Meet the USS Vestal: The Non-Combat Ship That Survived Pearl Harbor And Went On To Win World War II

Meet the USS Vestal: The Non-Combat Ship That Survived Pearl Harbor And Went On To Win World War II

Warfare History Network



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.
[text_ad] 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.

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