On March 20, 1942, the cruiser Birmingham was launched at Newport News Virginia. Like so many ships of her generation, she was planned and designed around a model that had been determined during the various naval arms limitation treaties that predated the war she would fight in. In 1942, ships were desperately needed to fight a two-ocean war. Birmingham would go on to serve on both major oceans.
But her most remarkable moment in history would come at a great cost of her men. In a single moment, there would be over 600 casualties in an event that caused catastrophic damage to the ship. Miraculously, even with the heavy toll, she was able to be saved and returned to duty and seek revenge on the enemy. Here is her story written by the Captain who was in charge on that fateful day.
This history covers Captain Inglis’ time, from August, 1943, until her return to the US at the end of 1944.
THE MIGHTY “B”
(By Captain Thomas B. Inglis from “Shipmate”, June 1945 Fleet Issue)
In twenty-two months the BIRMINGHAM saw almost every kind of naval action in the books…
Until the U.S.S. BIRMINGHAM literally exploded into public notice in the Second Battle of the Philippine Sea, her exploits had been shrouded in secrecy. Since that time, a number of accounts have been given of the fight to save the PRINCETON and the subsequent explosion which, in split second’s time, caused more than 600 casualties on the BIRMINGHAM’S decks. A little later in this story I shall relate my own version of that tragic accident as I saw it from the BIRMINGHAM’S bridge, where I was trying to conn my own ship, supervise the firefighting, and direct the operations of the other rescue ships-all at the same time. This incident, however, while the most disastrous chapter in the BIRMINGHAM’S history, was only one of the spectacular actions in which she was engaged, from Sicily to Leyte Gulf.
So I should like to make this the story of “The Mighty B’s” fighting career up-to-date. It is a typical cruiser story. It illustrates well what a jack-of-all-trades a cruiser must be. I have served on battleships, and destroyers and in company with carriers, but for variety of assignments and excitement, I’ll take a cruiser. There is never a dull moment. The BIRMINGHAM, for example, was commissioned on 24 January 1943, and between that date and the time I left her on 22 November 1944-a space of less than two years-she had a crack at every form of naval warfare except surface fleet action. And she missed that only because the Jap Fleet turned and ran.
She saw her first action in the Mediterranean, under the command of Captain (now Rear Admiral) John Wilkes. Although fresh from shakedown, she was in there slugging on D-Bay off Lieata, Sicily. Shortly thereafter she returned to a stateside navy yard, where I relieved Captain Wilkes, in August 1943.
Soon thereafter we sailed for the Pacific, and there we stayed. Our first job was to participate in a carrier raid on Tarawa. This was a softening-up operation in preparation for the actual invasion which came some months later. Next with other cruisers and destroyers, we made a hit-and-run raid on Wake Island, to bombard Japanese Installations there.
The Japs returned our fire giving me my first experience of the kind. We had been brought up to believe that shore batteries were poison to ships within range. Experience in this war has been otherwise. In general, shore artillery has been remarkably ineffective against ships. In this case the Jap’s guns were silenced after a 30-minute duel.
We were sent almost immediately after the Wake raid to the Southwest Pacific under Admiral Halsey’s command. The first mission: support of the landings at Empress Augusta Bay, on Bougainville. It turned out to be a hot assignment.
On the night of the eighth of November, 1943, the BIRMINGHAM with the Sante Fe, mobile destroyers, under Admiral Dubose, were ordered to cover the beachhead to protect an unloading convoy from a possible surprise surface raid. The night was stormy and we kept running through thunder showers. But occasionally the moon showed briefly between the clouds.
Shortly after sunset Jap planes from Rabaul commenced a series of attacks lasting most of the night. They started for the transports, which were unloading troops, but when they spotted our cruisers they couldn’t resist the temptation of bigger game. They headed for us-which was exactly what we wanted, of course. A moment later, however, the BIRMINGHAM took the first wound in her history. A Jap “Val” shot in low, close on the starboard quarter, and dropped its torpedo. An instant late the Val was hit-but so was the BIRMINGHAM. She took the torpedo at the extreme stern, close to the waterline.
Less than two minutes later a second tremendous explosion shook the ship from stem to stern and threw a cascade of water over the open bridge. I first thought that we must be badly crippled, but to my astonishment the hits did not interfere with the BIRMINGHAM’S fighting efficiency. She could still “float, move and shoot.”
She continued at high speed in position and formation. Meanwhile the planes still had it in for us. One dive bomber got through our fire to drop a bomb on one of our turrets, only to be hit as he pulled out, directly over the ship. I remember that moment particularly vividly, for at one time there were two Jap planes burning in the air off the port quarter, and four more on the starboard side.
It was a wild night. The Oriental mind delights in fireworks and the Japs used them well, marking our formation and track with many different types of flares and float lights. But the fireworks which gave us the greatest pleasure were Jap planes falling in flames. I personally counted 13 shot down by the formation, 4 by the BIRMINGHAM.
Our casualties were miraculously light, one killed, one missing and 25 wounded, one of whom died later.
