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, April 15, 2020: The Winged Spinach Can
Here we see a beautiful profile shot of the Clemson-class “four-piper” destroyer USS Noa (DD-343) underway in San Diego Harbor, about 1930. Note the wooden cabin cruiser in the foreground, and Clemson-class sister USS Kane (DD-235) moored alongside another destroyer in the background. Despite her modest looks, our little tin can would prove influential in the steppingstones of naval aviation, and her namesake even more so in the evolution of space exploration.
One of the massive fleets of Clemson-class flush decker destroyers, like most of her sisters, Noa came too late for the Great War. An expansion of the almost identical Wickes-class destroyers with a third more fuel capacity to enable them to escort a convoy across the Atlantic without refueling, the Clemsons were sorely needed to combat the pressing German submarine threat of the Great War. At 1,200-tons and with a top speed of 35 knots, they were brisk vessels ready for the task.
The subject of our story today was the first warship named after one Midshipman Loveman Noa (USNA 1900).
Born in 1878 at Chattanooga, Tennessee, young Loveman secured an appointment to Annapolis and graduated with his 61-person class in June 1900, back in the days when Mids would have to serve some time with the fleet before picking up their first stripe. Ordered to the Asiatic Station in the battleship Kearsarge, he was assigned once he got there to the recycled captured former Spanish 99-foot gunboat, USS Mariveles, under the command of Lt. (future Fleet Adm) William Leahy.
On the morning of 26 October 1901, Noa led a force of six blue jackets in a small boat to interdict waterborne smugglers between Leyte and Samar. However, with their little boat taking on water, they were forced ashore at the latter, while scouting the adjacent jungle, Noa was attacked and stabbed four times by Filipino insurgents then struck in the head and left for dead. SECNAV Josephus Daniels later wrote Noa’s mother during the Great War to inform her that a new destroyer would be named in her son’s honor.
Laid down at Norfolk Navy Yard a week after Armistice Day in Europe, USS Noa was appropriately sponsored by Midshipman Noa’s sister and commissioned 15 February 1921.
In May 1922, Noa was assigned to her namesake’s old stomping ground, the Asiatic station, which she reached via a flag-waving cruise through the Mediterranean to the Suez, to and Aden and across the Indian Ocean to Ceylon then on to Singapore. For the next seven years, the destroyer would see some very active service in the Philippines and China.
While in China service, she would land a force to guard U.S. interests in Shanghai for two weeks between 25 July and 10 Aug 1925, earning an Expeditionary Medal.
In Nanking as part of a reinforced Yangtze Patrol from January through August 1927, Sailors from Noa and sistership USS William B. Preston (DD-344) put a small landing party ashore to protect refugees at the American consulate and later, with British Tars from the cruiser HMS Emerald, assembled a 250-man landing party ashore to protect escaping refugees from marauding Kuomintang regulars, sweeping into the city to seize it from Yangtze warlord Sun Chuan-Feng’s defeated troops.
Pineau interestingly details how Noa dispatched a low-key guard force to the U.S. consulate, saying
Anticipating that an armed party would surely be barred, Noa’s captain called on the Consul to provide private cars for transportation. Pistols were concealed under uniform coats, field packs were stowed under rugs on the floorboards and, without consulting local authorities, the party drove through to the Consulate…A machine gun and ammunition were later smuggled into the American Consulate.
At one point, taking sniper fire from the shore and with 102 refugees aboard, Noa’s skipper, LCDR Roy C. Smith, Jr., ordered his No. 1 and No. 2 4-inchers to open fire on a building where the fire was coming from, an act that Preston soon joined her in. In all, the two Clemsons would fire 67 shells and “thousands of rifle and machinegun rounds.” Smith’s 13-year-old son would also be pressed into helping ferry shells, an act that he would later, as a retired Captain, describe as making him the “last powder monkey.”
Captain Smith of the U.S.S. Noa remarked as he opened fire at Nanking, that he would get either a court-martial or a medal for it. That remark should be blazoned in every office, workshop, and institution of the land. It is the willingness to accept the obloquy without complaint, should it come, that makes the reward worth having.
