Tag Archives: battleship

Sailing on Hermes for the Falklands

Timely now due to the fact that, as this is written, the famous old WWII-era HMS Hermes (95) is being slowly cut to pieces in the shallows of Alang, is the below video that was just posted online.

This great 24-minute color film story, from the AP Archives, was filed 21 May 1982 as the British Operation Corporate Task Force was heading to liberate the Falklands.

It starts out with some interesting shots of the force as a whole as it pulled out of Portsmouth, then soon switches to life on the Hermes. The film crew goes from her flight deck where Harriers are buzzing around working up with some live-fire exercises while underway, to the hangar deck and down to engineering, talking to assorted ratings including a 16-year-old snipe who is bummed that his planned 10-day libo was canceled to go fight the Argies.

One interesting part, at the 17:17 mark, shows Hermes training a 100 man group, drawn from the crew, as an internal security force, equipped with SLRs and other small arms. The thought at the time, from the officer over the training, was that the volunteers could be utilized as a landing force ashore if needed, ready to guard ammo dumps, prisoner control, etc. Even with the prospect of possible ground combat on the horizon, three times the amount of tars needed for the force volunteered. To put that into perspective, keep in mind that the light carrier only had a 500– 2,100-man crew.

The Titanic and Lusitania of the Baltic

From the Royal Navy:

While on operations in the Baltic, HMS Echo mapped two shipwrecks from the Second World War. Using her specialized multibeam echo sounder, the ship was able to show the destruction caused to German ships Wilhelm Gustloff and Goya.

HMS Echo (H87), a 3,700-ton multi-role hydrographic survey ship commissioned in 2003.

Goya was a 5,000-ton Norwegian freighter, sent to the bottom by Soviet submarine L-3, taking “over 6,000” souls to the bottom with her

The 25,000-ton German liner Wilhelm Gustloff, sunk by Soviet submarine S-13, took over 9,400 people to a watery grave, the worst maritime disaster in history

The ships were used in Operation Hannibal – a mass seaborne evacuation of German civilians and soldiers from East Prussia in 1945 during an effort to escape the onrushing Soviet Red Army. Around 16,000 lives were lost when Wilhelm Gustloff and Goya sunk after being hit by Russian torpedoes.

Well, that’s a wrap for Hermes

Laid down at Vickers late during WWII, the Centaur-class fleet carrier HMS Hermes (61/R12) languished on the builder’s ways and was only completed post-Suez, joining the Royal Navy in 1959. Converted to a “commando carrier” then made a default Harrier carrier, she spearheaded the British operation to liberate the Falklands in 1982– an operation that probably could not be pulled off without the aging flattop.

Moving to India, she continued to serve as the INS Viraat (R22) for another 31 years, only retiring in 2017 after 58 years of service, making her arguably the longest-serving carrier in naval history. For reference, USS Enterprise (CVN-65) “only” served 56 years and the smaller USS Lexington (CV-16), the famed Blue Ghost, served 48. Similarly, HMS/HMAS Vengeance/NAeL Minas Gerais tied Enterprise at 56– although it was under three different flags– before she was towed off to the shipbreaking yards at Alang.

Speaking of Alang, the final effort to save Hermes/Viraat is disbanding, as it has been confirmed the dismantling of the old girl there is too far advanced to try to make a go of it.

She deserved better.

Warship Wednesday (on a Monday), Dec. 7, 2020: Battle Tug Edition

Here at LSOZI, we 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 (on a Monday), Dec. 7, 2020: Battle Tug Edition

Photographed by Vernon M. Haden, San Pedro California. Donation of Ted Stone, 1977. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 85837

Here we see, resplendent with her peacetime fancy hull number and with her #1 3″/50 mount trained rakishly to port and #2 mount to starboard, the “Old Bird” Lapwing-class minesweeper USS Vireo (Minesweeper No. 52) with assembled officers, crew, and mascot, circa winter 1934. Don’t let this seeming refugee from a TinTin comic fool you, Vireo always seemed to be there when it counted, even when she couldn’t always tip the scales when needed.

Inspired by large seagoing New England fishing trawlers, the Lapwings were 187-foot ships that were large enough, at 965-tons full, to make it across the Atlantic on their own (though with a blisteringly slow speed of just 14 knots).

They could also use a sail rig to poke along at low speed with no engines, a useful trait for working in a minefield.

Lapwing-class sister USS Falcon AM-28 in Pensacola Bay 1924 with the Atlantic submarine fleet. Note her rig

Not intended to do much more than clear mines, they were given a couple 3″/23 pop guns to discourage small enemy surface combatants intent to keep minesweepers from clearing said mines. The class leader, Lapwing, designated Auxiliary Minesweeper #1 (AM-1), was laid down at Todd in New York in October 1917 and another 53 soon followed. While five were canceled in November 1918, the other 48 were eventually finished– even if they came to the war a little late.

Speaking of which, our subject, the first on the Navy List named for the small green migratory bird, was laid down on 20 November 1918 by the Philadelphia Navy Yard and commissioned on 16 October 1919, with Navy Cross-recipient, LT Ernest Robert Piercey, USN, in command– the first of her 21 skippers across an unbroken span.

USS Vireo (AM-52) Anchored in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, January 1920. NH 43603

Vireo would spend a decade on the East Coast performing the typical routine duties of a peacetime minesweeper– pulling targets; transporting men, mail, and materiel; repairing buoys and beacons; and operating with the fleet on annual maneuvers.

This was broken up by towing several former German warships to sea off the Virginia capes in the summer of 1921, where they were sunk by Army aircraft in attempts by Billy Mitchell to prove that capital ships were vulnerable to attack from the air– an ironic footnote to her story that you will get later.

Phosphorus Bomb Test 1921 Sinking of the Cruiser Frankfurt and SMS Ostfriesland

Phosphorus Bomb Test, 1921 Sinking of the Cruiser Frankfurt and SMS Ostfriesland

It was about that time that the Navy figured out these economical little boats with their shallow draft (they could float in ten feet of seawater) could be used for any number of side jobs and started re-purposing them.

Six of the “Old Birds” were reclassified as salvage ships (ARSs) while another half-dozen became submarine rescue ships (ASRs). The Coast Guard picked up USS Redwing for use as a cutter during Prohibition while the U.S. Coast & Geographic Survey acquired USS Osprey and USS Flamingo and the Shipping Board accepted USS Peacock as a tug.

USS Vireo (AM-52) In the harbor, March 1922. USS Rail (AM-26) is in the left background. NH 50207

A few were retained as minesweepers in the reserve fleet, some used as depot ships/net layers, one converted to a gunboat, another to an ocean-going tug, three were sunk during peacetime service (USS Cardinal struck a reef off Dutch Harbor in 1923 while USS Curlew did the same off Panama in 1926 and USS Sanderling went down in 1937 by accident in Hawaii) while nine– including past Warship Wednesday alumni Avocet and Heron included– became seaplane tenders.

As for Vireo, she was one of the few who was never sidelined. Tasked to support the Puerto Rican – Nicaraguan Aerial Survey, serving as an ersatz seaplane tender to three Loening amphibian airplanes, in early 1931 then detailed transferred to the Pacific Fleet, she remained busy her entire career.

Group photograph of the officers and the sailors of the Puerto Rican-Nicaraguan Aerial Survey group in front of Vireo, 24 January 1931 in their whites. Note the officers with their swords, and chiefs in double-breasted jackets. She has the traditional U.S. aviation roundel on her bow, typical of seaplane tenders in this era, but does not have her twin 3-inch guns mounted which are in the photo at the top of this post. National Archives photo 80-G-466337

USS Vireo Docked in San Juan, 6 February 1931, a better view of her seaplane tender markings

USS Vireo (AM-52) in a West Coast port, 1932. Note she has dropped the tender premise and is back to being a sweeper now, with her big hull number back. NH 50320

In 1940, with the fleet’s general shift from California to Hawaii as part of the decay of relations with the Empire of Japan, Vireo moved to Pearl Harbor and was involved in the pre-war buildup on Palmyra and Johnston Island.

The Day that would live in Infamy

On 7 December 1941, Vireo along with three sisterships, Rail (AM-26), Bobolink (AM-20), and Turkey (AM-13) were tied up at the coal docks at Pearl Harbor in upkeep status. Three other sisters converted as seaplane tenders and submarine rescue ships, Avocet (AVP-4), Swan (AVP-7) and Widgeon (ASR-1) were at the submarine rail. Meanwhile, a seventh sister, Grebe (AM-43), was in overhaul.

