USS Pittsburgh – An Honored Name for Ships that Have Defended their Nation

The Pittsburgh Name has an Honored Place in Naval History

The City of Pittsburgh in western Pennsylvania is geographically located far from the open oceans. Despite the busy Three Rivers that offer pathways for shipping and recreation, no ocean going US Navy ships can easily navigate their way to the Point where the three rivers join. The possible exceptions are special craft built during various wars that were built on the banks of the river and shipped down the Ohio and Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico. The USS Requin submarine at the Science Center was brought here under tow so she doesn’t count in this equation.

Despite geography, Pittsburgh has contributed her name and her resources many times since the Civil War. From that time to about a year ago (2020) the name Pittsburgh has been assigned to four different vessels that participated in many of the nation’s conflicts. A bit of trivia; in the early days of World War 2, Pittsburgh was selected for the Baltimore Class Cruiser CA 70. But the hull was renamed USS Canberra in honor of an Australian ship that was lost during one of the naval battles of Guadalcanal. The name would be reassigned to CA 72. Both ships served with distinction.

These are their stories:

(All stories except the submarine story come from the Naval History and Heritage Command)

USS Pittsburgh 1

The first Pittsburgh (often spelled Pittsburg), an ironclad gunboat, was built under War Department contract by James B. Eads, St. Louis, Mo. in 1861; and commissioned in January 1862, Lt. Egbert Thompson in command.

Joining Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote’s Western Gunboat Flotilla in river patrol duty, Pittsburgh attacked Fort Donelson 14 February 1862, and was damaged by counter-fire. The support from the gunboats contributed greatly to the capture of the strategic fort two days later.

Repaired, she attacked Island No. 10 on 3 April, then ran its batteries by dark 7 April being lashed by a heavy thunderstorm as well as the island’s 73 guns. This daring feat made it possible for her and Carondelet to demolish batteries below New Madrid that same day, clearing the way for the Army to cross the Mississippi.

Pittsburgh gave continued service in the lengthy series of operations which wrested control of the lower Mississippi from the Confederacy. Her flotilla, previously under Army control, came under naval command 1 October 1862. Highlights of her service were the operations against Plum Point Bend, Fort Pillow and Memphis in April, May and June 1862; the Steele’s Bayou Expedition of March 1863; and the passing of the Vicksburg batteries 16 April 1863. She led the attack on the batteries at Grand Gulf 29 April, and was heavily damaged during the five-and-a-half hour engagement which secured Union control of an important stretch of the river, making it possible for Grant to cross the river and attack Vicksburg from the rear. The strong Confederate river fortress surrendered 4 July allowing President Abraham Lincoln at last to report, “The Father of Waters flows unvexed to the sea.”

Patrol and bombardment missions on the Mississippi were interrupted the following year when Pittsburgh joined in the Red River Expedition from March to May 1864. At the close of the war, she decommissioned at Mound City, and was sold there 29 November 1865.

(Pittsburgh (Armored Cruiser No. 4) at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, circa 1917-1918. Courtesy of Lieutenant Commander Ellis M. Zacharias, USN, 1931. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command photograph, NH 50062.)

USS Pittsburgh II   Armored Cruiser Number 4

(Armored Cruiser No. 4: displacement 13, 400 tons; length 503’11”; beam 69’7″; draft 24’1″; speed 22 knots; complement 829; armament 4 8-inch guns, 14 6-inch guns, 18 3-inch guns, 2 18-inch torpedo tubes; class Pennsylvania)

The second Pittsburgh (Armored Cruiser 4) was laid down as Pennsylvania on 7 August 1901 by William Cramp and Sons, Philadelphia; launched on 22 August 1903; sponsored by Miss Coral Quay, daughter of Senator Matthew S. Quay; and commissioned on 9 March 1905, Capt. Thomas C. McLean in command.

Pennsylvania operated on the East Coast and in the Caribbean until 8 September 1906 when she cleared Newport for a year on the Asiatic Station, returning to San Francisco on 27 September 1907 for west coast duty. She visited Chile and Peru in 1910.

