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, April 10, 2018: All Forms of Manly Sports
Here we see the Seagoing Athletes that were the all-fleet champion basketball team of the Chester-class scout cruiser USS Birmingham (CL-2) circa 1910. Birmingham and her crew were indeed involved in all sorts of manly sports in her brief career. From her help to show off the modern steel Navy, to her very real contribution to “Remember the Maine,” to her service as the cradle of U.S. Naval Aviation and in a curious war against the Austrians that garnered a pair of Kaiser Karl’s battlewagons for the Stars and Stripes, B’ham was there.
In the early 1900s, when it came to cruisers, the Navy had lots of big boys such as the 10 Washington and California-class armored cruisers (15,000 tons, 10- and 8-inch gun main batteries); as well as five “1st class cruisers” of the Charleston, Brooklyn and Saratoga-classes (8500-10,000 tons, 6 and 8 inch guns); four aging “2nd class cruisers” e.g. USS Olympia, Baltimore, Columbia, Minneapolis (5,000-7,000 tons, 6- and 8-inch guns); the six slow “3rd class” Chattanooga cruisers who could only make 16 knots; and in the bottom rung were the old Span-Am War era protected cruisers Raleigh, Cincinnati, New Orleans and Albany (the last two British built), of questionable utility due to their slow speeds. This dearth of small, modern– and above all fast– light cruisers led to the Navy to order the trio of Chester class scout cruisers in 1904.
The 4,687-ton ships– Chester, Salem, and Birmingham— were race boats for their time, capable of 24 knots (Chester hit 26.52 on speed trials), which made them able to reach out past the battle fleet and look for enemy formations. They also could sip coal and make some truly impressive ocean-crossing voyages at slow/low speeds, which would make them good ships if needed to be dispatched to far off flashpoints in the growing Pax Americana.
Lightly armored, with just 2-inches of plate over their steering and engineering spaces with no gun shields or conning tower protection, they were supposed to run, not fight. If pushed into a corner by a similarly fast ship, such as a destroyer, they had (just) enough muscle to prevail with a single 5″/50 cal mount forward and rear along with six 3″/50 singles in broadside. A pair of submerged 21-inch torpedo tubes made them trouble for capital ships, especially in a night attack.
Built at Fore River Shipbuilding Co., Birmingham, the first U.S. Navy vessel with that name, commissioned at Quincy, Massachusetts 11 April 1908 and was assigned to the Atlantic Fleet. As part of her shakedown cruises, she popped in at Mobile, Alabama in February 1909 “where the increasingly seasoned cruiser received a silver service in honor of that state and her namesake.”
Keep in mind the Civil War had just ended 44 years before.
She then picked up President-elect Howard H. Taft in New Orleans and carried him up the Eastern Seaboard to Hampton Roads, VA to join Teddy Roosevelt in reviewing the Great White Fleet which was returning from its round the world cruise.
Soon, all three of the Chesters would see active service when, as a group, they sortied to Liberia on the West African Coast, dispatched by Roosevelt and Secretary of State Elihu Root to get involved in the local unrest there, which in large part stemmed from British and French colonial actions on the country’s borders.
The U.S. appointed a commission to investigate the crisis, which set out on board Birmingham from Tompkinsville on 23 April 1909. The ship rendezvoused with Chester and Salem, and the three cruisers crossed the Atlantic, coaled and provisioned at Porto Grande Bay at São Vicente in the Cape Verde Islands (1–9 May), and reached Monrovia, Liberia, on the 13th. The commissioners lodged on board the trio of cruisers while they worked with Liberian representatives at Monrovia (13–29 May and 5 June), Grand Bassa (29–31 May), Cape Palmas (1–4 June), and Robertsport — also on 5 June — and wrapped-up their investigation with a visit to Freetown, Sierra Leone (7–8 June). The ships coaled and completed upkeep at Las Palmas in the Cape Verde Islands (13–16 June) and at Funchal, Madeira (17–23 June), and returned to Newport. The commissioners subsequently presented a message to Congress, and Root recommended that the U.S. consider lending military officers to assist the Liberians.
The following year the U.S. arranged a Loan Agreement, whereby 17 African-American Army officers eventually (1911–1930) served in Liberia, where they worked as military attachés to the American Consulate in Monrovia, or organized, trained, and led the Frontier Force, that country’s constabulary. These dedicated men carried out their difficult mission with minimum support but set the conditions to stabilize the Liberian regime.
The three Chesters arrived back in the country just in time to show off for the international armada that had assembled in New York in the summer of 1909. The event was Hudson-Fulton Celebration, the commemoration of the 300th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s discovery of the Hudson River, and the 100th anniversary of the first successful commercial application of a paddle steamer, by Robert Fulton Jr.