From the ship’s action report, signed by skipper LCDR Frederick Joseph Ilsemann, about that Infamous Day 79 years ago, in which Vireo claimed at least one of the 29 Japanese aircraft swatted down during the attack:

About 0800 an explosion was heard. This was investigated. Immediately planes bearing the Japanese insignia was seen. General Quarters was immediately sounded and at about 0815 a second group of enemy planes flew over toward Hickam Field. This vessel immediately opened fire and expended 22 rounds of 3″ A.A. ammunition.

About 0830 this vessel brought down one enemy plane flying forward of the bow, toward seaward, over Hickam Field, from left to right. The bursts of #2 A.A. gun of this vessel were definitely spotted in the path of this plane and the plane was seen to land in the vicinity of Hickam Field. 400 rounds of .30 caliber Machine Gun ammunition was expended. Battery consists of 2-30 caliber machine guns, and 2-3″/50 A.A. guns.

There was no damage to this vessel nor loss of life. At 0830 there was one personnel casualty to the radioman, PRICE, Aubrey Evan, RM2c, USN, on watch at the telephone on dock astern of this vessel. He received a shrapnel wound in jawbone and neck. This casualty was immediately transferred to the hospital at Pearl Harbor and returned to duty this date.

This vessel was immediately put into Condition ONE at General Quarters, engines put together and ship made ready for getting underway.

During the action, the conduct of all officers and the crew was commendable. Everyone did his job 100%. There was no hysteria but commendable coolness and control.

At 1348 this vessel received orders to get underway and to report to Commander Base Force at Ten-ten dock. This vessel was ordered to West Loch to bring u 5″, 3″, and .50 cal. ammunition for the U.S.S. California which was badly in need of ammunition. At 1455 while waiting for ammunition to arrive at the Ammunition Depot, West Loch, hauled an ammunition lighter loaded with 14″ powder away from Ammunition Depot dock, where it was a menace, and moored it alongside the old Navajo. Returned to Depot, picked up ammunition and delivered it to U.S.S. Argonne at 1730.

At 2100 moored alongside U.S.S. California and commenced salvage work.

View of USS California (BB-44), taken a day or two after the Japanese raid. USS Bobolink (AM-20), at left, USS Vireo (AM-52), and YW-10 are off the battleship’s stern, assisting with efforts to keep her afloat. The “birds” would stay at California’s side for three days. Morison noted in his book, “Although minesweepers Vireo and Bobolink closed the battleship and applied their pumps, and numerous ‘handy billies’ (portable gasoline-driven pumps) were obtained from other vessels, California slowly settled.” Collection of Vice Admiral Homer N. Wallin, USN(Retired), 1975. NH 95569

Tragically, late that night Vireo was one of the ships that filled the skies over Pearl Harbor with ack-ack on the report of approaching unidentified aircraft.

At about 2110 anti-aircraft fire commenced and a plane was seen shot down and an aviator fell astern of this vessel. This vessel immediately rescued the aviator and identified him as an Enterprise aviator who had been shot down. A dispatch was immediately sent to assure control that planes in the air were Enterprise planes. The aviator was transferred to the U.S.S. California and then to the hospital.

Ensign Eric Allen, Jr., USN (1916-1941) USNA class of 1938. On 12 August 1940, the day after he reported to NAS Pensacola to commence his flight training. He had just come from a tour of duty in USS TRENTON (CL-11). Ultimately assigned to VF-6 in ENTERPRISE (CV-6). He was shot down by U.S. anti-aircraft fire on the night of 7 December 1941 at Pearl Harbor; picked up by USS VIREO (AM-52), he died at the Ford Island Dispensary soon thereafter. NH 96617

Over the next several months, Vireo supported the Pearl Harbor salvage effort whenever she was not off conducting minesweeping and patrol operations in the Greater Hawaii area, including runs to Johnston Island and the Port of Hilo.

Midway

With a huge naval clash on the horizon, on 28 May 1942, under secret orders, Vireo left Pearl at nine knots to escort the tanker Kaloli (AOG-13) to Midway Island. During the voyage, Vireo was reclassified as an ocean-going tug (AT-144) and would arrive at the atoll on 3 June, ordered to hold up off Hermes Reef and await orders.

The next day saw the pivotal stage of the battle there, with the Japanese losing four carriers in exchange for Yorktown (CV-5) which was left dead in the water. With the carrier ordered largely abandoned, Viero was called into action to take the stricken American flattop in tow, arriving at 1135 on 5 June and getting underway by 1308– at three knots, a 1,350-ton minesweeper hauling a crippled 30,000-ton leviathan. The next day, the destroyer Hammann (DD-412) came alongside Yorktown to help with the salvage task while five other tin cans provide a screening force.

That is when Japanese Type KD6 submarine I-168 came on the scene.

As noted by Combined Fleets:

I-168 arrives and sights the carrier and her screen. For seven hours, LCDR Tanabe Yahachi skillfully makes his approach, steering by chart and sound with only a few periscope sightings. Undetected, he penetrates the destroyer and cruiser screen. At 1331, from 1,900 yards, he fires two torpedoes at the overlapping formation, followed by two more three seconds later. The first torpedo hits HAMMANN, breaks her back and sinks her in about four minutes. As she goes down, her depth charges explode and kill 81 of her 241-strong crew. At 1332, the next two torpedoes strike YORKTOWN starboard below the bridge. The fourth torpedo misses and passes astern.

Battle of Midway, June 1942 Diorama by Norman Bel Geddes, depicting the explosion of depth charges from USS Hammann (DD-412) as she sank alongside USS Yorktown (CV-5) during the afternoon of 6 June 1942. Both ships were torpedoed by Japanese submarine I-168 while Hammann was assisting with the salvage of Yorktown. USS Vireo (AT-144) is shown at left, coming back to pick up survivors, as destroyers head off to search for the submarine. 80-G-701902

DANFS:

Vireo freed herself from the carrier by cutting the towing cable with an acetylene torch and then doubled back to commence rescue operations.

Up her sides clambered carriermen and destroyermen alike, while she maneuvered near the carrier’s canting stern to take on board members of the salvage party who had chosen to abandon the carrier from there. She then proceeded to secure alongside the wounded flattop in the exact spot where Hammann had met her doom. Yorktown rolled heavily, her heavy steel hide pounding the lighter former minecraft’s hull with a vengeance as the ships touched time and time again during the rescue operations. This mission completed, battered Vireo stood away from the sinking carrier, which sank shortly after dawn on the 7th.

Her rudder damaged by Hammann’s depth charge seaquake, Vireo ran aground on her way back to Midway harbor and after she made it back to Pearl under her own power, she was given a complete overhaul and drydocking.

USS Vireo (AT-144) At Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, following repairs from Battle of Midway and overhaul, 20 August 1942. Catalog #: 19-N-34748

James Claude Legg, Lieutenant USN ID photo taken circa 2 May 1942. Lieutenant Legg commanded USS VIREO (AT-144) during the Battle of Midway, earning a Navy Cross for his performance of duty in towing the damaged USS YORKTOWN (CV-5). From service record book in NMPRC, St. Louis, MO., 1984. Catalog #: NH 100171

As for I-168, the Japanese boat would never see the end of the war, presumed lost with all 97 hands in the area north of Rabaul after she is hit by four torpedoes from USS Scamp (SS-277) in 1943.

The Rest of the War

Overhauled and assigned to ComAmphibForSoPac, the now green-camouflaged painted Vireo set out for the Guadalcanal area on 12 October, to take part in resupply operations for the Marines of the Cactus Air Force at Henderson Field. The little convoy, consisting of the freighters Alchiba (AKA-23) and Bellatrix (AKA-20), was screened by the gunboat Jamestown (PG-55) along with the destroyers Meredith (DD-434) and Nicholas (DD-449), with the freighters and Jamestown each pulling “a barge carrying barrels of gasoline and quarter-ton bombs” without any air cover whatsoever at 10-knots.

I repeat, pulling “a barge carrying barrels of gasoline and quarter-ton bombs” without any air cover whatsoever at 10-knots.

On the 15th, the world’s most flammable convoy was warned that a Japanese carrier task force was headed its way and was ordered to turn around with Meredith and Vireo breaking off in one element with a fuel barge in an (expendable) effort to keep the Marines flying. They got close, within 75 miles of Guadalcanal, before they spotted Japanese scout planes.

