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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.

Warship Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020: Ely’s Shotgun

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, Nov. 18, 2020: Ely’s Shotgun

U.S. Navy Photograph. Courtesy of the Library of Congress Lot 918-2. Also, at NHHC as NH 76511

Here we see a famous shot, taken in Hampton Roads, Virginia some 110 years ago this week, of aviation pioneer Mr. Eugene Burton Ely flying his “Hudson Flyer” Curtis pusher aeroplane— the first to take off from a warship of any kind. While Ely flew from USS Birmingham (Scout Cruiser # 2), a storied ship we have covered in the past, this Warship Wednesday is focused on the unsung first carrier plane guard– the Paulding-class tin can USS Roe (Destroyer No. 24), visible in the background.

The 21-vessel Pauling class, built across four years from 1908 to 1912 were smallish for torpedo boat destroyers, tipping the scales at just 742-tons. Overall, they ran 293-feet long, with a razor-thin 26-foot beam. Using a quartet of then-novel oil-fired Normand boilers (although a range of other boilers was experimented with) pushing a trio of Parsons direct-drive steam turbines, they could gin nearly 30-knots when wide open, although they rattled and rolled while doing so. This earned them the “flivver” nickname after the small and shaky Ford Model Ts of the era. Armament was five quick-firing 3″/50 cal guns and a trio of twin 450mm torpedo tubes, to which depth charges would later be added.

Constructed by four different yards at the same time, the class had vessels completed with either four or three stacks, of which Roe was in the latter category.

The 1914 Jane’s entry for the class, note the varied boiler fit and funnel scheme.

Roe was the first ship named in honor of RADM Francis Asbury Roe (USNA 1848) who explored the Northern Pacific and fought off Chinese pirates on the brig USS Porpoise before the Civil War, during which he served first as XO of the gunboat USS Pensacola before skippering the gunboat USS Katahdin in the fight against the Confederate ram CSS Arkansas. He finished the war as captain of the sidewheeler USS Sassacus and again fought a second Rebel ironclad, CSS Albemarle. Post-war he helped escort the French out of Mexico and exercise gunboat diplomacy in Brazil. Promoted to Commodore in 1880, he gained his star on the retired list in 1885 and is buried at Arlington.

CDR Roe 1866 (NH 46948-KN) and RADM Roe, retired, 1893, at age 70 (NH 103530-KN)

Laid down by Newport News Shipbuilding on 18 January 1909, USS Roe commissioned 17 September 1910, built for $642,761.30, which adjusts to about $17 million in today’s dollars.

USS Roe (Destroyer # 24) Ready for launching, at the Newport News Shipbuilding Company shipyard, Newport News, Virginia, 24 July 1909. Collection of the Society of Sponsors of the United States Navy. NH 103520

USS Roe (Destroyer # 24) Sliding down the ways during her launching, at the Newport News Shipbuilding Company shipyard, Newport News, Virginia, 24 July 1909. The original print is a halftone reproduction. Collection of the Society of Sponsors of the United States Navy. NH 103519

Like the coal-fired Smith-class that preceded them, the Pauldings used a layout of three Parsons turbines with a high-pressure center turbine exhausting to two low-pressure “cruising” turbines on outboard shafts, with the latter used to conserve fuel at low speeds.

The above shows USS Flusser (DD-20)’s engines under construction in 1909 showing the three-shaft/turbine arrangement. Photo from Bath Iron Works – General Dynamics Company.

Roe was a testbed for her type, being the first of her class to run trials and enter service although she was technically the third ordered. Departing from the standard quartet of Normand boilers, she was fitted instead with Thornycroft boilers, two in each engine room, fed by Sirocco forced draft fans. Each room was supplied with 22 oil sprayers and two oil heaters, doing away with coal.

“The enlisted man in the navy is said to be very much interested in oil fuel and in the consequent abolition of the dirty job of ‘coaling ship,’ an expression which will now have to give way to ‘oiling ship,” noted the October 1910 Marine Review.

