on May 24, 2004, some 60 years after the explosion. He was an honored guest at the memorial gathering, one of nine old sailors who attended the affair.

“Attending the memorial ceremony at Pearl Harbor allows me to close the book on the West Loch Disaster after 60 years of wondering,” the old salt said when he returned from his Hawaiian adventure seven years ago.

Sannella received the surprise of a lifetime after “My Nine Lives,” his autobiography, was published in 2008.

Much of his book is about “The Royale Room,” a nightclub he owned in the late 1950s on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip, next to the Egyptian Theatre. He became friends with Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Frank Sinatra, Louie Armstrong, Eartha Kitt, Milton Berle and celebrities of all stripes — including a number of gangsters who frequented his club.

Among those who purchased a copy of “My Nine Lives” was Dean DePhillipo, a faculty member at the Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, Calif.

His check for the book came with a note asking Sannella if he knew a Barbara Shipley.

“She was a cocktail waitress at The Royale Room in 1958. We dated,” he e-mailed DePhillipo.

Three weeks later he received an e-mail from DePhillipo saying he had discovered some old documents that belonged to his adoptive father from the Los Angeles County Department of Adoption.

“The documents stated I was adopted. My natural mother was Barbara Joan Shipley and Roy Sannella of Revere, Mass. was my father. After I got this information I googled you both. Your website and a write up on your book came up. There were 100 Barbara Shipleys.

“I have been thinking about this for days wondering what to say and how to pen it. I realize my natural parents may not want to know … anything about my current life. I seek nothing but knowledge,” DePhillipo wrote.

“I didn’t believe what he wrote at first,” Sannella said. “Then I remembered the diary I kept on The Royale Room. I kept the diary because of all the hassle I was getting from the Los Angeles Vice Squad.

“Diary: June 28, 1958, Barbara Shipley came to visit. She told me she had a 6 lb., 2 oz. baby boy. She didn’t say the boy was mine. Six months later she moved on and I’ve never seen her since.”

“To find out you have a 47-year-old son you didn’t know you had when you’re 81 is something else,” Sannella said in a Sun story in November 2006. “I think I need to order some cigars — it’s a boy!”

In the same story he notes, “Laura, my younger sister, Michele, my daughter, and the whole Sannella family are just tickled pink about this latest revelation.”

Since then Dean, the son he never knew, has made several trips to Port Charlotte to visit his father and the family. His latest trip was just before Roy’s death last week.

Sannella is survived by his daughter, Michelle Desrosiers, of Weston, Fla.; son, Dean DePhillipo, of Santa Barbara, Calif.; brother, Anthony (Ted) Sannella and sister, Laura Sauerwein, of Punta Gorda; sister, Carol Varnum, of Chelsea, Mass.; five grandchildren and a host of nieces and nephews. He was predeceased by his parents and sisters, Eleanor O’Brien and Jean Hederson.

In lieu of flowers the family has requested that donations be made to Disabled American Veterans Post 82, 1232 Market Circle, Unit B-2, Port Charlotte, Fla. 33953 or The Military Heritage and Aviation Museum, Fishermen’s Village, 200 West Retta Esplanade, Unit 48, Punta Gorda, Fla., 33950.

Caption: PHOTO PROVIDED Roy Sannella was among a trio of local survivors who attended the 60th anniversary of the West Loch disaster at Pearl Harbor on May 24, 2004. From the left: Harry Horn, Sannella, Woody Beeghly and Alex Bernal of Tucson, Ariz. The Navy honored the four survivors of what’s been called “The Second Pearl Harbor.”

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