After coming to the assistance of the British tug Bulldog and later the sinking steamer Kentucky off the North Carolina coast, Birmingham visited Liberia again in early 1910 before returning to duties with the Atlantic Fleet. In November, she was part of a great experiment.
Less than seven years after Wilbur and Orville Wright made their brief manned air flight on Kill Devil Hill in the Outer Banks, sailing just 120 feet at a speed of a whopping 34 mph, the “aero plane” had made leaps and bounds. From the very beginnings, the military had its eye on the contraption– Samuel Langley of the Smithsonian had been underwritten by the War Department even before the Wright brothers made it off the ground.
Aviation pioneer Eugene Ely, who held pilot’s license No. 17 from the Aero Club of America, had a rendezvous with Birmingham, and destiny.
Shipwrights from Norfolk Navy Yard built an 83-foot slanted wooden platform onto Birmingham’s bow and, on the overcast morning of 14 November, she embarked civilian exhibition stunt pilot Eugene B. Ely, his 50 hp. Curtiss Model D Pusher biplane, some maintainers, and a group of naval officer observers headed by Capt. Washington I. Chambers, an advocate of early naval aviation.
Birmingham got underway at 11:30 a.m. and proceeded in company with Roe (Destroyer No. 24) and Terry (Destroyer No. 25), Barley (Torpedo Boat No. 21) and Stringham (Torpedo Boat No. 19), down the Elizabeth River to the Chesapeake Bay, where she anchored off Old Comfort Point at 12:35, and then shifted her anchorage and dropped the anchor again at 2:55 p.m.
Rainy and drizzly weather prevented Ely from taking off several times, but the pilot gamely decided to continue and launched his plane off the cruiser’s bow at 3:17 p.m. As he left the platform the pusher settled slowly and hit the water but rose again and landed about two and a half miles away on Willoughby Spit.
The plane sustained slight splinter damage to the propeller tips, but Ely’s daring feat marked the first time that an aircraft took off from a warship. Birmingham sent her motorboat to pick up Ely where he touched down at Willoughby Spit, and he, Chambers, and the rest of the party then transferred to Roe for the voyage back to Norfolk. Birmingham’s crew spent the next day tearing down the platform, raising her topmasts, and setting up the rigging, and left the lumber for Navy screw tug Alice to collect.
Just in her third year of service, our hardy cruiser had intervened in an African conflict, rubbed shoulders with both TR and Taft, and become the nation’s very first aircraft carrying warship. She was to continue her footnotes to history.
After visiting Mobile again for Mardi Gras and patrolling off Haiti in a show of gunboat diplomacy (she put in several times at Port-au-Prince and even observed the commissioning of the old Italian Regioni-class cruiser Umbria into the country’s navy as the ill-fated Consul Gostrück), Birmingham appeared in Cuba to serve as a pallbearer for the lost protected cruiser USS Maine (ACR-1), sunk by a controversial explosion in Havana in 1898.
Raised by the Army Corps of Engineers in an epic two-year effort, the remains of 66 lost Sailors and Marines were found and were ordered returned home with honor. Birmingham pulled that duty to escort those remains to the Washington Naval Yard after standing by, along with the armored cruiser North Carolina, while Maine was sunk in 600 fathoms of water offshore.
After inaugural service with the Ice Patrol– Titanic had just sunk in April 1912– Birmingham resumed her duties with the Atlantic Fleet, which had been anything but routine.
With Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Roosevelt in the Navy’s driver’s seat, trips to Mexico to get muscular in that country’s civil war became common and soon, the Vera Cruz incident erupted. Birmingham, in Pensacola, was urgently ordered on 20 April 1914 to take aboard three aircraft there: “hydroaeroplane AH-2” and Curtiss Model F flying boats AB-4 and AB-5, along with three pilots who went on to be huge names in aviation history– Lt. (later ADM) John H. Towers (Naval Aviator #3), 1st Lt. Bernard L. Smith (USMC Aviator #2), and Ens. Godfrey de C. Chevalier (Naval Aviator #7, who would later be the first to trap on board a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier), 10 “mechaniciens,” a cook, and a mess attendant.
Delivering the assortment to Tampico, the planes accomplished the first combat mission by a U.S. military heavier-than-air aircraft just five days later and were soon among those who first to receive ground fire (with the bullet holes to prove it!)
After Mexico, it was the stony duty of wartime neutral.
When the U.S. entered the Great War, Birmingham continued her East Coast operations with CDR Nathan C. Twining, Commander, Nantucket Detachment, Patrol Force, breaking his flag on the cruiser. By June 1917, she was escorting the first wave of Doughboys, the regulars of the Army’s newly-formed 1st Infantry Division, augmented by the 5th Marines, to France.