Designed for a top speed of 28-to-29-knots, she bested that on her all-oil-fired suite of geared turbines, making headlines.

Attached to the Torpedo Flotilla, Atlantic Fleet after commissioning, Roe would spend the next six years in a cycle of winter maneuvers in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, followed by summers cruising off the mid-Atlantic and southern New England sea coasts, completing exercises, interspaced with downtime spent in reserve with a reduced complement– a common fate for the vessels of the rapidly-expanding manpower-poor American steel Navy of the era.

USS Roe In port, circa 1910-1915. NH 43764

USTBD Roe with a bone in her mouth, 1911, NARA 165-WW-335E-20

That’s not to say during that time she didn’t see some interesting events.

In November 1911, Roe, with her paint still fresh, was partnered with a quartet of other vessels in an aviation experiment. Besides the already mentioned scout cruiser Birmingham, the little task force included the torpedo boats USS Bailey (TB-21) and the USS Stringham (TB-19), and Roe’s recently completed sistership, USS Terry (Destroy No. 25). The two destroyers were selected to accompany Birmingham and to follow the course of Mr. Ely’s aeroplane and render service if necessary while the two torpedo boats were ordered to standby as backups.

On that fateful day in the Chesapeake Bay, as superbly detailed in an essay by Dr. Greg Bradsher, Senior Archivist at the National Archives at College Park, Roe embarked the aviator’s wife, Mabel Ely, a collection of naval officers, “and a corps of newspapermen from Washington to cover the flight, as well as Brig. Gen. Allen (who may have been aboard Birmingham).”

While the short flight went off without any disastrous hitches, Roe stood by a recovered Ely after the event and was the immediate host to the celebration for the daring young man and his flying machine.

The launch took Ely and the officers to the Roe, where, gathered in the mess room, they were photographed by cameramen. Everyone congratulated Ely and they talked about the flight as they returned to Norfolk.

“The spray got on my goggles,” Ely explained, “so that I could not see or tell which direction I was going for a time. When I got my goggles clear I saw I was heading for a beach that looked like a convenient landing place, so I kept on.” “The splash in the water was my own fault. “The front push rod was a little longer than the one I am used to and I didn’t handle it quite right. Then of course the fact that the ship was not under way was a great disadvantage to me.” The naval officers agreed. They were unanimous in declaring that the flight was rendered much more difficult by the fact that the ship had not gotten underway when the aeroplane left her deck. They observed that Ely had lost all the advantage of the head-on breeze. If the ship had been going ten knots the aeroplane would have arisen much easier. “Had it been necessary I think I could have started right back and landed on the Birmingham” he said. “I think the next test along this line might be that of landing on a ship in motion. There should be no difficulty in accomplishing this. This would mean that an aeroplane could leave the deck of a ship, fly around and then return to the starting point.” While discussing the flight someone brought it to his attention that Ryan had offered a prize of $500 for the first flight made by a USAR member from the deck of a warship more than one mile out at sea to shore. Ely said he had not heard of the prize

Her initial flight activities behind her, Roe got back to fleet work.

In January 1912, Roe, along with four other destroyers battled a two-day storm at sea off Bermuda that scattered the group. As a result, Roe suffered some pretty gnarly damage from a rogue wave during the storm, crumpling two of her three funnels.

USS Roe, Showing Stacks Damaged by Storm, Brooklyn Naval Yard 1/22/1912 LOC 6880371 + 6281761, along with Jan. 9, 1912 edition of the NY Herald

She frequented Pensacola throughout 1916 in further support of the Navy’s aviation operations, with local newspapers in that Navy town running numerous articles on her activities pier-side. Her crew’s “strong” baseball team even repeatedly crossed bats with the local Pensacola Peps and Old Timers clubs.

