Here at LSOZI, we are going to 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, May 29, 2019: About that new Marker in Times Square
Here we see the beautiful Pennsylvania-class heavy cruiser USS California (Armored Cruiser No. 6, later CA-6) with a bone her mouth and three pipes belching smoke, sometime between 1907 and 1909. Sadly, although she was likely still on her original coat of lead-based paint in the above image, she was already largely obsolete and would only see 11 years’ service before she met with disaster.
The Pennsylvanias, a class of six armored cruisers named, like battleships, after states, were big 15,000-ton/504-foot long bruisers built immediately after the lessons learned in the summer of sharp fleet actions and naval blockades that made up the Spanish American War. Larger than many of pre-dreadnought battleships of their day (for comparison, the three-ship Illinois-class battlewagons laid down in 1897 were only 12,500-ton/375-ft. vessels) they had lighter armor (4 to 9 inches rather than up to 16 inches on Illinois) and a lighter armament (8-inch guns rather than 13-inchers) but were much faster, with the cruisers capable of 22-knots while the battleships lumbered along at 16 knots. Several European powers of the day– notably England, Germany, and Russia– were also building such very large armored cruisers with an eye to protecting far-flung overseas possessions that did not require a battleship in times of peace and aggressively raiding their enemies’ merchant fleets once war was declared.
The Pennsylvanias‘ main battery consisted of two pairs of 8″/40 cal (203mm) Mark 5 guns in fore and aft turrets, which in turn were more powerful than the older but still very effective 8″/35 Mark 3s such as those used with terrific success against the Spanish at Manila Bay. These were later upgraded to even better 8″/45 Mark 6s after 1907. They could fire a 260-pound shell over 98.5-pounds of propellant out to 22,500 yards.
As a very impressive secondary, these ships carried 14 6 “/50 cal Mark 6 breechloaders in casemated broadside, seven on each side. Add to this were 30 torpedo-boat busting 3″/50s and 47mm 3-pounders.
Then of course, as with every cruiser, battleship, and destroyer of the time, they also had torpedoes. This amounted to a pair of submerged 18-inch tubes firing Bliss-Leavitt type torpedoes.
Constructed alongside her sister ship USS South Dakota at San Francisco’s Union Iron Works– their four classmates were built on the East Coast– USS California was only the second such ship with that name in the Navy, the first being a post-Civil War wooden steam frigates that proved to be made of improperly treated wood and, condemned, had to be scrapped after just five years of service.
Ordered in 1899, our more modern steel-hulled California commissioned 1 August 1907 at San Francisco’s Mare Island Navy Yard. Ironically, the exhibition of naval battles that made up the bulk of the Russo-Japanese War and the commissioning of HMS Dreadnought, during California‘s gestation period, largely showed that armored cruisers lacked a lot of value in modern warfare with a near-peer adversary. In short, Dreadnought-style battleships were fast enough to catch them and pummel them flat while new cruiser and destroyer designs of 1907 were also fast enough to elude them.
Still, upon commission, California promptly joined the Pacific Fleet where she spent her early life in a series of extended shakedowns and coastal cruises to seaside ports along the West coast “for exhibition purposes.”
The year 1909 saw what we would consider a West Pac cruise today, with stops in the Philippine Islands and China, and Christmas spent in Yokohama, Japan. The same year, the Navy ditched their gleaming white and buff scheme in favor of haze gray, which saw California‘s profile change drastically. Likewise, she landed most of her small 47mm guns, as the age of torpedo boat defense with such popguns had largely come and gone.
The next few years were spent in standardization cruises, target practice, maneuvers and the like, spread out from San Diego to Hawaii and Alaska, interrupted by another West Pac jaunt in 1912 and a bit of gunboat diplomacy off the Pacific coast of Nicaragua where she landed the First Provisional Regiment of Marines – 29 officers, 4 naval officers and 744 enlisted men under the command of Col. Joseph H. Pendleton, augmented by her own naval landing force.
California was re-named USS San Diego on 1 September 1914 to clear her original name for assignment to Dreadnought-style Battleship No. 44, a similar fate which befell all her five sisters.