The skipper of the destroyer, LCDR Harry Hubbard, feeling the slow minesweeper-turned-tug was a sitting duck, ordered the ship abandoned and, with the vessel’s fuel barge tied to it, was going to send her to the bottom so that she wouldn’t fall into the hands of the Japanese then beat feet. That’s when 38 aircraft (21 low-level bombers and torpedo planes, 8 dive bombers, and 9 fighters) from the carrier Zuikaku arrived on the scene and, concentrating on Meredith, sent her to the bottom with no less than 14 bombs and 7 torpedoes– enough ordnance to sink the Bismarck!

Remarkably, the abandoned Vireo, saved from one of Meredith’s torpedoes by none other than the Japanese, was still afloat.

From RADM Samuel J. Cox’s H-Gram 011:

However, Vireo was drifting away, and only one raft-load of Meredith and Vireo survivors reached the tug, where they were later rescued. The other rafts, filled with burned and mangled Sailors, became a preview of what would happen to Sailors on the USS Juneau (CL-52) and USS Indianapolis (CA-35) later in the war. As the rafts and wreckage drifted for three days and three nights, numerous Sailors died from wounds, exposure, salt-water ingestion (and resulting mental incapacity and hallucinations), and from particularly aggressive shark attacks. One shark even jumped into a raft and ripped a chuck from an already mortally wounded Sailor. There was not enough room on the rafts, so the less-injured Sailors treaded water, hanging on to the rafts, and had to fight off the sharks as best they could. Most of the injured, including burned and blinded Hubbard, perished in the rafts.

Finally, the destroyers USS Grayson (DD-435) and USS Gwin (DD-433) found 88 survivors of Meredith and Vireo adrift. (About another dozen had earlier been found on the Vireo.) However, 187 from Meredith and 50 from Vireo died in a desperate attempt to get fuel to the Marines on Guadalcanal.

Grayson recovered Vireo and the other barge and returned them to Espiritu Santo. During her return, the Vireo was manned by a salvage crew from the Grayson and survivors from Meredith and Vireo. The intact fuel barge, recovered by the tug Seminole, was delivered to Henderson Field under escort by Grayson and Gwinn, meaning the mission was ultimately somewhat successful if pyrrhic.

With a largely new crew, Vireo remained at the sharp end, coming to the assistance of the cruisers Pensacola (CA-24) and Minneapolis (CA-36) following damage they received at the Battle of Tassafaronga.

Near the USS Aaron Ward (DD-483) when that Gleaves-class destroyer was hit by three Japanese bombers in April 1943, Vireo came tried unsuccessfully to rescue the crushed tin can but had to break the tow when she dived to the bottom just short of Tulagi.

Nonetheless, Vireo continued in her role and came to the assistance of the Battle of Kula Gulf’s “cripples division,” the broken cruisers Honolulu (CL-48), St. Louis (CL-49), and HMNZS Leander, towing the bowless Honolulu in to Tulagi.

USS Honolulu (CL-48) in Tulagi Harbor, Solomon Islands, for temporary repair of damage received when she was torpedoed in the bow during the Battle of Kolombangara. USS Vireo (AT-144) is assisting the damaged cruiser. 80-G-259446 (More detail on the curious sign, penned by Captain Oliver O. “Scrappy” Kessing, USN, commander of the Tulagi Naval base, here)

Then came the support of the liberation of the Philippines, and other hairy stops on the island-hopping campaign to Tokyo (see= Okinawa, see= kamikazes).

VJ Day came with Vireo in the PI, as her war history notes:

The news of the cessation of hostilities between the Allies and the Japanese left everyone aboard just a little bit bewildered, anxious to get started home, and with rosy visions of the plastic post-war world. This missive leaves the Mighty V at Manila, the burned and ruined Pearl of the Orient, the Japs defeated, the Vireo still very very much afloat and still towing strong.

Jane’s 1946 entry on the three Old Birds still around which were classified at the time as tugs, Owl, Vireo, and Woodcock. They would soon be retired.

When the war came to an end, the old tug, surplus to the needs of the Navy, arrived at San Francisco on 5 February 1946 and reported to the Commandant, 12th Naval District, for disposition. That disposition was that she be declared surplus and disposed of, stricken 8 May and transferred to the Maritime Commission the next year. Her ultimate fate is unknown, but there is a report that she was headed to Latin America in early 1947, intended to be converted for service as a Panamanian-flagged lumber boat carrying hardwoods between Long Beach and Panama.

Epilogue

As for the rest of her class, other “Old Birds” served heroically in the war.

Pearl Harbor vet Avocet would spend most of the war in Alaskan waters, caring and feeding PBYs while fending off Japanese air attacks during the Aleutians Campaign. Heron received the Navy Unit Commendation for saving the damaged destroyer USS Peary (DD-226) in the Molucca Strait and repeatedly fighting off a horde of attacking Mavis seaplanes in the process. Six of the class– Tanager, Finch, Quail, Penguin, Bittern, and Pigeon, were lost in the Philippines invasion as part of the doomed Asiatic Fleet. Scuttled at Corregidor, a 36-foot whaleboat from Quail filled with 18 officers and men, but sailing with virtually no charts or navigational aids, transversed 2,060 miles of often Japanese-held ocean reaching Australia after 29 days. The Germans sank USS Partridge at Normandy and sent both Gannet and Redwing via torpedoes to the bottom of the Atlantic.

Most of the old birds remaining in U.S. service were scrapped in 1946-48 with the last on Uncle Sam’s list, Flamingo, sold for scrap in July 1953.

Some lived on as trawlers and one, USS Auk (AM-38) was sold to Venezuela in 1948, where she lasted until 1962 as the gunboat Felipe Larrazabal. After her decommissioning, she was not immediately scrapped and is still reported afloat but abandoned in a backwater channel. She is likely the last of the Lapwings.

Vireo’s name was recycled for a Bluebird-class minesweeper (MSC-205) which, commissioned at the naval station at Tacoma, Wash., on 7 June 1955. The little boat would see some hot action in Vietnamese waters during Operation Market Time, engaging in surface actions with North Vietnamese smuggling trawlers. She was decommissioned in 1975 and went on to serve the nation of Fiji as the Kuva for another decade.

USN 1131998 USS VIREO (MSC-205)

There has not been a Vireo on the Navy List since 1975, a shame. However, much of the ship’s WWII war diaries are available in digitized format in the National Archives

Corsair Armada released a scale model of this hard to kill old bird.

Specs:

Seagoing Minesweeper plan 1918 S-584-129

Displacement: 950 tons FL (1918) 1,350 tons (1936)
Length: 187 feet 10 inches
Beam: 35 feet 6 inches
Draft: 9 feet 9 in
Propulsion: Two Babcock and Wilcox header boilers, one 1,400shp Harlan and Hollingsworth, vertical triple-expansion steam engine, one shaft. (1942: Two Babcock and Wilcox header boilers, one 1,400shp Chester Shipbuilding 200psi saturated steam vertical triple expansion reciprocating engine.)
Speed: 14 knots (26 km/h; 16 mph); 12~ by 1936. 14 again after 1942.
Range: 1,400 nm at 14 knots on 275 tons fuel oil
Complement: 78 Officers and Enlisted as completed; Up to 85 by 1936
Armament:
(1919)
2 × 3-inch/23 single mounts
(1928)
2 x 3″/50 DP single
2 x .30-06 Lewis guns
(1944)
2 x 3″/50 DP single
Several 20mm Oerlikons and M2 12.7mm mounts

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108 years ago today: 356 millimeters of BOOM

Here we see an early Watervliet-made 14-inch (356mm)/34 caliber M1907 “disappearing” seacoast gun of the U.S. Army Coastal Artillery at Fort Hancock’s Sandy Hook Proving Ground on the New Jersey coast, 27 November 1912.

Photo: George C. Bain Collection. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Official caption:

“The first coast defense gun of 14” bore has just been tested at Sandy Hook. 14” were also on U.S. Navy ships and the Army has been working for a long time to adapt that size of the weapon to the coast defense in Manila Harbor.”

The gun was lit off for the first time the same day.

“In the first test of the gun, six shots were fired in three minutes and forty-five seconds. The projectile fired weights 1660 pound and is 65 inches long. The only point at which the new gun has not the advantage is in the trajectory point at which is more curved and the speed of the shot which is somewhat less.”

