by Glenn Barnett
On Saturday, December 6, 1941, the repair ship USS Vestal eased alongside the USS Arizona at her berth at Pearl Harbor. Vestal moored herself outboard of the battleship, port side to port side. The Arizona had just returned from maneuvers and had scheduled some long overdue maintenance. She was due to move into dry dock the next week. The Vestal would begin the routine of rewinding the armatures of the battleship’s huge electric motors and other tasks that would shorten her stay in dry dock.
The crews of both ships settled down for a relaxing weekend. Scheduled work on the Arizona would begin Monday. For Seaman First Class Henry Emlander, Sunday was a day to sleep in. Aboard the Vestal only a month, he was still finding his way around. Assigned to the print shop, he also bunked in that compartment, forward on the port side, three decks down.
The next morning, he was awakened by a jarring blast on the other side of the bulkhead. It was a bomb meant for Arizona. The next 60 hours were a nightmare.
The Vestal was already one of the oldest ships in the fleet in 1941. She had been launched during another era, as a collier in 1909. Even as she slid down the ways at the New York shipyard, she was becoming obsolete. The world’s navies were converting from coal-fed engines to cleaner, far less smoky fuel oil. In 1913, Vestal was converted for use as a repair ship, though ironically she continued to burn coal in her boilers until 1921. Other colliers were also being converted at this time. The collier USS Jupiter became the Langley, America’s first aircraft carrier.
In 1927, Vestal was assigned to the Pacific Fleet. A leisurely cruise (her top speed was 16 knots) through the Panama Canal brought her to San Diego where she began her depression era service to the fleet. Belt tightening in the armed services kept older ships like Vestal working for longer periods of time than they had been designed.
In May 1940, the Pacific fleet moved its headquarters from San Diego to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. To the United States this was a defensive move aimed at protecting national interests in the Philippines and the Far East. To the Japanese, moving the American fleet 3,000 miles closer to their shores was a provocative act of aggression.
The crew of the Vestal was not concerned. A full day of activities was planned for Sunday December 7, 1941. Reveille was at 6:30 am, breakfast at 7. The crew was to muster to stations at 8, followed by shore leave for the starboard watch. There would be mail call, inspections, and a movie in the evening. But, of course, that Sunday was far from routine.
Seaman Emlander was jolted from his sleep by the blast starboard of his print shop. He heard the call to general quarters and rushed on deck. Once topside, he was sent below again to make sure everyone had gotten out of the blast area. He poked through the blast- damaged decks but found no one. When he tried to return topside he found most of the hatches closed and sealed. At last he found an open hatch and squeezed out on deck.
His action station was in the aft magazine at the other end of the ship. As he rushed there, he passed a wounded sailor. He pulled the man into the nearby officers’ companionway to give him some shelter from the carnage. “Don’t leave me here,” the wounded man scolded, “This is officer’s territory.” Emlander told him to rest easy and continued on to his post.
Before he could reach the aft magazine, he learned that it had been flooded to prevent an explosion after a second bomb hit aft. He ran forward again. The next thing he knew, the order was given to abandon ship. He flagged down a passing launch, yelling that he couldn’t swim. The launch came alongside for him and some of his mates.
Below decks, the damage control parties were working feverishly to shore up the bulkheads against the pressure of seawater flooding in through buckled hull plates blown open by the bomb blast aft. The chief engineer instinctively fired the boilers to work up steam. There were many leaks and ruptured lines hindering the work.
Communication with the bridge was cut off, so a seaman was sent topside to assess the situation and receive orders. He returned with the order to abandon ship, and all moved out of the boiler room to obey. When they came out into the flame-and smoke-shrouded sun, the public address system ordered all hands back to their battle stations. The Captain wanted to slip the Vestal’s moorings and save the ship by getting away from the doomed Arizona.
“Get Back Here” Young Screamed at Men Trying to Jump Overboard.
Vestal’s captain also had a busy morning. Commander Cassin Young, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate, had been a submariner in the last decade and was navy to the core. He was named for a naval hero of the War of 1812 and ironically a destroyer, the USS Young, named for the same hero, was also in Pearl Harbor that day.
For reasons of his own, Commander Young left the bridge the morning that his ship was attacked. He found himself commanding the ship’s three-inch antiaircraft gun. That is where he was when the Arizona’s forward magazine blew up. The force of the explosion rattled Vestal as if she had been hit again, and Commander Young and other members of his gun crew were thrown overboard into the oily water.
At that time, the executive officer (also named Young) gave the order to abandon ship. Henry Emlander found his way off the deck, and others began the search for safety.
Commander Young, soaking wet and covered in oil, emerged from the burning sea fuming that the ship was not to be abandoned. “Get back here,” he screamed at men trying to jump overboard. He ordered everyone to return to battle stations and prepare to get underway. The chief engineer and his men doggedly descended back into the smoky, leaking boiler room and fueled the fires to get any pressure possible from the leak-strewn steam system.
