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Vestal (Collier No. 1)


A virgin, dedicated to Vesta, the Roman goddess of hearth and fire, who tended the sacred fire kept perpetually burning on her altar.

(Collier No. 1: displacement 12,585; 1ength 465'9"; beam 60'1"; draft 26'0" (mean); speed 16.0 knots; complement 90; armament none; class Vestal)

The construction of Erie (Collier No. 1) was authorized on 17 April 1904; but the ship was renamed Vestal in October 1905, well before her keel was laid down on 25 March 1907 at Brooklyn, N.Y., by the New York Navy Yard. Launched on 19 May 1908, Vestal was placed in service, with a civilian crew, at her builders' yard on 4 October 1909.

Vestal served the fleet as a collier, operating along the Atlantic coast and in the West Indies, from the autumn of 1909 to the summer of the following year. Then, after a voyage to Europe to coal ships of the Atlantic Fleet in those waters, the ship returned to the United States, reaching the Philadelphia Navy Yard. She was taken out of service at the Boston Navy Yard on 25 October 1912.

Converted to a fleet repair ship at the Boston Navy Yard, Vestal was commissioned there on 3 September 1913, Cmdr. Edward L. Beach in command. After fitting out, Vestal departed her conversion yard on 26 October for Hampton Roads, Va., where she conducted her shakedown between 29 October to 10 November. After touching at Key West, Fla., for coal on 14 November, Vestal moved on to Pensacola, Fla., her base for operations as a repair ship for the Atlantic Fleet.

Vestal alternated between duty off the eastern seaboard with service in the West Indies until the spring of 1914, when she joined the fleet at Vera Cruz, Mexico, in the wake of the occupation of that port in April. The auxiliary vessel provided repair services at Vera Cruz from 2 May to 20 September before she sailed for Boston, escorting the cruiser Salem to the navy yard there for overhaul.

Vestal then operated off the Virginia capes and in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, before she returned to the Boston Navy Yard on 10 June 1915, after calls at New York City and Newport, R.I. She took on stores and provisions at Boston and underwent repairs there before she rejoined the fleet at Narragansett Bay on 19 May 1916.

After the United States entered World War I the following spring, Vestal sailed overseas to support the ships of the Fleet in the waters of the United Kingdom. The auxiliary provided repair and overhaul services to the 1st Destroyer Flotilla, based at Queenstown, Northern Ireland, for the duration of hostilities and into 1919. Returning to the United States in that year, Vestal served the Scouting Force and the Battle Fleet until 1925, when she underwent a major overhaul and a conversion of her propulsion system from the use of coal to the burning of oil as fuel. During the Navy-wide assignment of alphanumeric identification numbers on 17 July 1920, Vestal was classified as a repair ship, AR-4. Highlighting that service was her role in salvage work conducted on S-51 (SS-162), the submarine rammed and sunk by the steamshipCity of Rome on 25 September 1925. Vestal conducted her salvage operations from October to early December 1925 and again from 27 April to 5 July 1926. During the latter period, the submarine was raised from her watery grave.

Vestal subsequently joined the Pacific Fleet in 1927 and participated in the yearly Fleet problems and maneuvers as part of the training. When the Fleet was shifted permanently to Hawaiian waters upon the conclusion of Fleet Problem XXI in the spring of 1940, Vestal followed and was based at Pearl Harbor.

After returning to the west coast for an overhaul at the Mare Island Navy Yard, Vallejo, Calif., Vestal steamed back to Pearl Harbor, resuming her vital, but unsung, duties. On 6 December 1941, she was moored alongside Arizona (BB-39), at berth F 7, off Ford Island, to provide services to the battleship during her scheduled period of tender upkeep between 6 and 12 December.

The next day, however, the ordered routine of a peacetime Sunday in port was rudely shattered shortly before 0800. Explosions from bombs and torpedoes began to reverberate across the waters of the harbor as Japanese carrier-based aircraft swept down upon the ships of the Fleet anchored or moored in their berths. At 0755, Vestal went to general quarters, manning every gun from the 5-inch broadside battery to the .30-caliber Lewis machine guns on the bridge wings. At about 0805, her 3-inch gun commenced firing.

At about the same time, two bombs,  intended for the more valuable battleship inboard, hit the repair ship. One struck the port side, penetrated three decks, passing 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, the shipfitter shop, and left an irregular hole, about five feet in diameter, in the bottom of the ship.

The problem of maintaining antiaircraft fire soon became a secondary one to the ship's fight for survival that ensued. The 3-inch gun jammed after three rounds, and the crew was working to clear the jam when a cataclysmic explosion blew Vestal's valiant gunners overboard after a bomb penetrated Arizona's deck after glancing off the faceplate of Turret II 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 decks.

