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Workhorses: The Brooklyn Class Light Cruisers

The Brooklyn Class Light Cruisers were the most modern cruisers in the US inventory when war broke out in on December 7th 1941.  The ships were built under the provisions of the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922.  Displacing 9700 tons to remain within treaty limitations they mounted a powerful armament of fifteen 6” guns mounted in 5 turrets, three forward and two aft.  Their design, especially their armament was designed in response to the large Mogami Class light cruisers of the Imperial Japanese Navy which initially mounted the same main battery before being converted to Heavy Cruisers.  The layout of the main battery in both classes of cruisers was identical.

Pre-war shot of Honolulu, typical of Brooklyn Class

Authorized in by Congress in 1933 the ships were designed with a large transom which housed the aircraft hangar with twin catapults and crane. This was a departure from previous US cruisers which housed the aircraft and their volatile fuels midships which would prove a liability in combat against the Japanese in the Solomons campaign.  The new hangar design was carried forth on all new cruisers and battleships built by the US subsequent to the Brooklyn Class.

There were 9 ships in the class, one of which the Wichita was completed as a Heavy Cruiser mounting nine 8” guns in triple turrets and is considered a separate one ship class.  In addition to their main battery they mounted eight 5” 25 caliber dual purpose guns and a light AA battery which was continuously increased throughout the war. Their steam turbines produced 100,000 shaft horsepower to give the ships an official speed of 32.5 knots which was exceeded by some of the ships.

The ships Brooklyn CL-40, Philadelphia CL-41, Savannah CL-42, Nashville CL-43, Phoenix CL-46, Boise CL-47, Honolulu CL-48, St. Louis CL-49 and Helena CL-50 were involved in some of the most intense combat of the war serving in both the Atlantic and the Pacific.  Of the ships one, the Helena was lost in surface combat and several others taking severe damage without sinking.  Half of the surviving ships of the class would serve in foreign navies for many years following the war a testament to their toughness and utility.

The lead ship of the class the Brooklyn served exclusively in the Atlantic and Mediterranean where she engaged Vichy warships during the invasion of North Africa and took part in the landings at Sicily, Salerno, Anzio and Southern France where she provided naval gunfire support to troops ashore. Following the war she was decommissioned in January 1947 and transferred to the Chilean Navy in 1951 under the Mutual Defense Assistance Program. She was renamed O’Higgins and served until decommissioned in January 1992 and sold for scrap. She sank while being towed to India for scrapping in November 1992.

Philadelphia had a similar career to Brooklyn. Launched in 1936 and commissioned in 1937 she too served in the Atlantic and Mediterranean supporting the invasions of North Africa, Sicily, Salerno, Anzio and Southern France.  She was decommissioned in February 1947 and transferred to Brazil in 1951. Renamed Barroso she served until 1973 and sold for scrap.

Late war view of St Louis

Savannah was launched in May 1937 and commissioned in March 1938 and like Brooklyn and Philadelphia served exclusively in the Atlantic and Mediterranean supporting amphibious landings, searching for German commerce raiders and blockade runners and supporting various escort missions. At Salerno she was struck and severely damaged by a German FX-1400 radio guided bomb which struck her number 3 gun turret penetrating to the lower handling room where it exploded tearing a large hole in the ship’s bottom and opening a seam in the ship’s side.  Her crew performed heroically to control the damage and get the ship to Malta but she lost 197 sailors in the attack. Following temporary repairs she returned to the United States for repairs and modernization which were complete in September 1944. She served in a number of capacities in the Atlantic and was decommissioned in February 1947, stricken from the Navy List in March 1959 and sold for scrapping in January 1966.

