Warship Wednesday, March 3, 2021: Crossing the Delaware to See the World
Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 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, March 3, 2021: Crossing the Delaware to See the World
Here we see the Old Glory flying from the stern of the four-piper Omaha-class light (scout) cruiser, USS Trenton (CL-11) as she sits in dry dock at South Boston’s Charleston Navy Yard, 6 December 1931. Note the narrow destroyer-like beam, her four screws, and the curious arrangement of stacked 6-inch guns over her stern. She would specialize in waving that flag around the globe
The Omaha class
With the country no doubt headed into the Great War at some point, Asst. Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt helped push a plan by the brass to add 10 fast “scout cruisers” to help screen the battle line from the enemy while acting as the over-the-horizon greyhound of the squadron, looking for said enemy to vector the fleet to destroy.
As such, speed was a premium for these dagger-like ships (they had a length-to-beam ratio of 10:1), and as such these cruisers were given a full dozen Yarrow boilers pushing geared turbines to 90,000 shp across four screws. Tipping the scales at 7,050 tons, they had more power on tap than an 8,000-ton 1970s Spruance-class destroyer (with four GE LM2500s giving 80,000 shp). This allowed the new cruiser class to jet about at 35 knots, which is fast today, and was on fire in 1915 when they were designed. As such, they were a full 11-knots faster than the smaller Chester-class scout cruisers they were to augment.
For armament, they had a dozen 6″/53 Mk12 guns arranged in a twin turret forward, another twin turret aft, and eight guns in Great White Fleet throwback above-deck stacked twin casemates four forward/four aft. These guns were to equip the never-built South Dakota (BB-49) class battleships and Lexington (CC-1) class battlecruisers, but in the end were just used in the Omahas as well as the Navy’s two large submarine cruisers USS Argonaut (SS-166), Narwhal (SS-167), and Nautilus (SS-168).
Besides the curious 6-inchers, they also carried two 3″/50s DP guns in open mounts, six 21-inch torpedo tubes on deck, another four hull-mounted torpedo tubes near the waterline (though they proved very wet and were deleted before 1933), and the capability to carry several hundred sea mines.
The subject of our tale was the second U.S. Navy warship named for the New Jersey city famous for the small but pivotal Christmas 1776 battle after Washington crossed the Delaware. The first to blaze that trail on the Naval List was a steam frigate commissioned in 1877 and wrecked by a hurricane in Samoa in 1889.
Authorized in 1916, the new USS Trenton wasn’t laid down at William Cramp & Sons in Philadelphia until August 1920, finally commissioned on 19 April 1924.
Her four-month shakedown cruise ran some 25,000 miles, taking the shiny new cruiser as far as Persia before popping in at the choicest ports in the Mediterranean, circumnavigating the continent of Africa in the process, and ending at the Washington Naval Yard.
Before her freshman year was up, two of her plankowners would earn rare peacetime Medals of Honor– posthumously.
While Trenton carried out gunnery drills about 40 miles off the Virginia capes on 24 October 1924, powder bags in her forward turret exploded, killing or injuring every man of the gun crew. The explosion erupted with such force that it thrust open the rear steel door and blew five men overboard, one of whom, SN William A. Walker, drowned. During the ensuing fire, Ens. Henry C. Drexler and BM1c George R. Cholister attempted to dump powder charges into the immersion tank before they detonated but the charges burst, killing Drexler, and fire and fumes overcame Cholister before he could reach his objective, and he died the following day.
After repairs and mourning, Trenton spent the next 15 years enjoying much better luck, busy sailing around the globe, participating in the standard peacetime work of Fleet Problems, exercises, foreign port calls, and the like. During much of this period, she served as a cruiser division flagship. About as hairy as it got during these happy days was putting a landing force ashore in China during unrest, a trip to take Marines from Charleston to Nicaragua in 1928, and responding to a 1930 revolt in Honduras during the Banana Wars.
By June 1939, with the drums of war beating in Europe, our cruiser joined Squadron 40-T, the dedicated task force organized to protect American interests during the Spanish Civil War.
She was swinging at anchor in the idyllic French Riviera port of Villefranche-sur-Mer when Hitler marched into Poland in September.
