Warship Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2022: Crescent City Blues

Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 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, Nov. 30, 2022: Crescent City Blues

Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the U.S. National Archives, 80-G-216014.

Above we see the lead ship of her class, the heavy cruiser USS New Orleans (CA-32) camouflaged at Tulagi in the then hotly contested Solomon Islands, shortly after she was torpedoed during the Battle of Tassafaronga on 30 November 1942– some 80 years ago today. Note that her stern is riding high and that her forward end is low in the water as the Japanese Type 93 Long Lance she caught had severed her bow between # 1 and # 2 eight-inch gun turrets, killing 182 men and lopping off almost a fifth of her length.

About the class

Classified as the “Second Generation of Treaty Cruisers” by Friedman who has an entire chapter on the subject in his USNI Press U.S. Cruisers book– a bible on the subject– the seven New Orleans class vessels came after America flirted with the more cramped and often extremely lightly armored Pensacola class (Pensacola and Salt Lake City) Portland class (Portland and Indianapolis), and Northampton-class (Northampton, Chester, Louisville, Chicago, Augusta, and Houston) cruisers. For reference, the P-colas, which carried 518 tons of armor, had just 4-inches of armor at their thickest, with just a maximum of 2.5 inches on their turret face and 1.25 inches on the conning tower, making them vulnerable to 5-inch shells and derided as being “tin clads” or “eggshell” cruisers.

Some 588 feet overall with a 61-foot beam, the New Orleans class carried 1,507 tons of protection (three times as much as Pensacola) and ran a belt and central conning tower that carried up to five inches of plate while the thickest parts of the turret faces went eight, making them capable of withstanding hits from the 8-inch shells of the day– if they were fired from far enough away.

In a further improvement, while carrying nine 8″/55 Mark 9 main guns of the same type as the previous U.S. Treaty heavy cruisers, the New Orleanses carried them in better-designed turrets with more room and would be upgraded during the war to Mark 12, 14, or 15 guns.

8-inch guns of the New Orleans-class cruiser USS Tuscaloosa (CA-37), Norfolk, VA. December 1940

As noted by Friedman concisely, “The New Orleans class represented a shift in U.S. cruiser priorities toward protection, gained in part because of a determined use of the entire available treaty tonnage.”

Speaking to which, while rated as 10,000 tons on paper– in line with the Washington Naval treaty limits– during WWII they pushed almost 13,000 when fully loaded and carrying scores of AAA guns for which they weren’t designed. By comparison, the standard weight of the 585-foot P-Colas and 600-foot Northamptons were just 9,138 and 8,997 tons, respectively, leaving a lot of treaty weight on the table.

USS New Orleans artist impression by I.R. Lloyd, circa early 1930s NH 664

USS New Orleans (CA-32) builder’s model, photographed circa 1936. NH 45123 and NH 45122.

Earlier heavy cruisers USS Salt Lake City (CA-25) and USS Pensacola (CA-24), left, alongside USS New Orleans (CA-32) to the right, seen nested together at Pearl Harbor, 31 October 1943. Ford Island is at the left, with USS Oklahoma (BB-37) under salvage at the extreme left, just beyond Salt Lake City’s forward superstructure. Note the radar antennas, gun directors, and eight-inch guns on these three heavy cruisers as well as how much different their bridges, turrets, and masts are. The rounded roofs of early Mark 9 twin and triple turrets of USS Salt Lake City and USS Pensacola contrast greatly with the later turrets of USS New Orleans on the right.80-G-264236

They also had extensive floatplane facilities including two catapults and a large hangar, with corresponding avgas bunkerage and aviation magazines. They typically operated up to four Seagulls, though the number of catapults and extremely dangerous gasoline stores were whittled down late in the war and only a pair of floatplanes carried.

New Orleans class mate USS Quincy (CA-39) looking forward over the boat deck from the secondary conn over her hangar, while the ship was at the New York Navy Yard after her last overhaul, 29 May 1942. Crude # 1 in white circle (center) marks the location of the 5″/25cal loading practice machine. Other notable items includeboats and boat cradle in foreground; four Curtiss SOC Seagull floatplanes atop the catapults; crated food piled by the after smokestack; and USS Marblehead (CL-12) at left. NHHC 19-N-30725

 

Curtiss SOC Seagull scout-observation aircraft leaves the port catapult of a New Orleans-class heavy cruiser, circa 1942

Our subject

The Mississippi River city of New Orleans, the site of two different battles in 1815 and 1862, had previously lent her name to a ship-of-the-line that was begun the same year as the former and sold while still in the stocks over 20 years past the latter.