Photo: George C. Bain Collection. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

With a range of 25,000 yards, a full dozen M1907s on disappearing carriages were deployed overseas, four in Hawaii and eight in the Panama Canal Zone.

By comparison, the best U.S. Naval guns afloat in 1912, the 12″/50 Mark 7s aboard the newly-built USS Wyoming (B-32) and USS Arkansas (BB-33), fired an 870-pound shell to a theoretical maximum of 24,000 yards, meaning that the Army could out-gun the Navy until at least the 14″/45 Mark 1 guns of the USS New York (B-34) brought parity in 1914. It was not until the Colorado-class battleships, with their 16″/45cal guns firing a 2,100-pound shell to 40,000 yards, that the sea service managed to turn the tables in 1921.

In the 1950s, all of the M1907s were removed from Army service, leaving only their mounting pits behind.

US Army document World War I Fortifications of the Panama Canal – 14-Inch DC Gun Emplacement (Battery BUELL), shown in 1965.

Eight further examples, using a longer version of the same gun, the M1910 14″/40cal, were mounted on the same M1907 disappearing carriage, and emplaced at Fort Frank and Fort Hughes in Manila Bay as well as Fort MacArthur outside of Los Angeles.

Four more 14″/40s, dubbed the Model 1910, were emplaced on twin turning M1909 mounts in the “concrete battleship” that was Fort Drum in Manila Bay, as well.

The M1909 mount being tested at Sandy Hook Proving Ground, New Jersey before shipment to the PI. Only two of these mounts were ever constructed and, to the credit of the Army, are both still in existence despite an epic trial by combat.

Big Water Flattop

Continuing in the same vein of pre-WWII American carriers that made it to the post-war (see yesterday’s post on Enterprise), flashing back some 75 years ago today, I give you the USS Ranger CV-4 in the Mississippi River, coming into view of New Orleans. 

Ranger, who we have talked about extensively on a past Warship Wednesday, only earned two battle stars for her wartime service, which was spent in the Atlantic as she was deemed too slight to fight it out with the Empire of Japan, only finally being sent to the Pacific in July 1945. Nonetheless, she struck blows against the Vichy French and Germans spread out from Morocco to Norway.

As detailed by DANFS, the end of her career was a postscript.

Departing San Diego 30 September 1945, Ranger embarked civilian and military passengers at Balboa and then steamed for New Orleans, arriving 18 October. Following Navy Day celebrations there, she sailed 30 October for brief operations at Pensacola [it was thought she would be a training carrier there but was found to be in poor condition and the job was instead handed over to USS Saipan (CVL-28) then later USS Monterey (CVL-26)].

After calling at Norfolk, she entered the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard 18 November for overhaul. She remained on the eastern seaboard until decommissioned at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard 18 October 1946. Struck from the Navy list 29 October 1946, she was sold for scrap to Sun Shipbuilding & Drydock Co., Chester, Pa., 28 January 1947.

Warship Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020: The Empire Strikes Back

Here at LSOZI, we 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, Oct. 14, 2020: The Empire Strikes Back

National Archives 80-G-703401

Here we see Balao-class fleet submarine USS Atule (SS-403), left, torpedoing ex-U-977 during weapon tests off Cape Cod, 14 November 1946. The (in)famous German boat was far from Atule’s only kill, although it was likely her easiest. However, in the end, she would meet a somewhat ironic fate that had, some contend, an aspect of divine intervention.

A member of the 180+-ship Balao class, she was one of the most mature U.S. Navy diesel designs of the World War Two era, constructed with knowledge gained from the earlier Gato-class. U.S. subs, unlike those of many navies of the day, were “fleet” boats, capable of unsupported operations in deep water far from home. The Balao class was deeper diving (400 ft. test depth) than the Gato class (300 foot) due to the use of high yield strength steel in the pressure hull.

Able to range 11,000 nautical miles on their reliable diesel engines, they could undertake 75-day patrols that could span the immensity of the Pacific. Carrying 24 (often unreliable) Mk14 Torpedoes, these subs often sank anything short of a 5,000-ton Maru or warship by surfacing and using their deck guns. They also served as the firetrucks of the fleet, rescuing downed naval aviators from right under the noses of Japanese warships.

Some 311-feet long overall, they were all-welded construction to facilitate rapid building. Best yet, they could be made for the bargain price of about $7 million in 1944 dollars (just $100 million when adjusted for today’s inflation) and completed from keel laying to commissioning in about nine months.

An amazing 121 Balaos were completed through five yards at the same time, with the following pennant numbers completed by each:

  • Cramp: SS-292, 293, 295-303, 425, 426 (12 boats)
  • Electric Boat: 308-313, 315, 317-331, 332-352 (42)
  • Manitowoc on the Great Lakes: 362-368, 370, 372-378 (15)
  • Mare Island on the West Coast: 304, 305, 307, 411-416 (9)
  • Portsmouth Navy Yard: 285-288, 291, 381-410, 417-424 (43)

We have covered a number of this class before, such as the sub-killing USS Greenfish, rocket mail slinger USS Barbero, the carrier-slaying USS Archerfish, the long-serving USS Catfish, and the frogman Cadillac USS Perch —but don’t complain, they have lots of great stories.

The first (and only) U.S. warship named for the bluish-olive colored fish, Atule (SS-403) was laid down 25 November 1943 at Portsmouth; launched on 6 March 1944; and commissioned on 21 June 1944, LCDR (later RADM) John Howard Maurer (USNA 1935) in command. Maurer would be Atule’s only wartime skipper, coming to the new boat from a stint as Engineer Officer and later XO of USS Harder (SS-257) across three successful patrols that saw him receive the Silver Star.

Launch of USS Atule at the Portsmouth Navy Yard 3.6.44. NARA

Following a rushed wartime shakedown cruise and fortnight at the sonar school at Key West, Atule was soon off to the Pacific, leaving Pearl Harbor on her first patrol in company with sisterships USS Pintado (SS-387) and USS Jallao (SS-368) as a Yankee wolfpack on 9 October under the latter sub’s skipper’s nominal tactical control.

Aerial photo USS Atule (SS-403) 15 August 1944. Note she is just wearing her 5″/25 aft and two M2s on her sail, an armament that would soon be augmented with a 40mm and a 20mm. NARA 80-G-313787

Heading for patrol areas in the Luzon Strait and the South China Sea, partner Jallao bagged the Japanese Kuma-class light cruiser Tama (5,200 tons) on 25 October northeast of Luzon.

On Halloween night, it was Atule’s turn and she bagged a big one, stalking a large Japanese surface contact in a night surface radar attack and into All Saints Day.

From her Patrol Report:

0305 hours – In position 19°59’N, 117°25’E obtained radar contact bearing 225°, range 26000 yards. Started tracking.

0325 hours – Obtained radar contact on escort vessel.

0331 hours – Obtained radar contact on a second escort vessel.

0359 hours – Started attack, during the approach a third escort was sighted.

0432 hours – In position 20°09’N, 117°38’E commenced firing six torpedoes from 1850 yards. The target was a large passenger liner. Two torpedoes were seen to broach and then disappear.

0434 hours – A terrific explosion threw material three times the height of the target’s masts. Range to one of the escorts was only 1200 yards. Decided to dive. When clearing the bridge, a second torpedo hit the target. Atule dived to 450 feet.

0440 hours – 9 depth charges were dropped but they were not close.

0445 hours – Heard very loud and crackling breaking up noises on the bearing of the target.

0740 hours – Lost contact with the escorts.

The contact was the Japanese NYK liner Asama Maru (16,955 GRT), escorted by two armed minesweepers and a torpedo boat.

Asama Maru was a beautiful ship that in her peacetime service had such personalities as Baron Nishi Takeichi, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Hellen Keller grace her decks. In wartime, she repatriated U.S. Ambassador Joseph P. Grew and hundreds of American diplomats and their families back to the West before serving as a shuttle carrying up to 5,000 of the Emperor’s troops at a time to the front lines while hauling Allied POWs back on “hell ship” missions back to the Home Islands. While a troopship, she was armed with depth charges, listening gear, 8cm deck guns, and an assortment of AAA mounts.

Asama Maru and her sisters were literally page no. 1 in ONI 208J “Japanese Merchant Vessels,” hinting at how big a prize she was for American sub skippers.