Over the next 10 months, she would spend much of her time in neutral Portuguese waters awaiting orders, typically as squadron flagship with an admiral aboard. When finally recalled home in July 1940, following the collapse of the Low Countries to the German Blitzkrieg, Trenton carried exiled Luxembourger royals to America at the behest of the State Department.
Switching Europe for Asia, Trenton was ordered to the Pacific in November, and she was soon busy escorting transports carrying men and equipment to the Philippines with stops at scattered outposts such as Midway, Wake Island, and Guam, all of which would soon become battlegrounds.
By the time the balloon went up on 7 December 1941, our cruiser was moored at Balboa in the Panama Canal Zone, where she had been assigned on orders of ADM Stark to be ready to prowl the Eastern Pacific for enemy shipping and commerce raiders in the event of a real-live war.
Her first mission of WWII was to escort the joint Army-Navy Bobcat Force (Task Force 5614) to the French colony of Bora Bora in late January 1942, an operation that saw the first use of the Navy’s new Seabee units.
While fast and with long legs, the Omaha class cruisers were under-armed and under-armored for 1940s fleet actions, a role that relegated them to the periphery of the conflict. As noted by Richard Worth in his Fleets of World War II:
The fleet sought a way to turn the Omahas into something valuable. Proposals included a conversion to carrier-cruiser hybrids or a complete reconstruction into aircraft carriers. A more realistic plan would have specialized the ships as AA escorts, retaining their twin mounts with a new DP battery of seven 5-inch guns, but the navy didn’t bother.
With that, Trenton kicked her heels for most of the war ranging from the Canal Zone to the Straits of Magellan, visiting the west coast ports of South America, the Juan Fernandez Islands, the San Felice chain, the Cocos, and the Galapagos, keeping an eye peeled for Axis vessels which never materialized.
Following a two-month refit at Balboa, she shipped North for San Francisco in July 1944, cleared to finally get into the action.
When she left Panama, she had her war paint on.
Arriving at Adak in the Aleutian Islands on 2 September 1944, she joined the North Pacific Force as a unit of Cruiser Division One. She would soon be running amok in the Japanese Kuriles chain, alongside other members of her class such as sisterships USS Richmond and USS Concord (CL-10), who had, like Trenton, up to that time had spent most of the war in the Southeastern Pacific.
From her Trenton’s official War History, which is online at the National Archives:
Trenton fired her first shots against the enemy on 5 January 1945 in a bombardment of shore installation at Surubachi Wan, Paramushiru. There followed more shore bombardments against Kurabu Zaki, Paramushiru, on 18 February; Matsuwa on 15 March and 10 and 11 June. On this last raid, Trenton, along with other units of Task Force 92, made an anti-shipping sweep inside the Kurile chain during daylight hours of 11 June before firing the second night’s bombardment. Targets on these islands included fish canneries, air strips, and hangars, radar and gun installations, and bivouac areas. Aerial reconnaissance showed substantial damage inflicted in these shellings by Task Force 92.
Trenton’s guns got a heck of a workout during this period. For instance, in the 15 March raid on Matsuwa alone, they fired 457 Mk. 34 high capacity, 18 Mk. 27 common, and 14 Mk. 22 illum shells in a single night. This was accomplished in 99 salvos fired at an average rate of 4.95 salvos per minute, or 22.45 shells per minute. A star shell was set to burst every sixth salvo, providing “excellent illumination,” while the ship used her SG radar to furnish ranges and bearings and Mk 3 radar to check range to the land from fire bearings with correction adjusted accordingly. The firing was done from 13,000 yards and ran for just 21 minutes. Not bad shooting!
The cruiser also helped put some licks in on Japanese surface contacts.
Again, her War History:
Trenton’s last war-time action occurred 23 to 25 June, when the task force again made an anti-shipping sweep along the central Kuriles. With the force split over a wider area, the other unit made contact with the enemy inside the chain. By sinking five ships out of a small convoy [the auxiliary submarine chasers Cha 73, Cha 206, and Cha 209, and guard boat No. 2 Kusunoki Maru, sunk; and the Cha 198 damaged], Task Force 92 disclosed the presence of U.S. Naval Forces in the Sea of Okhotsk and set off a wave of alarm in the Japanese press and radio. Fear of this “formidable task force prowling the northern home waters of Japan,” coupled with the increased attacks by Task Forces 38 and 58 to the south, convinced the Japanese that they were at last surrounded and added to their discouragement which led to the surrender in August.