Among the men blown off Vestal was her commanding officer, Cmdr. 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.

Topside, things looked bleak. The fiery explosion touched off oil from the ruptured tanks of the stricken battleship and, in turn, caused fires to start on board Vestal, aft and amidships. At 0845, men forward cut Vestal's mooring lines, freeing her from the dying battleship, and she got underway, steering by engines alone. The district tug Hoga (YT-146) 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.

Upon further reflection, however, with the draft aft increasing to 27 feet and the list to six and one-half degrees, Cmdr. 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 Shoal soon thereafter.

Young--who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on 7 December 1941--subsequently commended his officers and men. "The conduct of all officers and enlisted men was exemplary and of such high order that I would especially desire to have them with me in the future engagements."

Although damaged herself, Vestal participated in some of the post-attack salvage operations, sending repair parties to the overturned hull of the battleship Oklahoma (BB-37) so that welders could cut into the ship and rescue men trapped there when she turned turtle after being ripped by Japanese torpedoes.

Over the ensuing days, Vestal's men turned to the task of repairing 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.

After repairs and alterations and operations at Pearl Harbor, Vestal received orders on 12 August 1942 to proceed to the South Pacific. She set sail for Tongatabu in the Tonga Islands. She arrived there two weeks later, on the 29th, at a key time-less than a month after the launching of Operation "Watchtower," the invasion of the Solomon Islands. Over the months that followed, the Japanese would contest the Americans and their Australian and New Zealand allies with skill and tenacity.

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 Saratoga (CV-3) (torpedoed by I-26 on 31 August); South Dakota (BB-60) (damaged from grounding at Lahai Passage, Tonga Islands, on 6 September); and North Carolina (BB-55) (torpedo damage suffered on 15 September).

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 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 1942, 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 Islands had occurred just a few days before. South Dakota and Enterprise (CV-6), two of the most heavily damaged ships, lay 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 fragments; and had collided with 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 1942; 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: San Francisco (CA-38), ripped by heavy caliber hits during the night battle off Savo Island on 13 November 1942; New Orleans (CA-32) and Pensacola (CA-24), the latter with a torpedo hole measuring 24 by 40 feet, a 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 Alchiba (AK-23).

In addition, she performed repairs on the torpedoed light cruiser St. Louis (CL-49), the torpedoed Australian light cruiser HMAS Hobart; the bomb-damaged transport Zeilin (AP-9); and others, including 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 reflected, "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 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 18 November 1943, Vestal departed Espiritu Santo, bound for the Ellice Islands, and reached her destination, Funafuti, on the 22nd. 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 her work on the small carrier Independence (CVL-22).

Underway for Makin on 30 January 1944, Vestal's orders were changed en route, the ship proceeding instead for the Marshalls. She reached Majuro atoll on 3 February. The big repair job awaiting her there was that for the battleship Washington (BB-56), which had suffered heavy collision damage forward. 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 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 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 1945, 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 Newcomb (DD-586) and Evans (DD-552).

Vestal remained at Kerama Retto through mid-June 1945 before she got underway on the 23rd 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, August 15, 1945," one observer wrote, "caused hardly a ripple of enthusiasm: nevertheless the spirit of victory was uppermost in the hearts and conversations of all hands."

The main danger to the fleet after Japan surrendered was typhoons. Vestal had sortied twice from Buckner Bay before "V-J Day:" once on 19 July 1945 and once on 1 August. On 16 September, Vestal sortied for the third time on typhoon evasion, returning to the harbor the next day after having ridden out 68-knot winds and heavy seas.

Vestal carried out storm-damage repairs over the ensuing days before another typhoon--the fourth for the Ryukyus that year--swirled 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, Capt. 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 1945, 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 on 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, 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 1945, 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 October1945, 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 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.

Subsequently, Vestal performed her vital service functions supporting the occupation of China and Japan, before she sailed back to the United States. Her disposal delayed in order to allow the ship to perform decommissioning work on other ships referred to the Thirteenth Naval District for disposal, Vestal was ultimately decommissioned at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, Bremerton, Wash., on 14 August 1946.

Stricken from the List of Naval Vessels on 25 September 1946, she lay inactive for the next two and one-half years before stripping began on 20 May 1949. Her hulk was sold on 28 July 1950 to the Boston Metals Co., Baltimore, Md., and subsequently scrapped.

Vestal (AR-4) received two battle stars for her World War II service.

Robert J. Cressman

23 October 2017 

Published: Mon Oct 23 00:37:19 EDT 2017