Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Arrival at Tongatabu

On today's date, in 1942, my dad's repair ship, USS Vestal, after spending a day at Suva in Fiji, arrived at Nukualofa on the island of Tongatabu. Twice on the voyage the Task Unit encountered an underwater object and had to take evasive action while a search was conducted.

Vestal arrives at Nukualofa on Tongatabu less than a month after the start of the invasion of the Solomon Islands and GuadalcanalNukualofa was Tonga's capital city and its principal port. There was deep anchorage off the north coast at Nukualofa, making it one of the best ports in Polynesia. Its location made it  an important base along the sea lanes from Australia and the U.S. West Coast. The island had a good road system, and the land was heavily cultivated, producing coconut, bananas, oranges, vanilla, and squash.

Sailors lived on board the Vestal in cramped conditions, and as Dad recalled, the food was terrible. Local natives came alongside to trade coconuts and bananas for clothing, sheets, and pillowcases. While some of the additions to the diet were welcome, apparently not all the local delicacies were agreeable. “I ate so many coconuts," Dad remembered decades later, "that I got sick and threw up later that night. It was the first and only time in my life I can remember.”

The Naval base on Tongatabu would have been extremely important if the Allies had lost the Battle of the Coral Sea (May 4-8), and the Japanese had moved against Fiji and Samoa. The Coral Sea victory ensured the safety of the Tongan nation, so the based was closed in November 1943.

Vestal will spend 60 days at Tongatabu, completing 963 repair jobs for 58 ships.

Sources: Frank L. Dolan's oral account; The Map Database

Sunday, August 26, 2012

In the Fiji Islands

Having sailed from Pearl Harbor with the task force on August 14, Dad's ship, the USS Vestal, arrives at Suva Harbor in the Fiji Islands on this date in 1942. Tomorrow, the fleet will sail for Nukualofa, Tongatabu for 60 days of repairs and service to fleet vessels there.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Meeting Neptune Rex in 1942

At around 6:00 AM on this date in 1942, the USS Vestal crossed the equator on its way to Tongatabu. Through his war years in the Pacific, this was 1 of only 2 times Dad crossed the equator. The other was his return trip in November 1943.

An equatorial crossing was a notable enough event to be stamped in one's service records. But also, crossing the equator required something of a ceremony performed on all "pollywogs" (uninitiated sailors) to become "Shellbacks" and pay tribute to "His August Highness Neptune Rex." Dad didn't mention many of the details to me, but what he did say sounded fairly outrageous. All in good fun, I'm sure, since Dad held on to his Domain of Neptunus Rex certificate, signed by Davy Jones, for the rest of his life.

Sources: Frank L. Dolan's Service Records and oral account; John D. Willeck Webpage

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

To Tongatabu, 1942

On August 12, 1942, after months of repairing battle-damaged ships at Pearl Harbor following the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941, my dad's repair ship, the USS Vestal, receives orders for the South Pacific ("Secret Operating Order No. 40-42"). It leaves Pearl for Suva Harbor, Fiji, and then on to Tongatabu (or "Tongatapu" as it is now known), in the Tonga Islands, 70 years ago today. It is in the task unit, which includes the cargo ship Seminole, and is escorted by the destroyer Meredith. Vestal will spend 60 days at Tongatabu, completing 963 repair jobs for 58 ships, including the carrier Saratoga and battleships South Dakota and South Carolina.

The occupation of the Tongan island came less than a month after the launching of "Operation Watchtower," the invasion of Guadalcanal and the Solomon Islands. In the months ahead, the Japanese will skillfully and ferociously contest the U.S. and her Australian and New Zealand allies.

The Pacific Theater in 1942
Source: Wikipedia

Sources: Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, Vol. 7; Naval Historical Center homepage

Friday, August 10, 2012

Target practice

As months of repairs wound down at Pearl Harbor in 1942, my dad's ship, the USS Vestal, began preparations, including 2 days in dry dock on the 12th-13th, for getting underway for a new assignment in the Pacific. For many of the sailors, this meant target practice with the ship's guns50 caliber and 20 mmat targets towed by planes. Maybe not major firepower in a serious battle, but even vessels of the service fleet practiced for their part in possible engagements to come. Like many other crewmen onboard the Vestal, Dad was trained on these weapons.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Battle of Guadalcanal, 1942

"Operation Watchtower" was the codename for the Guadalcanal Campaign in the Pacific Theater that began this date in 1942 and lasted through February 9, 1943. The campaign to invade the islands of Guadalcanal in the southern Solomon Islands was the first major strategic offensive by the Allied forces against Japan. It was also and the longest and most bitterly fought campaign. The objective was to deny Japan its use of the islands to threaten the supply and communication routes between the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand. The Allies also intended to use Guadalcanal and Tulagi as bases to support a campaign to eventually capture or neutralize the major Japanese base at New Britain in Papua New Guinea.

On August 7, supported by U.S. Navy forces, 6,000 U.S. Marines landed on Guadalcanal and seized the enemy's airfield (later named Henderson Airfield), surprising the island’s 2,000 Japanese defenders. The force also captured the islands of Tulagi and Florida.

But the Japanese did not give up easily, and both sides began landing reinforcements by sea. Bitter fighting ensued in the island’s jungles, and the Japanese made several attempts between August and November to retake the airfield. Three major land battles, seven large naval engagements, and continual air battles culminated in the decisive Naval Battle of Guadalcanal on November 12-15, in which the last Japanese attempt was defeated. Many of the damaged American ships will be taken to the island nation of Tongatabu, where some will be repaired by my dad's ship, the USS Vestal. As the Battle of Guadalcanal continues, Dad's ship will be moved to the base at Espiritu Santo, where he will work on other battle-damaged ships in this long campaign.

The 6-month Guadalcanal Campaign will become a significant victory for the Allied forces. It will mark a turning point in the war in the Pacific, resulting in Japan's eventual surrender and the end of World War II.

Source: Awesome Stories

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Repairing the Pruitt

One of the last ships that the Vestal worked on at Pearl Harbor in 1942, before sailing to Tongatabu, was the USS Pruitt. Vestal worked on Pruitt from August 1 to 12, 1942, just 2 days before the Vestal sailed from Pearl Harbor. The war diaries are vague about the work performed.

The Pruitt was launched in 1922, as a destroyer. She was converted to a minelayer in 1937. She was undergoing an overhaul at Pearl Harbor in 1941 when the Japanese attacked on December 7th. At the end of January 1942, her overhaul complete, she took up offshore patrol and minelaying duties around the Hawaiian Islands. In June, she sailed for the Aleutian Islands for minelaying operations and escort assignments out of Kodiak, where she operated through the fall, interrupted by regular runs back to the Hawaiian Islands. Then she provided escort duties along the West Coast. Later in 1943, she operated in the Solomons before returning to the states. She was stationed back in Hawaii during 1944 and 1945. A well-traveled ship, Pruitt earned 3 battle stars in WWII. She was decommissioned in 1945, and sold for scrap.

USS Pruitt (date unknown)
Source: NavSource Online