Warship Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019: The first of the Big W’s
Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places.- Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019: The first of the Big W’s
Here we see the one-of-a-kind U.S. Navy heavy cruiser USS Wichita (CA-45) amid a winter storm off Iceland in 1941-42. Note the PBY patrol plane on the deck of the seaplane tender from which the photograph was taken. The mighty and unique warship would earn a full baker’s dozen battlestars across multiple theaters in WWII, taking fire from the French, Germans and Japanese.
Sandwiched between the seven 588-foot/12,600-ton New Orleans (CA-32)-class cruisers of the 1930s and the 14 more modern 673-foot/17,000-ton Baltimore (CA-68)-class cruisers of the 1940s, Wichita was a standalone derivative of the basic design prepared for the 606-foot/12,400-ton Brooklyn (CL-40)-class of light cruisers, similar in characteristics and appearance but with three 8″/55 (20.3 cm) Mark 12 triple turrets instead of the five 6-inch turrets mounted in the Brooklyn.
Designed to weigh 10,000-tons (this was still a Treaty thing) she would grow to carry over 13,000 tons during WWII.
The first U.S. Navy vessel named for the City of Wichita, Kansas, she was laid down at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard in 1935 and completed on 16 February 1939, less than seven months shy of Hitler’s march into Poland.
Speaking of which, Wichita received her received her 66-piece silver service from officials in her namesake city (crafted for $3,000 by area jeweler Cleon A. Whitney) and, after a shakedown in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean, she soon clocked in on FDR’s Neutrality Patrol in the North Atlantic in October. By the next year, with the specter of the Graf Spee running amok in the South Atlantic, Wichita soon became a facet in ports around Latin America, calling at everything from Curacao to Montevideo, Rio and Buenos Aires.
Back in the frozen North by early 1941, the Navy’s roaming cruiser made her way to Iceland, then a Danish territory occupied by the British to keep the Kriegsmarine from doing the same thing. Sailing as part of Operation Indigo II in July, she was on hand for the transfer of the island to (then still neutral) U.S. protection. She would spend the next several months on what was termed the “White Patrol,” engaged in operations in Icelandic waters, spending much of her time swinging at anchor at wind-swept Hvalfjordur.
One salty reservist assigned to the big W was best known at the time for appearing in The Prisoner of Zenda, Gunga Din and The Corsican Brothers— actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr., then serving as a 33-year-old lieutenant with some 60 films already behind him.
After early service on the destroyer USS Ludlow, carrier USS Wasp, and battleship USS Washington he was assigned as assistant gunnery officer and “staff observer” on USS Wichita in July 1942 for a month before he was switched to Mountbatten’s Combined Operations Headquarters, London, where he was soon slipping across the Channel with Commandos. He later proved vital to forming the Navy’s Beach Jumpers and served in PT Boat/MTB units in the Med. However, he said in an interview in the 1990s that he liked serving on cruisers better than other warships.
Crucially, Fairbanks was aboard Wichita for PQ-17, but more on that later.
He was not the only star aboard. Much like the ill-fated Sullivan brothers who went on to all perish on the light cruiser USS Juneau in 1942, Wichita had her own set of five siblings, which garnered a bit of attention.
Once the U.S. entered the war post-Pearl Harbor, Wichita joined the British RN along with other U.S. Naval assets and put to sea to cover the movement of Convoys QP-11 and PQ-15, sailing to and coming from the vital lend-lease port of Murmansk with aid for Moscow, screening the merchantmen from the likes of German heavy cruisers and battleships operating from Norway as her SOC Seagull floatplanes, armed with depth charges, patrolled for shadowing U-boats.
While the first two convoys passed without much danger, on the next two, westbound PQ-16 and eastbound QP-12, she had to chase off German Condor seaplanes with AAA.
Then came PQ-17 in July 1942.
Threatened by the battleship Tirpitz and heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper as well as swarms of He 111 bombers, the covering First Cruiser Squadron (CS1) consisting of the four Allied cruisers HMS London, HMS Norfolk, Wichita and USS Tuscaloosa, was ordered by the Admiralty to “withdraw to the westward at high speed,” while the convoy itself was to scatter and “proceed to Russian ports,” alone and unescorted. It was a disaster, and 24 of 36 of the merchantmen was sent to the bottom as the Germans chased them all the way to Murmansk. Churchill called it, “one of the most melancholy naval episodes in the whole of the war.”
Nonetheless, Wichita was given a reprieve from convoy work as the Allies were planning something big.
By November, she was off North Africa as part of the Torch Landings, aimed to occupy Vichy French Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia and drive Rommel back to Europe. She was to help seize Casablanca, which was thought to be an easy operation.
It was not.
However, the French decided to resist; and they proved stubborn. Ordered to attack at 0623, Wichita stood toward the North African coast, her spotting planes, Curtiss SOC’s, airborne to spot her fall of shot. French fighters, possibly Dewoitine 520’s or American-built Curtiss Hawk 75’s, attacked the “Seagulls,” and one had to make a forced landing. Its crew was picked up by one of the heavy cruiser’s escorts.