Nashville was launched in October 1937 and commissioned in June 1938 initially serving in the Atlantic until her transfer to the Pacific Fleet in February 1942.  While in the Atlantic she took part in the Neutrality Patrols and following the commencement of hostilities continued convoy escort duties.  Her first mission in the Pacific was to escort the Carrier Hornet CV-8 on her mission to launch Colonel Jimmy Doolittle’s Army Air Force B-25s on the Tokyo raid.  Nashville sank a scout vessel which had discovered the task force.  On return from the mission she was assigned to the defense of the Aleutians until November 1942.  She then was transferred to the South Pacific where she participated in raids and bombardments of Japanese shore installations until while shelling Vila Airfield on Kolombangara on the night of 12 May 1943, she had an explosion of powder charges in one of her forward turrets, killing 18 and injuring 17.  The damage required her to be sent to Bremerton for repair and modernization and she would return to duty in August to join carrier task forces in raids in the Central Pacific before again moving to the South Pacific where she participated in the New Guinea campaign and as well as other missions until May of 1944.  She took part in the invasion of Leyte and the Battle of Leyte Gulf guarding beachheads and transports and fending off Kamikazes while providing naval gunfire support to troops ashore. While conducting similar operations off Negros Island she was struck by a Kamikaze with two bombs aboard. Nashville was struck on one of her port 5” mounts the bombs exploding above her deck. The blazing aviation fuel and explosions killed 139 crew members and wounded 190.  Following repairs at Bremerton she went back to the Southwest Pacific lending her battery to landings at Brunei Bay, Borneo, and protecting carriers in the Makassar Straits.  She was decommissioned in June of 1946 and sold to Chile in January 1951 where she was renamed Captain Prat where she served until she was decommissioned in May 1982 and sold for scrap in April 1983.

Phoenix was launched in March of 1938 and commissioned in October of the same year. She became part of the growing Pacific Fleet and was the first modern light cruiser assigned in the Pacific. She was at Pearl Harbor on December 7th 1941 and would serve throughout the war in the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific and was engaged in heavy operations around New Guinea and other islands in the area frequently involved in shore bombardment, amphibious assaults and raids and having to engage attacking Japanese aircraft.  In September 1944 she was assigned to the covering force of old battleships assigned to 7th Fleet for the invasion of the Philippines.  As part of this force under Rear Admiral Jesse Oldendorf she took part in the destruction of the Japanese Southern Force at the Battle of Surigo Strait where her gunners aided in the sinking of the Japanese battleship Fuso. Phoenix continued operations with 7th Fleet in the Southwest Pacific supporting shore operations and fighting off swarms of Kamikazes without damage to herself. Following the war she was decommissioned in July 1946 and transferred to the Argentinean Navy in April 1951 where she was renamed 17 de Octubre and later General Belgrano. She received a number of modifications while in Argentine service including ASW helicopters and the Sea Cat Air Defense missile system.  Still in active service at the time of the Argentinean invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982 she was sent to sea with two destroyers.  She was discovered by the British attack submarine HMS Conqueror torpedoed and sunk on May 3rd 1982 with the loss of 323 men, ending a 44 year career of service to the United States and Argentinean Navies.

Boise was launched in December 1936 and commissioned in August 1938. Following her shakedown cruise she was assigned to the Pacific Fleet. On December 7th 1941 she was in the Philippines after having completed a convoy escort mission.  She was sent south to join the rest of the Asiatic Squadron and our Australian, British and Dutch Allies to for the ABDA (American, British, Dutch, and Australia) task force opposing the southern advance of the Japanese aimed at Java and the Dutch East Indies.  She struck an uncharted shoal on January 29th while conducting operations in the Sape Strait forcing her to return to the United States for repairs. This probably prevented Boise from sharing the fate of most of the rest of the squadron including the HMS Exeter, USS Houston, HMAS Perth and Dutch light cruisers DeRuyter and Java, most of which were sunk in the Battle of the Java Sea in February. After repairs she returned to the South Pacific where she took part in a number of actions including the Battle of Cape Esperance where she helped sink the Japanese Heavy Cruiser Furutaka and destroyer Fubiki. She was damaged in this action and returned to Philadelphia for repairs.  Following her repairs she was dispatched to support the landings on Sicily before returning to the Pacific where she served from January 1944 to June of 1945 conducting almost non-stop operations around New Guinea, Borneo and the Philippines. She returned to San Pedro for overhaul and was there when the war ended. She decommissioned in July 1946 and sold to Argentina in January 1951 and commissioned as Nuevo de Julio in 1952.  She served until 1978 when she was decommissioned and was sold for scrap in August 1981.

