Tuesday, February 2, 2010

USS Des Moines (C-15, later PG-29 & CL-17)

Figure 1: Post card photo of the USS Des Moines (C-15). Caption of the card reads: “USS Des Moines at anchor, Tompkinsville, New York.” Faded notation in the upper left-hand corner of the card says, “Copyright by Enrique Muller 1905.” The post card was published by the American News Company, New York. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2: USS Des Moines (C-15), date and place unknown. US Navy photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

The 3,200-ton USS Des Moines (CL-15) was the second of six Denver class “protected cruisers,” which were ships that possessed armor protection on their main decks but not on their sides. Also known as “Peace Cruisers,” these slow, lightly-armed and armored ships were never meant for fleet actions. They were used as gunboats with the Asiatic Fleet and in the waters off Central America and South America, as well as in the Caribbean and the Mediterranean. Because they were needed to patrol distant waters with little support, the Denver class ships were furnished with sails to extend their cruising range while economizing on coal, but they also had large coal bunkers, which increased their range and endurance. Their steel hulls were sheathed with pine and coppered for long service in tropical waters and they possessed roomy, well-ventilated quarters for their crews to ease the discomfort of sailing in hot climates. Each Denver class warship had a two-and-one-half-inch-thick armored deck and all of them were armed with ten 5-inch rapid-fire guns. USS Des Moines was built by the Fore River Ship and Engine Company, Quincy, Massachusetts, and was commissioned 5 March 1904. She was approximately 308 feet long and 44 feet wide, had a top speed of 16 knots, and had a crew of 339 officers and men.

Initially, Des Moines patrolled in the West Indies. But on 29 August 1904, the ship left Boston, Massachusetts, and was assigned to the European Squadron. Des Moines visited ports throughout Europe, showing the flag and safeguarding American interests. Des Moines made stops in France, England, Ireland, Norway, Holland, Belgium, Spain, and Italy before being transferred to the North Atlantic Fleet on 11 December 1904. While with the North Atlantic Fleet, Des Moines sailed in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, participating in naval exercises and protecting American lives and property in the region.

Des Moines returned to Boston on 16 February 1906 and for the next five years patrolled in the Atlantic, the Caribbean, and the Gulf of Mexico. Her primary duties included taking part in naval exercises, transporting officials and marines, and participating in ceremonial observances, such as the internment of John Paul Jones’ remains at the US Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, in April 1906 and the Fleet Review that was attended by President Theodore Roosevelt at Oyster Bay, Long Island, in September 1906.

From 15 April 1910 to 23 January 1911, Des Moines patrolled off the coast of Africa and visited the Canary Islands, Spain, Portugal, and Gibraltar. From March to November 1911, she resumed patrols in the Atlantic and the West Indies. On 6 December 1911, Des Moines returned to Boston and was placed in reserve while undergoing a major overhaul. She was fully re-commissioned on 3 September 1912 and then steamed to the Caribbean and Central America, where American citizens and interests were threatened by political turmoil. Des Moines periodically steamed north to the Portsmouth Navy Yard, New Hampshire, for overhauls and on 24 April 1915 she went on a voyage that took her from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to Alexandria, Egypt.

From 26 May 1915 to 25 April 1917, Des Moines protected American lives and property throughout the Middle East, rescuing missionaries and refugees from Turkey and Syria and transporting American officials when needed. She also participated in naval exercises that took her to ports in Italy, France, Spain, and Algeria. During World War I, Des Moines escorted eight merchant ship convoys in the Atlantic and assisted in training naval armed guard crews.

In January 1919, Des Moines assisted other ships in rescuing passengers from the grounded steamer Northern Pacific. All of the 2,200 passengers from the steamer were rescued, 50 of them by Des Moines. On 11 April 1919, the cruiser sailed from New York and headed for Archangel, Russia, where she joined a naval task force assigned to assist Allied forces in northern Russia. Des Moines’ primary mission was to protect American troops from communist Bolshevik forces. After the Allied involvement at Archangel ended, Des Moines brought some of the American troops back to the United States, arriving at the Portsmouth Navy Yard on 27 October.

After her return from Russia, the US Navy seemed to have a difficult time deciding whether or not Des Moines should be classified as a cruiser or a gunboat. Des Moines was given the gunboat designation of PG-29 on 7 July 1920, but was re-designated as a light cruiser, CL-17, on 8 August 1921. Des Moines patrolled off the coast of Mexico from May to September 1920, assisting in relief efforts during an epidemic of plague in that nation. She then was assigned to the Special Service Squadron based at the Panama Canal Zone and assisted in maintaining a naval presence along the coasts of Central and South America. On 5 March 1921, Des Moines returned to the Portsmouth Navy Yard and was decommissioned there on 9 April. USS Des Moines remained at Portsmouth until 11 March 1930, when she was finally sold for scrapping.