At 0704, the guns of the French battleship Jean Bart boomed from Casablanca harbor, as did the ones emplaced at El Hank. Although moored to a pier and still incomplete, Jean Bart packed a powerful “punch” with her main battery. Massachusetts subsequently opened fire in return at 0705, and Tuscaloosa did so shortly thereafter.
Wichita’s 8-inch battery crashed out at 0706, aimed at El Hank. Checking fire at 0723 when her spotting planes informed her that the French guns appeared to be silenced, the heavy cruiser shifted her 8-inch rifles in the direction of French submarines in Casablanca harbor. Subsequently checking fire at 0740, Wichita began blasting the French guns at Table d’Aukasha shortly before 0800.
After resumption of firing on French shipping in Casablanca’s harbor, Wichita received orders at 0835 to cease fire. At 0919, however, she opened fire again, this time directing her guns at French destroyers in harbor and at the light cruiser Primauguet. Later, at 1128, Wichita came within range of the French battery at El Hank, and the Vichy gunners scored a hit on the American cruiser. A 194-millimeter shell hit her port side, passed into the second deck near the mainmast, and detonated in a living compartment. Fragments injured 14 men, none seriously, and the resulting fires were quickly extinguished by Wichita’s damage control parties.
Torpedoes from a Vichy French submarine caused Wichita to take evasive action at 1139. Two “fish” went by a length ahead of the ship, and another passed deep under the bow or slightly ahead. After ceasing fire at 1142, Wichita received orders an hour later to attack French ships making for the harbor entrance at Casablanca. Accordingly, the heavy cruiser, aided by improved visibility and air spotting, again battered Primauguet, starting fierce fires that gutted a large part of that ship. At 1505, Wichita ceased fire; and her guns remained quiet for the rest of the day. That evening, she steamed seaward to avoid nocturnal submarine attacks and, over the ensuing days, patrolled offshore between Casablanca and Fedhala. Ordered to return to the United States, her task with “Torch” completed, Wichita sailed for Hampton Roads on 12 November.
Under repair well into 1943, she switched theaters and, sailing through the Panama Canal, arrived in the Pacific just in time to take a dud torpedo in a nighttime attack by Japanese planes off Rennell Island at the end of January!
Then came the Aleutian theater where she helped retake Attu, Kiska, and Adak, often serving as a flagship.
By January 1944, she was in the Marshall Islands, screening the carrier Bunker Hill. Then came a roll call of atolls filled with now-historic raids and landings– Yap, Woleali, Kwajalein, Eniwetok, Hollandia, Wakde, Truk, the Carolines, Saipan, and Guam– where she knocked out Japanese aircraft and struck out with her big guns.
During the famous “Marianas Turkey Shoot,” Wichita‘s gunners claimed assists on two Kates while one of her floatplanes rescued an American fighter pilot whose plane had been downed.
Then came more action in the Philippines in preparation for the landings at Leyte where Wichita came to the assistance of the larger cruiser USS Canberra (CA-70) that had caught a Japanese torpedo on 13 October, eventually taking the crippled vessel under tow. Once the tug USS Munsee took over, Canberra remained on tap to help screen “the cripple squadron” consisting of Canberra and the similarly torpedoed USS Houston (CL-81) for three days in the aftermath of the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
Speaking of cripples, on 25 October, Wichita came across the damaged Japanese aircraft carrier Chiyoda and, in the company of the cruisers USS Santa Fe, Mobile, and New Orleans, along with nine destroyers, pummeled her until she slipped below the waves with 1,900 IJN officers and men aboard. Later that night, she sank the Akizuki-class destroyer Hatsuzuki off Cape Engaño.
After a stint on the West Coast to repair damage and cobble her back together for the next big push, Wichita joined the gun line off Okinawa, where she would spend the rest of her war.
Again, from DANFS:
As an element of TU 54.2.3, Wichita covered minesweeping units in fire support sector four on 25 March, retiring to seaward for the night. As part of Fire Support Unit 3 the following day, Wichita was off Okinawa when lookouts spotted a periscope to starboard at 0932. Making an emergency turn to starboard, the heavy cruiser evaded the torpedo that was fired.
At 1350, Wichita commenced firing with her main battery, shelling Japanese installations on Okinawa, before she ceased fire at 1630 and retired to sea for the night. Soon after dawn the following morning, 27 March, several Japanese planes attacked the formation in which Wichita was proceeding; the heavy cruiser’s gunners shot down one. That morning and afternoon, Wichita again lent the weight of her salvos to the “softening-up” process; even her SOC joined in, dropping two bombs.
After floating mines, which had been delaying the start of the morning bombardment, had been cleared, Wichita resumed her bombardment activities on the 28th. The next day, the 29th, Wichita put into Kerama Retto to replenish ammunition. That rocky outcropping near Okinawa had been invaded to provide an advance base for the operations against the island. It was still in the process of being cleared of defenders even as Wichita entered the harbor, among the first ships to utilize the newly secured body of water. “You are the first to receive the keys of Kerama Retto,” radioed the senior officer present afloat to Wichita, “with scenery and sound effects.”
