The United States in 1941 was tense and filled with anticipation about the war in Europe. But nothing could prepare the nation for the events that were about to transpire. The nation and the Japanese had long been on a collision course because of the nature of their two cultures. But the population at large had no sense of the grotesque nature of that clash that would occur in the coming days. Or the cost for both nations over the next four years.
Washington Evening star. December 06, 1941,
“Silent Prayer Banned At Japanese Shrines
Silent prayers for the dead, which have been said at shrines and temples in Japan ever since the great earthquake of 1924, have been banned.
The Shrine Board in Tokio has ruled that praying silently is a “Christian custom alien to traditions” and requests that, instead, people give two deep bows and two handclaps.”
On the night before December 7, there was only one reference to Japan in the paper which served the nation’s capital.
Negotiations between the American and Japanese governments were coming to a head but most of the country was focused on events in Europe and the coming of Christmas. There had been a sense that something was brewing in the Pacific but it was not something for the general public to be consumed with just yet.
History doesn’t record what Commander Cassin Young, Commanding officer of the USS Vestal was doing the night of December 6th. Commander Young had just recently reported on board the ship after doing an Executive Officer tour at the submarine base at New London CT. His family had moved to the west coast where they had previously been stationed and he was living on board as a geographical bachelor.
The Vestal was an older ship that served as a repair ship for the fleet in Pearl.
She had been launched on May 19, 1908, and 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 on the verge of another World War.
Commander Young had had a distinguished career up to that point. Submarine and Destroyer Commander, Squadron Commander, many important posts in Washington and the West Coast including Hawaii and finally the executive officer at the Navy’s premier submarine school. Graduating from the Naval Academy in 1916, he served a progression of duties that was supposed to lead to a promising end. But fate and the Navy that struggled in the years between the wars had an impact on his path.
According to family records, that career hit a rough spot in 1941 when a new base commanding officer arrived at New London. The pre-war years were challenging to the Navy since budgets were slim and money was tight. As the XO, Young had overseen the spending of large sums of money rebuilding the base which had been neglected. Repairs to the lower base where the submarines operated and upgrades to the rapidly growing training facility were put into place. Even the quarters where the officer’s families were housed had received some upgrades.
But the new base CO’s wife was not satisfied that her housing was up to her standards and insisted that money be spent to make their quarters even more acceptable. Young, as the man who controlled the budget, refused to spend another dollar on the quarters. The money that had been allocated would be better spent on things that would prepare the Navy for an as yet undefined conflict.
There are no official transcripts of what happened next, but refusing your boss’s orders and the conflict it must have created resulted in Commander Young receiving a less than expected follow on set of orders. When his tour was completed, he found himself with orders to an old ship (launched before he was even a Midshipman) in a faraway place.
Young had been in the Navy since 1912 and he would not reach his retirement year until 1942. It is only speculation on my part, but he probably saw the handwriting on the wall. That explains why his faithful wife and family were living in California on the morning of December 7th and he was living on a very old ship tied up next to the USS Arizona.
The Arizona was not in her normal berth that morning and the Vestal was tied up in preparation for an overhaul that was going to occur. Normally, another battleship was tied up there but as fate would have it, the previous week’s maneuvers had resulted in a switch in berths.
The night before the morning of December 7th would have been a typical peacetime schedule. Social hours and dancing for many at the numerous clubs, calm weather with a smooth Hawaiian breeze to keep the air from getting stale on the old ships. Taps on board the ships and lights out as men came back to their bunks to enjoy a restful sleep prior to a Sunday in port. The fleet had been very busy for months before then sailing in formation, practicing their gunnery and flexing the powerful engines in broadly sculpted maneuvers around the Hawaiian Islands. The great grey hulks made for a magnificent picture while carving through the seas where Captain Cook once sailed.
Commander Young may have had trouble sleeping. The move from Connecticut to Hawaii was fairly recent and his body clock was more than likely still set to east coast time. He may have even been thinking of his family on the West Coast and the work that lay ahead on the Arizona.
The only facts we know are that at 7:55 when the Japanese attacked without warning, he went into action the only way he knew. As a man who had spent his whole lifetime preparing for this very moment, he went to work defending his ship.
The Vestal was a repair ship and not meant to slug it out with incoming Jap planes. But she did have guns and instinct told him to go to where the action was.
From the Vestal History:
“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.”
The Vestal survived the attack and was completely restored. While she was being restored, her repair crews were used to try and save as many men and as many ships as she could from the wreckage in the harbor.
Think about what happened for a moment.
Young was blown from his ship by the force of the explosion. He found himself in the water with many dead and wounded around him just trying to stay afloat and alive. The force of the explosion and the resultant landing in the water must have been disorienting. Yet, this man, Cassin Young, remembered that he was the Captain of the ship that had just been attacked. The attack was still going on. Bombs, torpedoes and bullets were flying and landing all around the harbor. Yet he CHOSE to go back to his ship and climbed back on board. He is soaking wet, probably covered with the oil and dirt form the debris of the water that he just crawled out of. He rallies his me.
The part of the story that is often left out was that once he was blown into the water, the order had been given by his next in command (or some senior officer) to abandon ship. But in the back of his mind, Young remembered that the battleship that was next to him still continued hundreds of thousands of gallons of fuel and many bombs. More explosions would doom the Vestal and cost the lives of his remaining crew. Young had served on battleships in his career and he was an engineer so he knew what could happen if they did not escape the death grasp of the dying Arizona. He reversed the order to abandon ship and ordered the engine room to bring the main engines on line. When they were unable to muster enough main steam, he hailed the nearby passing tug and ensured the Vestal could get out of harm’s way.
It was an action of heroic nature conducted by a men who had spent his entire life training for this moment.
For his action, Commander Cassin Young was awarded the Medal of Honor and advanced to Captain by Admiral Chester Nimitz (another submariner). The Vestal, with Captain Young in command would play a key role in many of the coming battles including supporting the coming naval battles of Guadalcanal. Operating in forward areas with threats on all sides, she served as a needed repair ship for the battered and bruised ships that fought in the “Slot”.
In November, Captain Young would receive new orders and finally get to join directly in the fight. Admiral Dan Callaghan needed a new Captain for his flagship, the USS San Francisco (a heavy cruiser) and his friend Cassin Young would be just the man for the task ahead. On one night in November, they would sail together into history in one of the wildest and lopsided surface fights in the history of modern naval warfare. Neither man would make it through the night.
Cassin Young had passed 30 years as a sailor (counting his midshipman years) on the day he joined the angels. He is an American hero and someone who exemplified what courage and service to his country mean.
I am nearly finished writing about his life and am anxious for the world to know just what a great man he was. But today, December 7th, I hope you will think about Cassin Young and all of those men and women who were able to overcome the disaster of Pearl Harbor and eventually lead the country and the world back to freedom.