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USS Vestal (AR-4) Heroics At Pearl Harbor

USS Vestal (AR-4) Heroics At Pearl Harbor

USS Vestal beached and listing, after being hit in the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

When the USS Vestal went to sleep on December 6, 1941, moored alongside USS Arizona off Ford Island, little did she know what was in store for her Sunday morning. The USS Vestal was a repair ship that had just steamed back from the Mare Island Navy Yard in Vallejo, California – making the journey across the Pacific Ocean – and back to Pearl Harbor.

As some of us tend to do over the weekend, we think about the week ahead. The USS Vestal’s week was scheduled to be an easy one. Nothing but tender upkeep between December 6th to December 12th. With a week of upkeep ahead, the USS Vestal most likely dozed off to sleep in the Hawaiian night.

The next morning though, she would go into service yet again.

USS Vestal Launch
Launching of the USS Vestal from the Brooklyn Navy Yard, 19 May 1908.

Launched on May 19, 1908, Vestal was placed in service as a fleet collier. She served in World War I when she was deployed to Queenstown. There, she provided services for ships of the 1st Destroyer Flotilla – and stayed there for the duration of the war.

The USS Vestal returned in 1919, and 22 years later, found herself in another World War. The routine of a peacetime Sunday quickly took a turn as the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The ship sprung into action, manning every gun from the 5-inch (130 mm) broadside battery to the .30-caliber Lewis machine guns on the bridge wings. At about 08:05, her 3-inch (76 mm) gun commenced firing.

What ensued next was a fight for survival. Two bombs intended for more valuable battleships on Battleship Row hit the USS Vestal.

One bomb struck the port side and penetrated through three decks. The bomb passed through a crew’s space and exploded in a stores hold. The explosion started fires that necessitated flooding the forward magazines.

The second bomb struck the starboard side. This bomb 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.

Survival became the primary focus of the USS Vestal crew, while anti-aircraft fire became secondary. A bomb hit the nearby USS Arizona. 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 – sending Vestal’s gunners and crew overboard.

Among the men blown off Vestal was her commanding officer, Commander Cassin Young. The captain swam back to the ship, however, and countermanded an abandon ship order that someone had given, coolly saying, “Lads, we’re getting this ship underway.”

With fires on board the Vestal and after two bombs had struck the repair ship, the Vestal crew cut the mooring lines with axes, freeing her from the Arizona, and she got underway, steering by engines alone. A tug, the captain of which had served aboard the Vestal just a few months before the attack, pulled Vestal’s bow away from the inferno engulfing Arizona and the repair ship, and the latter began to creep out of danger.

Although damaged herself, Vestal participated in some of the post-attack salvage operations, sending repair parties to the overturned hull of the battleship Oklahoma 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.

USS Pensacola with USS Vestal
Vestal alongside USS Pensacola (CA-24) at Espiritu Santo, in December 1942.

USS Vestal Specs

  • Displacement: 12,585 tons
  • Length: 465 ft 9 in (141.96 m)
  • Beam: 60 ft (18.3 m)
  • Draft: 26 ft 0 in (7.92 m) (mean)
  • Speed: 16 knots (30 km/h)

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