Civilian exhibition stunt pilot Eugene B. Ely made the first take off from a ship on 14 November 1910. Ely flew a 50 hp. Curtiss plane from an 83-foot slanted wooden platform built onto the bow of Birmingham (Cruiser No. 2) as she lay anchored off Old Comfort Point, Hampton Roads, Va. Despite light rain and fog, the pilot elected not to cancel the flight. As he left the platform the plane settled slowly and hit the water, but rose again and landed about two and a half miles away on Willoughby Spit. The aircraft sustained slight splinter damage to the propeller tips.

At 1048 on 18 January 1911, Ely flew the same Curtiss pusher from Selfridge Field south of San Francisco, Calif., and at 1101 landed on board Pennsylvania while she lay at anchor off Hunters Point in San Francisco Bay. The plane made a smooth landing from astern onto a specially built 130-foot long by 32-foot wide platform. At 1158 the plane took off and returned to Selfridge Field, completing the earliest demonstration of the adaptability of aircraft to ship­board operations.

In another of these early demonstrations, civilian aircraft designer and entrepreneur Glenn H. Curtiss taxied a hydroaeroplane alongside Pennsylvania as she lay anchored in San Diego Harbor, during the forenoon watch on 17 February 1911. The plane landed alongside the ship at 0845 and sailors manned the cruiser’s crane to hoist the machine on board. At 0905, Pennsylvania hoisted the aircraft out and it returned to base.

A memorable experiment in the Navy’s search for a shipboard launching device concluded at Hammondsport, N.Y., on 7 September 1911, when Lt. Theodore G. Ellyson made a successful takeoff from an inclined wire rigged from the beach down to the water.

“The engine was started and run at full speed and then I gave the signal to release the machine,” Ellyson’s report described the run, “…I held the machine on the wire as long as possible as I wanted to be sure that I had enough headway to rise and not run the risk of the machine partly rising and then falling…Everything hap­pened so quickly and went off so smoothly that I hardly knew what happened except that I did have to use the ailerons, and that the machine was sensitive to their action.”

Capt. Charles F. Pond, who commanded Pennsylvania, had suggested the technique, and Capt. Washington I. Chambers and Curtiss had developed the method to the point of the test. While in reserve at Puget Sound between 1 July 1911 and 30 May 1913, the cruiser primarily trained naval militia. She was renamed Pittsburgh on 27 August 1912 to free the name Pennsylvania for a new battleship.

Pittsburgh then patrolled the west coast of Mexico during the troubled times of insurrection which led to American involvement with the Verz Cruz landing in April 1914. Later, as a symbol of American might and concern, she served as flagship for Adm. William B. Caperton, Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet, during South American patrols and visits during World War I. Cooperating with the British Royal Navy, she scouted for German raiders in the south Atlantic and eastern Pacific. While at Rio de Janeiro in October and November 1918, failure to implement quarantine procedures by Capt. George Bradshaw led to the spread of the deadly strain of Spanish influenza on ship, sickening 663 sailors (80% of the crew) and killing 58 of them.

After returning to the east coast in March 1919, Pittsburgh prepared for duty as flagship for Commander, U.S. Naval Forces in the eastern Mediterranean, for which she sailed from Portsmouth, N.H., on 19 June 1919. Cruising the Adriatic, Aegean, and Black Seas, she joined in the massive relief operations and other humanitarian concerns with which the Navy carried out its quasidiplomatic functions in this troubled area. In June 1920 she sailed north to visit French and British ports and cruise the Baltic on further relief assignments before returning to decommission at Philadelphia on 15 October 1921.

Recommissioned on 2 October 1922, Pittsburgh returned to European and Mediterranean waters as flagship of Naval Forces in Europe, then arrived New York on 17 July 1926 to prepare for flagship duty with the Asiatic Fleet. She sailed on 16 October for Chefoo, arriving on 23 December. Early in January 1927, she landed sailors and Marines to protect Americans and other foreigners in Shanghai from the turmoil and fighting of the Chinese power struggle. When Chiang Kai-shek’s Cantonese Army won control of Shanghai in March, Pittsburgh resumed operations on patrol and exercises with the Asiatic Fleet. Closing her long career of service, she carried the Governor General of the Philippines, Dwight F. Davis, on a courtesy cruise to such ports as Saigon, Bangkok, Singapore, Belawan Deli, Batavia, Surabaya, Bali, Macassar, and Sandakan, returning to Manila on 15 April 1931. Six days later she steamed for Suez enroute Hampton Roads, arriving on 26 June 1931. Decommissioning on 10 July 1931, she was sold for scrapping under the terms of the London Treaty to Union Shipbuilding, Baltimore, Md., on 21 December 1931.