When Atule found her, Asama Maru was carrying a mix of 1,383 military personnel, civilian employees for the military, and survivors from sunken Japanese merchant ships as well as 170 tons of iron scrap, 80 tons of hemp, 80 tons of raw rubber, and other items. As noted by Combined Fleets, “98 of 201 crew, 21 of 266 gunners and armed guards and 355 of 1,383 military personnel and passengers are KIA. Survivors are rescued by the three escort vessels.”

On 20 November, Atule drew blood once again, sinking the Japanese minesweeper W-38 (648 tons).

Just five days later, Atule haunted Japanese convoy MATA-34 just after midnight on 25 November, with six overlapping torpedoes from her bow tubes reaping the freighter-turned-sub tender Manju Maru/Santos Maru (7,266 GRT)  and the escort patrol boat No.38 (935 tons) in the same salvo. Santos Maru was carrying 2,400 troops and sailors including 430 survivors of the battleship Musashi. In the end, she took almost a third of those men to the bottom with her. As for No.38, it “disintegrated.”

Finally, Atule bagged a 4,000-ton freighter on 27 November, anchored between Dequey and Ibuhos Islands, Philippines. “Fired four bow torpedoes,” said her patrol report. The rest of the report was eloquent if terrifying:

Via NARA

Postwar, Atule was not given credit for the almost certain kill, although Nanko Maru No. 6, which went missing at about the same time, seems a good fit.

Wrapping up her first patrol at Majuro on 11 December, which ran 63 days/16,570 nm with a green crew (53 of 77 men were on their first patrol) and expended 22 Mk 18 torpedoes for 11 hits, Atule claimed five ships for a total of 26,600 tons. Postwar, this would be confirmed at four ships and 25,804, which is fairly close to the estimate tonnage wise.

Atule shipped from Majuro on her second war patrol on 6 January 1945, bound for the Yellow Sea. There, she sent the brand-new freighter Daiman Maru No.1 (6888 GRT) to the bottom on 24 January, having to break ice off her deck gun in the process. Not as exciting as her inaugural cruise, she ended her 2nd war patrol at Midway on 7 March.

Her third patrol left out of Midway on 2 April, tasked with lifeguard duties off the Japanese Home Islands which were under constant attack by Navy and USAAF planes, with her crew often taking the time to sink floating mines and wreckage found in her operational area and (unsuccessfully) stalk an elusive Japanese submarine near the Ashizuri lighthouse.

In a twist of irony– she would have many in her career– the only aviator she would rescue was a Japanese naval observer on 5 May. The observer was retrieved from the water from a downed Jake, which had been smoked by a passing B-29 gunner with spotting provided by the sub.

Once again, Maurer, Atule’s skipper– who was a near classmate of Robert Heinlein— showed his prose in detailing the scene in the patrol log.

“A thick wad of currency, a vial of perfume and several condoms showed he was ready for any eventuality.” (NARA)

Putting into Pearl Harbor on 30 May, she had some downtime to train and resupply, then left on her fourth patrol on 3 July– no Independence Day leave in Honolulu for them– bound once again for Japan’s front yard. On that cruise, in a night action across 12/13 August, she spotted two Japanese frigates, Kaibokan 6 and Kaibokan 16 (both 740 tons), sinking the former and damaging the latter with a brace of six torpedoes.

And that was it, the ceasefire was called on the 15th when Emperor Hirohito announced that his country would accept unconditional surrender. With that, she was ordered to terminate her patrol on the 45th day by COMSUBPAC and return to Pearl via Midway, arriving in Hawaii on the 25th.

By the end of August, even before the official surrender, she was headed to New London.

Reaching the East Coast, Atule was assigned to Submarine Squadron 2 and was used as a training and trial boat. In this role, she traveled to the Arctic in July 1946 as part of Operation Nanook in company with the icebreaker USS Northwind (WAG-282), two auxiliaries, and the seaplane tender USS Norton Sound, the latter embarking PBM flying boats.

Atule off the northwest coast of Greenland, on 20 July 1946, during Operation Nanook. Note that she has her full AAA armarment on her sail. 80-G-636420

It was on this frozen trip along the coast of Greenland that she “reached latitude 79 degrees 11 minutes north in the Kane Basin, setting a record for the United States Navy,” and rescued a PBM that had to put down with engine trouble.

Then came her dramatic sinking of U-977, the Type VIIC that famously ignored the formal German surrender order for U-boat at sea on VE-Day and made for South America instead. The rouge boat entered the port of Mar del Plata, Argentina on 17 August 1945, some 108 days and more than 7,600 nm after it had departed Norway.

U-977 lies in in Mar del Plata, Argentina; rusty and weather beaten after 108 days at sea – Photograph courtesy of Carlos J. Mey – Administrator of the Historia y Arqueologia Marítima website http://www.histarmar.com.ar/ via U-boat Archive

In the end, turned over to the U.S. Navy and towed to Boston for a photoex, Atule sent her to the bottom in the test of a prototype steam-powered torpedo off Massachusetts.

View showing torpedoing of U-977 by ATULE (SS403) on 13 November 1946. As noted by the Navy: The pressure hull of U-977 has apparently been completely severed by the detonation and that the forward and after portions of the hull have jack-knifed. U-977 was a standard German Type VII-C design: length 220′-2″; maximum beam 20′-4″; diameter of pressure hull 15′-5″; pressure hull plating thickness .73″; and submerged displacement 880 tons. The torpedo used by ATULE was a Mark 14 body fitted with a Mark 16, Mod. 4 magnetic proximity-fuzed warhead containing 660 lbs. of Torpex and is believed to have detonated almost directly underneath the keel of U-977. This photograph demonstrates the great destructive power of torpedoes when used against unprotected ships such as submarines.

Her wartime service complete, on 8 September 1947, she was placed out of commission, in reserve, with the New London Group of the Atlantic Reserve Fleet. Atule earned four battle stars for World War II service.

Her confirmed WWII tonnage tally stood at 33,379

Atule’s WWII battle flag eventually found its way to the USS Bowfin Museum in Pearl Harbor, where it remains on display today. Note the 51 mines zapped, the rescued Japanese flier chit, and four Rising Suns (Kyokujitsu-ki) and four Hinomaru flags for the eight ships she claimed sunk or damaged

As for Maurer, who earned the Navy Cross on Atule, he went on to hold two surface commands, including the cruiser USS Saint Paul, and be both COMSUBPAC and COMSUBLANT. His final assignment was as Commander of Naval Forces in Key West, retiring from the Navy in 1974.

When it comes to Atule’s sisters, of the schools of Balaos which were commissioned, 10 were lost in the war during operations while another 62 were canceled on the builders’ ways as the conflict ended. In 1946, the Navy was left with 120 units.

Jane’s entry on the Balao class, 1946

Rebirth

After three years on red lead row, Atule was towed to the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard– her birthplace– for reactivation and conversion to a Guppy 1-A type submarine.

Of the 48 GUPPY’d WWII diesel boats that were given a second life in the Cold War, Atule was one of the first 10 IA series boats which recieved the most basic reboot when compared to the other Balaos and Tenches modified later.

Outfitted with a German-style snorkel not too different from the one the Navy inspected on U-977, and a streamlined superstructure sans deck guns, Atule rejoined the fleet a stronger, more versatile warship, recommissioned 8 March 1951.

GUPPY-1A USS Atule (SS-403). NHHC L45-15.02.01

For the next 19 years, she led a quiet life, participating in operations with Latin American allies in a series of UNITAS exercises, working with NATO allies on Mediterranean deployments as part of the 6th Fleet, visiting New Orleans for Mardi Gras, training naval reservists, and, as part of SUBRON12, alternated duty at Key West with service at Guantanamo Bay supporting ASW training for the destroyer force while keeping an eye on Castro.

Reclassified AGSS-403 on 1 October 1969, Atule was decommissioned on 6 April 1970, and her name was struck from the Navy list on 15 August 1973.

In all, she had spent 29 years on the Naval List, with nearly 24 of those on active duty. Not a bad return to Uncle Sam for the $7,000,000 original cost to build her.

The GUPPY-1A entry from the 1973 Jane’s, listing Atule and the last four of her type in U.S. Navy service, USS Sea Poacher, USS Becuna, USS Blenny, and USS Tench, then in reserve.

