Friday, November 16, 2012

USS Vestal arrives at Espiritu Santo

On this date in 1942, my dad's repair ship, the USS Vestal, having sailed from Nouméa, arrives at Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides.

Espiritu Santo is the largest island in the tiny modern nation of Vanuatu. At the time of the war, however, France and the UK jointly administered the New Hebrides island group. But after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Espiritu Santo became vital as a military supply and support base. In May 1942, Americans arrived on Espiritu Santo and began building a Quonset hut city, which in the months ahead, would be complete with telephones, radio station, movie houses, paved roads, bridges, airfields and, importantly, a naval harbor. Many buildings and facilities built during the war are still in use.

When the Americans arrived, most of the island population lived in small villages with little access to the outside world. But after the military base was established, the course of history for this sleepy Pacific island was changed forever. During the war, there were over 100 ships at a time anchored in the harbor. Up to 47,000 men were stationed permanently on the island and over half a million, including military from New Zealand and Australia, passed through on their way to other destinations.

The writer, James Michener, was just one of thousands of U.S. Navy personnel to be stationed at Espiritu Santo. So taken was he by the people, the sights, and life on the island, that he memorialized it all in his first novel, Tales of the South Pacific.* He wrote much of the book while stationed on the island, apparently after hours by the light of a kerosene lamp.

When Vestal arrived on today's date, however, Dad was still on the carrier Enterprise. After repairs were completed, he and the temporary repair crews from Vestal had to sail with their welding gear on the South Dakota, Prometheus, and other ships to join the Vestal at Espiritu Santo on December 6.

At Espiritu Santo, Vestal will began a year’s schedule of repair service. During the next 12 months, this repair ship will undertake 5,603 jobs on 279 ships and 24 shore facilities. Some of the outstanding repair jobs were on combatant ships that were damaged during the bitter naval engagements in the Solomons in late 1942 and early 1943.


* Tales of the South Pacific was published in 1947. The book earned Michener the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1948. Rodgers and Hammerstein created a 1949 Broadway hit out of the book, shortening the title to simply South Pacific. The musical was adapted to film in 1958.

Sources: Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, V. 7: T-V; Vestal War Diary, November 1942; Frank L. Dolan's Service Records

No comments:

Post a Comment