Tuesday, December 6, 2011

USS Vestal (Collier # 1, AR-4)

Figure 1: USS Vestal (Collier # 1) photographed circa 1909-1912, while serving as a fleet collier prior to her conversion to a repair ship. US Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2: USS Vestal (AR-4) anchored off New York City, circa 17-20 December 1918, while still painted in World War I disruptive camouflage. Ship in the distance, beyond Vestal's stern, is USS Iowa (BB-4). US Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 3: USS Vestal (AR-4) photographed circa the early 1920s. Collection of the New York Naval Shipyard. US Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 4: USS Vestal (AR-4) at anchor, circa the mid-1920s. An Omaha class light cruiser is in the left background. The original image is printed on postcard stock. Donation of Dr. Mark Kulikowski, 2007. US Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 5: USS Vestal (AR-4) with six destroyers alongside, during the later 1920s. Outboard destroyer is USS Sands (DD-231). Next inboard is USS Hatfield (DD-231). Two of the other destroyers present are also of the group (DD-231-235) armed with 5-inch guns, which can be seen on the ships' fantails. Collection of Vice Admiral Dixwell Ketcham. US Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 6: USS Vestal (AR-4) view taken from USS Houston (CA-30) in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on 20 February 1939, with her crew manning the rail in honor of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was then embarked in Houston. US Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 7: Pearl Harbor Attack, 7 December 1941. USS Vestal (AR-4) beached on Aiea shoal, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, after the Japanese raid. She is listing from damage caused by two bombs that hit her during the attack. Official US Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 8: Pearl Harbor Attack, 7 December 1941. USS Vestal (AR-4) after she was beached in Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. She had been damaged by Japanese bomb hits during the raid. An officers' motor boat is alongside her starboard quarter. Official US Navy Photograph, NHHC Collection. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 9: USS Vestal (AR-4) moored in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, circa early 1942, following repair of damage she received in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Official US Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval Historical Center. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 10: Commander Cassin Young, USN, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for heroism and distinguished conduct in action while serving as Commanding Officer of USS Vestal (AR-4) during the 7 December 1941 Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor. Halftone reproduction, copied from the official publication "Medal of Honor, 1861-1948, The Navy," page 285. US Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 11: Battle of Kolombangara, 13 July 1943. USS Saint Louis (CL-49) comes alongside USS Vestal (AR-4) for initial repair of torpedo damage received in the action. Photographed at Tulagi, Solomon Islands, about 20 July 1943. Official US Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. Click on photograph for larger image.

Named after the Roman goddess of hearth and fire, the 12,585-ton collier USS Vestal was built by the New York Navy Yard at Brooklyn, New York, and was placed in service with a civilian crew on October 1909. The ship was approximately 465 feet long and 60 feet wide, had a top speed of 16 knots, and had a crew of 90 officers and men. As built, Vestal did not have any armament, but later on was equipped with several anti-aircraft guns.

After entering service as a collier in 1909, Vestal spent the next three years in the Atlantic providing coal to the ships of the US fleet. She made one trip to Europe as well. But the ship was taken out of service in October 1912 and converted at the Boston Navy Yard at Boston, Massachusetts, into a repair ship (later receiving the hull number AR-4). Vestal was re-commissioned as a repair ship in September 1913 and served mainly in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico area until 1917. Shortly after America entered World War I on 6 April 1917, Vestal was sent to Queenstown Ireland, where she assisted US warships engaged in anti-submarine and escort duties. Vestal returned to the United States after the war and continued repairing American warships for the next 20 years. During that time, the ship was modernized (1925), supported the salvage efforts of the sunken submarine S-51 (1925-1926), and moved her base of operations from the Atlantic to the Pacific (1927).

After Vestal joined the US Pacific Fleet in 1927, she participated in yearly fleet exercises and maneuvers as part of her training. When the Pacific Fleet was moved permanently to Hawaiian waters upon the conclusion of fleet exercises in the spring of 1940, Vestal was based at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. After returning to the west coast for an overhaul at the Mare Island Navy Yard at Vallejo, California, Vestal steamed back to Pearl Harbor and resumed her important, though largely unnoticed, duties. On 6 December 1941, Vestal was moored alongside USS Arizona (BB-39) at berth F 7, just off Ford Island. She was going to provide Arizona with a scheduled period of maintenance from December 6 to December 12.

Then, shortly after 0800 on the morning of 7 December 1941, Japanese carrier-based aircraft attacked Pearl Harbor. The Japanese planes swooped down and dropped bombs and torpedoes on the American fleet. Explosions started erupting all over the harbor. Vestal’s skipper, Commander Cassin Young, USN, immediately ordered the crew to “general quarters” and men ran to the few anti-aircraft guns that were on board the ship. At approximately 0805, Vestal’s 5-inch guns, 3-inch gun, and .30-caliber Lewis machine guns located on the bridge wings all opened fire on the attacking planes.