Returning Stateside 14 August 1929 for an overhaul at Mare Island, Noa shifted her homeport from Cavite to San Diego where she served on duties as varied over the next half-decade as a plane guard for the new aircraft carriers USS Langley (CV-1) and USS Saratoga (CV-3), helping with the development of early carrier-group tactics. However, with the downturn in the U.S. economy, she was detailed to red lead row in Philadelphia in 1934 and mothballed.
Enter the destroyer-seaplane concept
The mounting took place in Hampton Roads and involved a TS-1 floatplane from the nearby Naval Air Station. Installed on a static platform on 29 August, Ausburn went to sea for two days for experimental trails with the floatplane aft while aircrew from USS Langley were attached to study how it endured while underway on the 314-foot tin can– although the plane was not launched from the destroyer and Ausburn had no facilities for fuel, recovery, or launching.
Ausburn returned to Norfolk on 3 September and the TS-1 was craned off. The destroyer was later used in 1925 “to provide plane guard service in the round-the-world flight of Army aircraft, maintaining stations off Greenland and Newfoundland for the historic event,” but never embarked an aircraft again.
Fast forward to 1 April 1940 and, with a new World War in Europe, Noa was dusted off and reactivated at Philadelphia. In a further test of concept, she was fitted with a Curtiss XSOC-1 Seagull seaplane just forward of the after deckhouse, replacing her after torpedo tubes. A boom for lifting the aircraft was stepped in place of the mainmast.
As noted by DANFS:
She steamed for the Delaware Capes in May and conducted tests with an XSOC-1 seaplane piloted by Lt. G. L. Heap. The plane was hoisted onto the ocean for takeoff and then recovered by Noa while the ship was underway. Lt. Heap also made an emergency flight 15 May to transfer a sick man to the Naval Hospital at Philadelphia.
Such dramatic demonstrations convinced the Secretary of the Navy that destroyer-based scout planes had value, and 27 May he directed that six new destroyers of the soon-to-be-constructed Fletcher Class (DD-476 to DD-481) be fitted with catapults and handling equipment. Because of mechanical deficiencies in the hoisting gear, the program was canceled early in 1943.
The concept thus failed to mature as a combat technique, but the destroyer-observation seaplane team was to be revived under somewhat modified conditions during later amphibious operations.
Six Fletchers would go on to receive Kingfishers, briefly, ordered immediately after Noa’s short trial with her Seagull. To support the floatplane they had space for 1,780 gals of AvGas installed on deck surrounded by a cofferdam of CO2 for safety purposes. The magazine normally used by the 5-inch gun (Mount 53) removed for the catapult installation was repurposed for the Kingfisher’s bombs and depth charges as well as aircraft tools. Berthing was allocated for a pilot, ordie/gunner and aviation mechanic.
Lt. Heap, Noa’s sole aviator, went on to command an airwing, Carrier Air Group Eighty-Two aboard USS Bennington (CV-20) during WWII.
Speaking of the war…
Noa would spend the remainder of the next three years in service to train Midshipmen, provide an afloat platform for the Sonar School at Key West, and operate as a plane guard for the East Coast shakedown of the new Yorktown-class carrier USS Hornet (CV-8), between stints in patrol, rescue, and convoy escort duties.
In the summer of 1943, Noa was converted at Norfolk to a “Green Dragon,” a high-speed transport and was reclassified as APD-24 on 10 August 1943.
Some 14 Clemson-class destroyers were similarly converted as APDs, a process that saw the forward fireroom converted to short-term accommodations for up to 200 Marines, with the front two boilers and smokestacks removed. Also deleted were the topside torpedo tubes, replaced with davits for a quartet of LCPL or LCVP landing craft. They could still make 26 knots and float in just 10 feet of seawater.
Noa steamed for Pearl Harbor 4 November 1943 and by early December was a landing craft control ship off New Guinea, very much in the middle of the war in the Pacific. On the day after Christmas, she landed 144 officers and men of the First Marine Division on Cape Gloucester.
Early 1944 saw her active in the amphibious landings at Green Island, Emerau Island, and Hollandia before she ran back to Pearl in May to gather units of the Second Marine Division for landings on Saipan.
