Key point: This ship helped keep the U.S. fleet afloat and fighting. It was an aging ship by the time the Second World War started, but it was fixed and did its part.
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.