As such, she lost her presentation silver service, which had been presented by the state when she was christened. This service went on to live on BB-44 and, removed in 1940 and stored ashore, are part of the U.S. Navy Museum’s Steel Navy exhibit today:
Back to our ship:
Notably, the rechristening of California to San Diego was the first use of the name “San Diego” for a naval vessel. She then became the flagship of the Pacific Fleet and participated in the opening of the Panama-California Exposition on 1 January 1915.
A deadly 1915 boiler room fire sent San Diego to Mare Island for extensive repairs and refit followed by a period in reserve in San Diego during which most of her crew was reassigned. During this time, she was able to squeeze in a rescue of 48 passengers from the sinking SS Fort Bragg.
When the U.S. entered WWI in April 1917, San Diego‘s skeleton crew was fleshed out with a mix of some 400 new recruits straight from NTS San Francisco and Great Lakes as well as more experienced salts from California’s Naval Militia. After workups and training, she stood out on 18 July 1918 for the Atlantic and the Great War.
Arriving in New York in August, by 23 September she was the flagship of St. Nazaire, France-bound Troop Convoy Group Eight then in November did the same for Troop Convoy Group Eleven. February 1918 saw her as part of Britain-bound Convoy HK-26, followed by HX-32 and HX-37 by May, all of which made it across the pond successfully.
Then, tragedy struck the mighty cruiser. While zigzagging off Fire Island, New York, she came across a mine sowed by the large German Deutschland-class “U‑Kreuzer” submarine SM U-156, the latter skippered by Kapitänleutnant Richard Feldt.
At about 11:05 a.m. on 19 July 1918, San Diego hit a mine, the explosion sounding like “a dull heavy thud,” lifting the stern slightly and shaking the ship “moderately fore and aft.” The warship assumed an immediate six to eight-degree list, and she lost headway. The mine had exploded on the port side about frame 78, well below the waterline, rupturing the skin of the ship and deforming the bulkhead at that location, opening watertight door no.142 between the port engine room and no. 8 fireroom. Flooding occurred in the port engine room, adjacent compartments, as well as no. 8 fireroom, and San Diego then took on a 17½ degree list, water entering through an open gun port for 6-inch gun no.10.
At the outset, “the behavior of the ship did not convince me she was in much danger of sinking,” Capt. Harley H. Christy later wrote, but he soon received the report from the engineer officer that the ship had lost power in both engines. Loss of motive power “precluded any maneuvering to combat a submarine.” The list increased. “When I was convinced that there was no hope of her holding and that she would capsize,” Christy gave the order to abandon ship, the gun crews remaining at their stations “until they could no longer fire,” and the depth charges being “secured so that they would be innocuous.” San Diego’s sailors launched life rafts, whaleboats, dinghies and punts by hand, as well as mess tables, benches, hammocks and lumber – “ample material to support the crew” – “an evolution…performed in an orderly manner without confusion,” while the broadside gun crews fired about 30 to 40 rounds “at possible periscopes.”
With San Diego nearly on her beam ends, Capt. Christy, along with his executive officer, Cmdr. Gerard Bradford were the last to leave the ship. Bradford went down the port side, the commanding officer went over the starboard side by a rope, swinging down to the bilge keel then the docking keel before going overboard. Christy then watched his ship turn turtle, “in a symmetrical position with the keel inclined about ten degrees to the horizontal, the forward end elevated” before gradually sinking.
While almost all her 1,183 crew successfully made it off, six, largely from below deck engineering divisions, were claimed by Neptune and never recovered:
Fireman First Class, Clyde C. Blaine of Lomita, CA
Engineman 2nd Class, Thomas E. Davis of South Mansfield, LA
Seaman 2nd Class, Paul J. Harris, Cincinnati, OH
Machinist’s Mate 2nd Class, Andrew Munson, St. Paul, MN
Engineman 2nd Class, James F. Rochet of Blue Lake, CA
Machinist’s Mate 2nd Class, Frazier O. Thomas of Charleston, WV
As for U-156, just two months after San Diego met her end at the hands of one of the submarine’s mines, the German raider was fittingly sunk in the Allied-laid Northern Barrage minefield on 25 September 1918, lost with all hands. She earned a bit of infamy for her attack on the small New England town of Orleans, Massachusetts, and several nearby merchant vessels.
