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Warship Wednesday, April 21, 2021: Let’s Vote on It

Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 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 21, 2021: Let’s Vote on It

Library and Archives Canada 4951041

Here we see a beautiful original color photo of the Improved Fiji-class (alternatively described as Colony-class, Mauritius-class, or Ceylon-class) cruiser HMCS Quebec (31) in Copenhagen, Denmark, on the occasion of Queen Elizabeth II’s birthday, 21 April 1954– some 67 years ago today. She battled the Germans, Italians, and Japanese withstood the divine wind and “Fritz X” only to have her reputation mired in undeserved controversy.

A borderline “treaty” cruiser of interwar design, the Fijis amounted to a class that was one short of a dozen with an 8,500-ton standard displacement. In WWII service, this would balloon to a very top-heavy weight of over 11,000. Some 15 percent of the standard displacement was armor. As described by Richard Worth, in his Fleets of World War II, the design was much better off than the previous Leander-class cruisers, and essentially “the Admiralty resolved to squeeze a Town [the immediately preceding 9,100-ton light cruiser class] into 8,000-tons.”

With a fine transom stern, they were able to achieve over 32 knots on a plant that included four Admiralty 3-drum boilers driving four Parsons steam turbines, their main armament amounted to nine 6″/50 (15.2 cm) BL Mark XXIII guns in three triple Mark XXI mountings in the case of our cruiser and her two immediate full sisters (HMS Ceylon and HMS Newfoundland).

The standard Fiji/Colony-class cruiser had four Mark XXI turrets, as shown in the top layout, while the “Improved Fijis/Ceylon-variants of the class mounted three, as in the bottom layout. Not originally designed to carry torpedo tubes, two triple sets were quickly added, along with more AAA guns, once the treaty gloves came off. (Jane’s 1946)

Ordered from Vickers-Armstrong’s, Walker in March 1939, just six months before Hitler sent his legions into Poland, Quebec, our subject vessel was originally named HMS Uganda (66) after that African protectorate. A war baby, she commissioned 3 January 1943.

HMS Uganda sliding down the slipway at the Walker Naval Yard, 7 August 1941. Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums (TWAM ref. DS.VA/9/PH/12/17).

HMS UGANDA, MAURITIUS CLASS CRUISER. JANUARY 1943, SCAPA FLOW. (A 22963) Broadside view. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205155098

After workups and interception patrols on the lookout for German blockade runners, in May she escorted the RMS Queen Mary (with Churchill aboard) across the Atlantic for a meeting with President Roosevelt at what later became known to history as the Washington Conference.

Transferred to the Mediterranean for service with the 15th Cruiser Squadron, she helped escort convoy WS31/KMF17 on the way before arriving in Malta with Admiral Cunningham aboard on 4 July. Then came the Husky landings in Sicily, where she was very busy covering the landings of the British 1st Airborne Division near Syracuse, rescuing 36 survivors from the hospital ship Talamba, and delivering naval gunfire support.

Cruisers HMS Orion and HMS Uganda on patrol with Mount Etna towering in the distance, some 40 miles away. Taken from HMS Nubian, 12th July 1943. The ships had bombarded Augusta the previous day.

A pom-pom crew of HMCS Uganda examining Kodak pictures. Note the “tropical kit” to include sun helmets and shorts. NAC, PA 140833

Then came the Avalanche landings at Salerno in September, where she provided NGFS for the British X Corps. Four days after reaching the beachhead, she was hit by a 3,000-pound German Fritz X precision-guided, armor-piercing bomb at 1440 on 13 September. Passing through seven decks and through her keel, it exploded under her hull, crippling but not quite killing the ship. When the smoke cleared, amazingly just 16 men of Uganda’s complement were dead.

The damage was very similar, albeit much less costly in lives, to the hit that the same-sized treaty cruiser USS Savannah (CL-42) suffered off Salerno two days prior. In the Fritz attack on that Brooklyn-class light cruiser, the early smart bomb 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. 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 all, she would spend eight months being rebuilt.

As for Uganda, she was moved to Charleston Naval Shipyard in South Carolina for extensive repairs– just in time to become the most capable warship in another navy.

Oh, Canada!

By 1944, the Royal Canadian Navy could rightfully claim to be about the third strongest in the world when it came to warship tonnage. However, it was almost all in small escorts such as sloops, corvettes, frigates, and destroyers as well as armed yachts, trawlers, and torpedo boats. The RCN did have three armed merchant cruisers– the “Prince” class Canadian National Steamships passenger liners, which, at 6,000 tons, carried a dozen 6-, 4- and 3-inch guns, as well as depth charges and assorted Bofors/Oerlikons– but Ottawa had no proper cruisers on its naval list.

To rectify this, the brand-new light cruiser HMS Minotaur (53), transferred to Royal Canadian Navy in July 1944, and became HMCS Ontario (C53), although she did not finish working up in time to contribute much to the war effort. She was soon joined by Uganda, who kept her name when she was recommissioned 21 October 1944– Trafalgar Day– but replaced HMS with HMCS.