Honolulu had one of the most active careers while engaged in operations against Japanese Naval units with far less time devoted to gunfire support missions.  She was at Pearl Harbor on December 7th 1941 and following that took part in convoy escort missions until she went north to screen Alaska from Japanese attack in May 1942 a task that she engaged in until November.  She then reported to the South Pacific and was part of operations against the Japanese Fleet in the Solomons. She took part in the Battle of Tassafaronga, the Battle of Kula Gulf where she helped sink a destroyer and the Battle of Kolombangara where she was instrumental in sinking the Sendai class light cruiser Jintsu and a destroyer. She then supported amphibious operations in the Central Pacific including Saipan and Guam and the Leyte Gulf landings in the Philippines.  While operating off Manus Island she was stuck by an aerial torpedo receiving heavy damage which required her withdraw to the United States for major repairs which were still being completed when the war ended. She decommissioned in February 1947, stricken from the Naval Register in November 1959 and sold for scrap.

St. Louis was launched in April 1938 and commissioned in May 1939. After time conducting neutrality patrols at the onset of the war in the Atlantic she was transferred to the Pacific Fleet in November 1940. She was at Pearl Harbor on December 7th 1941 and was one of the few major fleet units to get underway and out to sea during the attack.  She supported carrier operations and convoy escort missions until she was sent north to that Aleutians where she operated until October when she returned to the States for a brief overhaul before being assigned to operations in the Solomons. Operating on a nearly nonstop basis against the Tokyo Express she took part in the Battle of Kula Gulf and the Battle of Kolombangara where she received partial credit for the sinking of the Japanese light cruiser Jinstu. During the battle she was torpedoed in the bow and after temporary repairs returned to the Mare Island. Following repairs St. Louis returned to the Solomons in November 1943. She was struck by a bomb which killed 20 crew members on January 14th requiring her to return to Purvis Bay for repairs. The repairs complete she returned to the Solomons until June when she took part in the invasion of the Marshalls at Guam and Saipan. She damaged her number three propeller and had to return to the States for repair following the Guam bombardment.  Upon her return she served at Leyte Gulf until she was hit by two Kamikazes in a short span receiving heavy damage and resulted in the loss of 15 sailors killed, 1 missing and 43 wounded.  She again sailed for repairs and returned to action against the Japanese home islands and Okinawa. Following this she supported operations against Japanese installations on the Asian mainland.  Following the war she took part in the Yangtze River patrol force and then returned to the United States in January 1946.  She was decommissioned in June 1946 and transferred to Brazil in January 1951 being commissioned as Tamandare. She was decommissioned in June 1976 and sold for scrapping in 1980. While being towed to Taiwan for scrapping she sank on August 24th 1980.

Helena firing at Kula Gulf just before being torpedoed and sunk

The Final ship in the class, Helena was launched in August 1939 and commissioned in the following month.  She was at Pearl Harbor and mooed at the 1010 Dock where she was hit by a torpedo and damaged. After repairs she reported to the South Pacific and the Guadalcanal campaign.  She escorted carriers. Helena had the most modern surface search radars and at Battle of Cape Esperance in Iron Bottom Sound, Helena had sunk cruiser Furutaka and destroyer Fubiki.  She then took part in the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal in which a weaker American force turned back a Japanese force with heavy losses on both sides including the Japanese Battleship Hiei and the American cruisers Atlanta, Juneau and 4 destroyers. Helena continued operations in the Solomons and at the Battle of Kula Gulf was sank by Japanese torpedoes fired by destroyers on July 5th 1943.  168 of her sailors were lost in the action. Helena was the first US Navy ship to be awarded the Naval Unit Commendation.

The General Belgrano ex-USS Phoenix sinking after being torpedoed by HMS Conqueror at the Battle of Falkland Islands

The class found its niche in the war primarily in shore bombardment and Naval Gunfire Support as well as in the sharp surface actions in the South Pacific. Only one, Helena was lost.  Six were transferred to South American Navies making and served for many years in those navies. None survive today but the ships were instrumental in the success of many operations.

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Forerunners of the Next Generation: The New Mexico Class, USS New Mexico, USS Idaho and USS Mississippi

New Mexico BB-40 in 1930 before moderization

The Battleships of the Nevada and Pennsylvania classes had established American ship design as second to none in 1916.  At the same time the US Navy was planning advances in engineering systems that would change naval engineering forever.