Ordinarily it would take 250 pounds of steam pressure to get under way. All the Vestal could manage that day was 50 pounds, but it was enough to turn over her engines and get moving. Other crewmen were ordered to cut the mooring lines to the Arizona, which was burning out of control and settling into the mud below, never to rise again.
Commander Young hailed a passing tug to assist Vestal in maneuvering the harbor. As damage reports came in it was clear that the ship would not stay afloat much longer. She was taking water from the aft bomb hit. She also began listing to starboard as the men frantically sealed compartments and shored up bulkheads. Captain Young made the decision to beach his ship to save it.
The momentous day ended for Vestal, aground but safe. That could not be said for all of her crew. Seven men were officially reported dead, many others wounded. A detachment from Vestal’s weld shop was sent to the capsized battleship Oklahoma that evening as desperate efforts were made to cut through the upturned hull and rescue sailors trapped inside.
The following weeks were busy ones for the crew of that repair ship. Not only did Vestal require repair to her bomb-damaged hull and bulkheads, the crew was constantly called upon to assist in the repair of the fighting ships, which had a higher priority to dry dock facilities.
So it was that on April 18, 1942, the commander of the Pacific Fleet, Admiral Chester Nimitz, was piped aboard the still-damaged Vestal. He had come to award the newly promoted Captain Young the Medal of Honor for his fearless actions on December 7. Vestal herself would be awarded a battle star for her courageous action under fire that day, a rarity for a service ship.
Repairs to the Vestal were finally completed in August 1942, and she was urgently dispatched to the South Pacific where the Marines had just begun offensive operations at a place no one had ever heard of — Guadalcanal.
Hit by a Japanese Torpedo, the USS Saratoga was Dead in the Water
The naval battles in support of the landing on this remote island were some of the most crucial of the war. Despite their setback at the Battle of Midway, the Japanese still had naval capabilities which exceeded those of the Americans. In their first engagement, the Battle of Savo Island on the night of August 9, the Japanese sank four Allied cruisers without any loss of their own. Vestal arrived at the scene on August 29, and none too soon.
Two days later while on patrol the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga was hit by a single torpedo from a Japanese submarine. While no one was killed, the damage played havoc with the ship’s electrical system, and she was soon dead in the water. She was towed to the nearest repair base at Tongatabu, where Vestal had just dropped anchor. Divers found a gaping 40-foot hole in the carrier’s starboard hull.
Repair crews from Vestal and other ships trimmed and braced the hole, sealed and pumped out nearby compartments, and prepared Saratoga for the trip to Pearl Harbor where major repairs could be accomplished. In all, Vestal’s crew worked on projects large and small involving over 50 ships while at Tongatabu.
In late October, Vestal was transferred closer to the action at Noumea, the capital of New Caledonia. Admiral William “Bull” Halsey had just arrived at Noumea and he was shaking things up. He promised to support the Marines with everything he had, and that meant that a lot more ships would be sent into harm’s way. He also did not want his precious few warships sent to Pearl Harbor for repair. If at all possible, ships were to be repaired on site and returned to action as soon as possible. Vestal arrived in Noumea on October 31 and began work the same day.
The Vestal’s arrival in Noumea also brought a promotion for Captain Young. He was given command of the cruiser USS San Francisco with unforeseen consequences. There was little time for ceremony as there was so much to do. Ships large and small were limping back from the battles around Guadalcanal in need of immediate attention.
One of the most important was the aircraft carrier Enterprise, which had been severely damaged by three bombs during the Battle of the Eastern Solomons. She was not to be sent back to Pearl Harbor. She had to be repaired on site.
Vestal’s crew got right to work on the Enterprise. Two of the carrier’s aircraft elevators were out of commission as well as a torpedo elevator. Crew quarters were severely damaged, and arrestor cables were severed, their gear damaged.
On November 12, the First Naval Battle of Guadalcanal was developing. A strong force of Japanese battleships supported by cruisers and destroyers was observed heading for Henderson Field to bombard the facilities there. Admiral Halsey responded by dispatching the only surface units he had available, a cruiser squadron whose flagship was Captain Young’s new command, the San Francisco.
In a confused night action, the Japanese battleship Hiei was sunk, but every single American ship engaged was damaged, including the San Francisco. Much of her bridge was shot away at point blank range, killing the officers on duty, including Captain Cassin Young. The Vestal’s crew was shocked and saddened by the news. Repair work to the San Francisco would be bittersweet.
The war, however, would not wait for mourning. More Japanese ships were spotted headed for the American positions on Guadalcanal. Admiral Halsey had to use everything available. The crippled carrier Enterprise was ordered into action.
Forty of Vestal’s officers and men were still aboard Enterprise, working furiously to repair the ship, when she stood out to sea. They were at work until preparations were made to launch planes. Enterprise, still not completely repaired, could only launch and land at half capacity. Her planes were sent over Henderson field and returned that way so enemy spotters could not follow them directly back to the crippled ship.