Heavy cruiser Pittsburgh (CA-70) was renamed Canberra (q.v.) on 12 October 1942. (CA-70: displacement 13,600; length 673’5″; beam 70’10”; draft 20’6″; speed 33 knots; complement 1,142; armament 9 8-inch, 12 5-inch; class Baltimore)

The first Canberra, a heavy cruiser (CA-70), was laid down on 3 September 1941 by Bethlehem Steel Corp., Quincy, Mass., as Pittsburgh; renamed Canberra on 16 October 1942; launched on 19 April 1943 by Bethlehem Steel Co., Quincy, Mass.; sponsored by Lady Alice C. Dixon; and commissioned on 14 October 1943, Captain A.R. Early in command. It was named to honor the Australian warship that was lost in the Battle of Savo Island on 9 August 1942 while fighting alongside American ships.

USS Pittsburgh III    CA 72

(CA-72: dp. 13,600 11. 674’11”; b. 70’10”; dr. 20’6″; s. 33 k.; cpl. 1142; a. 9 8″, 12 5″, 48 20mm.; cl. Baltimore)

The third Pittsburgh (CA-72) originally named Albany was laid down 3 February 1943 by Bethlehem Steel Co., Quincy, Mass.; launched 22 February 1944; sponsored by Mrs. Cornelius D. Scully, wife of the Mayor of Pittsburgh; and commissioned at Boston 10 October 1944, Capt. John E. Gingrich in command.

Pittsburgh trained along the east coast and in the Caribbean until departing Boston 13 January 1945 for duty in the Pacific. After calling in Panama and final gunnery exercises in the Hawaiians, she joined TF 58 at Ulithi 13 February, assigned to TG 58.2 formed around aircraft carrier Lexington (CV-16).

The force sortied 10 February to prepare the way for the assault on Iwo Jima. Carrier air strikes against airfields near Tokyo 16 and 17 February limited Japanese air response to the initial landings 19 February. That day planes from Pittsburgh’s group began direct support to Marines fighting to overcome fierce Japanese resistance on the island. Final strikes against Tokyo’s environs 25 February and 1 March against the Nansei Shoto completed this operation.

The force sailed from Ulithi 14 March to pound airfields and other military installations on Kyushu 18 March, and again the next day. The Japanese struck back at dawn on the 19th, with an air raid which set Franklin (CV-13) ablaze, her decks titter chaos and power lost. Pittsburgh dashed to the rescue at 30 knots. After saving 34 men from the water, Pittsburgh, with Santa Fe (CL-60), performed an outstanding feat of seamanship in getting a tow line on board the flaming carrier. Pittsburgh than began the agonizingly slow task of pulling the carrier to safety, as the flattop-s crew struggled to restore power. Twice gunning off enemy air attacks attempting to finish Franklin, the cruiser continued her epic effort until at noon 20 March when Franklin was able to cast off the tow and proceed, albeit slowly, under her own power. Capt. Gingrich had remained at the conn for 48 hours during this display of superlative professionalism.

Between 23 March and 27 April, Pittsburgh guarded the carriers as they first prepared for, then covered and supported the invasion of Okinawa. Enemy airfields were interdicted, and the troops given direct aid from the carriers. Pittsburgh repelled enemy air attacks and launched her scout planes to rescue downed carrier pilots. After replenishing at Ulithi, the force sortied once more 8 May to attack the Nansei Shoto and Southern Japan in the continuing fight for Okinawa.

On 4 June, Pittsburgh began to fight a typhoon which by early next day had increased to 70-knot winds and 100-foot waves. Shortly after her starboard scout plane had been lifted off its catapult and dashed onto the deck by the wind, Pittsburgh’s second deck buckled, her bow structure thrust upward, and then wrenched free. Miraculously, not a man was lost. Now her crew-s masterful seamanship saved their own ship. Still fighting the storm, and maneuvering to avoid being rammed by the drifting bow-structure, Pittsburgh was held quarter-on to the seas by engine manipulations while the forward bulkhead was shored. After a 7-hour battle, the storm subsided, and Pittsburgh proceeded at 6 knots to Guam arriving 10 June. Her bow, nick-named “McKeesport” (a suburb of Pittsburgh), was later salvaged by Munsee and brought into Guam.