USS Roe (Destroyer # 24) Ship’s officers and crew, circa 1915-1916. The two officers in the center are possibly (from left to right): Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Aaron S. Merrill, and Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Guy C. Barnes, Roe’s commanding officer. Note the African American stewards in the right corner and the ship’s mascots including a pit-bull in the life ring. The original photograph, by Rox, 518 So. Palafox, Pensacola, Florida, was printed on a postal card, which was mailed at Pensacola on 23 September 1916 with the message: Look natural? Courtesy of Jack Howland, 1982. NH 93718 + Article from the Pensacola Journal, Aug. 4, 1916

When America finally joined the Great War, Roe was ready on day one, seizing the interned 5,800-ton German steamer SS Hohenfelde on behalf of the U.S. Shipping Board, 6 April 1917, at Savannah, Georgia, the same day that Congress responded with the declaration of War requested by President Wilson. The fine British-built Hohenfelde was captured in fairly good shape and would go on, like most captured German ships in 1917, to be repurposed for U.S Navy use, entering the fleet as the cargo ship USS Long Beach (AK-9), 20 December 1917.

Meanwhile, Roe made ready to go “Over There,” sailing for France in early November 1917, where she would spend the next year on coastal patrol and escort duty.

USS Roe (Destroyer # 24) Laying a smokescreen, before World War I. Photographed by Waterman. Courtesy of Jack Howland, 1985. NH 100400

Oiling ship! USS Roe (Destroyer # 24), at right, taking on oil from USS Warrington (Destroyer # 30), at sea off the coast of Brest, France, 1 June 1918. Note Warrington’s dazzle pattern camouflage. NH 41760

She crossed paths with at least one German submarine. Per DANFS:

On 8 August 1918, Roe went to the rescue of the U.S. freighter Westward Ho, a 5,814-ton steamer, which had been torpedoed in the Bay of Biscay by U-62 (Kapitänleutnant Ernst Hashagen commanding) while en route from New York to LaPallice, France, in convoy HB-7. The destroyer took on board the 46 members of the sunken ship’s crew. While in formation the next day, 9 August, Roe received a signal of “submarine ahead.” The ship maneuvered until a wake was visible on which she dropped depth charges, but with no discernible results.

USS Roe (Destroyer # 24) On patrol in 1918. She is painted in dazzle camouflage. Collection of Peter K. Connelly. Courtesy of William H. Davis, 1967. NH 64986

Arriving back in the States on 1 December 1918, she was given a much-needed overhaul at Charleston then was placed out of commission exactly a year later on 1 December 1919.

In all, Roe only served nine years and three months with the fleet but in that abbreviated decade had been the Navy’s inaugural plane guard, survived a tempest, and fought in at least one shooting war. With that, she joined her fellow low-mileage greyhounds in mothballs.

Panoramic of the Reserve Fleet Basin, Philadelphia Navy Yard, PA, ca. 1920-1921. Visible are a vast number of laid-up destroyers including USS Sturtevant (DD-240), USS Roe (DD-24), and USS Gregory (DD-82). NHHC S-574

Rum Row

As deftly retold in a paper by the USCG Historians Office, the service, then part of the Treasury Department, was hard-pressed to chase down fast bootlegging boats shagging out to “Rum Row” where British and Canadian merchants rested in safe water on the 3-mile limit loaded with cases of good whiskey and rum for sale.

Rumrunners in Canada and in the Bahamas had the cry, “For some, there’s a fortune but others will die, come on load up the ship boys, the Yankees are dry.”

This led the agency to borrow 31 relatively new destroyers from the Navy, an act that would have been akin to the USN transferring most of the FFG7 frigates to the Coast Guard during the “cocaine cowboy” days of the 1980s.

From the USCG Historian:

In the end, the rehabilitation of the vessels became a saga in itself because of the exceedingly poor condition of many of these war-weary ships. In many instances, it took nearly a year to bring the vessels up to seaworthiness. Additionally, these were by far the largest and most sophisticated vessels ever operated by the service and trained personnel were nearly nonexistent. As a result, Congress authorized hundreds of new enlistees. It was these inexperienced men that made up the destroyer crews and contributed to the service’s greatest growth prior to World War II.

