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Collier / Repair Ship
465' 9" x 60' x 26'
USN December 8, 1941
Pearl Harbor Attack
On December 7, 1941 at 0755, Vestal went to general quarters with her crew manning every gun. Two bombs - probably intended for the more valuable battleship inboard hit the repair ship. One struck the port side, penetrated three decks, passed through a crew's space, and exploded in a stores hold, starting fires that necessitated flooding the forward magazines. The second hit the starboard side, passed through the carpenter shop and the shipfitter shop, and left an irregular hole about five feet in diameter in the bottom of the ship.
Maintaining anti-aircraft fire became secondary to the ship's fight for survival. The 3-inch gun jammed after three rounds, and the crew was working to clear the jam when an explosion blew Vestal's gunners overboard.
At about 0820, Arizona, moored inboard, had taken a torpedo that had passed beneath the repair ship's stern; almost simultaneously, a bomb penetrated Arizona's deck after glancing off the faceplate of number 2 turret and exploded in the black powder magazine below. The resultant explosion touched off adjacent main battery magazines. Almost as if in a volcanic eruption, the forward part of the battleship exploded, and the concussion from the explosion literally cleared Vestal's deck.
Among the men blown off Vestal was her commanding officer, Comdr. Cassin Young. The captain swam back to the ship, however, countermanded an abandon ship order that someone had given, and ordered the ship underway. Fortunately, the engineer officer had anticipated just such an order and already had the "black gang" hard at work getting up steam.
The explosion touched off oil from the ruptured tanks of the Arizona which in turn caused fires on board Vestal, aft and amidships. At 0845 men forward cut Vestal's mooring lines, freeing her from the Arizona, and she got underway, steering by engines alone. A tug pulled Vestal's bow away from the inferno engulfing Arizona and the repair ship, and the latter began to creep out of danger, although she was slowly assuming a list to starboard and taking water aft. At 0910, Vestal anchored in 35 feet of water off McGrew's Point.
With the draft aft increasing to 27 feet and the list to six and one-half degrees, Comdr. Young decided upon another course of action. "Because of the unstable condition of the ship," Young explained in his after-action report, "(the) ship being on fire in several places and the possibility of further attacks, it was decided to ground the ship." Underway at 0950, less than an hour after the Japanese attack ended, Vestal grounded on ‘Aiea Bay soon thereafter.
Although damaged herself, Vestal participated in some of the post-attack salvage operations, sending repair parties to the overturned hull of the battleship USS Oklahoma (BB-37) so that welders could cut into the ship and rescue men trapped there when she capsized. Over the ensuing days, Vestal's men repaired their own ship because yard facilities in the aftermath of the Japanese surprise attack were at a premium. Within a week of the raid, 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—all work that had to be completed before the rebuilding process could begin.
During Vestal's 60 days at Tongatabu, she completed 963 repair jobs for some 58 ships and four shore activities. Included were repairs to such men-of-war as USS Saratoga (CV-3) torpedoed by I-26 on 31 August; USS South Dakota (BB-57) damaged from grounding at Lahai Passage in the Tonga Islands on 6 September; and USS North Carolina (BB-55) reparing torpedo damage suffered on September 15.
One of the more difficult jobs was the one performed on South Dakota. The battleship had run aground on an uncharted reef and put into Tongatabu for emergency repairs. Vestal's divers commenced their work at 1600 on 6 September and began checking the ship's seams. With only six divers working, Vestal's party operated until 0200 on the 7th and reported the damage as a series of splits extending along some 150 feet of the ship's bottom. By the next morning, 8 September, Vestal's skilled repairmen, together with men of the battleship's crew, managed to mend the damage sufficiently to allow the ship to return to the United States for permanent repairs.
When Saratoga put into Tongatabu after being torpedoed by I-26 on 31 August, Vestal's divers combined forces with USS Navajo (AT-64) to inspect the damage and later trim and brace the hole. Pumps managed to clear the water out of the flooded fireroom and tons of cement were poured in the hole to patch the damaged area. Within 12 days of her arrival at Tongatabu, "Sister Sara" was able to return to the United States.
Vestal subsequently sailed for the New Hebrides on 26 October, but a change of orders brought her to New Caledonian waters instead, and she reached Noumea on 31 October. Her arrival could not have been more timely because the Battle of the Santa Cruz had occurred just a few days before. South Dakota and USS Enterprise (CV-6), two of the most heavily damaged ships, were at Noumea.
A bomb hit on the latter had buckled a 30- by 60-foot section of the flight deck, aft, bulging it about four feet above deck level. In addition, the hit flooded the after elevator machinery room and blew out bulkheads and damaged furniture in "officer's country." Ordered to sea before the damage was completely repaired, the carrier took with her two Vestal officers and a large repair party, who continued work up until two hours before the ship went into action again. Those Vestal men were included in the Presidential Unit Citation awarded the "Big E."
