Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Tales of the Sea Service - Birmingham and Princeton

USS Birmingham comes alongside the burning USS Princeton. (Source)
Loyal reader Shazzam left an interesting comment the other day on my post about the ocean...

Now what kind of amateur historian would I be if I didn't follow that story up with a post about the light cruiser USS Birmingham?

Birmingham, 21 January 1945, following a period of repairs and alterations at Mare Island. (Source)
Now I vaguely remembered the story of the light carrier USS Princeton, how she was hit and then later blew up while Birmingham lay alongside providing assistance. Having a reader whose father-in-law was on the Birmingham made me want to dig deeper. (Small world really, when you stop to think about it, the ties that bind us all together are many and not always noticeable.)
October 24 (1944) dawned with broken clouds and occasional squalls, but there was good visibility, allowing continuing airstrikes in support of land operations on the island of Leyte. The day began before sunrise, with general quarters sounded for all the ships in Task Force 38.

To start the day, Princeton contributed 20 fighter planes to the air battle over Leyte Gulf. The first wave of 40 to 50 Japanese planes was intercepted and their attack broken up with many enemy losses. A second group of about 30 enemy aircraft quickly took to the air. Out of the two waves, Princeton’s planes alone shot down 34 enemy aircraft with a loss of only one. Pilots became aces in a matter of minutes. The planes returned to the carrier for refueling and arming in preparation for an airstrike against a Japanese force of four battleships, eight cruisers and 13 destroyers southeast of the island of Mindoro.

At 9:12 a.m., USS Essex reported a possible bandit plus a friendly aircraft about six miles away. No other unidentifieds were within a radius of 25 miles. At 9:38 a.m., a single Judy was sighted by Princeton’s lookouts, diving on their vessel from out of the low cloud cover ahead of the ship. The plane immediately came under fire from the forward 20mm and 40mm batteries, and the helm was put over to port in an evasion attempt. The Judy dropped two bombs. One missed Princeton and fell harmlessly into the sea. The other 550-pound bomb fell almost in the center of Princeton’s deck, causing jarring on the bridge and a dull thud in central station. Black smoke issued from the hole in the flight deck, the forward elevator and every access trunk to the hangar aft of the island. Ed Butler, a radarman, said, “I saw him [the Japanese pilot] high-tailing it away from our stern, trailing smoke.”


Structural damage was relatively minor, but a raging gasoline fire flared up in the wreckage of Mooney’s plane and spread rapidly to the other five planes parked there. The quantity of gasoline dumped onto the hangar deck from the severed gasoline main is unknown, but those six fully fueled planes had held more than 2,500 gallons of high-test aviation gasoline. The bomb had created a 5-foot indentation around the small 15-inch hole, which acted as a funnel for the gasoline spilling onto the hangar deck, directing it into the lower decks where the fire raged. Within seconds of the explosion there were fires on the third deck over the after engine room, on the second deck, and in the hangar. Billowing black smoke from burning gasoline poured from every opening in the lower decks.

Less than 10 minutes after the bomb was dropped, the firefighting sprinkler system was completely disabled. Within the same short timespan, the main engines lost almost all power, which first slowed Princeton, then brought her to a halt and turned her into a drifting, burning hulk. (Source)
The U.S. Navy light aircraft carrier USS Princeton (CVL-23) burning soon after she was hit by a Japanese bomb while operating off the Philippines on 24 October 1944. This view, taken from the battleship USS South Dakota (BB-57) at about 1001 hrs., shows the large smoke column passing aft following a heavy explosion in the carrier's hangar deck. (Source)
Yokosuka D4Y3 Type 33 "Suisei". (Source)
Planes from TG 38.3 also launched attacks against enemy airfields and shipping in the north central Philippines, damaging a light cruiser and a destroyer and sinking a Japanese Army ore-carrier. These strikes provoked a counterattack by land-based Japanese aircraft from Clark and Nichols fields and many evaded friendly CAP owing to low cloud cover. At 0930 that morning, a single Yokosuka D4Y Judy carrier dive bomber swept down over Princeton (CVL-23). A single bomb dropped and hit the carrier between the elevators, penetrated into the hanger and exploded. Severe fires set off secondary explosions and forced her to drop out of formation. Birmingham, Reno (CL-96) and three destroyers also detached and stood by to render assistance.