A total of 31 destroyers served with the Coast Guard’s Destroyer Force. These included three different classes, the 742-ton “flivver-class,” “1,000-ton class”, and the 1,190-ton “Clemson-class” flush-deckers. Capable of over 25 knots, the destroyers had an advantage in chasing large rumrunners. They were, however, easily outmaneuvered by smaller vessels. The destroyers’ mission, therefore, was to picket the larger supply ships (“mother ships”) and prevent them from off-loading their cargo onto smaller, speedier contact boats that ran the liquor into shore.

Via The Rum War at Sea, USCG

Roe was reactivated and transferred to the Treasury Department on 7 June 1924 at the Philadelphia Navy Yard for service with the Coast Guard and was among the first group of destroyers loaned to the Coast Guard for the war on booze. Commissioned as CG-18 at the New York Navy Yard 30 May 1925, she was stationed at Boston.

As described by CDR Malcolm F. Willoughby, USCGR, ret, in The Rum War at Sea, the 229-page 1964 work on this period in Coast Guard history, these destroyers, which in many cases were mothballed in poor shape, were run on a shoestring once transferred, at least until a larger force was literally created from scratch.

Outside of a half dozen old-time Coast Guard men, the crew were enlisted and shipped directly from the recruiting office to the ship. They might have been shoe salesmen or clerks one week, the next week they were on board a destroyer with the rating of apprentice seaman or fireman third class. Great were the difficulties of running a specialized ship with an inexperienced crew.

U.S. Coast Guard destroyers at the New York Navy Yard, 20 October 1926 These former U.S. Navy destroyers were transferred to the Coast Guard to help fight the illegal rum-running traffic along the East Coast. They are (from left to right): USCGC Monaghan (CG-15, ex USN DD-32); Unidentified; USCGC Roe (CG-18, ex USN DD-24) with a damaged bow; USCGC McDougal (CG-6, ex USN DD-54); and USCGC Ammen (CG-8, ex USN DD-35). Courtesy of the San Francisco Maritime Museum, San Francisco, California, 1969. NH 69025

One of Roe’s most curious cases during her career as a Coastie involved that of the two-master John R. Manta— who in 1925 had been the “last vessel to complete a whaling voyage in New England.” Found aground in shallow water off Nantucket in May 1929, once towed in, the converted whaler was founded to have no Americans aboard, no manifest, no log entries, and, besides a few guns and bottles of booze, also held 11 “aliens all in exhausted conditions” hidden in a compartment secreted under a linoleum deck. Each had paid a whopping $250 for their undocumented passage– $3,800 in today’s greenbacks.

USCGD Roe CG-18 at sea. Coast Guard destroyers typically spent 60-day cruises at sea, scouting long-range sweeps along their patrol zone in a lookout for motherships which they would picket in a game of interference as the vessels were typically beyond the jurisdictional 12-mile limit. DVIDS Photo 1119155

In poor condition, Roe was placed in a reduced-manning status 25 October 1929, her now-experienced crew transferred to the newly-fielded Coast Guard destroyer Trippe (CG-20), a Paulding class sistership who had served in the Navy as USS Trippe (DD-33).

Officially returned to the Navy on 18 October 1930, she was returned to the Navy List and stored in Philly but never rejoined the fleet. Instead, she was stricken and sold for scrap in 1934 per the London Naval Treaty, a fate shared by the rest of the class.

Her engineering drawings are in the National Archives along with 100 pages of work orders.

RADM Roe’s name was reissued to the new Sims-class destroyer (DD-418), commissioned 5 January 1940. The hardy new tin can served from Iceland to the Torch Landings and Iwo Jima, earning six battle stars during World War II. She was sold in 1947 to the breakers. There has not been a third Roe on the Navy List.