Steaming for San Francisco to get an overhaul in for the final push on the Home Islands, Trenton was there when the war ended. Ordered to proceed to Philadelphia via the Canal that she spent most of the war protecting, she arrived there just before Christmas 1945 and was decommissioned. Like the rest of her class, there was little use for her in a post-war Navy filled with shiny new and much more capable cruisers, so they were liquidated entirely and without ceremony.
Of her sisters, they proved remarkably lucky, and, though all nine saw combat during the war– including Detroit and Raleigh who were at Pearl Harbor– none were sunk. The last of the class afloat, USS Milwaukee (CL-5) was sold for scrap at the end of 1949, mainly because after 1944 she had been loaned to the Soviets as the Murmansk.
As for Trenton, she was stricken from the Navy List on 21 January 1946 and later sold for $67,228 to the Patapsco Scrap Co. along with sistership Concord, who reportedly fired the last naval bombardment of the war.
Trenton had a string of 15 skippers in her short 21-year career, four of whom would go on to put on admiral’s stars including ADM “Old Dutch” Kalbfus who commanded the battlefleet on the eve of WWII, the long campaigning VADM Joseph Taussig, and ADM Arthur Dewey Struble who led the 7th Fleet during the miracle landings at Inchon.
One of the most tangible remnants of the vessel is the State silver service that she carried for most of her career. Originally made for the first battleship USS New Jersey (BB-16) in 1905 by Tiffany & Co., Trenton became caretaker of the 105-piece set when she was commissioned as the obsolete Virginia class of pre-dreadnought was disposed of as part of the Washington Naval Treaty in 1920. Trenton turned the set back over to the Navy during WWII for safekeeping and it was eventually presented to the Iowa-class battlewagon (BB-62) post-war. Today half the set, which is still owned by the Navy, is at the New Jersey Governor’s Mansion while the other half is on display in a secure case in the captain’s quarters of the Battleship New Jersey museum.
Her war diaries and reports are largely available online in the National Archives in a digitized format.
The Navy has recycled the name “Trenton” twice since 1946. The first for an Austin-class amphibious dock (LPD-14) which served from 1971 through 2007 and is still in service with the Indian Navy as INS Jalashwa (L41), a name which translates roughly into “seahorse.”
The fourth and current Trenton is an MSC-operated Spearhead-class expeditionary fast transport (T-EPF-5), in-service since 2015.
Displacement: 7,050 long tons (7,163 t) (standard); 9,508 full load
Length: 555 ft. 6 in oa, 550 ft. pp
Beam: 55 ft.
Draft: 14 ft. 3 in (mean), 20 feet max
Machinery: 12 × Yarrow boilers, 4 × Westinghouse reduction geared steam turbines, 90,000 ihp
Range: 8460 nm at 10 knots on 2,000 tons fuel oil
Speed: 35 knots estimated design, 33.7 knots on trials
Sensors: SK, 2 x SG, 2 x Mk 3 radars fitted after 1942
Crew: 29 officers 429 enlisted (peacetime)
Belt: 3 in
Deck: 1 1⁄2 in
Conning Tower: 1 1⁄2 in
Bulkheads: 1 1⁄2–3 in
Aircraft carried: 2 × floatplanes (typically Vought O2U-1 then Curtiss SOC Seagulls), 2 amidships catapults
2 × twin 6 in /53 caliber
8 × single 6 in /53 caliber
2 × 3 in /50 caliber guns anti-aircraft
6 × triple 21 in torpedo tubes
4 × twin 21 in torpedo tubes
224 × mines (capability removed soon after completion)
2 × twin 6 in/53 caliber
6 × single 6 in/53 caliber
8 × 3 in/50 caliber anti-aircraft guns
6 × triple 21 in torpedo tubes
3 × twin 40 mm Bofors guns
14 × single 20 mm Oerlikon cannons
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