In September, while steaming to Palau with UDT members aboard for demo work there, Noa was rammed by the Fletcher-class destroyer USS Fullman (DD-474) at 0350, 12 September and immediately began to settle. Despite the heroic efforts of her crew and others, she slipped beneath the waves seven hours later but gratefully carried no Blue Jackets with her.
USS Noa received an Expeditionary Medal for her 1925 China service, the Yangtze Service Medal for her 1927 saga in Shanghai, and five battle stars for World War II service.
Keen to quickly recycle the names of historic ships lost during the war, the Navy soon re-issued “Noa” to a Gearing-class destroyer (DD-841) then building at Bath Ironworks. Commissioned 2 November 1945, the greyhound would give 28 years of steady Cold War service without firing a shot in anger before her transfer to Spain as Blas de Lezo (D65) for another 13 years.
Perhaps the best-known entry on the second Noa’s service record is her recovery of the famous Mercury space program capsule FRIENDSHIP 7 and astronaut Lt. Col. John H. Glenn, Jr., USMC, off the island of Grand Turk after their first human-manned orbit of the globe, 20 February 1962. The Noa picked Glenn up just 21 minutes after impact. In the 13 years of NASA programs with crew splashdowns, from Mercury’s Freedom 7 through Skylab 4, only two destroyers, Noa and USS Leonard F. Mason (DD-852) recovered astronauts and launch capsules.
The famous photograph of Glenn maxing and relaxing with aviator shades and Chuck Taylors was snapped on Noa’s deck before he was transferred to the carrier USS Randolph (CV-15), which was the primary recovery ship.
The original Clemson-class Noa is remembered by a 1/400 scale model by Mirage Hobby, depicted with her XSOC-1 embarked.
As for her sisters, seven Clemson’s were lost at the disaster at Honda Point in 1923, and 18 (including six used by the British) were lost in WWII including one, USS Stewart (DD-224), which was famously raised by the Japanese and used in their Navy only to be recaptured by the USN and given a watery grave after the war.
Those four-pipers not sold off in the 1930s or otherwise sent to Davy Jones were scrapped wholesale in the months immediately after WWII. Sister USS Hatfield (DD-231) decommissioned 13 December 1946 and was sold for scrap 9 May 1947 to NASSCO, the last of her kind in the Navy.
The final Clemson afloat, USS Aulick (DD-258), joined the Royal Navy as HMS Burnham (H82) in 1940 as part of the “Destroyers for Bases” deal. Laid up in 1944, she was allocated for scrapping on 3 December 1948.
None are preserved and only the scattered wrecks in the Western Pacific, Honda Point, the Med and Atlantic endure.
For more information on the Clemsons and their like, read CDR John Alden’s book, “Flush Decks and Four Pipes” and/or check out the Destroyer History Foundation’s section on Flushdeckers.
As for the late Loveman Noa, while Uncle does not have a vessel on the current Naval List in his honor, he is remembered by a circa 1910 memorial tablet at Annapolis and is enshrined in Memorial Hall, one of six members of the Class of 1900 so recorded. His descendants apparently also have a memorial of their own to the young Mid who breathed his last on a beach in Samar.
And, of course, aircraft operations are standard on U.S. Navy destroyers today and have been since the FRAM’d Gearing and Sumner-class destroyers of the 1950s/60s, with their dedicated DASH drones, and the full-on helicopter decks of the follow-on Belknap-class destroyer leaders.
Then came the Spru-cans.
And today’s Burkes.
1,215 tons (normal)
1,308 tons (full load)
Length: 314 ft. 4.5 in
Beam: 30 ft. 11.5 in
Draft: 9 ft. 4 in
4 × boilers, 300 psi (2,100 kPa) saturated steam
2 geared steam turbines
27,600 hp (20,600 kW)
Speed: 35.5 knots
Range: 4,900 nmi (9,100 km) @ 15 knots
Crew: (USN as commissioned)
8 chief petty officers
4- 4″/51 cal guns
1 x 3″/23 cal AAA
12 × 21-inch torpedo tubes (4 × 3) (533 mm)
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