Then came a protected cruiser — laid down by Armstrong in England as Amazonas for the Brazilian Navy— that was rushed into service in 1898 and would remain in the line through the Great War. 

U.S. Navy protected cruiser, USS New Orleans (later PG 34 and CL 22), port bow. Reproduction of a painting by Koerner & Hayes, circa 1897-98.

As such, our cruiser is the only the second USS New Orleans to reach the fleet. Laid down on 14 March 1931 at the New York Navy Yard, she was commissioned on 15 February 1934.

A great pre-war shot of the USS New Orleans shows her profile. NH 660

Her brief peacetime period took her as far as Scandinavia, a showboat for the Navy and the country before finding herself increasingly after 1936 in Pacific waters.

May 1934– heavy cruiser USS New Orleans at Stockholm along with the pansarskeppet Gustav V Sverige. Marinemuseet Fo39197

A superb image of USS New Orleans (CA-32) in English waters, in about June 1934. Note her gunnery clock and no less than four Curtiss SOC Seagull floatplanes on her catapults. Photographed by Wright & Logan, Southsea, England. Donation of Captain Joseph Finnegan, USN (Retired), 1970. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. NH 71787

USS New Orleans (CA-32) in port, circa 1937. Note the broad band painted on her after smokestack, probably a recognition feature. NH 50757

Cruiser USS NEW ORLEANS (CA-32) under St John Bridge, Portland

War!

In it from the very first bullet, on 7 December 1941, New Orleans was moored at Berth 16, Navy Yard Pearl Harbor undergoing engine repairs on shore power.

As noted by her report of the attack:

At 0757 sighted enemy planes “dive bombing” Ford Island and went to General Quarters immediately. At 0805 sighted enemy torpedo planes on port quarter flying low across our stern. Rifle fire and Pistol fire was opened from our fantail as the first planes flew by to launch their torpedoes at the battleships. This ship saw several planes launch their torpedoes headed in the direction of the battleships. Our 1.1/75 battery and Machine Guns aft were manned in time to actually fire at three or four enemy planes passing our stern. About 0810 all batteries, except the 8″ battery, were in action engaging such enemy planes a presented themselves as targets.

USS New Orleans (CA-32) off the Mare Island Navy Yard, California, 9 February 1942, two months after Pearl Harbor. NH 97846

Lightly damaged– her crew found no less than 29 small holes in her above water-line hull and superstructure due to flying fragments but she suffered no casualties– with the Pacific Fleet’s battleships out of service, she was soon expected to fill the gap along with her sisters.

She was soon escorting convoys throughout the South Pacific and screened the carrier USS Yorktown at Coral Sea (taking 580 of Lexington’s survivors off) in May, USS Enterprise at Midway in June, and was standing by USS Saratoga at the Battle of the Eastern Solomons in August 1942.

USS New Orleans underway during exercises in Hawaiian waters, 8 July 1942. This was just weeks after Midway, where she screened Enterprise. Note the extensive float nets and rafts on her superstructure and turrets. 80-G-10115

When Sara was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine, New Orleans spent almost 12 weeks escorting the precious flattop back to Pearl, waiting for her to be repaired (and picking up more AAA guns of her own), then escorting her back to the Solomons.

As the Japanese had fought a string of cruiser/destroyer vs cruiser/destroyer night actions at Savo Island in August (with three of New Orleans’s sisters– Astoria, Quincy, and Vincennes— lost in minutes), Cape Esperance in October (Salt Lake City lost) and Guadalcanal in November (Portland and sister San Francisco seriously damaged) in which the U.S. attrition rate when it came to heavy cruisers became untenable, it was inevitable that New Orleans would soon find herself in a scrap. One that would be the last large surface ship clash of the Solomons campaign.

This brings us to…

Tassafaronga!

RADM Carleton H. Wright’s Task Force 67– including the heavy cruisers USS Minneapolis (CA-36), USS New Orleans (CA-32), USS Northampton (CA-24), and USS Pensacola (CA-26), the light cruiser USS Honolulu (CL-48) and the destroyers USS Drayton (DD-366), USS Fletcher (DD-445), USS Maury (DD-401), USS Perkins (DD-377), USS Lamson (DD-367), and USS Lardner (DD-487)— had a rendezvous with destiny when it acted against a partially surprised and all-around inferior (on paper) Japanese “Tokyo Express” force of RADM Raizō Tanaka’s eight cargo-burdened destroyers of the IJN’s DesRon2 on the night of November 30, 1942, on the surface of Iron Bottom Sound near Lunga Point.