Uganda’s new crew, drawn from throughout the Canadian fleet, was assembled in 80-man teams and shipped out on a range of British 6-inch cruisers to train on their vessel while it was being repaired. These included a team that, while on HMS Sheffield, braved the Murmansk run and the Boxing Day 1943 fight against Scharnhorst. Curiously, and a bone of contention with the crew, she carried an RN duster rather than a Canadian ensign.

The Canadian cruiser would be commanded by Capt. Edmond Rollo Mainguy, who had previously served on several large RN warships including the battleship HMS Barham in the Great War.

Dispatched for service with the British Pacific Fleet, which was preparing for the final push against Japan, she stopped in the UK for sensor upgrades on the way, swapping Type 284 and 272 radars for newer Type 274 for fire control and Types 277 and 293 for surface warning and height finding. Nonetheless, the choice of the ship for tropical service, as it at the time lacked both onboard exhaust fans for air circulation and a water distillation plant capable of supporting the crew, was questionable. Belowdecks, when not on duty, many men simply wore “a towel and a pair of shoes.”

Regardless, she was a beautiful ship and her crew, most of whom were Battle of the Atlantic vets, were ready to fight.

A great shot of HMCS Uganda with a bone in her teeth. H.F. Pullen Nova Scotia Archives 1984-573 Box 1 F/24

British light cruiser HMS UGANDA underway. 14 October 1944. IWM FL 17797

HMS UGANDA, BRITISH CRUISER. 1944, AT SEA. (A 27728) Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205159166

HMCS Uganda in 1945 while in the British Pacific Fleet. IWM ABS 698

She joined the BPF on 9 March, arriving that day in Sydney via the Suez and the Indian Ocean. Joining British TF 57 as part of the U.S. 5th Fleet, Uganda soon became a close escort for the fleet’s carriers, particularly HMS Formidable and HMS Indomitable. This included fighting off kamikaze raids, delivering NGFS, and acting as a lifeguard for downed aviators as the fleet pushed past Formosa, through the Philippines, and on to Okinawa.

Task Force 57 at anchor, HMS Formidable (foreground) and HMS Indomitable w 4th Cruiser Squadron- (L to R) Gambia, Uganda, and Euryalus-San Pedro Bay, Leyte April 1945

Japanese aircraft attacking H.M.C.S. UGANDA. Ryukyu Islands, Japan, 4 April 1945. LAC 3191649

Bombardment by H.M.C.S. UGANDA of Sukuma Airfield on Miyoko Jima, 4 May 1945, the ship’s QF 4 in (102 mm) Mark XVI guns in action. LAC 3191651

Decks of HMCS Uganda after her bombardment of the Sakishima Island airstrip of Sukama, south of Okinawa, 12 May 1945, with her 6-inch guns swamped with powder tubes. The ship in the distance is her Kiwi-flagged sistership, HMNZS Gambia (48). (Photo: CFB Esquimalt Naval and Military Museum, VR2014.1.1)

Ratings sleep amidst 4-inch shells on HMCS Uganda, 1945 (Photo: CFB Esquimalt Naval and Military Museum, VR2014.1.26)

HMCS UGANDA and HMS FORMIDABLE, the latter burning after a Kamikaze airstrike, May 9, 1945, Royal Canadian Naval photograph. (CFB Esquimalt Naval and Military Museum /Photo Catalogue VR2014. 1.24 from the museum collection.)

Life aboard the ship continued to decline for the crew. Compounding the uncomfortable heat aboard– which led to rounds of tropical bacteria, viruses, and fungus infections among the crew– the BPF had logistical issues trying to supply its ships. This led to mechanical issues as spare parts were not available and poor food.

As noted by Bill Rawling’s A Lonely Ambassador: HMCS Uganda and the War in the Pacific, a 25-page article in The Northern Mariner/Le Marin du nord, VIII, No. 1 (January 1998), 39-63, one firsthand report of the time detailed:

In the tropics everything multiplied — of a crew of 900, two men were detailed for spraying cockroach powder through the mess decks to at least try to control them. It was not out of the ordinary to be munching on your de-hydrated peas and carrots to feel a sharp “crunch.” That was another roach being broken up. Flour deteriorated into a life form — a tiny worm with a white body and a little black head. It would be found in the bread which was baked aboard ship. At first, we would pick the worms out, but as we were told, and came to realize, they would not hurt us, we just ate them with the bread and called it our meat ration for the day.

This set the stage for what became known as the “Uganda Episode.”

As explained by the Naval and Marine Museum at CFB Esquimalt:

Prime Minister Mackenzie King announced on 4 April 1945 that the Canadian Government no longer intended to deploy personnel, other than volunteers, to the Pacific Theatre. The “Volunteers Only” policy, as it was called, required that all naval personnel specifically re-volunteer for service in the Pacific Theatre before they would be dispatched to participate in hostilities.