South Dakota, like Enterprise, had suffered major damage. She had taken a bomb hit on one of her 16-inch gun turrets; had been torn by shrapnel; and had collided with USS Mahan (DD-364) during the battle. The destroyer had not only holed the battleship's starboard side, but had left an anchor in the wardroom. Even though Vestal repair parties were busy with Enterprise's urgent repairs, they also went to work on the damaged South Dakota, listing her over to patch the hole on the battleship's starboard side at the waterline. Her craftsmen repaired the wardroom (removing Mahan's anchor in the process), patched shrapnel holes, and put sprung hatches and damaged fire mains in order. She was back in action in a scant five days.
During her time at Noumea, Vestal completed 158 jobs on 21 ships; she departed that port on 13 November; reached Espiritu Santo three days later; and began a year's schedule of repair service. During the next 12 months, Vestal tackled some 5,603 jobs on 279 ships and 24 shore facilities. Some of the outstanding repair jobs were on combatants, ships damaged during the bitter naval engagements in the Solomons in late 1942 and early 1943. There were: USS San Francisco (CA-38), ripped by heavy caliber hits during the night Battle of 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' flooded after engine room, and two propeller shafts broken; the New Zealand light cruiser HMNZS Achilles, which, besides shrapnel and collision damage, had taken a direct hit on her after turret; and the torpedoed and fire-damaged cargo ship USS Alchiba (AK-23).
In addition, she performed repairs on the torpedoed light cruiser USS St. Louis (CL-49), the torpedoed Australian light cruiser HMAS Hobart; the bomb-damaged transport USS Zeilin (AP-9); and others, including USS Tappahannock (AO-43) and HMNZS Leander. She also corrected battle damage to and performed alterations on 12 LST's and a large number of miscellaneous lesser ships. Only once during that time, from 27 May to 2 June 1943, did the ship herself undergo repairs.
One of the most outstanding pieces of salvage work performed by the Vestal was for Pensacola, heavily damaged at the Battle of Tassafaronga. A torpedo had caused such extensive damage aft that the heavy cruiser's stern was barely attached to the rest of the ship and swayed gently with the current. A few frames, some hull plating, and one propeller shaft were practically all that still held the aftermost section to the rest of the ship. As Vestal's commanding officer later recounted, "Never had an AR (repair ship) been presented with such a task; no records on how it should best be done were available."
By trial and error, and some known facts from previous experience, however, Vestal's workers turned-to. The hole was plugged and braced for stability, compartments that could be were sealed and pumped out; three propellers of about seven tons each were pulled off to reduce drag. "One has to be something of an artificer," her commanding officer recounted, ". . . to realize the problems that came up to dp with this job, such as underwater welding and cutting, which was still a fairly new thing." Vestal's force used a dynamite charge to jar one propeller loose and had to burn through the shaft of another to get it off.
After Pensacola came USS Minneapolis (CA-36), torpedoed amidships and with 75 feet of her bow missing. Vestal put her in shape, too, for a trip to a "stateside" yard where permanent repairs could be made. "So it went," continued the commanding officer, ". . . one broken, twisted, torpedoed, burned ship after another was repaired well enough to make a navy yard or put back on the firing line."
On November 18, 1943, Vestal departed Espiritu Santo and four days later arrived at Funafuti. During her brief stay there, the repair ship completed some 604 major repair tasks for 77 ships and for eight shore activities. Her outstanding job during that tour was work on USS Independence (CVL-22).
Underway for Makin on 30 January 1944, Vestal's orders were changed en route, the ship proceeding instead for the Marshall Islands. She reached Majuro atoll on 3 February. The big repair job awaiting her there was that for the battleship USS Washington (BB-56), which had suffered heavy collision damage forward with the USS Indiana (BB-58). 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 sailed for Pearl Harbor to receive permanent repairs.
In need of repairs herself, especially new evaporators, Vestal departed Majuro and sailed, via Pearl Harbor, for the Mare Island Navy Yard. Upon conclusion of those repairs, the addition of new equipment, alterations, and a general overhaul and a vari-colored paint job, Vestal departed Mare Island on 8 September, bound for the Carolines. Her voyage took her via Pearl Harbor and Eniwetok. At the latter place, she picked up tows for the remainder of her voyage, a cement barge, Chromite, and the Navy ammunition barge YF-254. She reached Ulithi on 15 October 1944.
During the ship's sojourn at Ulithi, Vestal completed 2,195 jobs for 149 ships—including 14 battleships, nine carriers, five cruisers, five destroyers, 35 tankers, and other miscellaneous naval and merchant ships. Her biggest repair job of that time was the light cruiser USS Reno (CL-96), torpedoed off San Bernardino Strait by Japanese submarine I-41 on the night of 3 November. Once again, Vestal's workers performed their tasks quickly and efficiently, having Reno on her way in a short time for permanent repairs in a "stateside" yard.
