Tuesday, January 31, 2012

USS New Orleans (CA-32)

Figure 1: USS New Orleans (CA-32) in English waters, circa June 1934. Photographed by Wright & Logan, Southsea, England. Donation of Captain Joseph Finnegan, USN (Retired), 1970. US Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2: USS New Orleans (CA-32) in port, circa 1937. Note the broad band painted on her after smokestack, probably a recognition feature. US Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 3: USS New Orleans (CA-32) off the Mare Island Navy Yard, California, 9 February 1942. Official US Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval Historical Center. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 4: USS New Orleans (CA-32) underway during exercises in Hawaiian waters, 8 July 1942. Official US Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the U.S. National Archives. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 5: Port bow view as USS New Orleans (CA-32) entered Tulagi harbor in the Solomon Islands about 8 hours after being struck by a torpedo, 1 December 1942. US Navy photo from the collection of Fred Overman family. Courtesy Henry A. Wristen, FTCS(DV) USN (Ret.). Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 6: USS New Orleans (CA-32) seen here after the Battle of Tassafaronga. The PT boat in the foreground is carrying survivors from the USS Northampton (CA 26). US Navy photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 7: USS New Orleans (CA-32) camouflaged at Tulagi, Solomon Islands, some days after she was torpedoed during the Battle of Tassafaronga on 30 November 1942. Note that her stern is riding high, and that her forward end is low in the water. The torpedo and subsequent explosion had severed her bow between No. 1 and No. 2 eight-inch gun turrets. Official US Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the US National Archives. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 8: Patched up in Australia, USS New Orleans (CA-32) is heading to the United States for a new bow and permanent repairs. In order to balance the ship, the barrels were removed from No. 2 turret and stored at the stern. US Navy photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 9: USS New Orleans (CA-32) steams through a tight turn in Elliot Bay, Washington, 30 July 1943, following battle damage repairs and overhaul at the Puget Sound Navy Yard, Washington. Official US Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval Historical Center. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 10: USS New Orleans (CA-32) off the Puget Sound Navy Yard, Bremerton, Washington, following battle damage repairs and overhaul, 5 August 1943. Official US Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval Historical Center. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 11: USS New Orleans (CA-32) off the Mare Island Navy Yard, California, 8 March 1945. Photograph from the Bureau of Ships Collection in the US National Archives. Click on photograph for larger image.

Named after a city in Louisiana, the 9,950-ton USS New Orleans (CA-32) was the lead ship in a class of seven heavy cruisers. New Orleans was built at the New York Navy Yard, New York, and was commissioned on 15 February 1934. The ship was approximately 588 feet long and 61 feet wide, had a top speed of 32 knots, and had a crew of 708 officers and men. New Orleans was armed with nine 8-inch guns, eight 5-inch guns, and eight .50-caliber machine guns, and carried four aircraft.

New Orleans conducted her shakedown cruise to northern Europe in May and June of 1934 and returned to New York on 28 June. The heavy cruiser then steamed to the Pacific to participate in exercises with the cruiser USS Houston and the airship Macon. For the next two years, New Orleans served in the Atlantic, though she periodically sailed to the Pacific and then was regularly stationed there after early 1937. New Orleans was based at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and remained there for the next four years.

On the morning of 7 December 1941, New Orleans was moored at Pearl Harbor and was taking electricity from the dock while her engines were being repaired. Unfortunately, after the attack on Pearl Harbor started, all electrical power to the ship was halted. As the engineers on board frantically tried to restore power, Japanese bombs were exploding next to the ship. Crewmen were defiantly firing at the Japanese aircraft with rifles and pistols for several minutes until power was restored. Once the ship had electrical power, the ship’s anti-aircraft batteries started firing at the enemy planes. New Orleans continued firing at the enemy aircraft until the attack was over. Several crewmen were injured when a fragmentation bomb blew up next to the ship. But, other than that, the ship was ready to leave the harbor which was, by this time, engulfed in flames.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, New Orleans briefly escorted convoys until she was sent to San Francisco on 13 January 1942 for engineering repairs and the installation of a new search radar as well as several 20-mm guns. The ship then escorted a convoy to Brisbane, Australia, on 12 February and from there escorted yet another convoy to Noumea, New Caledonia. After that, New Orleans returned to Pearl Harbor.