It went…badly.

As described by the National Museum of the Navy:

U.S. force of five cruisers and six destroyers intercepted eight Japanese destroyers bringing reinforcements to Guadalcanal and were crippled by a brilliantly executed Japanese torpedo counterattack. Heavy cruiser Northampton was sunk, while Pensacola, New Orleans, and Minneapolis were badly damaged. The Japanese only lost the destroyer Takanami. In this action, the last of the Guadalcanal campaign’s five major surface battles, the Japanese once again demonstrated their tactical superiority at night. The Navy was learning though, as would be demonstrated in 1943.

It turned out that, while the New Orleans class had better armor than the first generation of American Treaty Cruisers, they suffered from a lack of below-waterline protection and dramatic bow loss ran in the family, at least at Tassafaronga.

Sister Minneapolis, who scored many of the hits on Takanami, took two torpedo hits from Japanese destroyers, one on the port bow, the other in her number two fireroom, and her bow collapsed.

USS Minneapolis (CA-36). En route to Pearl Harbor for repairs, circa January 1943. She had lost her bow when hit by Japanese torpedoes during the Battle of Tassafaronga, off Guadalcanal on 30 November 1942. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives, 80-G-44544.

New Orleans also took her lumps.

Detailed from DANFS:

When flagship Minneapolis was struck by two torpedoes, New Orleans, next astern, was forced to sheer away to avoid collision, and ran into the track of a torpedo which ripped off her bow. Bumping down the ship’s port side, the severed bow punched several holes in New Orleans’ hull. A fifth of her length gone, slowed to 2 knots, and blazing forward, the ship fought for survival. Individual acts of heroism and self-sacrifice along with skillful seamanship kept her afloat, and under her own power she entered Tulagi Harbor near daybreak on 1 December.

For New Orleans, her Battle Damage Report is stark:

  1. During the night of 30 November 1942, NEW ORLEANS was a unit of a task force which engaged a Japanese force in the action subsequently named the Battle of Lunga Point. NEW ORLEANS, firing with her main battery and steaming at 20 knots, had just started to swing to the right to avoid MINNEAPOLIS when a torpedo struck the port bow in way of turret I and detonated.
  2. The torpedo detonation was followed immediately by a second and much heavier detonation. As a result, the bow, including turret I, was severed almost completely between turrets I and II. It swung out to port and tore loose, probably due to the starboard swing of the ship. It then floated aft and banged against the port side. Holes were torn in the shell at frames 53, 130 and 136 and the port inboard propeller was wrecked.

That secondary explosion was later determined to be from one of New Orleans’s aviation bomb and mine magazine, A-502-1/8-M, which “contained the 160-pound demolition charge and forty-nine 100-pound bombs” and that of an adjacent small arms magazine, A-502-M, which contained five 325-pound depth bombs.

From her battle damage report

She limped into Tulagi some eight hours after the battle and remained there shoring up her bow with coconut logs under a camo net for 11 days.

Port bow view as she entered Tulagi harbor about 8 hours after being struck by a torpedo, 1 December 1942

USS New Orleans (CA-32) under camouflage at Tulagi, December 1942

USS New Orleans (CA 32) Cruiser shown soon after the battle. 80-G-44447

Minneapolis did much the same, with the help of Seabees. 

New Orleans then slowly sailed for Sydney, Australia, arriving on Christmas Eve 1942, her crew finally getting some much-needed rest. She would remain there until March, when, after a temporary stub bow was fitted in dry dock, she left for Puget Sound and arrived on the West Coast on 3 April 1943 after stops at Pago Pago and Pearl Harbor

USS New Orleans (CA 32) comes into the Puget Sound Navy Yard, Bremerton, Washington, for a new bow after battling with Japanese warships in Southwest Pacific. In this view, she is almost ready for joining to a new bow. The photograph was released 11 January 1944. 80-G-44448

USS New Orleans (CA-32) steams through a tight turn in Elliot Bay, Washington, on 30 July 1943, following battle damage repairs and overhaul at the Puget Sound Navy Yard. She is likely “creating a slick” for recovering a sea plane– making a smooth patch of becalmed water for the aircraft to land upon. NH 97847

USS New Orleans (CA-32) off the Puget Sound Navy Yard, Bremerton, Washington, following battle damage repairs and overhaul, 5 August 1943. NH 97848

Back in the fight

After post-rebuild workups, New Orleans sailed 5-6 October 1943 with RADM Alfred E. Montgomery’s Task Force 14 to shell Japanese-occupied Wake Island.

