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Visit to World War II memorial personal for Vilsack

HONOLULU — For Tom Vilsack, visiting Pearl Harbor was about more than fulfilling his duty as secretary of Agriculture.

The biodiesel-powered boat on which Vilsack toured the Pearl Harbor memorial was named for his maternal great uncle, Cassin Young, who served with great distinction on Dec. 7, 1941, and was awarded the Medal of Honor.

His great uncle's service had special significance, Vilsack told reporters, because he did not learn of it until 1988 when he took his family on vacation to Boston, where a destroyer named in Young’s honor is restored and berthed.

Captain Cassin Young

Captain Cassin Young
As the Medal of Honor citation says, Young was the commanding officer on the USS Vestal stationed in Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked.

Young proceeded to the bridge and later took personal command of the 3-inch antiaircraft gun,” the citation says.

“When blown overboard by the blast of the forward magazine explosion of the USS Arizona, to which the USS Vestal was moored, he swam back to his ship. The entire forward part of the USS Arizona was a blazing inferno with oil afire on the water between the two ships; as a result of several bomb hits, the USS Vestal was afire in several places, was settling and taking on a list.

“Despite severe enemy bombing and strafing at the time, and his shocking experience of having been blown overboard, Commander Young, with extreme coolness and calmness, moved his ship to an anchorage distant from the USS Arizona, and subsequently beached the USS Vestal upon determining that such action was required to save his ship.”

Young was promoted to captain in February 1942 and given command of the heavy cruiser USS San Francisco. In the Solomon Islands campaign, he commanded the ship in the Battle of Cape Esperance, and was killed on Nov. 13, 1942 in the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. He was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross, and the destroyer USS Cassin Young was named in his honor.

The fact that his family never talked about his uncle’s bravery and distinction can be attributed to the humility of families in that era, Vilsack said.

The secretary, who has often noted that rural Americans serve in disproportionate numbers in the military, also said the experience was a reminder that the sacrifices of American families are “ongoing.”