In August, she crossed with a second troop convoy and by 1918 was in the Med, operating out of Gibraltar.
Once the Armistice hit on 11 November 1918, Birmingham was dispatched to the Adriatic where the Allied forces had for the entirety of the war kept the mighty Austro-Hungarian fleet largely bottled up, a paper tiger. Taking on RADM William H. G. Bullard at Malta, within days she was at Spalato (Split) in Dalmatia, where she took custody of not one but two Austrian battleships on 22 November.
Sisterships of the same class of pre-dreadnought battleships, SMS Radetzky and SMS Zrinyi had both joined Kaiser Franz Josef’s Imperial Austro-Hungarian Navy in 1911 and saw very little service in their seven years on Vienna’s naval list. After ole Franz died in 1916, his great-nephew Karl took the throne and beat feet during the last days of the war, signing over the fleet to the newly formed Yugoslav government to keep it out of the Allies hands.
To comply with this, the two battlewagons sailed out of Pola on 10 November under nominal Slav command and, flying American flags, surrendered to a group of punchy 110-foot U.S. Navy submarine chasers until Bullard and Birmingham arrived a week later. Under U.S. custody, the pair was even referred to as USS Zrinyi and USS Radetzky, unofficially. However, it was not to be and in compliance with the final Austrian peace in 1920, the ships were given to Italy and scrapped.
As for our hardy scout cruiser, she returned home in early 1919 and was soon reassigned to the Pacific Fleet.
Reclassified as a light cruiser (CL-2), she later became the flag of RADM William C. Cole who used her to head up a squadron dispatched to Panama in 1922 to help quiet down the locals in the Canal Zone– making Birmingham a Mahanian gunboat to the last. Ironically, during this period she called on New Orleans and, while open to the public during the 1923 State Fair, was toured by then CPT. Osami Nagano of the Imperial Japanese Navy. Nagano, of course, would later rise to Chief of the Navy General Staff during WWII, outranking Yamamoto.
In addition to Nagano and the host of early aviators that went on to greatness, at least three of Birmingham‘s former skippers went on to become full admirals including two CINCUS’s and one CNO. She truly was a ship that stars fell upon.
With the resulting peace craze that followed WWI and the series of naval treaties agreed to by the world’s great powers, the Chester class were declared surplus and laid up so that their tonnage could be used for more modern cruiser developments. As such, Birmingham headed to Philadelphia, where she was decommissioned on 1 December 1923. Salem had already been laid up at Mare Island in 1921, the same year Chester was put out of service at Boston. By early 1930, all three had been sold for scrap, at which point they were only about 22 years old each and had been in reserve for a decade. A waste.
Birmingham’s name would be twice reused, by the Cleveland-class light cruiser USS Birmingham (CL-62)— which gave epic service in WWII and decommissioned in 1946– and by the Los Angeles-class nuclear attack submarine USS Birmingham (SSN-695) which was active from 1978 to 1997.
Of course, our Scout Cruiser’s silver service is at the Birmingham Museum of Art, on public display. She has also been remembered in maritime art for her role as America’s first aircraft carrier, of sorts.
Further, on the Centennial of Naval Aviation in 2010, a replica of Ely’s Curtiss Hudson Flier was hoisted aboard the Nimitz-class supercarrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77), for old time’s sake.
As for Ely, after his takeoff from Birmingham, he made a landing on a larger deck on the armored cruiser USS Pennsylvania, another important aviation first. Sadly, before 1911 was out, he died in a plane crash in Macon, Georgia. He was later enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame.
3,750 long tons (3,810 t) (standard)
4,687 long tons (4,762 t) (full load)
423 ft 1 in (128.96 m) oa
420 ft (130 m) pp
Beam: 47 ft 1 in
Draft: 16 ft 9 in(mean)
12 × Fore River boilers
15,670 ihp (produced on Trial)
2 × 4cly vertical triple expansion engines
2 × screws
24 knots designed, 24.33 knots (Speed on Trial)
Coal: 1400 tons max. Burned 148 tons in 24 hrs at 20 knots or 31 tons per 24 hrs at 10 knots, which is sweet
Complement: 42 officers 330 enlisted
4 × 5 in (130 mm)/50 caliber Mark 6 breech-loading rifles
6 × 3 in (76 mm)/50 caliber rapid-fire guns (6×1)
2 × 3-pounder (47 mm (1.9 in) Driggs-Schroeder saluting guns
2 × 21-inch (533 mm) torpedo tubes, submerged, with 8 torpedoes in the magazine
Belt: 2 in over engineering spaces only, essentially double skinned from 3.5-feet below the waterline to 9.5-feet above
Deck: 1 mm (aft) to protect steering gear
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