New Orleans joined Task Force 11 and on 15 April 1942 she began escorting the carrier USS Yorktown. This large American task force steamed southwest of the New Hebrides and a few days later, on 7-8 May, the ships participated in the momentous Battle of the Coral Sea, which was the first major carrier battle of the war. Although American carrier pilots sank one Japanese carrier, the Japanese mortally wounded an American carrier, USS Lexington. Lexington was wracked by explosions and engulfed in flames. New Orleans was sent to assist the stricken carrier. As flames continued to spread on board Lexington, her crewmen began to abandon ship. As New Orleans stood by the sinking carrier, many of her crewmen dove into the water to rescue the survivors from the carrier, especially the wounded ones. The motor lifeboats from New Orleans came in close to the flaming Lexington to pick up even more men, even though bombs that were stored on board the carrier were exploding on a regular basis. Metal and debris showered the surrounding area, yet New Orleans’ boat crews continued plucking men out of the water. New Orleans rescued approximately 580 men from Lexington before the cruiser had to leave the area. Lexington, though, was a tough ship and even though she was devastated by fire and internal explosions, the carrier remained afloat. To prevent the burning hulk from falling into the hands of the Japanese, Lexington had to be sunk by two torpedoes from an American destroyer. She sank on an even keel after one last, major explosion. New Orleans brought her 580 survivors to Noumea and then patrolled the eastern Solomon Islands before sailing back to Pearl Harbor for supplies.

New Orleans left Pearl Harbor on 28 May 1942 and began escorting the carrier USS Enterprise. A few days later on 2 June, this task force participated in the cataclysmic Battle of Midway. Midway was the naval turning point in the Pacific during World War II, where American carrier pilots sank four Japanese carriers for the loss of one American carrier, USS Yorktown. New Orleans remained by the side of Enterprise, protecting her from Japanese aircraft. Fortunately for the US Navy, Enterprise survived the battle. The American victory at Midway stopped Japan’s eastward expansion and heavily crippled her naval air arm for the rest of the war. After the battle, New Orleans returned to Pearl Harbor.

New Orleans left Pearl Harbor on 7 July 1942 and rendezvoused off the Fiji Islands with an American task force for the invasion of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. New Orleans escorted the carrier USS Saratoga and assisted in repelling serious Japanese air attacks off Guadalcanal on 24-25 August. The task force New Orleans was in defended the American invasion of Guadalcanal and prevented the Japanese from reinforcing Guadalcanal during the Battle of the Eastern Solomon Islands. But when Saratoga was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine on 31 August, New Orleans escorted her back to Pearl Harbor for repairs, arriving there on 21 September.

Once Saratoga was repaired, New Orleans sailed with her to Fiji early in November and then proceeded to Espiritu Santo, New Hebrides, before arriving back in the Solomon Islands on 27 November 1942. On the night of 30 November, New Orleans, along with four other cruisers and six destroyers ran into a column of eight Japanese destroyers not far from Guadalcanal. What followed was the Battle of Tassafaronga and it turned out to be a disaster for the US Navy. The Japanese were not only experts at fighting at night, but their destroyers were armed with the powerful Type 93 “Long Lance” torpedoes, perhaps the best torpedoes in the world at that time. As the American task force attacked, the Japanese destroyers fired a large number of torpedoes at the American warships. The flagship of the American task force, the cruiser USS Minneapolis, was hit by two torpedoes. Minneapolis was severely damaged and slowed down almost immediately. New Orleans was in line right behind Minneapolis and was approaching the crippled flagship so rapidly that the commander of New Orleans, Captain Clifford H. Roper, was forced to throw his rudder hard right to avoid hitting Minneapolis. Unfortunately, in doing so, Captain Roper steered his ship right into the path of some oncoming torpedoes. One of the torpedoes hit New Orleans’ port bow abreast two gun magazines. The combined blast of the torpedo plus the two magazines going up completely tore off the bow of the ship as far back as the No. 2 8-inch turret. The crew was horrified as they watched the bow of their ship, with its No. 1 8-inch gun turret pointing skyward, pass along the port side of the ship, gouging holes in New Orleans along the way and tangling briefly with the propellers once it hit the cruiser’s stern. The entire event happened so suddenly that the crewmen at the stern of the ship thought that Minneapolis had sunk and that they were passing the remains of that ship.