With a false bow, Pittsburgh left Guam 24 June bound for Puget Sound Navy Yard, arriving 16 July. Still under repair at war’s end, she was placed in commission in reserve 12 March 1946 and decommissioned 7 March 1947.

As the Korean War called for a major restoration of naval strength, Pittsburgh recommissioned 25 September 1951, Capt. Preston V. Mercer in command. She sailed 20 October for the Panama Canal, trained out of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and prepared at Norfolk for a tour of duty with the 6th Fleet for which she sailed 11 February 1952. Returning 20 May, she joined in the Atlantic Fleet’s schedule of exercises and special operations in the western Atlantic and Caribbean.

During her second Mediterranean cruise, for which she sailed 1 December, she flew the flag of Vice Admiral Jerauld P. Wright, Commander in Chief, Naval Forces Eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean for a good-will cruise to the Indian Ocean in January 1953. She returned to Norfolk in May for a major modernization overhaul, but rejoined the 6th Fleet at Gibraltar 19 January 1954. Once again she carried Admiral Wright to ports of the Indian Ocean during this cruise which ended with her return to Norfolk 26 May. After further operations along the eastern seaboard and in the Caribbean, she passed through the Panama Canal 21 October to join the Pacific Fleet, with Long Beach her home port.

She sailed almost at once for the Far East, calling at Pearl Harbor 13 November and reaching Yokosuka 26 November. She joined the 7th Fleet in exercises and to cover the Chinese Nationalist defense of the Tachen Islands and their evacuation of civilians and non-essential military personnel. Leaving Japan 16 February 1955, she resumed west coast operations until reporting at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard 28 October for inactivation. She went into reserve 28 April 1956, and decommissioned at Bremerton 28 August 1956. There she remains in reserve into 1970.

Pittsburgh received 2 battle stars for World War II service.

USS Pittsburgh IV                  SSN 720

The contract to build Pittsburgh was awarded to the Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics Corporation in Groton, Connecticut on 16 April 1979, and her keel was laid down on 15 April 1983. She was launched on 8 December 1984 and commissioned on 23 November 1985.

On 2 April 1991 Pittsburgh and Louisville conducted submarine-launched Tomahawk missile attacks against Iraq during Operation Desert Storm.

Pittsburgh departed in October 2002 for a deployment to the Mediterranean Sea. There, she again fired Tomahawk missiles into Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom. She returned on 27 April 2003.

On 25 February 2019, Pittsburgh returned to her homeport at Naval Submarine Base New London after completion of her final deployment. The submarine then arrived at Bremerton, Washington on 28 May 2019, for a months-long inactivation and decommissioning process.

Pittsburgh was officially inactivated on 17 January 2020 at the Undersea Warfare Museum in Keyport, Washington, and awaited the Submarine Recycling Program at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Washington. She was later decommissioned 15 April 2020 and crew released, 37 years to the day of her keel laid down.

USS Pittsburgh V                  LPD 31

The relationship between the city of Pittsburgh and the ships that bore her name is very strong. That tradition will be given a chance to shine once more as the newest USS Pittsburgh comes into being. USS Pittsburgh (LPD-31), a Flight 2 San Antonio -class amphibious transport dock for the United States Navy, will be the fifth United States Navy vessel named after Pittsburgh.

Class and type:            San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock

Displacement: 25,000 tons full


684 ft. overall

661 ft. waterline

Beam:  105 ft.

Draft:  23 ft.

Propulsion:      Four Colt-Pielstick diesel engines, two shafts, 40,000 hp (30,000 kW)

Speed: 22 knots (41 km/h; 25 mph)

Boats & landing craft carried: Two LCACs (air cushion) or one LCU (conventional)

Capacity:         699 (66 officers, 633 enlisted); surge to 800 total.

Complement:   28 officers, 333 enlisted

Armament:      Two 30 mm Bushmaster II cannons, for surface threat defense; two Rolling Airframe Missile launchers for air defense

Aircraft carried:          Four CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters or two MV-22 tilt rotor aircraft may be launched or recovered simultaneously.

The Pittsburgh Navy League is already in discussions on how we can support this new vessel and crew.

If you are interested in being part of the support team, drop me a line.

Mister Mac


2 thoughts on “USS Pittsburgh – An Honored Name for Ships that Have Defended their Nation

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s