Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Challenging repairs to the Pensacola

On today's date, my dad's ship, the USS Vestal, began emergency repairs to the heavy cruiser, USS Pensacola. The cruiser had received heavy torpedo damage during the Battle of Tassafaronga, off Guadalcanal, on November 30. The aft damage was so extensive that Pensacola's stern was barely attached to the rest of the ship,  and it swayed with the current. A few frames, some hull plating, and one propeller shaft were practically all that still held the aftermost section to the rest of the ship. Much of the damage was underwater. Vestal's commanding officer, W.T. Singer, would later recount, "Never had an AR (repair ship) been presented with such a task; no records on how it should best be done were available."

Only by trial and error, and utilizing previous experience, was the repair crew able to complete its enormous task. The hole was plugged and braced for stability, and compartments were sealed and pumped out. Three 7-ton propellers were pulled off to reduce drag. "One has to be something of an artificer," her commander recounted, "... to realize the problems that came up to do with this job, such as underwater welding and cutting, which was still a fairly new thing." The commander continues his report saying that repair crews even resorted to dynamite to jar one propeller loose and had to cut through the shaft of another. My father, 19-year old Frank Dolan, working as a diver on that shaft, later said: "I cut off one of the propeller shafts on the Pensacola and let it fall to the bottom.” Repairs were completed on January 7.

USS Vestal repairing USS Pensacola, December 1942
Emergency repairs to the Pensacola were completed, and the ship was readied for sailing to Pearl Harbor for permanent repairs 1 month later.

Battle damage to USS Pensacola
Close-up of damage area
Vestal's repairmen cutting away wreckage
Hole made by torpedo after wreckage is cleared away

After distinguished service throughout the remainder of the war, the Pensacola's last assignment was to participate in the nuclear bomb tests at Bikini Atoll in 1946. The purpose of the testing was to investigate the effect of nuclear weapons on naval ships. Pensacola's final service was as the target ship. Surviving the tests she was she decommissioned that year. After completing radiological and structural studies on her hulk, she later was sunk off the Washington coast.

The USS Pensacola received 13 Battle Stars for her WWII service.

Sources: Naval History and Heritage Command home page; NavSource Online; USS Vestal War Diary, December 1942 & January 1943; Frank L. Dolan's Service Records and his oral account; Wikipedia

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