As the crew manned their guns, two bombs (probably intended for the nearby Arizona) hit Vestal. One bomb crashed into the port side of the ship, went down three decks, passed through a crew’s space, and exploded in a stores hold, starting a fire that necessitated flooding the forward magazines. The second bomb hit the starboard side, went through the carpenter’s shop, the shipfitter’s shop, and ended up leaving a hole roughly five feet in diameter in the bottom of the ship. Vestal was in trouble but the worst was yet to come.

At approximately 0820, Arizona, still moored inboard of Vestal, took a torpedo hit in the stern of the ship. Almost simultaneously, a bomb went through Arizona’s deck after bouncing off the faceplate of her Number 2 turret and exploded in the black powder magazine below. The explosion that followed touched off yet another massive explosion in the ship’s main battery magazines. The gigantic blast that followed tore apart the forward part of the battleship. The concussion from that blast literally cleared Vestal’s bridge and deck, blowing anybody standing in the open into the water.

Blown off Vestal’s bridge was her skipper, Commander Cassin Young. Young was tossed into the water by the huge explosion, yet despite severe enemy bombing and strafing at the time, as well as his shocking experience of having been blown overboard, Commander Young, with extreme coolness and calmness, swam back to his ship. Once back on board Vestal, he countermanded an abandon ship order that someone had given and ordered what was left of the crew to get Vestal underway. Fortunately, the engineer officer and the engine room’s “black gang” were still on board the ship and were able to get steam up.

On Vestal’s main deck, things looked bad. Arizona’s huge explosion set off oil fires from the battleship’s ruptured fuel tanks and those, in turn, caused fires to start on board Vestal, both aft and amidships. But Commander Young was not about to give up on his ship. At 0845, crewmen on board Vestal cut the mooring lines that had kept her tied to the flaming Arizona. As Vestal started her engines, a tugboat managed to pull the repair ship’s bow away from Arizona. The tugboat and Vestal slowly crept away from the doomed battleship, but Vestal was now listing to starboard from her previous bomb hits and was taking water in aft. At 0910, Vestal anchored in 35 feet of water off nearby McGrew’s Point. But with fires burning in several places and with water still flooding into his ship, along with an ever increasing list, Commander Young decided to ground Vestal on Aiea Shoal to prevent her from sinking and possibly even blocking a vital part of the harbor.

Commander Young and his crew could now concentrate on putting out the fires and stopping the flooding. But even though badly damaged herself, some of Vestal’s crewmembers lent a hand to more badly damaged ships at Pearl Harbor. Right after the attack, some of Vestal’s welders were used to cut away part of the hull of the battleship Oklahoma (BB-37), which had capsized during the attack. The welders were feverishly trying to cut holes into the overturned battleship to rescue men that were still trapped inside the hull. Some of the attempts to rescue the sailors were successful, some, unfortunately, were not.

For his distinguished conduct in action and outstanding heroism on 7 December 1941, Commander Cassin Young was awarded the Medal of Honor. He was promoted to Captain in February 1942 and was later given command of the heavy cruiser San Francisco. On 13 November 1942, during a major naval battle off Guadalcanal, he guided his ship in action against a superior Japanese force and was killed by enemy shells while closely engaging the Japanese battleship Hiei. Captain Young posthumously was awarded the Navy Cross for his actions during the Guadalcanal Campaign, and San Francisco received the Presidential Unit Citation.

Meanwhile over the next few days after the Pearl Harbor attack, Vestal’s crew turned to the task of repairing its own ship because the yard facilities at Pearl Harbor were severely damaged from the attack. A week after the attack, Vestal’s crew had pumped out the oil and water that had flooded the compartments below the waterline and cleared out the damaged and gutted holds. This was work that had to be completed before the ship could be permanently rebuilt.

After repairs and alterations were completed at Pearl Harbor, Vestal received orders on 12 August 1942 to steam to the South Pacific. Roughly two weeks later, Vestal arrived at Tongatabu in the Tonga Islands. By now the American invasion of the Solomon Islands and Guadalcanal was in full swing and American warships were being battered at a fast pace. During the next 60 days that Vestal was at Tongatabu, she completed 963 repair jobs for roughly 58 ships. Included were repairs to such notable warships as USS Saratoga (CV-3), which was torpedoed by Japanese submarine I-26 on 31 August; USS South Dakota (BB-60), which was seriously damaged from a grounding at Lahai Passage, Tonga Islands, on 6 September; and USS North Carolina (BB-55), which was damaged by a torpedo on 15 September.

