Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2022: Crescent City Blues
Above we see the lead ship of her class, the heavy cruiser USS New Orleans (CA-32) camouflaged at Tulagi in the then hotly contested Solomon Islands, shortly after she was torpedoed during the Battle of Tassafaronga on 30 November 1942– some 80 years ago today. Note that her stern is riding high and that her forward end is low in the water as the Japanese Type 93 Long Lance she caught had severed her bow between # 1 and # 2 eight-inch gun turrets, killing 182 men and lopping off almost a fifth of her length.
About the class
Classified as the “Second Generation of Treaty Cruisers” by Friedman who has an entire chapter on the subject in his USNI Press U.S. Cruisers book– a bible on the subject– the seven New Orleans class vessels came after America flirted with the more cramped and often extremely lightly armored Pensacola class (Pensacola and Salt Lake City) Portland class (Portland and Indianapolis), and Northampton-class (Northampton, Chester, Louisville, Chicago, Augusta, and Houston) cruisers. For reference, the P-colas, which carried 518 tons of armor, had just 4-inches of armor at their thickest, with just a maximum of 2.5 inches on their turret face and 1.25 inches on the conning tower, making them vulnerable to 5-inch shells and derided as being “tin clads” or “eggshell” cruisers.
Some 588 feet overall with a 61-foot beam, the New Orleans class carried 1,507 tons of protection (three times as much as Pensacola) and ran a belt and central conning tower that carried up to five inches of plate while the thickest parts of the turret faces went eight, making them capable of withstanding hits from the 8-inch shells of the day– if they were fired from far enough away.
In a further improvement, while carrying nine 8″/55 Mark 9 main guns of the same type as the previous U.S. Treaty heavy cruisers, the New Orleanses carried them in better-designed turrets with more room and would be upgraded during the war to Mark 12, 14, or 15 guns.
As noted by Friedman concisely, “The New Orleans class represented a shift in U.S. cruiser priorities toward protection, gained in part because of a determined use of the entire available treaty tonnage.”
Speaking to which, while rated as 10,000 tons on paper– in line with the Washington Naval treaty limits– during WWII they pushed almost 13,000 when fully loaded and carrying scores of AAA guns for which they weren’t designed. By comparison, the standard weight of the 585-foot P-Colas and 600-foot Northamptons were just 9,138 and 8,997 tons, respectively, leaving a lot of treaty weight on the table.
They also had extensive floatplane facilities including two catapults and a large hangar, with corresponding avgas bunkerage and aviation magazines. They typically operated up to four Seagulls, though the number of catapults and extremely dangerous gasoline stores were whittled down late in the war and only a pair of floatplanes carried.
The Mississippi River city of New Orleans, the site of two different battles in 1815 and 1862, had previously lent her name to a ship-of-the-line that was begun the same year as the former and sold while still in the stocks over 20 years past the latter.
Then came a protected cruiser — laid down by Armstrong in England as Amazonas for the Brazilian Navy— that was rushed into service in 1898 and would remain in the line through the Great War.
As such, our cruiser is the only the second USS New Orleans to reach the fleet. Laid down on 14 March 1931 at the New York Navy Yard, she was commissioned on 15 February 1934.
Her brief peacetime period took her as far as Scandinavia, a showboat for the Navy and the country before finding herself increasingly after 1936 in Pacific waters.
In it from the very first bullet, on 7 December 1941, New Orleans was moored at Berth 16, Navy Yard Pearl Harbor undergoing engine repairs on shore power.
As noted by her report of the attack:
At 0757 sighted enemy planes “dive bombing” Ford Island and went to General Quarters immediately. At 0805 sighted enemy torpedo planes on port quarter flying low across our stern. Rifle fire and Pistol fire was opened from our fantail as the first planes flew by to launch their torpedoes at the battleships. This ship saw several planes launch their torpedoes headed in the direction of the battleships. Our 1.1/75 battery and Machine Guns aft were manned in time to actually fire at three or four enemy planes passing our stern. About 0810 all batteries, except the 8″ battery, were in action engaging such enemy planes a presented themselves as targets.
Lightly damaged– her crew found no less than 29 small holes in her above water-line hull and superstructure due to flying fragments but she suffered no casualties– with the Pacific Fleet’s battleships out of service, she was soon expected to fill the gap along with her sisters.
She was soon escorting convoys throughout the South Pacific and screened the carrier USS Yorktown at Coral Sea (taking 580 of Lexington’s survivors off) in May, USS Enterprise at Midway in June, and was standing by USS Saratoga at the Battle of the Eastern Solomons in August 1942.
When Sara was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine, New Orleans spent almost 12 weeks escorting the precious flattop back to Pearl, waiting for her to be repaired (and picking up more AAA guns of her own), then escorting her back to the Solomons.
As the Japanese had fought a string of cruiser/destroyer vs cruiser/destroyer night actions at Savo Island in August (with three of New Orleans’s sisters– Astoria, Quincy, and Vincennes— lost in minutes), Cape Esperance in October (Salt Lake City lost) and Guadalcanal in November (Portland and sister San Francisco seriously damaged) in which the U.S. attrition rate when it came to heavy cruisers became untenable, it was inevitable that New Orleans would soon find herself in a scrap. One that would be the last large surface ship clash of the Solomons campaign.
This brings us to…
RADM Carleton H. Wright’s Task Force 67– including the heavy cruisers USS Minneapolis (CA-36), USS New Orleans (CA-32), USS Northampton (CA-24), and USS Pensacola (CA-26), the light cruiser USS Honolulu (CL-48) and the destroyers USS Drayton (DD-366), USS Fletcher (DD-445), USS Maury (DD-401), USS Perkins (DD-377), USS Lamson (DD-367), and USS Lardner (DD-487)— had a rendezvous with destiny when it acted against a partially surprised and all-around inferior (on paper) Japanese “Tokyo Express” force of RADM Raizō Tanaka’s eight cargo-burdened destroyers of the IJN’s DesRon2 on the night of November 30, 1942, on the surface of Iron Bottom Sound near Lunga Point.