Wake Island Raid, October 1943. A heavy cruiser’s 8-inch guns bombard Wake, as seen from USS Minneapolis (CA-36), 5 October 1943. The two following ships are (in no particular order): USS San Francisco (CA-38) and USS New Orleans (CA-32). National Archives photograph, 80-G-81973

New Orleans would also help support Allied landings at Hollandia and the invasion of the Marianas.

Saipan Invasion, June 1944. Units of Cruiser Division SIX bombard Saipan on 14-15 June 1944. The nearest ship is USS New Orleans (CA-32). Beyond her is the light cruiser USS St. Louis (CL-49). 80-G-K-1774

She would lend her increased AAA batteries to help swat down Japanese aircraft during the Battle of the Philippine Sea while revisiting her old days of screening carriers. Then came the big shows in the Philippines and at Iwo Jima.

USS New Orleans (CA-32) at the Mare Island Navy Yard, California, 8 March 1945. The city of Vallejo is in the background. Note the ship’s welded bow structure (forward of her second 8/55 triple gun turret). This replaced her original riveted construction bow, which was lost during the Battle of Tassafaronga at the end of November 1942. Circles mark recent alterations to the ship. 19-N-80232

A rare shot at the same time and place as the above that shows her hangar open. Note that her portside catapult has been landed by this time in her career.

After a final wartime refit at Mare Island, she was back at it, hammering Japanese positions at Okinawa and was at Subic Bay when hostilities ceased.

After supporting the post-war occupation of Korea and Manchuria, she made two trips back stateside on Magic Carpet missions returning Pacific War vets to the U.S. Arriving at Philadelphia Navy Yard in March 1946, she spent an 11-month period preparing for mothballs and was decommissioned 10 February 1947.

She had earned 17 battle stars for her war– tying for third most in the theater– and gained a new bow.

From her nine-page War History in the National Archives.

Of her seven-ship class, only four were still in commission on VJ Day and three of those were so grievously damaged in action against the Japanese off Guadalcanal that they had to be extensively rebuilt. Only sister USS Tuscaloosa (CA-37), which had “luckily” fought most of her war in the ETO, was never damaged in battle.

The remainder of the New Orleans class in the 1946 edition of Janes.

Cruisers and other warships laid up in the Philadelphia Yard Reserve Fleet Basin, circa 1947. The outboard ship in the left group is USS St. Louis (CL-49). Ships in the background include (in no order): USS San Francisco (CA-38), USS Tuscaloosa (CA-37), USS Minneapolis (CA-36), USS New Orleans (CA-32), USS Louisville (CA-28), and USS Portland (CA-33). Courtesy of “All Hands” magazine. Catalog NH 92254

After spending 12 years along Philly’s red lead row, the vaunted USS New Orleans had her name struck from the Navy List on 1 March 1959 and was sold for scrapping on 22 September 1959 to the Boston Metals Co., Baltimore, Md. Similar fates were met by her three remaining sisters at the same time.

Epilogue

Our cruiser was remembered by the (apparently now defunct) USS New Orleans Reunion Association and most of her war diaries along with some architectural and engineering drawings are digitized in the National Archives.

Her ship’s bell– presented to the cruiser by the Louisiana State Museum in 1933– is on display in New Orleans City Hall, just outside the Mayor’s Office.

The National WWII Museum in New Orleans has other artifacts including a piece of the coconut log shoring from Tulagi.

With the old New Orleans sent to the breakers, the Navy soon recycled her name for a new Iwo Jima-class amphibious assault ship commissioned in 1968 and would go on to serve three decades.

The U.S. Navy amphibious assault ship USS New Orleans (LPH-11) underway in San Diego Bay, California (USA), on 16 June 1988. AH-1 Cobra, CH-53E Sea Stallion, and CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters line the flight deck. In the background is the submarine tender USS McKee (AS-41) and the submarine rescue ship USS Florikan (ASR-9). Date 16 June 1988. NH 107677-KN

Then came the Ingalls-built USS New Orleans (LPD-18), a massive 25,000-ton San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock, commissioned in the Crescent City in 2007 and still in service.

The U.S. Navy (Pre-Commissioned Unit) San Antonio Class Amphibious Transport Dock Ship USS New Orleans (LPD 18) sails beneath the Huey P. Long Bridge as it moves on the Mississippi River towards New Orleans, La., on March 5, 2007, in preparation for its commissioning ceremony on March 10, 2007. MCS Kurt Eischen, USN.


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