Of San Diego‘s five sisters, all were sold for scrap in 1930–1931 in compliance with the limits of the London Naval Treaty. Speaking of scrap, in 1957 the Navy sold the rights to San Diego‘s wreck to a New York-based salvage company but six years later, after little work was done other than to loot small relics from her interior, the Navy canceled the award and reclaimed rights to the ship.
Located in shallow water, with the expanded use of SCUBA systems San Diego became a target for both skin divers and weekend unlicensed salvage operations. In 1965, her port propeller was removed without approval and subsequently lost. In 1973, her starboard prop was found to be detached.
As noted by the Navy, “Due to a combination of recreational divers going to extremes to secure artifacts (at least six people have died diving on the site) and professional rivalries between dive boat operators, the Navy was prompted to revisit the site and pursue further action to protect San Diego and other Navy wrecks being exploited.”
In 1992, the Coast Guard implemented an exclusion zone around the wreck due to reports of live ordnance being salvaged from the site, making it effectively off-limits. In 1995, the Navy performed the first of several extensive surveys of the wreck and three years later the San Diego was added to the National Register of Historic Places. A 2004 law protected her from desecration as a war grave. In 2017, the USS San Diego Project was kicked off to extensively survey and protect the wreck.
There are currently some 229 artifacts within the San Diego Collection under the management of NHHC ranging from ceramics, electrical light fixtures and pieces of the ship’s silver service to an M1892 brass bugle, USN-marked brass padlocks, Mameluke sword and even wooden pistol grips for a Colt 1911. Almost all were recovered illegally by recreational– and in some cases commercial divers– going as far back as the 1950s and later surrendered to the Navy. Many are on display at the USS San Diego Exhibit in the National Museum of the US Navy, which opened last year.
In 2018, it was confirmed that the cruiser was sunk by a mine laid by U-156, putting persistent theories that she had been lost due to a coal bunker explosion or sabotage to rest. The event coincided with the 100th anniversary of San Diego’s sinking.
Finally, over the recent Memorial Day Weekend, U.S. Navy officials in conjunction with the city of New York and the United War Veterans Council, unveiled the USS San Diego plaque in Times Square in front of Father Duffy’s statue. The plaque features the names of the 6 sailors lost on that fateful day along with a profile of the ship, the largest U.S. Naval vessel lost in the Great War.
13,680 long tons (13,900 t) (standard)
15,138 long tons (15,381 t) (full load)
503 ft 11 in oa
502 ft pp
Beam: 69 ft 6 in
Draft: 24 ft 1 in (mean) 26 ft. 6 in (max)
16 × Babcock & Wilcox boilers
23,000 ihp (17,000 kW)
2075 tons of coal
2 × vertical triple expansion reciprocating engines
2 × screws
22 kn, range 5000(10)
Complement: 80 officers, 745, enlisted, 64 Marines as designed (1,200 in 1918)
Armor: All Krupp and Harvey steel
Belt: 6 in (152 mm) (top & waterline)
5 in (127 mm) (bottom)
Deck: 1 1⁄2 in (38 mm) – 6 in (amidships)
4 in (102 mm) (forward & aft)
Barbettes: 6 in
Turrets: 6 – 6 1⁄2 in (165 mm)
Conning Tower: 9 in (229 mm)
4 × 8 in (203 mm)/40 caliber Mark 5 breech-loading rifles (BL)(2×2)
14 × 6 in (152 mm)/50 cal Mark 6 BL rifles
18 × 3 in (76 mm)/50 cal rapid-fire guns
12 × 3-pounder (47 mm (1.9 in)) Driggs-Schroeder guns
2 × 1-pounder (37 mm (1.5 in)) Driggs-Schroeder saluting guns
2 × 18 inch (450 mm) torpedo tubes (submerged)
4 × 8 in/45 cal Mark 6 BL rifles (2×2)
18 × 3 in/50 cal rapid-fire guns
2 x 1 76/52 Mk X AAA
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