Idaho  BB-42 in 1931 after modernization

The ships of the New Mexico class were improvements on the preceding Nevada and Pennsylvania class half sisters.  Their hull was lengthened and beam increased. Additionally the new class was given a clipper bow to improve sea keeping capabilities.  While they maintained the same main battery layout of four turrets mounting three 14” guns each, however the guns were a higher caliber 14”/50 models that would also be mounted on the California class.  The New Mexico was also the test bed for a new power plant which featured General Electric geared turbines with electric drive which would be standard on succeeding classes of battleships as well as carriers, cruisers and destroyers.  The Mississippi and Idaho retained the older geared turbine design. The practical effect was that the New Mexico required less horsepower to attain the same speeds as the earlier design turbines.

USS Mississippi BB-41 in the North Atlantic September 1941

Displacing 32,000 tons the ships were slightly larger than their predecessors.  New Mexico was launched on 23 April 1917 and commissioned on May 18th 1918.  Her sisters Mississippi and Idaho were actually launched and commissioned sooner being launched on January 25th 1917 and commissioned on December 18th 1917.  None of the ships saw action in the First World War and in 1919 the three would become the nucleus of the newly formed Pacific Fleet. They would serve in the Pacific but conduct exercises with the Atlantic Fleet in the Pacific as well as the Atlantic and Caribbean.  All three were modernized in the early 1930s receiving improvements in armor protection, anti-torpedo blisters, a modernized bridge structure to replace their cage masts, improvements to machinery and their secondary armament.

The Three Sister Moored Together, Late 1943

They would return to the Pacific but with the outbreak of war in Europe the three ships were transferred to the Atlantic Fleet where they took part in the Neutrality Patrol. When Pearl Harbor was attacked the three sisters went back to the Pacific where they spent much of 1942 escorting convoys and being prepared to repel any Japanese assault on the US Mainland.  In April 1943 they took part in the Aleutian campaign and the assaults on Attu and Kiska.  They would then sail to the Central Pacific where the provided support to the invasions of the Gilberts, Marshalls and Marianas islands by protecting the transports and providing naval gunfire support to Marines ashore.

Idaho in her final 1945 configuration. Note the 5″/38 DP Guns in single enclosed mounts used by US Fletcher Class DDs. The Idaho was the only Battleship to have this type of 5″ mount

The three would again operate together during the invasion of the Philippines where the Mississippi served with other battleships of the 7th Fleet’s battle line under Rear Admiral Jesse Oldenforf at the Battle of Surigo Strait where they annihilated a Japanese force including the battleships Fuso and Yamisharo.   Both Mississippi and New Mexico were damaged by Kamikaze hits in Philippine waters, the New Mexico taking a hit on her bridge which killed her Captain and 27 crewmembers.  Both would require repairs and both would miss the invasion of Iwo Jima which Idaho took part in.  The three joined forces again at Okinawa where they provided fire support to Marines and Soldiers ashore.  They would serve until the end of the war in the Pacific and take part in Operation Magic Carpet to return military personnel from the Pacific to the United States.

Idaho at Okinawa

Following the war the New Mexico and Idaho were decommissioned and sold for scrap in 1948.  Mississippi however was converted into a gunnery training ship and reclassified as AG-128.

Idaho (lower left) New Mexico (top left) and Wyoming being scrapped at Newark NJ 1948

In this capacity she served as a test bed for new weapons including the Terrier guided missile systems which would be mounted on the first generation of US Navy Guided Missile Cruisers.   She was decommissioned in 1956 and sold for scrap after an abortive attempt by the state of Mississippi to acquire her as a memorial ship.

USS Mississippi AG-128 firing Terrier Missiles

The ships provided valuable service during the Second World War and the technical innovations in propulsion and protection would become standard in subsequent classes of US Navy battleships.  Additionally the post war service of the Mississippi helped propel the Navy into the missile era helping to build a foundation that is in evidence today in the Ticonderoga Class Guided Missile Cruisers and Arleigh Burke class Guided Missile Destroyers and their Aegis air defense and ballistic missile defense systems.  The ships of the New Mexico class and their stalwart crews should not be forgotten.

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Filed under History, Military, Navy Ships, world war two in the pacific