Things changed at 1508 hours, 3:08 p.m. civilian time.
That’s when a quiet, sun-splashed Sunday afternoon enveloping the U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbor turned inside out and became a dark inferno infused with death.
A massive explosion sent a fireball and clouds of thick, black smoke shooting into the sky.
It was May 21, 1944, and calm became chaos in an instant.
The breeze blowing at 15:07 cooled soldiers and sailors working on 29 boats known as “landing ship tanks” tied side by side in West Loch at Pearl Harbor.
But at 15:08 the breeze became a bellows.
Flames were fanned and jumped from LST to LST.
More explosions followed.
Movie cameras rolled soon after the first blast and captured the firestorm.
Somewhere in that conflagration, which can be viewed at various websites online, was Norton resident Herb Church.
He and his shipmates used hoses to blast the deck of their ship, LST 240, with water, hoping against hope to spare it and themselves from incineration and then sail free of the fire.
Church, now 90, was 17 then, a kid, who just two months before wasn’t worried much about anything, and especially not dying.
But death was close on May 21.
The smoke choked and shrapnel from exploding munitions loaded onto the LSTs for the coming invasion of Saipan, shredded air and flesh.
That Sunday afternoon holocaust, known as the “West Loch Disaster,” or the “Second Pearl Harbor,” killed 163 soldiers, sailors and Marines.
Another 363 were injured.
Some sources say more were killed, some fewer, but those are the official numbers and they were devastating, even more so in war because they did not come at the hands of the enemy, but at the hands of friends, by accident.
Six LSTs, which are ships used to deliver men and material to war-torn beaches, were destroyed.
Nine buildings on shore burned down. Another 20 were damaged.
It was an accident kept secret at the time because of the war.
It wasn’t declassified until the 1960s, but by then the war had faded to the back of national consciousness in the rush of a developing modern era and it never became widely known.
Today the rusting shell of LST 480 sticks up through the mud and once bloody water of West Loch.
Seventy three years after, vegetation decorates the mute monument to tragedy.
But those who were there, like Herb Church, remember.
Just two months before, before he…