In 1909 the first of a new class of vessels was launched at the New York Naval Shipyard. It was a 12,585-ton “Collier” built as a bulk coal carrier. Manned by a civilian crew the ship operated with the Atlantic fleet until sometime in 1912. At that time she was partially gutted and following extensive redesign and modifications at the Boston Naval Shipyard was re-commissioned in 1913 as an auxiliary repair ship. Christened the USS VESTAL, hull number AR-4, she rejoined the fleet and saw routine service in the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico, operating primarily out of the Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
When the United States entered World War I the Vestal was dispatched to Queenstown, Ireland for tender duty. She provided repairs and other services to ships involved in the North Atlantic offensive against German U-boats.
In 1925 she was converted from coal burning to oil fired boilers. Later that same year, Vestal gained notoriety in taking part in the salvage operations of the Submarine S-51 which while underway on the surface at night was rammed by the Steam Ship “City of Rome” off the coast of New England. The S-51 was finally recovered from the sea bottom in mid 1926. In later years later Vestal would be transferred to the Pacific Fleet home ported at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
In 1922, having turned seventeen Father enlisted in the Navy at the Recruiting Station, Charleston, South Carolina. He followed his elder brother “Buck” who had runaway at fifteen and joined during the call-up for the First World War. Buck on his second enlistment was serving with the Asiatic Fleet off China at that time.
Entering the Navy on a “Kiddy-cruise,” Father’s hitch would terminate on his twenty-first birthday. Following recruit training he and a draft of five other apprentice seamen were assigned to the Vestal for duty. Father would remain with the ship his entire enlistment 1922-26.
The author can personally attest to the following…As is typical of new apprentice placements, the group was assigned to mess-cooking duty for a three-month stint. Most growing boys liked being in the proximity of food and enjoyed their galley tours as it was out of the weather and though menial was not a laborious task. As a child in the Depression years, I recall he would often lament of throwing food over the fantail following meals in the ship’s mess. During those rare reflective moments usually in the cool of twilight on the front porch, he would touch on various incidents of his youth…of sailor liberty, of cherished shipmates, of the S-51 incident and the influence of the Engineering Division Chief Petty Officer.
The Chief as a senior enlisted man on the ship possessed unusual power and authority. Father had taken up boxing while on mess cooking and caught the Chief’s eye during some Rope-yarn Sunday gatherings on the fantail. Boxing was an extremely popular sport throughout the Navy and Marine Corps during that era. It was also very competitive…an entire division or ship’s reputation could rest on the outcome of a single bout. The Chief noting father’s potential brought him into the Engineering Division and took him under his wing. To harden his boxer and put him in top physical shape he assigned him to the “Black Gang.”
The Black Gang stood four-hour watches in the engine-room shoveling coal into the Vestal’s boilers. It was a hot arduous and Herculean task by any measure. However, it was felt the exercise was astamina and body-builder.I vividly remember an aging photograph taken after a tour on watch; due to coal dust, the only thing distinguishable was the whites of eyes and teeth…thus the tag, “Black Gang.” The group of smiling young watch standers were posing as minstrel-show performers’ strumming the backs of huge coal shovels as if they were banjos.
After a year on board father was promoted to Fireman…that would be the extent of his promotions. The 1920’s were not known for fast-track promotions, nor were father’s liberty antics conducive to such. He would however, become quite proficient and respected as a welterweight bringing prestige and bragging-rights to the division and ship.
As stated earlier, in 1925 with the modernization of the fleet, the Vestal was converted for coal to oil-fired boilers. Needless to say it was a joyous time for the entire ship’s company particularly the Engineering Division and Black Gang…an archaic era had passed into naval history. Following the conversion and shakedown she returned to Guantanamo Bay for duty.
Meanwhile, several thousand miles to the north on the fateful night of September 25, 1925 the Submarine S-51 was rammed by the Steam Ship, City of Rome and sank in 132 feet of water 14 miles east of Block Island. She sank in less than a minute…The next day; divers from a Newport dive boat examined the submarine. It had been struck in the battery compartment, opening a huge gash in the hull. After receiving no response from “tapping” on the hull and hatches, it was preliminarily assumed there were no survivors, yet the operation remained in the rescue mode.
The Navy immediately contracted for two huge derricks from private companies to raise the S-51. The massive machines were mounted on barges to be towed to the site. However with heavy seas, they proved less that seaworthy and had to return to port. After several days the weather calmed and the derricks were finally towed to the site.
Careful calculations by salvage officers indicated; if there were certain forward compartments that had not flooded, the derricks had the capacity to lift the submarine to the surface. Otherwise, the weigh would be beyond their lifting capacity…the derrickswere unable to move the S-51 off the bottom. Realizing the submarine was totally flooded and there could be no survivors the mission was then changed to a salvage mode. Thirty-three men lost their lives; miraculously three sailors survived the collision, being picked from the frigid waters by rescue boats from the steam ship.
Twelve days after the sinking the Navy decided to attempt the salvage with its own resources. On the seventh of October 1925 the Vestal in Cuba was ordered “all haste” to New York. She would provide on site command facilities, berthing and support for divers, salvage crews, repair/shop facilities and boat services.
Other ships involved were the USS Falcon, a minesweeper converted to a dive ship. She had the dive-gear, compressors, recompression chamber, etc. and the following seagoing tugs: USS Sagamore, Iuka, Bagaduce and Penobscot. The Submarine S-50, the sister of the S-51 was put in dry-dock in New York to use as a model for the divers and salvage crews to study and use for reference during the recovery operation.
Commander Edward Ellsberg was assigned as Salvage Officer. With the onset of winter, frequent storms, lack of experience and divers hampered by such hazardous conditions, salvage operations were reluctantly suspended on the sixth of December to resume the following April. All ships were ordered to, “Proceed to their usual stations.”Father recalled how cold, miserable and unrelenting the weather was during those two months off Block Island. Being anchored in the open sea the ships were under constant pounding from the elements. It took its toll on equipment, crews and divers.
To prepare for resumption of salvage operation, the Vestalreturned to New York from the Caribbean the first of April 1926. The crew having been deployed since December had build up quite a thirst. They anxiously awaited liberty in the Big Apple and to frolic at their favorite watering-holes.
As so many sea-stories go…one beer led to another, and yet another, words were exchanged between the crew and crusty local bar patrons as to the legitimacy of their birth and of copulating with their mothers and sisters… This as expected turn into an all out pugilistic melee!
The Marcus of Queensbury rules were waived. It was the Black Gang against the Bums of Brooklyn, followed by the Billy-clubs of New York’s finest! In the final round, Father and his shipmates were jailed for several days as the pub had sustained severe damage as well as injuries among the locals. The Vestal’s mighty welterweight had suffered a humiliating TKO, celebrating his twenty-first birthday as a guest of the City of New York! He received his honorable discharge the end of April 1926...
Footnote: The Vestal was outboard and tied along side the Battleship Arizona on December 7, 1941. The Captain trying to get underway as the Japanese attacked was blown overboard when the Arizona’s forward magazines exploded. He swam back to his ship and though she took two bomb hits got it underway, and to prevent its sinking, ran her aground on the far side of the harbor. The Vestal was repaired and served gallantly throughout the war. She was sold for scrap in 1950. Commander Cassin Young the Vestal’s Commanding Officer was recipient of the Medal of Honor.
For more details on the S-51 incident, read the very excellent book “ON THE BOTTOM” by Commander Edward Ellsberg, United States Navy.