No Combat, No Problem: How This Repair Ship Served in Both World Wars

By U.S. Navy photo 80-G-19933 - This media is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the National Archives Identifier (NAID) 306551., Public Domain,
September 21, 2020 Topic: History Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: Pearl HarborNaval WarU.S. NavyImperial Japan

No Combat, No Problem: How This Repair Ship Served in Both World Wars

The USS Vestal was a noncombat ship that was damaged at Pearl Harbor, but went on to serve with distinction.

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.