I found it appropriate to continue my account of notable events from Pearl Harbor in the days leading up to its memorial day. These stories have collected in my head from books, museum visits, and discussions with veterans. They are important to recount to you for an important reason: our grandfathers are a dying breed. They have weathered more incredible events in their lifetime than we can ever know. They speak so casually to their families about a different America, one that set the stage for crucial developments in our time. I wish to honor their accomplishments by studying and talking about history. This week is a very important time for them. I wonder if they recall a tale about a courageous officer named Cassin Young.
December 6, 1941 was a regular day for Commander Young. He commanded a repair ship, USS Vestal (AR-4), in the Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor. Today he would moor his auxiliary vessel off Ford Island, directly alongside the battleship USS Arizona, for some scheduled maintenance. Everything in his world changed the very next day.
Pearl Harbor erupted with explosions before eight in the morning on December 7. Squadrons of Japanese dive bombers and torpedo planes penetrated Hawaiian air space to destroy the American fleet. Sailors on the Vestal, including every other warship in the harbor, rushed to battle stations.
Things went badly from the start. Vestal was probably a secondary target to the Japanese pilots–the big meat of the fleet was in the battleships. Shortly after Vestal opened up with her limited guns, two bombs likely intended for Arizona struck the repair ship. This set off fires in the magazine spaces, requiring crew to flood the affected compartments. There was also major damage to workshops and berthing quarters below deck. To make matters worse, Vestal‘s 3-inch gun jammed after only three shots. What happened next was simply unimaginable, as described below from an excerpt by the Naval Historical Center:
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.
Commander Young was tossed overboard. He apparently recovered in the water and managed to swim back to the ship. Young climbed back aboard and found his crew in the act of abandoning ship. He countermanded the order and prepared Vestal to make a run for it. By this time, burning oil from Arizona was spreading even more fire to the repair ship next door. Lines to the battleship were cut, a tug pulled Vestal away, and Young’s ship moved off under her own power. (The attack on Pearl Harbor had proceeded now for forty-five minutes.) Facing considerable damage to his ship, Young ordered the Vestal to be grounded for future salvage.
Young’s repair teams went to beaten warships after the Japanese had left Hawaii. The Vestal was salvaged and repaired within the week. For his actions, Cdr. Young received the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Cassin Young was the epitome of a fighting sailor. He later commanded USS San Francisco in several Pacific engagements. He was killed in action at the Battle of Guadalcanal in 1942.
A Fletcher-class escort destroyer named for the lost officer was commissioned later in World War II, and can be found on display in Boston at the Charlestown Navy Yard.