New Orleans was in desperate shape. Roughly 120 feet of her bow, over one fifth of the ship’s length, was gone. All of the men in the detached bow and in the No. 2 turret, which had been consumed by flames, were killed by the initial blast. But the New Orleans’ engines were intact, power and lighting were normal, and the fires were under control. Captain Roper remained on the bridge where he had a clear view ahead while his executive officer stayed aft to control steering and the engines. Although water pressure severely strained the bulkheads on the forward part of the ship, the bulkheads held. The crew kept the ship afloat even though the forward end of the ship was down by about 40 feet into the water. So long as the bulkheads held, the ship remained afloat and could even make five knots, which was amazing considering the shape the ship was in. Blown to pieces but still afloat, New Orleans made it to the tiny American port at Tulagi, a small island just south of Florida Island in the Solomons. Of the five American cruisers that took part in the battle, one was sunk and three were severely damaged and out of action. The Japanese lost only one destroyer, making this one of the worst defeats for the US Navy during World War II.

Tulagi Harbor was very small and used mainly as a repair base for motor torpedo boats. The repair crews here were not used to seeing something as large as a heavy cruiser, but they did the best they could with what they had. They first put New Orleans under camouflage netting to hide the wounded warship from Japanese aircraft. Then they worked with the ship’s crew to create a jury-rigged temporary bow made from coconut tree logs. They also used the logs to strengthen the ship’s bulkheads. The repairs seemed to hold and on 12 December New Orleans left Tulagi and headed for Australia for more permanent repairs in a normal dockyard. Even though the ship was battered and missing her bow, New Orleans steamed gallantly into the harbor at Sydney, Australia, on 24 December 1942, Christmas Eve. It was an amazing journey, especially since Japanese aircraft, warships, or submarines could have easily sunk the ship on its way to Australia. On 7 March 1943, New Orleans left Sydney with a temporary steel bow and made its way back to the United States. The cruiser arrived at the Puget Sound Navy Yard, Washington, a few weeks later where a new bow was already built and waiting for her.

After the new bow was welded on and the ship was totally repaired, New Orleans returned to Pearl Harbor on 31 August 1943. For the remainder of the war in the Pacific, New Orleans used her guns to bombard Japanese shore positions and also escorted various carrier task forces. Her major combat operations in 1943 and 1944 included the invasions of the Gilbert Islands in November 1943, the Marshall Islands in January and February 1944, and attacks on New Guinea in April and the Marianas Islands in June and July. While steaming off the coast of New Guinea on 22 April, a disabled plane from the carrier USS Yorktown flew directly into New Orleans’ mainmast, with parts of the shattered aircraft hitting gun mounts as they fell into the sea. The ship was sprayed with flaming gasoline as the plane exploded on impact, with one crewmember on board the ship being killed and another seriously wounded. But New Orleans remained in action. She went on to bombard the Palau Islands in September, Leyte in the Philippines in October and Mindoro in December.

In December 1944, New Orleans returned to the United States and entered the Mare Island Navy Yard, California, for an overhaul. After the overhaul was completed, New Orleans returned to battle and participated in the invasion of Okinawa from April to June 1945. As usual, she bombarded land targets and escorted other ships when needed. By late August, after the war in the Pacific had ended, New Orleans supported the American occupation operations in China and Korea. From late 1945 to early 1946, New Orleans transported US troops home from Asia. The ship arrived at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, Pennsylvania, in March 1946 to prepare for inactivation. USS New Orleans was formally decommissioned on 10 February 1947 and was put in reserve until struck from the Navy List on 1 March 1959. This noble warship was sold for scrapping on 22 September later that year.

Rarely has one warship suffered such horrific damage and manage to survive. Not only did New Orleans survive, but she went on to serve in most of the major American amphibious invasions during the latter part of the war in the Pacific. A truly unique warship and one that earned 17 battle stars for her service during World War II.