USS Roe (DD-418) Underway at sea, circa 1943-1944. NH 103528

Specs:
Displacement:
742 long tons (754 t) normal
887 long tons (901 t) full load
Length: 293 ft 10 in
Beam: 27 ft
Draft: 8 ft 4 in (mean)
Installed power:12,000 ihp
Propulsion:
4 × Thornycroft boilers
3 × Parsons Direct Drive Turbines
3 × screws
Speed:
29.5 kn
31kt on Trials
Range: 2175(15) on 225 tons of oil
Complement: 4 officers 87 enlisted U.S. service. 75 in Coast Guard
Armament:
5 × 3 in (76 mm)/50 caliber Mark 3 low-angle guns
6 × 18-inch (450 mm) torpedo tubes (3 × 2)
Depth charges, in two stern racks and one Y-gun projector, added in 1917, removed in 1924

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Sneaky, Sneaky

Here at LSOZI, we have talked about several of the Italian and German midget subs of WWII, including a whole Warship Wednesday dedicated to the spooky little craft that sank the HMS/ORP Dragon off Normandy and another on the Italian explosive motorboats that crippled HMS York.

With that being said, I recently ran into two things you guys would find interesting. Below is a great 26-minute Oct. 1945 newsreel on German and Italian sneak attack that was recently archived by the AP:

The second is a write up by H I Sutton over at Covert Shores on the Untersee-Gleitflächen-Schnellboot Manta, a craft I had never even heard of until now.

The designers hoped to combine the transit speed of a speedboat with the stealth and survivability of a submarine. To do this it would need to combine several advanced technologies which Germany had been developing. Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) and hydrofoils.

More on the Manta over at Covert Shores.

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.

“He’s as bad as the worst and as good as the best of us”

The Treasury-class United States Coast Guard Cutter George W. Campbell (WPG/AGC/WHEC-32) was 327-feet of rock and roll. Entering service on the eve of WWII, she spent the conflict first on the razor edge of FDR’s neutrality patrol, then, once the balloon went up, as a Navy gunboat on the more frozen regions of the North Atlantic, shepherding 19 convoys across the big, U-boat infested waters.

It was on this duty that maritime artist Anton Fischer famously accompanied the ship.

Coast Guard Cutter Campbell by Fischer.

Campbell would end the war as an amphibious warfare command ship in the Pacific then go on to have tours in the Korean War and Vietnam before she was finally dispatched in 1984 in a SINKEX.

After that final mission, the Commandant of the Coast Guard flashed, “The Queen is Dead, Long Live the Queen,” celebrating her 46-year career.

However, this post is about Campbell’s equally famous mascot, Sinbad.

Sinbad of the USCGC Campbell (WPG-32) keeps an eye on the convoy in the North Atlantic with his fellow crewman, circa 1943

“Sinbad,” mascot on Coast Guard cutter Campbell, circa 1944, shown at “General Quarters” on the cutter’s 5″/51. Note the “kill” mark for a U-boat

As detailed by the USCGC’s Historian’s Office:

The crew of the Coast Guard cutter Campbell adopted a mixed-breed puppy in 1938. Little did they know that their canine companion would become a world-famous Coast Guard veteran. He was, literally, a member of the crew, complete with all the necessary enlistment forms and other official paperwork, uniforms, and his own bunk. He sailed on board the combat-tested cutter through World War II and saw much action, both at sea and in port.

As Life Magazine reported: “An Old Sea Dog Has Favorite Bars and Plenty of Girls in Every Port.” Until recently he had the honor and distinction of being the only Coast Guardsman to be the subject of a biography! It was Sinbad of the Coast Guard, written by Chief Specialist George R. Foley, USCGR and published by Dodd, Mead and Company of New York during the war. The book made him an international celebrity.

Sinbad was a common figure in recruiting-centered advertising during WWII.