On the eve of the vote, in which it seemed many of Uganda’s crew were on the fence about going home, Capt. Mainguy reportedly gave a tone-deaf speech that went as high as a lead balloon with one crew member’s recalling that he, “Called us four flushers and quitters. Those who were in doubt soon made up their minds at a statement like that.”

The June 22 crew vote found that 556 of Uganda’s men preferred to head home, while just 344 re-volunteered to stay in the Pacific despite the daunting risk of kamikaze attack and a war that, at the time, was expected to drag out at least another year. With the prospect of swapping out so many of the cruiser’s complement while still deployed a non-starter, the plan was to send her back to Esquimalt, update her for continued service, and sail back to the war with a reformed crew in time to join Operation Olympic, the invasion of Kyūshū which was slated for November.

Relieved on station by the British cruiser HMS Argonaut on 27 July, ironically the Japanese signaled they were ready to quit the war just two weeks later, making the Uganda vote– which left a bitter pill with the RN– almost a moot subject. Uganda arrived at Esquimalt on 10 August, the day the Japanese officially threw in the towel.

While labels of mutiny and cowardice were unjustly lobbed at her crew by historians, her skipper would go on to become a Vice Admiral.

Better years

Postwar, Uganda would spend the next two years in a training role.

Cruiser HMCS Uganda photographed on 31 November 1945.

A color shot of HMCS-Uganda (C66) as seen from the Canadian aircraft carrier HMCS Warrior circa 1946, note the Fairey Firefly and Maple Leaf insignias. LAC-MIKAN-No 4821077

Transferred to the reserves in August 1947, her slumber was brief.

Recommissioned as a result of the Korean War on 14 January 1952 as HMCS Quebec (C31), she soon sailed for Halifax to continue her service, notably under a Canadian flag and with belowdecks habitability improvements.

Guard of Honor and Band at the recommissioning of H.M.C.S. QUEBEC, Esquimalt, British Columbia, 14 January 1952 LAC 3524549

For the next four years, she was a global traveler, heavily involved in NATO exercises.

HMCS QUEBEC coming alongside for a ship-to-ship transfer receiving supplies from HMCS Magnificent, during  Exercise Mainbrace in 1952. LAC 4951392

A closer view, from HMCS Magnificent. Note the carrier’s 40mm mount and the folded wing of a fighter, likely a Hawker Sea Fury judging from the pair of wing-root 20mm cannons. LAC 4951382

H.M.C.S. QUEBEC heeling in rough seas during exercises. 18 Sept 1952 LAC 3524551

HMCS Quebec (C-31) leads HMCS Magnificent (CVL-21), HMAS Sydney (R-17), and multiple destroyers as they return from the Queen’s coronation, July 1953

Sperry radar scan of Gaspé Bay anchorage, HMCS Quebec 12 July 1953 LAC 3206158

HMCS QUEBEC Parading the White Ensign in Rio-South America cruise, 1954. Note the Enfield rifles, with the rating to the right complete with a chromed bayonet. Also, note the local boy to the left giving a salute to the RCN duster. LAC 4950735

Port broadside view of H.M.C.S. QUEBEC after having been freshly painted by ships’ company, Freetown, Sierra Leone, 29 June 1955 LAC 3524552

She also became the first Canadian naval ship to circumnavigate Africa, during her 1955 cruise. In 1946, she had claimed the first such Canadian warship to “Round the Horn” of South America.  

King Neptune and the pollywogs! Original color photo of HMCS QUEBEC’s crossing the line equator ceremony during her fall cruise to South America, 1956. LAC 4950734

HMCS Quebec (C-31) and USS Newport News (CA-148) at Villefranche.

With all-gun cruisers that required a 900-man crew increasingly obsolete in the Atomic era, Quebec was paid off 13 June 1956 and laid up in Nova Scotia. Four years later, she was sold for her value in scrap metal to a Japanese concern.

She is remembered in period maritime art, specifically in a piece by official war artist Harold Beament, who was on the RCNVR list and later president of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts.

HMCS Uganda in Drydock, Esquimalt, during a post-war refit. Beaverbrook Collection of War Art CWM 19710261-1030

Today, the RCN remembers Quebec fondly. Narrated by R.H. Thomson, the script in the below tribute video is based on a memoir by LCDR Roland Leduc, RCN (Ret’d) who served on the post-war cruiser. 

An exceptional veterans’ site is also online, with numerous photos and remembrances. 

For a great deep dive into HMS Uganda, especially her 1945 service, check out Bill Rawling’s A Lonely Ambassador: HMCS Uganda and the War in the Pacific, a 25-page article in The Northern Mariner/Le Marin du Nord, VIII, No. 1 (January 1998), 39-63.

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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.

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.

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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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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