Given the fires burning in Princeton, the destroyers made repeated attempts to go alongside and spray water on the flames. Heavy seas frustrated those moves, however, and Morrison (DD-560), Gatling (DD-671) and Irwin (DD-794) all took serious damage in collisions with the heaving carrier. For that reason, Birmingham moved alongside Princeton since she could better withstand any blows. Within a short period of time, the light cruiser sent 14 water hoses and 38 men from her damage control teams over to the carrier. This extra assistance helped extinguish one of the two major fires in the carrier.

That afternoon, however, Birmingham received word that several Japanese planes had broken through the CAP and, almost simultaneously, a destroyer reported a submarine contact at a mere 2,000 yards away. The warship quickly pulled in almost all her fire hoses and backed off to gain sea room for maneuvering. Shortly thereafter, one Japanese plane was sighted but did not close to attack. In addition, the sound contact was classified a false alarm. Given the great success in fighting the fire up to that point, Birmingham again closed to help the still burning Princeton.

At 1522, just as the light cruiser was moving back alongside the carrier, flames touched off Princeton's after magazines. The cataclysmic explosion blew off the carrier's stern and much of the after part of the flight deck. Steel fragments, wooden planking and all manner of debris raked Birmingham from stem to stern. Over half of the light cruiser's crew became casualties since virtually everyone on the starboard side was killed or wounded. The blast killed 233 men and seriously wounded 211, with another 215 suffering minor wounds.

Birmingham's deck literally ran with blood and her surviving crew threw sand on the deck to provide a firm footing amidst the carnage as in the days of the age of sail. They then extinguished several fires burning topside and began to care for the hundreds of wounded as the light cruiser limped east out of the battle zone. In the meantime, continuing efforts by the other warships to save Princeton failed and Reno and Irwin eventually scuttled the burning aircraft carrier with torpedoes. (Source)
The U.S. Navy light cruiser USS Birmingham (CL-62), at left, and a destroyer pull away from the light aircraft carrier USS Princeton (CVL-23) following the big explosion that destroyed the carrier's stern at about 1523 hrs, on 24 October 1944. This blast killed over two hundred men aboard Birmingham, which was alongside Princeton fighting fires. Note the light smoke over Birmingham's midships and stern areas. Princeton's stern, and a good deal of her after superstructure, has been blown off. (Source)
USS Princeton CVL-23. (Source)
USS Birmingham had a storied career, she was a Cleveland-class light cruiser named for the city of Birmingham, Alabama. Nicknamed the "Steel City", she was laid down at the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company of Newport News, Virginia on 17 February 1941 and launched on 20 March 1942 by Mrs. Cooper Green, wife of the president of the Birmingham City Commission. She was commissioned on 29 January 1943, Captain John Wilkes in command. (Source)

Assigned to the Atlantic Fleet, Birmingham provided gunfire support for Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily, in July of 1943. Later in that year she was transferred to the Pacific Fleet and was part of the fast carrier task force screen.
...she took part in the raids on Tarawa (18 September 1943) and Wake Island (5–6 October). At the Solomons, she took part in the Battle of Empress Augusta Bay (8–9 November), along with her sister ships Cleveland, Columbia, Montpelier, and Denver. This was the first major action by the new Cleveland-class light cruisers that were entering the fleet. Birmingham's gunners shot down at least four enemy Japanese aircraft. During the daytime, Japanese planes hit Birmingham with two bombs and a torpedo. The ship's casualties included two killed and 34 wounded. The hits kept her out of the night surface battle with the Imperial Japanese Navy fleet that followed. Birmingham retired to Mare Island Navy Yard for repairs which lasted until 18 February 1944, when she rejoined the Pacific Fleet.
Assigned to Task Force 57 (TF 57), she took part in the battle of Saipan (14 June – 4 August); the Battle of the Philippine Sea (19–20 June); battle of Tinian (20 July – 1 August); battle of Guam (21 July); and Philippine Islands raids (9–24 September). She then served with TF 38 during the Okinawa raid (10 October), northern Luzon and Formosa raids (15 October and 18–19 October), and the Battle of Leyte Gulf (24 October). During the latter, she suffered great topside damage from explosions on board the aircraft carrier Princeton while courageously attempting to aid that stricken vessel. 239 men died, 408 were wounded, and the bodies of four were never recovered. Birmingham retired to Mare Island Navy Yard for repairs which lasted from November 1944 to January 1

