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Mr. John B. Vaessen, USN (1916-2018), Pearl Harbor Survivor

John B. VaessenMr. Vaessen grew up in California in the 1920s and 1930s. During the Depression he worked steadily at a variety of jobs to support himself and his family. Around 1938 he joined the Naval Reserve. This memoir describes the informal atmosphere of the program in that era. He worked at the Mare Island Navy Yard in 1940-41 as an electrician's helper. When he reported for active duty in 1941, he was stationed at the San Diego Destroyer Base. He opted for duty as a Fireman Second Class on board the target ship USS Utah (AG-16) a few months later, anticipating a quiet life around San Pedro, California. Instead, in September of that year the Utah deployed to Hawaii and never returned. She was torpedoed during the Japanese air raid on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. Vaessen, who was then serving in the ship's electrical division, was at his post belowdecks as the ship capsized. He kept the power going as long as he could, an act that enabled shipmates to have light as they sought to abandon ship. Vaessen himself was rescued through the bottom of the overturned hull of the Utah. For his actions during the attack, Vaessen was awarded the Navy Cross by Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander in Chief Pacific Fleet. In late 1942, as a newly advanced electrician's mate, Petty Officer Vaessen was in the commissioning crew of the minesweeper USS Starling (AM-64).

Based on an interview conducted by Paul Stillwell in June 1987, the volume contains 106 pages of interview transcript plus a comprehensive index. The transcript is copyright 2012 by the U.S. Naval Institute; the interviewee has placed no restrictions on its use.

An index to this volume can be viewed here (.pdf).

In this clip from his 11 June 1987 interview with Paul Stillwell at the U.S. Naval Station, Treasure Island, California, Vaessen relates his rescue from the bottom of the overturned hull of the USS Utah, sunk in the attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941.

John Vaessen: So, anyhow, I crawl down in there. So I take the wrench and I rap on the bottom. I said, “Gee, it sounds like it’s out of water. This is a pretty good sign.” So I hit it some more. I didn’t know we were at war. I mean, this was unbeknownst to me. So, anyway, I rapped on the bottom, rapped and rapped. You know, your hopes are always up, so I rapped and rapped. Gee, I got the damnedest blister on my hand, but I kept rapping anyway.

All of a sudden, I hear somebody coming back, rapping, and they spoke, but I couldn’t understand them. I didn’t know what they were saying. I guess they couldn’t understand me either, because with an inch of metal between you, you can’t hear anything. So the voices talked. Pretty soon they were gone again, so I started rapping again. Then pretty soon they were back, and some more stuff. They would rap and I would rap, and I think they were trying to locate me. I’m not sure on this.

So I rapped and I rapped and I rapped, and they would rap and rap, and it was getting closer. Then there was silence again, and then I heard, “rat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat.” I’d worked in the shipyard, and I says, “Oh, they’re using an air chisel.” I says, “Well, there must be somebody else in some other part of the ship. I’ll just have to wait my turn.” But every so often I’d give a rap to make sure they knew I was there. So I rapped and rapped. This “rat-tat-tat-tat” went on a couple of times. Then it was all silent, and then it come back and there was a voice.

All of a sudden, I see a little red spot, and it started to smoke. I thought, “Holy Christ! They must be burning a hole!” So they burned it. Of course, Hill could tell you better than I.

Paul Stillwell: You should explain who Hill is.

John Vaessen: William D. Hill was from the Raleigh, and he was sent over with a group, of which you have their names, from the Raleigh, because the Utah people, I think our chief engineer, Isquith, and others had told him, “There’s somebody trapped in here,” and could they help out.[1] Of course, they were in trouble themselves, but there’s not too much they could do.

Paul Stillwell: But the Raleigh hadn’t turned over.

John Vaessen: No, they hadn’t turned over. They had sunk. I can tell you something on what happened to them too. So, anyway, I have to get this story from the people as they relayed it to me, but I have to tell you my part.

I was in there, I saw the little red spot, of course, when you see metal burning and the paint and so forth. Then it would quit. Then I’d see it again in another place. Then after a while, they burned the hole and sparks come flying out. This was the first time in my life they were required, starting on that Sunday, to wear white shorts, because we were in the tropics. This Ed Gurtz, who I was with, I didn’t have any, and he said, “You can bring them to the tailor shop and they’ll cut them off so you can wear them. I’ll loan you mine.” So he loaned me his, and of course, all the sparks coming down on me, the best shower I ever had. [Laughter]

Anyway, they would burn and it would go out and come on again, and then pretty soon they burned a circle so big.

Paul Stillwell: How big would you say? Two feet in diameter?

John Vaessen: Oh, no, no, about 16 inches, an oval-shaped opening. But all the slag kept holding it up. Anyway, according to my friend Hill, his friend, Steve White, from the Raleigh, he was a big Swede from Idaho and he had worked in the sugar beet fields, and in those days they pulled the sugar beets out by hand, and he had muscles on him like you wouldn’t believe. So he says he got a sledge hammer someplace. They’re different for everything. And he pounded. One whack, and that plate come flying. Of course, I was way over in the corner. So they had one fellow there, a seaman, one of the guys there, with a bucket of water, and when they pounded the plate in, they told him to pour the water on the plate to cool off this metal. But I was already out and gone.


[1] Lieutenant Commander Solomon S. Isquith, USN. Hill was a chief petty officer on board the USS Raleigh (CL-7), a light cruiser. He has done an oral history on his Pearl Harbor experiences; the interviewer was Ronald E. Marcello of North Texas State University. Vaessen has also done an oral history for the North Texas collection.



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