Underway for the Marianas on 25 February 1945, Vestal arrived at Saipan two days later, to commence what would be over two months of service there, principally repairing amphibious craft used for the Iwo Jima invasion. While Vestal lay at anchor at Saipan, the Okinawa invasion commenced on 1 April 1945. Less than a month later, Vestal sailed for Kerama Retto, a chain of islands off the southwestern tip of Okinawa, and arrived there on 1 May.
During May, Vestal went to general quarters 59 times as Japanese planes made suicide attacks on the ships engaged in the bitter Okinawa campaign. Experience proved that the best defense against the suiciders was a smoke or fog screen produced by all ships that blended into one gigantic mass of low-hanging clouds. For that purpose, Vestal had two 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 apiece. Besides the danger posed by suiciders, deck sentries kept a sharp lookout for any enemy who might attempt to swim out to the ships with mines or explosive charges.
At Kerama Retto, Vestal's big job was repairing destroyers, and her jobs included the kamikaze-damaged USS Newcomb (DD-586) and USS Evans (DD-552).
Vestal remained at Kerama Retto through mid-June before she got underway on the 23d for Nakagusuku Wan, later renamed Buckner Bay. She arrived there later that day. The repair ship remained in that body of water for the remainder of the war. At 2055 on 10 August 1945, a pyrotechnic display burst forth as word arrived telling that Japan was entertaining thoughts of surrender. "So great was the display of fireworks and so immense the feeling of victory that once the tension had been broken, the true peace announcement received at 0805, 15 August 1945, caused hardly a ripple of enthusiasm: nevertheless the spirit of victory was uppermost in the hearts and conversations of all hands."
Vestal received two battle stars for her World War II service.
Vestal carried out storm-damage repairs over the ensuing days before another typhoon—the fourth for the Ryukyus that year&mdashswirled in from the sea on the 28th. Upon receipt of orders from Commander, Service Division 104, Vestal weighed anchor and headed out to sea at 1500, her stem sluicing seaward from Buckner Bay. "The glassy sea, humid atmosphere, and falling barometer portended the approaching engagement between ship and her relentlessly violent foes, sea and wind."
The merchantmen Fleetwood and Kenyan Victory took positions 800 yards astern and in single file with Vestal leading the way, steaming westward and away from the threatening blackness massing to the east of Okinawa. Overhauling a four-ship convoy, Captain H. J. Pohl, Vestal's commanding officer, assumed command of the now seven-ship group. The ships met the fierce winds head-on to lessen the roll and steered to take the surging seas on the quarter, maneuvering skillfully to prevent damage or, worse, loss. By late in the afternoon of the third day, Pohl, the convoy's commodore, had his ships back in Buckner Bay, safe and sound.
That particular storm-evasion sortie proved only to be a realistic exercise compared to what came next. On 6 October, Vestal received typhoon warnings of a tropical storm 400 miles in diameter with winds of 100 knots near the center, moving west-northwest at 17 knots.
At 0015 on the 7th, Vestal and all ships present in Buckner Bay received word to prepare to execute typhoon plan "X-ray" upon one hour's notice. By mid-afternoon, those orders arrived; and the fleet began stirring itself to action for its survival. Among the first vessels to get underway was Vestal, the venerable repair ship clearing the harbor entrance at 1600, steaming due east. Ultimately, USS Beaver (ARG-19) and the merchantmen Hope Victory, Grey's Harbor, and Esso Rochester joined her.
Rising seas, increasing winds, and a plummeting barometer ushered in Monday, 8 October, but Vestal and her brood maintained their eastward course through the next day, 9 October—the day when the typhoon struck Okinawa with unparalleled force. At that time, Vestal was steering a "crazy-patch course," eluding the storm that included seas up to 40 feet high and winds registering between 50 and 65 knots. Hoping for a possible entry into Buckner Bay on Wednesday, 10 October, Vestal headed westerly, bucking strong head winds.
At 1405 on 10 October, while Vestal headed back to Buckner Bay, a signalman on the flying bridge called out: "Life raft on port bow." "Second life raft on port beam," came another cry only a few moments later. Barely perceptible several thousand yards to port were tiny specks, rising with the waves—specks which turned out to be the survivors of the sunken LSM-15 that had gone down in the fury of the typhoon during the previous night.
Ordering the other ships to proceed independently, Vestal put about to port and shortly thereafter swung to windward of the nearest life raft. In the lee thus formed, the repair ship lowered a motor whaleboat; that craft picked up 17 men from the first raft. Ultimately, 15 more survivors clambered up the boarding nets to safety; a total of two officers and 30 men were recovered from the sea.
Entering Buckner Bay at dusk, Vestal witnessed the savage typhoon's aftermath with the dawn of the 11th. Once again, Vestal immediately turned to the task of repairing the battered ships of the fleet.
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