Points South

Ex-Atule was sold to Peru in July 1974, and renamed BAP Pacocha (S 48), duplicating the name of an earlier boat used by the Marina de Guerra del Perú. She was sent south in tandem with BAP Pabellón de Pica/La Pedrera (SS-49), ex-USS Sea Poacher (SS/AGSS-406) after a refit. Atule/Pacocha was commissioned on 28 May 1974 into the MGP, where she continued her quiet life of training and exercises over the course of the next 14 years. Then came disaster.

On the evening of 26 August 1988, with a reduced crew of 49 men aboard, the 44-year-old submarine was operating on the surface with her hatches open when, just off the port of Callao, a 412-ton Japanese fishing trawler with a reinforced ice-breaking prow collided into her aft port quarter, opening her like a tin can with a 2 meter by 10 centimeters split in the pressure hull. Pacocha didn’t even have time to sound her collision alarm.

Via U.S. Navy Submarine Medical Research Labratory Special Report SP89-1

It was almost as if the ghosts of the Asama Maru, Santos Maru, and others, had returned as wraiths and exacted retribution for the Atule’s past actions.

Nonetheless, the Peruvians had a spirit of their own, it seems.

With the boat taking on water and three men dead, including the skipper, 23 submariners were able to scramble off the submarine before she raced for the bottom of the Pacific some 140 feet down. As the boat was drowning, Teniente Roger Cotrina Alvarado was somehow able to dog a partially flooded hatch to compartmentalize the sub’s forward torpedo room with 21 other survivors, a feat he chalked up to the help of Marija of Jesus Crucified Petković, a Croatian nun who had traveled extensively through Latin America helping the poor and sick.

A 61-page U.S. Navy report on the resulting rescue, compiled in 1989 through first-hand interviews, is fascinating but somewhat outside the scope of this. Suffice it to say, rescue divers were able to use the escape trunk in the forward torpedo room to retrieve the remainder of the crew 23 hours later in six groups, utilising Mark V dive lines.

Naturally, after spending almost a full day 140 feet down in a compromised atmosphere and making a swim to the surface with only the assistance of a rescue hood, most suffered from the bends, but in the end, only one perished.

As for Alvarado, a documentary was made of his efforts and his personal beliefs on the source of his “humanly impossible” strength that day.

Some 11 months after Atule/Pacocha hit the bottom, she surfaced again following 800 hours of work by Peruvian Navy salvage crews, raised on 23 July 1989.

Towed ashore and drydocked, she was studied for the effects of the ramming and sinking, then her hulk was cannibalized for spare parts for other Peruvian submarines.

In the U.S., Atule’s war engineering drawings, patrol diaries, post-war deck logs, and complete WWII muster rolls have been digitized and are online at the National Archives. A veteran’s group was active for several years, but their webpage has since been archived.

Eight Balao-class submarines are preserved (for now) as museum ships across the country.

Please visit one of these fine ships and keep the legacy alive:

-USS Batfish (SS-310) at War Memorial Park in Muskogee, Oklahoma.
USS Becuna (SS-319) at Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
USS Bowfin (SS-287) at USS Bowfin Submarine Museum & Park in Honolulu, Hawaii.
USS Clamagore (SS-343) at Patriot’s Point in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. (Which may not be there much longer)
USS Ling (SS-297) at New Jersey Naval Museum in Hackensack, New Jersey. (Which is hopefully in the process of being saved and moved to Kentucky)
USS Lionfish (SS-298) at Battleship Cove in Fall River, Massachusetts.
-USS Pampanito (SS-383) at San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park in San Francisco, California, (which played the part of the fictional USS Stingray in the movie Down Periscope).
USS Razorback (SS-394) at Arkansas Inland Maritime Museum in North Little Rock, Arkansas.

Specs:
(1944)
Displacement: 1,526 tons (surfaced), 2,391 (submerged)
Length: 311.7 ft.
Beam: 27 ft.
Draft: 13.75 ft.
Machinery: Fairbanks Morse diesel engines, 5,400 HP, fuel capacity, 116,000 gals.; four Elliot Motor Co. electric main motors 2,740 shp, two 126-cell main storage batteries, 2 shafts
Speed: 20.25 kts. (surfaced) 8.75 kts. (submerged)
Endurance: 11,000 miles surfaced at 10 knots; submerged endurance: 48 hours at 2 knots; 75 days
Test Depth: 412 ft.
Complement: 6 officers, 60 enlisted
Radar: SJ
Armament:
1 5″/25cal deckgun, 25 rounds
1 40mm/60 Bofors AAA
1 20mm/80 Oerlikon AAA
2 M2 .50-cal machine guns
10 21-inch torpedo tubes (6 forward, 4 aft), 24 torpedoes
(Post GUPPY 1A)
Displacement: 1,870 tons standard (surfaced), 2,440 (submerged)
Length: 308.
Beam: 27 ft.
Draft: 17
Machinery: 3 Diesels; 4,800 bhp. 2 Electric motors; 5,400 shp, 2 shafts
Speed: 17 kts (Surfaced) 15 kts. (Submerged)
Endurance: 90 days
Complement: 8 officers, 73 men
Armament:
10 21-inch torpedo tubes (6 forward, 4 aft) 24 torpedoes

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Warship Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020: Avalanche, Darby, Husky & Fritz

Here at LSOZI, we 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, Sept. 30, 2020: Avalanche, Darby, Husky & Fritz

NH 108686

Here we see a great bow-on view of the Brooklyn-class light cruiser USS Savannah (CL-42) in 1938, likely on her visit to her namesake East Coast Georgia city.

The nine Brooklyns, all ordered in 1933, was an improvement on the preceding New Orleans class with a London Naval Treaty-compliant 10,000-ton (listed) displacement. In true cruise fashion, while the armor was thin (just 2-inches on most of the belt), they were fast at 32+ knots and had one of the strongest gun armament of their type in the world. This was centered around fifteen (15) 6″/47 (15.2 cm) Mark 16 guns in five three-gun turrets capable of a 60-degree elevation.

Empty shell cases litter the deck near the forward 6-inch/47-caliber gun turrets of USS Brooklyn (CL-40) after she had bombarded Licata, Sicily, during the early hours of the invasion, 10 July 1943. (80-G-42522).

Each of these could lift a 130-pound super heavy AP shell or a 105 HC shell to a maximum of 26,000 yards. Further, they could be loaded extremely fast, an average of 8-to-10 shells a minute per gun. During gunnery trials in March 1939, USS Savannah (CL-42) fired 138 6-inch rounds in one furious minute.

As with the rest of her class, she had extensive aviation facilities, actually greater than that of a small seaplane tender. This included a large hangar, two stern catapults, and the ability to carry as many as six single-engine floatplanes with two more stored on deck. Larger flying boats, while they could not be accommodated onboard, could be fueled alongside.

SOC-3 Seagull aircraft stripped for maintenance in the hangar of light cruiser Savannah, 1938; note the close up of the Pratt and Whitney R-1340 9-cylinder radial engine and caster tracks to roll the planes out of the hangar on its truck and on deck for launch NH 85630

A stern shot of Savannah in 1938, showing her cats and two Seagulls on deck. NH 108693

Laid down 31 May 1934 at New York Shipbuilding in Camden, New Jersey, Savannah was the fourth on the Naval List since 1799, the most important of which was the Brandywine-class frigate that helped captured California from Mexico and go on to bag several Rebel blockade runners in the Civil War. She was commissioned 10 March 1938.

Her peacetime service was spent in a series of memory-making cruises including visiting her hometown, ranging to England, visiting the Caribbean, and clocking in with the Pacific Fleet, taking part in Fleet Problems XX and XXI.

Savannah in Savannah, 1938, passing City Hall. NH 108687

At Savannah Georgia passing to turning slip April 14, 1939. NH 108694

USS Savannah (CL-42) entering Havana Harbor, Cuba, during her shakedown cruise, 20 May 1938. Note her signal flags, displaying the call letters NAQL. Courtesy of Louis A. Davidson, 1977. NH 85625

As part of the Atlantic Fleet, once the balloon went up in Europe, Savannah was detailed to FDR’s Neutrality Patrol as CruDiv 8’s flagship.

Then came war

On December 7, 1941, she was at anchor in New York Harbor and quickly made ready for a real-life shooting war.

Spending most of 1942 screening the carrier USS Ranger (CV-4) in the Atlantic, she ranged as far south as Brazil and as far north as iceberg alley, cruising through U-boat infested waters. That October, she joined Adm. Hewitt’s Western Naval Task Force, part of the Operation Torch landings in Vichy French Morocco.