As described by the National Museum of the Navy:
U.S. force of five cruisers and six destroyers intercepted eight Japanese destroyers bringing reinforcements to Guadalcanal and were crippled by a brilliantly executed Japanese torpedo counterattack. Heavy cruiser Northampton was sunk, while Pensacola, New Orleans, and Minneapolis were badly damaged. The Japanese only lost the destroyer Takanami. In this action, the last of the Guadalcanal campaign’s five major surface battles, the Japanese once again demonstrated their tactical superiority at night. The Navy was learning though, as would be demonstrated in 1943.
It turned out that, while the New Orleans class had better armor than the first generation of American Treaty Cruisers, they suffered from a lack of below-waterline protection and dramatic bow loss ran in the family, at least at Tassafaronga.
Sister Minneapolis, who scored many of the hits on Takanami, took two torpedo hits from Japanese destroyers, one on the port bow, the other in her number two fireroom, and her bow collapsed.
New Orleans also took her lumps.
Detailed from DANFS:
When flagship Minneapolis was struck by two torpedoes, New Orleans, next astern, was forced to sheer away to avoid collision, and ran into the track of a torpedo which ripped off her bow. Bumping down the ship’s port side, the severed bow punched several holes in New Orleans’ hull. A fifth of her length gone, slowed to 2 knots, and blazing forward, the ship fought for survival. Individual acts of heroism and self-sacrifice along with skillful seamanship kept her afloat, and under her own power she entered Tulagi Harbor near daybreak on 1 December.
For New Orleans, her Battle Damage Report is stark:
- During the night of 30 November 1942, NEW ORLEANS was a unit of a task force which engaged a Japanese force in the action subsequently named the Battle of Lunga Point. NEW ORLEANS, firing with her main battery and steaming at 20 knots, had just started to swing to the right to avoid MINNEAPOLIS when a torpedo struck the port bow in way of turret I and detonated.
- The torpedo detonation was followed immediately by a second and much heavier detonation. As a result, the bow, including turret I, was severed almost completely between turrets I and II. It swung out to port and tore loose, probably due to the starboard swing of the ship. It then floated aft and banged against the port side. Holes were torn in the shell at frames 53, 130 and 136 and the port inboard propeller was wrecked.
That secondary explosion was later determined to be from one of New Orleans’s aviation bomb and mine magazine, A-502-1/8-M, which “contained the 160-pound demolition charge and forty-nine 100-pound bombs” and that of an adjacent small arms magazine, A-502-M, which contained five 325-pound depth bombs.
She limped into Tulagi some eight hours after the battle and remained there shoring up her bow with coconut logs under a camo net for 11 days.
Minneapolis did much the same, with the help of Seabees.
New Orleans then slowly sailed for Sydney, Australia, arriving on Christmas Eve 1942, her crew finally getting some much-needed rest. She would remain there until March, when, after a temporary stub bow was fitted in dry dock, she left for Puget Sound and arrived on the West Coast on 3 April 1943 after stops at Pago Pago and Pearl Harbor
Back in the fight
After post-rebuild workups, New Orleans sailed 5-6 October 1943 with RADM Alfred E. Montgomery’s Task Force 14 to shell Japanese-occupied Wake Island.
New Orleans would also help support Allied landings at Hollandia and the invasion of the Marianas.
She would lend her increased AAA batteries to help swat down Japanese aircraft during the Battle of the Philippine Sea while revisiting her old days of screening carriers. Then came the big shows in the Philippines and at Iwo Jima.
After a final wartime refit at Mare Island, she was back at it, hammering Japanese positions at Okinawa and was at Subic Bay when hostilities ceased.
After supporting the post-war occupation of Korea and Manchuria, she made two trips back stateside on Magic Carpet missions returning Pacific War vets to the U.S. Arriving at Philadelphia Navy Yard in March 1946, she spent an 11-month period preparing for mothballs and was decommissioned 10 February 1947.
She had earned 17 battle stars for her war– tying for third most in the theater– and gained a new bow.
Of her seven-ship class, only four were still in commission on VJ Day and three of those were so grievously damaged in action against the Japanese off Guadalcanal that they had to be extensively rebuilt. Only sister USS Tuscaloosa (CA-37), which had “luckily” fought most of her war in the ETO, was never damaged in battle.
After spending 12 years along Philly’s red lead row, the vaunted USS New Orleans had her name struck from the Navy List on 1 March 1959 and was sold for scrapping on 22 September 1959 to the Boston Metals Co., Baltimore, Md. Similar fates were met by her three remaining sisters at the same time.
Our cruiser was remembered by the (apparently now defunct) USS New Orleans Reunion Association and most of her war diaries along with some architectural and engineering drawings are digitized in the National Archives.
Her ship’s bell– presented to the cruiser by the Louisiana State Museum in 1933– is on display in New Orleans City Hall, just outside the Mayor’s Office.
The National WWII Museum in New Orleans has other artifacts including a piece of the coconut log shoring from Tulagi.
With the old New Orleans sent to the breakers, the Navy soon recycled her name for a new Iwo Jima-class amphibious assault ship commissioned in 1968 and would go on to serve three decades.
Then came the Ingalls-built USS New Orleans (LPD-18), a massive 25,000-ton San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock, commissioned in the Crescent City in 2007 and still in service.
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