Rejoining the Pacific Fleet, the cruiser supported the battle of Iwo Jima (4–5 March 1945) and battle of Okinawa (25 March – 5 May). On 4 May, after fighting off three attacks, she was damaged for a third time when a Japanese kamikaze plane hit her forward. The resulting explosion killed 47, with 4 missing and 81 wounded. Returning to Pearl Harbor, she underwent repairs from 28 May to 1 August.

Birmingham rejoined the 5th Fleet at Okinawa on 26 August, and then in November steamed to Brisbane, Australia. She returned to San Francisco on 22 March 1946 and was taken out of commission and placed in reserve there on 2 January 1947. She was stricken from the Naval Vessel Register on 1 March 1959 and scrapped at Long Beach, California. (Source)
She was a fighter, maintaining the proud traditions of the United States Navy while creating her own legacy as a warship. The men who served on her can be justifiably proud of their service. Sadly, many of those surviving veterans have passed on to join their shipmates who fell in World War II. I don't know if we'll see their like again.

USS Birmingham (CL-62) was awarded eight battle stars for her World War II service.

Here is the story of one of her valiant crew. He carried a name familiar to me though we are not related. We sometimes forget that the men (and now women) lost in war are real people, with family, friends, and loved ones, they are not just names on a memorial somewhere.

Lest we forget...


  1. The explosion of the after magazine, and the torpedoes stored aft, in the hanger deck, blew the aircraft carrier part clean off, you can see the light cruiser main deck, the CVL's strength deck, very clearly in the photo of the DD backing off.

    1. BIRMINGHAM and PRINCETON were very much sister ships. The INDEPENDENCE class CVLs were converted CLEVELAND Class CLs. PRINCETON started out as USS TALLAHASSEE, CVL-61, but was ordered completed as a CVL.

    2. One of the reasons I included that particular photo was to show the damage done to the Princeton. Now that you mention it, you can see the cruiser under the carrier. So to speak.

    3. Just did a little more reading about the Cleveland-class conversions, a very interesting story indeed. Thanks for pointing that out Scott!

      All but Princeton survived the war.

  2. Excellent post! Did not know this story. Thanks.

    1. Thanks Juvat. Really though, thank Shazzam for bringing my attention to the story.

  3. Great post, thanks. As a note "We" (Destroyers) did much the same thing for the Forrestal conflagration , and in fact developed ways (using the gun mounts) to spray water without exposing our crews topside. Some lessons do get learned.

    1. Thanks Cap'n. Sometimes it takes a tragedy to learn new things.

      A lesson learned from the Forrestal fire is that the entire crew now learns about damage control.

      I did not know that about using the gun mounts to spray water, thanks.

  4. Thank you for this very great post. There are many things and people we need to remember. May our future be as bright as our past.

    Paul L. Quandt

  5. Superb post! Thanks for sharing. These "little" details are nearly always overlooked but are perhaps more important than the big picture history most commonly known.

    I was involved in three very bad shipboard fires. They were significant and costly and front page news, but absolutely paled in comparison with the massive conflagrations that were so common in WWII.

    1. A fire at sea has to be a nightmare. I mean, there's nowhere to go!

      I'm toying with the idea of a post about the fire aboard Forrestal. Another tragedy from which much was learned. Also, she used to be tied up here in Newport. Along with Saratoga and Iowa. I used to work with a guy who was assigned to her during that time. No, he didn't want to talk about it.

    2. Nightmare is a good word, but thankfully for me only in retrospect. In the crunch you default to training and we had superb training. The shakes and $#!+'s come later.

      I'm guessing you've seen this


    3. True. If you're well trained, the shakes don't come until it's over.

      I have seen that clip.


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