Vestal was moved to Noumea, New Caledonia, on 31 October 1942. Her arrival could not have been more timely because the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands had just taken place a few days earlier. USS South Dakota and USS Enterprise (CV-6), two large warships that suffered major damage during the battle, were at Noumea. Both of these ships required extensive repairs from Vestal and her crewmembers. While at Noumea, Vestal completed 158 repair jobs on 21 ships. Vestal left Noumea on 13 November and reached Espiritu Santo three days later to set up shop there. During the next twelve months, Vestal tackled roughly 5,603 repair jobs on 279 ships. Some of the most outstanding repairs were made on warships damaged during the bitter fighting off Guadalcanal from late 1942 to early 1943. Some of these ships included USS San Francisco (CA-38), torn by heavy caliber hits during the night battle off Savo Island on 13 November 1942; USS New Orleans (CA-32) and USS Pensacola (CA-24), the latter with a torpedo hole measuring 24 by 40 feet, a flooded after engine room, and two propeller shafts broken; the Australian light cruiser HMAS Achilles, which besides shrapnel and collision damage, had taken a direct hit on her after turret; and the torpedoed and fire-damaged cargo ship Alchiba (AK-23). Only once during that time, from 27 May to 2 June 1943, did Vestal herself undergo any repairs.

One of the most outstanding pieces of salvage work performed by Vestal was on USS Pensacola, which was heavily damaged during the Battle of Tassafaronga. A torpedo caused such extensive damage aft that Pensacola’s stern was barely attached to the rest of the ship. A few frames, some hull plating, and one propeller shaft were practically all that still held the aft section to the rest of the ship. As Vestal’s commanding officer at the time later stated, “Never had an AR (repair ship) been presented with such a task; no records on how it should best be done were available. But with a lot of ingenuity, a lot of hard work, and a lot of luck, Vestal’s crew repaired Pensacola well enough so that the heavy cruiser could make it back to the United States for permanent repairs. Another major repair job was on the cruiser USS Minneapolis (CA-36), which was torpedoed amidships and had 75 feet of her bow missing. Vestal also repaired her well enough to make it back home for permanent repairs.

On 18 November 1943, Vestal departed Espiritu Santo and headed for the Ellice Islands, reaching the port of Funafuti on 22 November. While in Funafuti, Vestal completed approximately 604 major repair tasks for 77 ships. Her biggest job there was on the light carrier USS Independence (CVL-22). Vestal left Funafuti on 30 January 1944 and reached Majuro atoll in the Marshall Islands on 3 February. The big repair job waiting for her there was on the battleship USS Washington (BB-56), which had suffered heavy damage forward after a collision. Although estimates called for it to be a 30-day job, Vestal, often working 24-hour shifts, completed the task in only 10 days. After that, Washington was able to sail to Pearl Harbor for permanent repairs.

At this point, Vestal needed a substantial overhaul of her own. She steamed back to Pearl Harbor and then on to the Mare Island Navy Yard in California. After a major overhaul was completed, giving the ship new equipment and alterations (not to mention a new paint job), Vestal left Mare Island on 8 September, and headed towards yet another war zone. After reaching Ulithi atoll in the Caroline Islands, Vestal went straight to work. While at Ulithi, Vestal completed 2,195 jobs for 149 ships, including 14 battleships, nine aircraft carriers, five cruisers, five destroyers, 35 tankers, as well as other miscellaneous naval and merchant ships. Vestal left on 25 February 1945 to repair ships at Saipan in the Marianas Islands for more than two months and then participated in the invasion of Okinawa, arriving on 1 May at Kerama Retto, which is a chain of islands off the southwestern tip of Okinawa.

During the month of May, Vestal had to go to general quarters 59 times as Japanese planes made suicide attacks on ships that were part of the invasion force. The best defense against these kamikaze aircraft was a smoke screen produced by all the ships that blended into one gigantic mass of low-hanging clouds. For that purpose, Vestal had two small boats equipped with fog generators and several barrels of oil. Besides the fog generators, smoke pots would be thrown over the bow of the ship to emit a dense, white, sickly smelling smoke for about 15 minutes. In addition to the danger posed by kamikaze aircraft, deck sentries kept a sharp lookout for any Japanese commandoes that attempted to swim out to the ships with mines or explosive charges.

Most of the ships Vestal repaired at Kerama Retto were destroyers hit and severely damaged by kamikaze aircraft. Vestal left Kerama Retto in mid-June 1945 but remained in the area until the end of the war. Once the war with Japan formally ended on 2 September 1945, Vestal assisted in the occupation of Japan and China. Vestal then returned to the United States. Once back home, Vestal assisted in the decommissioning work of other ships sent to the Thirteenth Naval District for disposal. USS Vestal herself was ultimately decommissioned at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, Washington, on 14 August 1946. Although struck from the Navy list on 25 September of that same year, Vestal remained inactive for the next two and one-half years before she was totally stripped of all useful equipment on 20 May 1949. Her hulk was sold on 28 July 1950 for scrapping.

USS Vestal not only survived the attack on Pearl Harbor, but went on to provide extremely valuable service to the US Navy throughout the rest of the war. Few people noticed ships like Vestal, but few naval wars can be won without them. Like many ships during the war, they did their work quietly and with no fanfare, but got the job done, enabling hundreds of damaged (and in some cases, extremely damaged) ships to eventually make their way back home to the United States.

Please remember that 7 December 2011 will be the seventieth anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. If possible, mention the anniversary to a friend or a relative. It is up to this generation of Americans to keep the memories of that horrible day alive for future generations, so that the sacrifices made by thousands of servicemen on that day will never be forgotten.