U.S. troops aboard a landing craft head for the beaches during Operation Torch of the North African Campaign Oran, Algeria. 8 November 1942. Imperial War Museum photo. Hudson, F A (Lt), Royal Navy official photographer

On 8 November 1942, she covered the landing beaches for elements of Lucian K. Truscott’s 9th Infantry across Red, Red 1, Green, Blue, and Yellow Beaches while the planes of her old companion, Ranger, flew top cover. Her guns fired for the first time in anger, silencing several Vichy batteries near the old masonry fortress at Kasba, the latter of which was held by French Foreign Legionnaires.

In all, Savannah fired 1,196 6-inch and 406 5-inch shells by nightfall. The next day, she added another 892 6- and 236 5-inchers to that tally, helping to stop a column of Renault R35 light tanks and work over additional French batteries in support of Truscott’s move inland.

Her humble Seagulls also got in some kills– with the unusual tactic of dropping depth charges on land targets.

Per DANFS:

During that same day, Savannah’s scout planes set a new style in warfare by successfully bombing tank columns with depth charges, whose fuses had been altered to detonate on impact. The scout planes, maintaining eight hours of flying time daily, struck at other shore targets, and also kept up antisubmarine patrol. One of Savannah’s planes located an enemy 75-millimeter battery which had been firing on Dallas and eliminated it with two well-placed depth charges. The cruiser added to the carnage when one of her 5-inch salvoes touched off a nearby ammunition dump.

Over the course of a five day period between 7 and 11 November, Savannah’s five SOC-3s clocked over 40 hours aloft, dropping no less than 14 325-pound and 35 100-pound depth charges on a mixture of targets both ashore and at sea.

Following the French capitulation, she returned to Norfolk, in the same train as the battleship Texas and other cruisers, at the end of November. She was soon assigned to Task Group 23.1 (Cruiser Division Two), with a duty to prowl South American waters for German blockade runners and commerce raiders.

On 10 March 1943, while on patrol with the destroyer USS Eberle (DD-430), she came across the armed Dutch freighter Kota Tjandi, which had been captured by the German Hilfskreuzer (auxiliary cruiser) Komet manned by a prize crew who had hopes of sailing her past the blockade to the Fatherland with her valuable cargo of 4,000 tons of tin and rubber. After firing shots across her bow and one of her Seagulls stitched up the sea in front of the blockade runner with a machine gun blast, a boarding crew moved to take control of the vessel but the Germans were too quick and sank her with scuttling charges.

German blockade runner MV Karin (Dutch freighter Kota Tjandi) aflame from fires, set by her crew before they abandoned ship, after being stopped in the South Atlantic by two units of the United States Fourth Fleet—the light cruiser USS Savannah (CL-42) and the destroyer Eberle (DD-430). A short time later, delayed-detonation scuttling charges exploded, killing all but three members of a boarding party from the Eberle attempting to salvage the vessel. The painting is by Richard DE Rosset via http://www.davidbruhn.com/

Savannah took on board the 75 German survivors, a mix of navy and merchant mariners, and their captors searched and placed the POWs under guard below decks, landing them in the U.S. on 28 March. She also reportedly picked up floating stores to include “Japanese rice beer, French champagne, canned salmon and sardines, oranges, bread still warm from the oven, and women’s shoes with Hong Kong labels.” Brazilian fishermen also recovered tons of rubber bales from the sea.

In May, she departed New York for Oran, escorting a troop convoy of Patton’s 7th Army to the Med. There was more work to be done.

USS Savannah (CL-42) off New York City, with a barge and tug alongside, 1 May 1943. Photograph from the Bureau of Ships Collection in the U.S. National Archives. Catalog #: 19-N-44025

Then came a trip to Sicily.

Operation Husky

The invasion of Sicily, code-named Operation Husky kicked off on the night of 9 July and Savannah played a pivotal role in the landings.

Lt. Col. William Orlando Darby, head and founder of the 1st Ranger Battalion, led his men ashore at Gela, fighting across the beach, through Italian coast defenses and withstood two days of counterattacks against German armor in the streets of the sea town, then captured the incredibly tough strategic nut that was the fortress town of Butera in a night attack at the top of a 4,000-foot hill. The very definition of light infantry, the largest ordnance Darby stormed ashore with was a single 37mm anti-tank gun, this meant that his fire support depended on the Navy, which had detailed Savannah to back him up.

In the official Army history of the Rangers in Italy, the CMH notes dryly that, “For all the courage of individual Rangers, naval gunfire support proved decisive in holding the town.”

As detailed in an interesting 185-page paper at the Joint Forces Staff College on the subject of Naval Surface Fire Support (NSFS) capabilities, past, present and future– penned by an Army colonel– Darby’s experiences ashore under Savannah’s 15 6-inch guns is detailed in the Ranger daddy’s own words:

We were in a very desperate situation…we just couldn’t move. They had a tremendous amount of small arms fire and they had a very well dug-in and well-built position –concrete emplacements, pillboxes, and all. I had this little lieutenant of Artillery with me, who had all the naval gunfire of the Savannah at his control, and I decided to put him to use. I had one of my men who was in position on top of the hill up here and who could see the gun batteries that were firing on us, some five 149 and 150 howitzer batteries that were blazing away. I never realized naval gunfire could be so accurate. We started firing with Savannah and before we finished… forced five batteries to stop shooting. We examined those gun positions and in every battery position, we found at least one gun with a direct hit and at least one stack of ammunition blown in each place…

Before I took Butera she was giving fire support to me – and accurate fire support – at a range of 22,000 yards, which I think is something for people to remember. Naval gunfire support with ground observation and good communications is just like anybody else’s artillery: It is good. As a matter of fact, it is awfully fine artillery because when you say, “fire for effect”, you have 45 rounds of 6-inch shells in one minute. They have 15 guns and fire about three rounds a minute.

According to Savannah’s logs, she fired about 1,890 rounds of 6″/47 HC Mk.34 projectiles in 97 hours supporting the Rangers and other troops ashore, about two-thirds of her magazines.

In an attempt to coordinate the fire ashore, her AV det suffered greatly at the hands of German fighters, her lumbering Seagull observation biplanes– with a top speed of 143 knots and a self-defense armament of just two .30-caliber guns– were no match for pairs of Messerschmitt Bf 109s. Three of four were splashed on their first sortie.

Via NARA

Heading back to Algiers to replenish her magazines, it was there that she found herself amid a maritime disaster.

DANFS-

While Norwegian cargo ship Bjørkhaug loaded Italian landmines in the harbor of Algiers on 16 July 1943, one of the mines exploded. The blast effectively destroyed the ship, and inflicted hundreds of casualties on people in the area. The flames threatened British cargo ship Fort Confidence, which carried a load of oil, and Dutch tug Hudson bravely took her in tow out to sea, where the crew beached her to prevent further loss. Savannah stood by to render assistance during the fiery ordeal.

Savannah stands by to render assistance as vessels burn after Norwegian cargo ship Bjørkhaug explodes in Algiers harbor, 16 July 1943. 80-G-K-3965

After rearming, it was off to Italy itself.

Operation Avalanche

Operation Avalanche, the Allied landings near the key port of Salerno on Italy’s boot, kicked off on 9 September 1943. Savannah was the first ship to open fire against the German shore defenses in Salerno Bay, providing fire support for the U.S. 5th Army until the 11th, when her world was rocked.

That morning at about 10:00 local, a Dornier Do 217K-2 bomber of III./KG 100 landed a 3,000-pound Ruhrstahl X-1 precision-guided, armor-piercing bomb on Savannah. The early smart bomb, known to the Allies as the Fritz X, hit the top of the ship’s number three 6/47 gun turret and penetrated deep into her hull before its 710-pound amatol warhead exploded.

USS Savannah (CL-42) is hit by a German radio-controlled bomb, while supporting Allied forces ashore during the Salerno operation, 11 September 1943. The photograph shows the explosion venting through the top of the turret and also through Savannah’s hull below the waterline. A motor torpedo boat (PT) is passing by in the foreground. Courtesy of the Naval Historical Foundation. Collection of Admiral H. Kent Hewett, USN. NH 95562

USS Savannah (CL-42) afire immediately after she was hit by a German guided bomb during the Salerno operation, 11 September 1943. Smoke is pouring from the bomb’s impact hole atop the ship’s number three 6/47 gun turret. Photograph from the Army Signal Corps Collection in the U.S. National Archives. SC 243636

The damage was crippling, blowing out the bottom of the ship’s hull, immediately flooding her magazines– which may have ironically saved the ship as it prevented them from detonating– and killed 197 of her crew. In respect to the flooding, Richard Worth, in his Fleets of World War II, observed that the lightweight “treaty cruiser” armor plan of the Brooklyns may have helped saying, “it sometimes seemed their flimsiness was a blessing.”

