Naval ship categories often have names that sound important to wartime efforts. Destroyers, aircraft carriers, battleships, minelayers – they’re all very clearly involved in some form of naval combat. Some, however, aren’t so obvious. What, for example, are garbage lighters, and how could they render assistance during a devastating attack such as that which was launched on December 7, 1941 against the US naval base at Pearl Harbor? A lighter is a type of flat-bottomed barge, used for ferrying material and people to and from larger ships, and the US Navy’s YG-class were self-propelled harbor vessels. This is the story of YG-17, which played a heroic role at Pearl Harbor. On that devastating Sunday morning, the garbage lighter would be of tremendous service.
YG-17 at Pearl Harbor
When the attack began, with Japanese pilots dropping bombs and torpedoes on the battleships berthed along Ford Island, ships like YG-17 found themselves in the thick of the action—and in the line of fire. In fact, YG-17 was closer to it than many of the destroyers that were moored in the waters throughout Pearl Harbor. At the northern end of Battleship Row, YG-17 was moored directly next to USS Nevada (BB-36).
Nevada managed to get underway early in the attack, although she did sustain damage and was later beached by her crew to prevent sinking. Meanwhile, YG-17 was busy assisting a different battleship, one that was moored further along Battleship Row. USS West Virginia (BB-48) was hit by multiple torpedoes and at least two bombs, damage that caused fires to rage across her decks. In one stunning image, the crew of nearby vessel can be seen spraying the decks of the blazing battleship with heavy streams of water. That vessel is YG-17.
Due to the garbage lighter’s large pumping capacity, she was able to assist fighting the raging fires that threatened to do irreparable damage to West Virginia. YG-17 tied up alongside the burning battleship and her crew focused on the fires, even as Japanese warplanes continued to strafe the ships on Battleship Row.
According to West Virginia’s After Action Report, YG-17 was the first to respond to the fires burning on the battleship. Chief Boatswain’s Mate Lenard M. Jansen, Commanding Officer of the garbage lighter, ordered the ship to remain alongside the much larger battleship until the fires were brought under control. Since West Virginia was among the attackers’ primary targets, this put the crew of YG-17 in immense danger, but their sense of duty kept them focused on the fires raging aboard the battleship.
Aid to Other Ships
After West Virginia was stabilized, YG-17 next turned her attention to USS Arizona (BB-39)—a battleship that would be completely destroyed in the Japanese assault—as well as USS Tennessee (BB-43).
The garbage lighter survived the attack on Pearl Harbor and her commander and crew earned commendations from the Commander of Battleships, Vice Admiral Walter S. Anderson. Jansen earned special praise for his handling of the chaos of the attack and his hand in helping fight the fires aboard USS West Virginia.