The Enterprise played an important part in winning a victory at the Second Battle of Guadalcanal, for which she was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation. Vestal’s crewmen aboard at the time shared in that honor.
Vestal was only at Noumea for twelve days, but during that time her crew worked on over 20 ships, completing some 158 job orders. From there, she was ordered forward to Espiritu Santo, some 500 miles closer to the fighting.
Vestal would spend over a year in the South Pacific, and except for a two-week overhaul and barnacle scraping in Australia, the work never ended. There were light moments however. The Vestal Virgins softball team went 24–1 in games against other ships’ companies. They became the South Pacific Softball Champions of 1943.
All the while, the battered ships came in. The cruiser Pensacola limped in from the Battle of Tassafaronga with heavy damage. She had taken a torpedo in her stern, which almost completely severed it from the rest of the ship. Only a few bent beams and hull plating held her together while the whole weight of her stern was resting on one propeller shaft. This was a new problem, but the Vestal repairmen were up to it. Compartments were sealed and pumped out and the stern shorn up gingerly for the long but necessary trip back to Pearl Harbor.
Wounded Leviathans: Two Warships Collide
The cruiser Minneapolis, also damaged at Tassafaronga, showed up with 75 feet of her bow blown off by a torpedo. Another Tassafaronga veteran, the cruiser USS New Orleans, also had her bow blown off, yet still made it to port. In all, 279 ships came to Vestal for triage during her year in the South Pacific. Vestal’s crew serviced merchantmen, amphibious craft, service ships, and tankers, as well as every type of fighting ship.
As the war moved into the Central Pacific, Vestal moved too. Serving briefly in the Ellice Islands, from November 1943 to January 1944, Vestal serviced more than 70 vessels supporting the deadly landings at Makin and Tarawa. At the end of January, she was ordered forward again to the just-captured Makin Island, but events intervened.
A powerful American naval squadron was pounding Kwajelien atoll in preparation for invasion. On the night of the February 1, two leviathans collided. During fleet maneuvers, the battleship USS Indiana was ordered to the front of her battle squadron. She abandoned her zigzag course in order to take up her new station. When her sister ship, the battleship USS Washington, made her scheduled turn to port she sliced into Indiana amidships. Washington’s bow telescoped back in upon itself, and as she pulled away most of the bow dropped into the sea. The captains of both injured ships, fearing submarine attacks, struggled to bring their vessels to the safety of Majuro harbor at a labored four knots.
Vestal was ordered to meet them there. Her crew was used in patching up destroyers, cruisers, carriers, and anything else afloat. The Washington was just another job, only bigger. Within 10 days, Washington was patched up sufficiently to steam to Pearl Harbor and on to Seattle where a new bow awaited her. She was back in action in three months.
After a year and a half of continuous sea duty, Vestal herself was in need of an overhaul. She steamed to the Mare Island shipyard to have her evaporators replaced and other new equipment fitted.
After a well deserved rest for her war weary crew and the much-needed refit, the aged Vestal was back on station by September 1944, in time for the Battle of Leyte Gulf. During the battle, the American fleet’s forward base was at the large atoll of Ulithi. A whole fleet could shelter within the protective embrace of the atoll’s coral barrier.
During her time at Ulithi, Vestal completed jobs on over 140 ships, large and small. The grand old lady of the fleet, Vestal was often referred to as the “Mighty V” or by some wags as the “Mighty Lucky V.”
Beginning in February 1945, Vestal would spend two months off the coast of Saipan supporting naval operations. Most of her jobs were on amphibious craft involved in the invasion of that island. In April, she was ordered north to support the landings on Okinawa. Vestal was given an anchorage that was already considered jinxed. The three previous occupants of that space had been hit by Kamikazes.
Once again, as at Pearl Harbor, she found herself in the line of fire. Fifty times during the month of May, her crew was summoned away from work by the call to battle stations. Again, her three-inch gun fired on an incoming enemy, and more than once an attacking plane crashed nearby. Repair jobs had to be accomplished between attacks. Many of those jobs consisted of patching up destroyers from the picket line, which had been hit particularly hard by the suicide planes.
For her service under fire at Okinawa, Vestal was awarded a second battle star. She was one of the few ships to survive both world wars and perhaps the most highly decorated service ship in the navy.
War’s end found Vestal still hard at work, repairing vessels damaged by typhoons that she herself barely avoided. She remained in Japanese and then Chinese waters to support the occupation, finally returning home in April 1946, to be decommissioned at last and broken up.
Vestal’s surviving crew is still active at reunions, and the ship’s veterans remember their World War II odyssey that began that Sunday morning at Pearl Harbor.
Glenn Barnett is a frequent contributor to WWII History. He lives and writes in the Los Angeles area.