Tuesday, March 18, 2008

USS Phoenix (CL-46)

Figure 1: Pearl Harbor Raid, December 7, 1941. USS Phoenix (CL-46) steams down the channel off Ford Island's "Battleship Row", past the sunken and burning USS West Virginia (BB-48), at left, and USS Arizona (BB-39), at right. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2: USS Phoenix (CL-46) firing her 6"/47 guns during the pre-invasion bombardment of Cape Gloucester, New Britain, circa 24-26 December 1943. Photographed from the ship's fantail, looking forward. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 3: USS Phoenix (right) screening escort carriers (CVE) off Leyte, 30 October 1944. Photographed from one of the CVEs. Note flight deck barriers rigged in the foreground. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 4: Port bow view of ARA General Belgrano (ex-USS Phoenix) sometime prior to her sinking in 1982. Photo from NavSource Online: Cruiser Photo Archive. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 5: General Belgrano sinking after having been attacked by the British submarine HMS Conqueror on 2 May 1982 during the Falklands war. Note that the ship’s bow has been blown off by one of the HMS Conqueror’s torpedoes. Photo courtesy of Gerhard L. Mueller-Debus. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 6: General Belgrano sinking after having been attacked by the British submarine HMS Conqueror on 2 May 1982 during the Falklands war. Photo courtesy of Robert Hurst. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 7: General Belgrano sinking after having been attacked by the British submarine HMS Conqueror on 2 May 1982 during the Falklands war. Photo courtesy of Robert Hurst. Click on photograph for larger image.

Named after the capital of Arizona, the 9,575-ton USS Phoenix (CL-46) was a Brooklyn class light cruiser that was built at the New York Shipbuilding Company in Camden, New Jersey, and was commissioned at the Philadelphia Navy Yard on 3 October 1938. The ship was approximately 608 feet long and 61 feet wide, had a top speed of over 33 knots and a crew of 868 officers and men. The Phoenix was armed with 15 6-inch guns, eight 5-inch guns, and 8 .50-caliber machine guns, although additional smaller-caliber guns were added during the war.

After an initial shakedown cruise that took her along the Atlantic Coast of South America, the Phoenix returned to Philadelphia in January 1939. She was then transferred to the Pacific Fleet and was based at Pearl Harbor. On the morning of December 7, 1941, the Phoenix was anchored peacefully at Pearl Harbor just to the southeast of Ford Island, next to the hospital ship Solace. Lookouts on board the Phoenix spotted the Japanese planes coming in low over Ford Island and sounded the alarm. The Phoenix went to “Battle Stations” and soon the ship’s guns were firing at the Japanese planes. Miraculously, the Phoenix was unharmed during the attack and was able to raise steam. She left Pearl Harbor shortly after noon and joined the light cruisers St. Louis (CL-49) and Detroit (CL-8), along with several destroyers, in a spontaneous search for the Japanese task force. It is fortunate that they did not locate the enemy because it seems doubtful that three light cruisers and a handful of destroyers would have lasted long against the enormous Japanese task force, which possessed several aircraft carriers and a large number of escorts.

The Phoenix spent the first month of the war escorting ships between Hawaii and the West Coast. The ship was then sent to Australia, where she was based throughout 1942 and much of 1943. During this time, the Phoenix witnessed the horrible Allied defeat in the Dutch East Indies, escorted convoys in the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific, and worked with US and Australian naval forces along the coast of New Guinea. On 26 December 1943, the Phoenix, along with the light cruiser USS Nashville (CL-43), bombarded the Cape Gloucester area of New Britain in New Guinea for nearly four hours, destroying numerous Japanese targets. The Phoenix also provided fire support for the Allied landing on New Britain, eliminating enemy targets that had not been destroyed during the initial bombardment. On the night of 25-26 January 1944, the Phoenix also took part in a night raid that shelled Japanese shore installations on Madang and Alexishafen, New Guinea.

For the rest of the war, the Phoenix was attached to the US Seventh Fleet in the Pacific. From March to September 1944, she took part in the Allied invasions of the Admiralty Islands, the Northern and Western coasts of New Guinea, and the island of Morotai. In addition to her duties of escorting convoys and invasion task forces, as well as providing fire support against enemy shore targets, the Phoenix also assisted in the pursuit of a group of Japanese destroyers on the night of 8-9 June that were trying to bring reinforcements to the island of Biak. None of the Japanese ships were sunk because they quickly retreated after making contact with the Phoenix and the other American warships that were steaming with her.

The Phoenix then took part in the enormous invasion of the Philippine Islands. The Phoenix was assigned to the landing on Leyte and she bombarded the beaches there before the successful Allied landing on 20 October 1944. Her guns demolished Japanese coastal targets and provided invaluable fire support to American troops that landed on shore. On the night of 24-25 October, the Phoenix also took part in the famous Battle of Surigao Strait, in which American naval forces under the command of Admiral Jesse Oldendorf faced the Japanese “Southern Force” under the command of Admiral Shoji Nishimura. The Phoenix fired four spotting salvoes and, when the fourth salvo hit its target, the ship began firing all of its 6-inch guns. The enemy warship the Phoenix was firing at turned out to be the Japanese battleship Fuso, which sank in 27 minutes after being pounded by the Phoenix and the other ships in her task force. During the battle the Japanese lost another battleship and three destroyers. A Japanese cruiser was also damaged during the battle and was sunk the next day by American aircraft. Admiral Nishimura was killed during the confrontation, which turned out to be one of the last major surface battles in naval history.

The Phoenix continued serving off the coast of the Philippines for several more months, fighting off numerous Japanese air attacks and bombarding shore targets in support of American assaults on Mindoro, Lingayen Gulf, and Manila Bay. From May to July 1945, the Phoenix also assisted in the landings on Borneo.

When the war in the Pacific ended on August 1945, the Phoenix was steaming back to the United States for an overhaul. She reached the Panama Canal on 6 September and, after transiting the canal, was assigned to the Atlantic Fleet. She was placed in reserve at the Philadelphia Navy Yard on 28 February 1946 and was decommissioned on 3 July 1946. The Phoenix received nine battle stars for her service in World War II.

The Phoenix remained in Philadelphia in “mothballs” until 9 April 1951, when she was transferred to Argentina. The ship was renamed the 17 de Octubre and re-commissioned into the Argentinean Navy on 17 October 1951. In 1956 the ship was renamed yet again and called the General Belgrano. The ship served Argentina for more than 30 years, but on 2 May 1982, the Belgrano’s luck ran out. During the war with Great Britain over the Falkland Islands, the General Belgrano was torpedoed by the HMS Conqueror, a British nuclear-powered submarine. The Belgrano was hit by two Mk. 8 torpedoes (which were designed in the 1920s) and the order to “abandon ship” was given approximately 20 minutes after the attack. Shortly after that the ship rolled over and sank, taking 323 men with her. Approximately 770 men were eventually rescued by nearby Argentinean ships. The General Belgrano was the only ship ever to have been sunk by a nuclear-powered submarine.

No doubt the USS Phoenix had an amazing career. She managed to survive the attack on Pearl Harbor and the entire war in the Pacific, as well as one of the largest naval confrontations in naval history, the Battle of Surigao Strait. She also went on to serve the Argentinean Navy for more than 30 years before meeting her violent end in the South Atlantic in 1982. It does seem ironic that a nuclear-powered submarine sank a cruiser that was built before World War II using a torpedo that was also designed prior to World War II. But those are the types of ironies that make naval history eerie as well as intriguing.