The detail from the ship’s war diary:

USS Savannah (CL-42) corpsmen attend casualties on the ship’s forecastle, after a German radio-controlled bomb hit her # 3 six-inch gun turret during the Salerno operation, 11 September 1943. National Archives. 80-G-54355

USS Savannah (CL 42), Struck by a German bomb, men take care of the casualties and make hasty repairs to continues to bombard shore installations of Salerno, Italy. While wounded men were given treatment, a crewman aims a stream of water down the smoking hole made by the bomb. 80-G-54357

USS Savannah (CL-42) bomb penetration hole atop her number three 6/47-gun turret, while the ship was undergoing initial repairs off Salerno, Italy. Note life rafts atop the turret, one of which has been cut in two by the bomb. Also, note the turret’s armored faceplate. The view looks forward, with number two 6/47 gun turret in the immediate background. The original photo caption, released on 2 November 1943, reads (in part): A round, clean hole marks the point of entry of a Nazi bomb on the cruiser Savannah. Inside, all was chaos, smoke, blood, and death. NH 97959

After eight hours dead in the water, Savannah was able to reignite her boilers and get up enough steam to make it to Malta under her own power, an impressive feat for a ship of any size that just took a major hit and had water inside one-sixth of her hull. Of note, German Fritz bombs on the same day sank the Italian battleship Roma, the flagship of the surrendering Italian fleet and on the16th hit the storied British battleship HMS Warspite, which had to be towed to Malta and was never fully repaired.

Over the next eight months, Savannah was extensively repaired to the point of being almost rebuilt, with new side bulges fitted and an updated 5-inch gun battery with modern fire control directors.

The USS Savannah during a day firing, May 1944. Note her newly-installed 5″/38DP mount. Truman Library 63-1398-148

5 September 1944 photo as rebuilt after FX-1400 guided bomb damage off Salerno. Hull is blistered up to the main deck and her former single 5″/25 guns have been replaced with twin 5″/38s. She is also fitted with a new bridge and new lightweight antiaircraft guns and the arrangement of those guns. The entire Brooklyn class was planned to be so modified but this was canceled at the end of the war. Via Navsource https://www.navsource.org/archives/04/042/04042.htm

Post-reconstructed USS Savannah (CL-42) photographed from a blimp of squadron ZP-11, while underway off the New England coast on 30 October 1944. NH 97956

The rest of her war was much less active, although the reconstructed cruiser to part in the escort of President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the Mediterranean in January and February 1945 on his way to the Yalta conference. She finished WWII as a school ship in the Chesapeake, carrying out weekly training cruises. After VE-Day, she was used on two Magic Carpet cruises returning GIs from France.

She also made one last stop in her “hometown.”

Starboard-bow view while steaming in the Savannah River, Savannah Georgia while attending Navy Day celebrations on or about 27 October 1945.

Entering an inactivation overhaul at the end of 1945, Savannah was placed in reserve the next year and decommissioned on 3 February 1947. She earned three battle stars for her wartime service and would never sail under her own power again. Her service lasted just shy of nine years.

Epilogue 

Some of her sisters never made it to the end of the war, with Helena (CL-50) hit by three Japanese Long Lance torpedoes in 1943 during the confused night action at the Kula Gulf. Of the eight Brooklyns that passed into mothballs after the war, six were transferred to the navies of Argentina, Chile, and Brazil in 1951 to include the class leader who, as ARA General Belgrano, was sunk by a British submarine in the Falklands in 1982.

In the end, Savannah was the last of her class the U.S. fleet, with fellow sister Honolulu (CL-48) disposed of in 1959. In the end, she was sold for $172,090 to Bethlehem Steel Co., of Bethlehem, Pa., for scrapping on 6 January 1960, and on the 25th of that month, she was removed from Navy custody.

Her 21-page war diary as well as dozens of monthly diaries and logs are digitized in the National Archives.

USS Savannah CL-42 model, data plats, and ship’s bell at her namesake city’s Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum in Savannah, Georgia.

Savannah is well-remembered in her namesake city and many artifacts and relics are dotted around town, as are markers.

There is also an array of contemporary maritime art in circulation including paintings and postcards.

The fifth Savannah, a name surely fit for a warship, was instead issued to a fleet replenishment oiler (AOR-4) in 1970 that served for 25 years.

The sixth Savannah, an Independence-class littoral combat ship, (LCS-28) is under construction in Mobile and was recently launched. Yes, she is an LCS, but at least she is a fighting ship.

Specs:

NH 67861

NH 108696

Displacement 9,475 (designed) 12,207-tons full load 1945
Length 608
Beam 69′
Draft 19’2″
Machinery:
8 × Babcock & Wilcox boilers, 4 × Parsons geared turbines, 4 shafts 100,000shp
Speed: 32 knots
Complement 868
Armor:
Main Belt
At Machinery: 5 in
At Magazines: 2 in
Deck: 2 in
Barbettes: 6 in
Gun turret
Turret roofs: 2 in
Turret sides: 1.25 in
Turret face: 6.5 in
Conning tower: 5 in
Armament:
(1938)
15 6″/47 DP
8 5-inch/25 cal singles
8 .50-caliber water-cooled machine guns
(1945)
15 6″/47 DP
8 5″/38 caliber anti-aircraft guns in four dual mounts
28 40mm/60 Bofors in 4 quads and 6 twin mounts
12 20 mm Oerlikon singles
Aircraft: Up to 8 seaplanes, typically 4 carried. Usually Curtiss SOC Seagulls but by 1945 SC-1 Seahawks.

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About Time, Fusiliers Marins edition

Earlier this month, the Chief of Staff of the French Navy, Admiral Christophe Prazuck announced the that the names of the nine French Marine units, the Fusiliers Marins et Commandos Marins, will moving forward be tied to historic officers of the names of key heroes from the Free French 1er BFM/BFMC (aka Commando Kieffer) and 1er RFM (Régiment de Fusiliers Marins).

Raised from volunteers abroad and members of the French Navy who ended their 1940 war in British ports– many from the old battleships Paris and Courbet— the brand-new Forces Navales Françaises Libres (Free French Naval Forces) forces under Admiral Emile Muselier, allied with then-renegade Maj Gen. Charles de Gaulle formed these commandos along British lines.

Taking part in the Dieppe Raid in August 1942, they landed in force at D-Day and continued on to the Alps, earning more than 200 Croix de Guerre and 32 Légion d’Honneur.

While elite frogmen units such as Commando Hubert have the names of famous (posthumously) officers who have led them, up until this month, the modern French marines had unit names such as the uninspired but descriptive details such as the Groupe des Marines de l’Atlantique (Atlantic Marines Group). Now, the Groupe des Marines de l’Atlantique, for example, is the Amyot d’Inville Marines Battalion, named after French navy CDR Amyot D’Inville who commanded the Free French Marines at Bir Hakeim and was killed on the Continent in 1944.

More here. 

All over for the longest-serving aircraft carrier

As we have talked about previously, the WWII vintage Centaur-class fleet carrier HMS Hermes (61/R12) spent 28 years in the Royal Navy– including as flagship of the Falklands task force– then went on to give the Indian Navy another 31 years of hard service as INS Viraat (R22) before she was retired in 2017. For reference, she was laid down 21 June 1944, just two weeks after D-Day.

As far as I can tell, Hermes/Viraat was the longest-serving aircraft carrier under any flag, surpassing USS Lexington (CV-16/AVT-16) which clocked in for 48 years in a row– although the last couple of decades of that were as a training ship out of Pensacola– and USS Enterprise (CVN-65), which was a hard charger for 51 years. USS Nimitz (CVN-68) has been with the fleet since 1975 by comparison, “just” 45 years.

While the Indians had tossed around the idea of making Viraat a museum in Mumbai, no cash could be spared and she went to the auction block in 2019 with no bidders. Likewise, a prospect for the old warrior to return back home to the UK where veterans groups aimed to preserve her there also fell through.

She is set to arrive at Alang Ship Breaking yard for demolition in the first week of September.

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