Scouting Force

Some of the heaviest of heavy sluggers in the Pacific War were the Pensacola and Northampton classes of heavy “treaty cruisers.” Below is a rare snap of seven of these vessels all in one place at one time, 90 years ago today. Of note, two of the seven were lost in combat during WWII.

Official U.S. Navy Photograph #80-G-451164, now in the collections of the National Archives.

Pearl Harbor Navy Yard, Oahu, Hawaii – Scouting Force ships at, and off, the yard, 2 February 1933. Cruisers tied up at 1010 Dock are (from left to left-center) heavy cruisers USS Augusta (CA 31), Chicago (CA 29), and Chester (CA 27). USS Northampton (CA 26) is alongside the dock in the center, with USS Kane (DD 235) in the adjacent Marine Railway and USS Fox (DD 234) tied up nearby. USS Louisville (CA 28) is in the center distance. Moored off her bow and at the extreme right are USS Salt Lake City (CA 25) and USS Pensacola (CA 24).

Importantly, note the quartets of floatplanes visible, especially on Augusta and Chicago. Having seven cruisers able to put up to 28 observation/scout planes in the air at any one time gave the fleet some decent over-the-horizon ability, especially in the days before long-range surface search radar. 

At the time these would most likely have been Vought O2U/O3U Corsairs. With a range of 680 miles– giving a combat radius of 300– they could carry a trio of flex and fixed ANM2 Brownings and up to 500 pounds of bombs.

The U.S. Navy heavy cruiser USS Chicago (CA-29) at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard, California (USA), in 1931 (looking aft from the top of the forward fire control station). Note the Vought O3U-1 Corsair floatplanes on the catapult deck. Cruisers in the U.S. Navy often carried as many as 5-6 aircraft between on-deck storage and their hangar (NH70721)

USS Northampton (CA-26) at anchor 1930s. Note four floatplanes amidships.

Northampton-class heavy cruiser USS Louisville (CA-28), Pensacola-class heavy cruiser USS Salt Lake City (CA-25), USS Northampton (CA-26), and USS Chicago (CA-29/also Northampton-class) turning in formation to create a slick for landing seaplanes, during exercises off Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, 31 January 1933. Planes are landing astern of the middle cruisers. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. Catalog #: 80-G-451165

USS Portland (CA-33) during the fleet review at New York, 31 May 1934, with four floatplanes amidship, likely Vought O3U-1 Corsairs with Grumman floats (Photo: NH 716)

Most famous for knocking the original King Kong off the Empire State Building, the O2U gave the fleet some serious eyes. After 1935, they would be replaced with the Curtiss SOC Seagull, a floatplane with better performance that the cruisers would often use well into WWII. 

Besides scouting, the cruiser force’s floatplanes performed a much unsung service in picking up those lost at sea, light transport of personnel and packages from ship to ship and ship to shore, as well as the all-important task of correcting distant naval gunfire missions.

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