Veterans Talk Story: John Bartholomew ‘Jack’ Vaessen He kept the lights on

A thorough knowledge of the ship, a three-cell flashlight with a faulty switch and an end wrench used for opening hatches was what saved Vaessen’s life . U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Thomas McKenzie

Family Obituary

As America began to emerge from the Great Depression, John Bartholomew “Jack” Vaessen, enlisted in the U.S. Navy Reserve in 1938. With war imminent, he was called to active duty in 1941 and assigned to the former battleship USS Utah (BB-31).

On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, Vaessen reported for duty in the ship’s forward electrical distribution room around 7:45 a.m.

Vaessen recalled that he had seen an enlisted man begin to raise the flag on the stern of the ship as he reported for duty, but the colors may never have been fully raised that day. At 8 a.m., three airplanes dove low toward Ford Island, each dropping a torpedo. The attack on Pearl Harbor had begun.

At 8:01 a.m., the USS Utah suffered a severe underwater hit on the port side. The ship was hit again and the order “all hands on deck and all engine room and fire room, radio and dynamo watch to lay up on deck and release all prisoners” was given.

By 8:05 a.m., the ship was listing 40 degrees to port, and the order was given to abandon ship.

While the ship’s lights were still on, some crew-men made their way top-side and escaped. By 8:12 a.m., the last of the ship’s mooring lines had given way and the USS Utah completely capsized.

The USS Utah is capsizing off Ford Island, during the attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941, after being torpedoed by Japanese aircraft. Official U.S. Navy photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.

Vaessen was trapped below deck. He kept the power going as long as he could so his shipmates had light as they sought to abandon ship. He eventually worked his way to the keel, wrench and flashlight in hand. Jack began to hear faint tapping noises outside.

He responded by banging against the hull of the ship with his end wrench hoping someone would hear and realize he was alive inside the ship. In fact, the tapping noises were the sound of machine gun bullets from enemy planes attacking Pearl Harbor.

Vaessen’s shipmates heard sounds coming from inside their ship before they made their way into trenches on Ford Island. Realizing that Sailors could still be alive, Machinists Stanley Andrew Szymanski and Terrance MacSelwiney, CAM and two others returned to the ship and located the sound. They asked the USS Tangier for assistance.

The USS Tangier had been ordered to sea and could not fully respond, so Vaessen’s shipmates made their way to the USS Raleigh and asked for help.

The USS Raleigh had been hit, but the commander told them to get what men and equipment they needed and do what they could for the USS Utah.

For more than two hours, volunteers from the USS Utah and USS Raleigh returned to the capsized USS Utah during the height of the attack and worked to cut a hole in the hull’s bottom. Finding Vaessen alive led the Navy to search and rescue others trapped in airtight places.

For having kept the lighting system working on the Utah as it sank, thus allowing others to escape, Adm. Chester Nimitz, former commander in chief of U.S. Pacific Fleet, awarded Jack the Navy Cross.

Jack went on to serve throughout the war, joining the crews of the USS Starling and USS Haynsworth, and ultimately surviving the Battle of Okinawa. After a kamikaze struck the USS Haynsworth, once again Jack worked to keep the lights working so Sailors could escape.

After his discharge from the Navy on Sept. 3, 1945, Jack worked at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard installing noise level monitors for the nuclear submarines.

He went on to work for the state of California as an electrician until retirement. Jack and Barbara lived in San Mateo for many years, travelling and spending time at their cottage in Pollack Pines, California.

Jack was instrumental in originating the USS Utah Memorial at Pearl Harbor and originating the USS Utah Reunion Association.

He regularly attended the Pearl Harbor survivors and Navy reunions and stayed in touch with his USS Utah and Haynsworth shipmates. In 2010, he was a recipient of the Boy Scouts of America, Pacific Skyline Council Founders Circle Citation. Additionally, he was made an official Boy Scout with BSA Troop 52.

U.S. Navy retired Fireman 2nd Class Vaessen passed away Feb. 22 at his home in San Mateo, California at the age of 101. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, June 8.

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