When she had replenished her stock of ammunition, Wichita resumed her shelling of the Japanese defenders on Okinawa, covering the movement of underwater demolition teams (UDT’s). She performed the same covering services for UDT’s the next day, 30 March, as well as bombarding selected targets ashore. On the 31st, Wichita shelled the beach area to breach the sea wall in preparation for the landings. That evening, the heavy cruiser retired to seaward to cover the approaching transports.
On Easter Sunday, 1 April 1945, the day of the initial assault across the shores of Okinawa, Wichita provided neutralization fire on Japanese positions defending the southern beaches. She kept up a rapid, nearly continuous fire with everything from 8-inch to 40-millimeter guns. Near noon, her services temporarily not needed, she replenished ammunition.
After performing a call-fire mission on the 2d, Wichita replenished fuel and ammunition at Kerama Retto on the 3d. She subsequently took up a fire support station near le Shima and supported the minesweepers operating off that point on the 4th. During the night, Wichita fired harassment missions against the Japanese defenders. On the 5th, she was to join TG 51.19 east of Okinawa to carry out a bombardment of Tsugen Shima in company with Tuscaloosa, Maryland (BB-46), and Arkansas (BB-33), but the approach of enemy planes canceled the mission. That evening, though, Wichita shelled Japanese shore batteries at Chiyama Shima which had taken Nevada (BB-36) under fire earlier that day.
On 6 April, Wichita searched for troop concentrations, tanks, vehicles, and boat revetments on the east coast of Okinawa, targets of opportunity for her batteries. Shortly before sunset, a “Zeke” (Mitsubishi A6M5) came out of the clouds on the port quarter. The encounter was apparently one of mutual surprise, as Wichita’s commander later recounted: “We seemed nearly as much of a surprise to the plane as it did to us.” As the “Zeke” dove for the heavy cruiser’s bridge, antiaircraft fire reached up and tore the plane apart, it disintegrated over the ship and splashed in the sea off the starboard bow. There was no damage to the ship.
The following day, Wichita entered Nakagusuku Wan, a body of water later renamed Buckner Bay, during the morning to bombard a pugnacious shore battery. The enemy managed to land several shots “very close aboard the port side” but was ultimately silenced. For the next two days, Wichita carried out a similar slate of harassing fire on Japanese shore batteries, pillboxes, and other targets of opportunity. Underway for Kerama Retto on the afternoon of 10 April, the heavy cruiser replenished her ammunition supply that evening and returned to the bombardment areas the following day.
Wichita subsequently served four more tours of duty off Okinawa, her 8-inch guns providing part of the heavy volume of firepower necessary to support the troops advancing ashore against the tenacious Japanese defenders. She hit pillboxes, ammunition dumps, troop concentrations spotted by her observers aloft in one of her SOC’s, camouflaged installations and caves, waterfront areas suspected of supporting suicide boat launching ramps and harboring swimmers, as well as trenches and artillery emplacements. During that period, she was damaged twice: the first time came when a small caliber shell penetrated a fuel oil tank, five feet below the waterline, on 27 April. After repairs at Kerama Retto on 29 and 30 April (she had spent the 28th firing harassment rounds against Japanese positions ashore and making unsuccessful attempts to patch the hole), Wichita provided more harassment and interdiction fire before being hit by “friendly” fire during an air raid on 12 May. A 5-inch shell hit the port catapult, with fragments striking the shield of an antiaircraft director. Twelve men were injured, one so severely that he died that night.
Wichita was off the island when, on 15 August 1945, she received word that the war with Japan was over.
Following occupation and Magic Carpet duty, she was decommissioned on 3 February 1947.
The heavy cruiser was laid up at Philadelphia, where Wichita swayed in the brown, lead-streaked water until she was struck from the Navy list on 1 March 1959.
In August, she was sold for scrap, which was accomplished in Port Panama City, Florida. I believe that her silver service is at the Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum in her “hometown” as they have an exhibit to the vessel.
Rather than pass on her name to another warship, the second Wichita was a replenishment oiler (AOR-1) commissioned in 1969 and decommissioned on 12 March 1993. This later Wichita earned four battle stars for her Vietnam service and is currently being turned into razor blades and sheet metal for compact cars.
The most recent Wichita, LCS-13, was commissioned last week. She has big shoes to fill.
Displacement 10,000 tons (designed), 13,240-fl
Length: 608 (oa) ft.
Beam: 61 ft.
Draft: 25 ft.
Machinery: 100,000 SHP; 8 Babcock & Wilcox boilers, 4 Parsons steam turbines, 4 screws
Complement: 929 officers and enlisted
9 x 8″/55
8 x 5″/38 DP
8 x .50-caliber water-cooled.
9 x 8″/55
8 x 5″/38 DP
24 × Bofors 40mm guns (4×4, 8×2)
18 × Oerlikon 20mm cannon
Armor: 6″ Belt, 8″ Turrets, 2 1/4″ Deck, 6″ Conning Tower.
Speed, 33.5 Knots, Crew 900.
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