Sinbad, who was aboard when Campbell fought U-606 on her convoy duty, was also kinda squirrely and got in trouble a lot. For instance, he was ashore on liberty one night in Southern Greenland and created quite a ruckus by chasing the residents’ sheep around the country-side. Sinbad was then duly masted and banished from shore leave in Greenland for the remainder of his days:

“Sinbad is a salty sailor but he’s not a good sailor. He’ll never rate gold hashmarks nor Good Conduct Medals. He’s been on report several times and he’s raised hell in a number of ports. On a few occasions, he has embarrassed the United States Government by creating disturbances in foreign zones. Perhaps that’s why Coast Guardsmen love Sinbad, he’s as bad as the worst and as good as the best of us.”

The old USCGC Campbell‘s name was recycled some 30 years ago in a 270-foot Famous-Class cutter homeported in Kittery, Maine. While she has had her own run-ins with a different kind of submarine in recent years.

A bronze Sinbad holds a place of honor over the cutter’s mess. 

Returning to her namesake’s stomping grounds, the current Campbell recently operated in conjunction with the Danish Navy in Greenland’s waters.

USCGC CAMPBELL transited south along the west coast of Greenland overnight with the HDMS KNUD RASMUSSEN and rendezvoused in a position just offshore of Evighedsfjorden (Eternity Fjord). CAMPBELL received KNUD’s Executive Officer, Commander Bo Ougaard, on board to serve as an ice pilot and provide local knowledge to assist CAMPBELL in safely entering and transiting Evighedsfjorden. Once inside Eternity Fjord, CAMPBELL launched her MH-65 Dolphin aircraft and proceeded up the fjord to the head where the glacier begins. (Photo by Seaman Kate Kilroy)

While in Greenland, they also took Sinbad ashore, with the Chiefs taking him drinking at a local dive.

Sinbad at the Port of Nuuk Greenland Campbell (Photo by Seaman Kate Kilroy)

As noted by Campbell’s goat locker:

Our Chief Petty Officers (the only ones allowed to touch the bronze Sinbad statue on our messdeck) brought Sinbad ashore in Nuuk, Greenland, for his return today. It’s good to see Sinbad back in Greenland again!

Bravo Zulu!

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.

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.

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.

A Special Warship Wednesday

Pausing our regular coverage to acknowledge the 75th anniversary of the tragic loss of the heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis, a vessel we have covered in past Warship Wednesdays.

From Chief of Naval Operations Public Affairs:

WASHINGTON (NNS) — Today, Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. Mike Gilday sent a message to the fleet asking for a moment of silence on July 29, between 11:03 a.m. and 11:15 a.m. EDT, to honor the 75th anniversary of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis (CA 35).

Below is the text of his message:

“On July 30, 1945, just three minutes after midnight, the heavy cruiser USS INDIANAPOLIS (CA 35) was struck by two Japanese torpedoes in the dark of night while conducting a solo transit of the Philippine Sea.  Despite their best efforts, the ship went down in 12 short minutes.  While around 900 of the 1,195-member crew escaped the ship that night, tragically only 316 were rescued.

While much is written about the crews four harrowing days in the waters of the Pacific waiting to be found with few lifeboats, over-exposure to the elements, and almost no food or water, one thing is certain: those brave Sailors and Marines endured impossible hardships by banding together.  And we must do the same today.

So, I ask you to pause and take a moment on July 29, between 11:03 a.m. – 11:15 a.m. EDT, to remember the brave Sailors and Marines of INDIANAPOLIS. Remember their courage and devotion to each other in the face of the most severe adversity.  Remember their valor in combat and the role they played in ending the most devastating war in history.  Honor their memory and draw strength from their legacy.

America. Has. A. Great. Navy.  Our nation counts on you and so do I.  Never more proud to be your CNO.”

The current USS Indianapolis (LCS-17) held their own ceremony in Mayport last week.

Finally, Congress has presented the Indy’s crew with a Congressional Gold Medal for their service. (Nevermind Nancy)

 

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