One of our wounded was a young seaman from Joisey City (he pronounced it that way). He felt a pain in his leg, reached down and drew his hand back, feeling something wet and sticky on his fingers in the darkness. Suddenly realizing it was blood he exclaimed “Jeeze fellers, I won de poiple haat.” Incidentally this same lad was given first aid and continued at his gun station throughout the battle. For this he was awarded the Silver Star in addition to the Purple Heart.
No further damage was suffered by the BIRMINGHAM. Since none of the other ships had even been hit, we were amused the next day when Tokyo Rose admitted the loss of 15 planes, but claimed the sinking of three American battleships, two aircraft carriers, seven cruisers, thirteen destroyers and many transports. According to Rose that made the BIRMINGHAM, the only ship even damages, a one ship Navy!
There followed a trip back to Pearl Harbor for repairs which I believe must have set some kind of a record for light cruisers. With two gaping torpedo holes in our hull, both below the water line, the BIRMINGHAM steamed 5,000 miles to the navy yard under her own power! The last 1,000 miles were the toughest. The weather turned very foul and waves broke repeatedly over the bow. We feared that the whole forward part of the ship would carry away, but America had built us a ship that could “take it!” Believe me, we were grateful for it.
The trip was not without its laughs. We became the only ship ever to boast a geyser. Every time the BIRMINGHAM’S bow plunged into a wave, air was caught and compressed “Tween wind and water” in the forward torpedo hole. The recurring pressure threatened to buckle the bulkheads, so we opened a vent to the main deck to allow the air to escaped. That relieved the “panting” but we got more than we bargained for. All the rest of the way to Pearl, every time we pitched into a swell a huge geyser, nearly mast-high, erupted from the forecastle. The boys dubbed it “Old Faithful.”
The BIRMINGHAM’S next major action was the invasion of the Marianas. We were put on our metal at this prospect, because of the almost unlimited strategic importance of the islands. The capture of the Marianas was to neutralize Japan’s great naval base at Truk, cut off communications to Palau, provide a base for operations against the Philippines and Ryukyus, and provide the important bases for the B-29 assaults against the Japanese homeland.
In preparation for such an important operation, we warmed up by bombarding Jap installations on Poporang Ridge in the Shortlands. The Jap’s return fire did not hit the BIRMINGHAM, but the Sante Fe took one freak hit which parted her anchor chain inboard of the deck stopper and wounded eight men. After thorough training and rehearsals on the fourteenth of June 1944 we arrived off Saipan, close enough to see the fires that had been set by carrier task force planes the day before. That morning was D-minus-one day for the landings, and the BIRMINGHAM was in the group of battleships, cruisers and destroyers assigned to bombard the proposed beachhead.
We eventually closed to 2500 yards off the beach – within range of everything the Japs had on shore except small arms-and held our position for two and a half hours despite everything they could throw at us. It was an uncomfortable spot to be in. Shells straddled us early in the shooting and continued to shower all around us.
A typical half-hour was logged about as follows:
0907– Shells fall short abeam to starboard 50 and 20 yards. One fall over, 20 yards.
0910– More straddles.
0914– Enemy fire increases in intensity. Shells 25 to 30 yards over. Shells whistle as they pass overhead.
0913– Observe big explosion on beach; apparently ammunition dump. Enemy shells land 200 yards ahead and 2000 yards over.
0926– Shells land 150 yards astern. Also some ahead. All short 400 yards.
0930—- Shells land on all sides, close aboard.
0931-— A near miss puts a 2OMM gun out of action, wounding two members of the gun crew.
And that last incident, incredible as it may seem, was the only damage done by the Japanese shore batteries to the BIRMINGHAM that day.
My reaction to being under artillery fire was peculiarly objective and impersonal. I won’t say that I had no fear but it always seemed that the next one might have George’s number on it but not mine. However, after an hour or so, it got a little wearing on the nerves. Those who were not kept busy had a desire to crouch behind some bulkhead, however thin, ostrich-like. Fear is a normal, natural human emotion. Without fear we could not survive 24 hours in the most peaceful surroundings. A brave man is not a fearless man but one who stands to his post in spite of fear. My boys of the Mighty “B” were like that.
That night I was placed in tactical command of a group of ships for night harassment of the Japanese. The purpose of harassing fire is to wear out the enemy, keep them from getting any sleep, and keep them confused. None of us on the BIRMINGHAM got any sleep either, of course. Toward morning, my navigator muttered, “I wonder who is harassed worse-the Nips or the crew of the ‘B'”.
At dawn the next day, which was D-Day, we commenced firing again on shore targets as we moved in to our assigned position. Together with another cruiser, the BIRMINGHAM was to mark a boat lane for the landing craft. Naturally, we had to stay in one place so we were again a sitting duck for the Jap shore batteries. And again, in more than two hours of firing, they didn’t hit us once, although they straddled us repeatedly.
Saipan was the first opposed amphibious landing I had witnessed, and I was deeply impressed with the marvelous planning, training and execution of the assault. The island was almost obscured by smoke and dust from aerial bombs and our own bombardment. Promptly on schedule the hundreds of boats comprising the assault waves moved forward in lines that looked like dress parade formation. There was no confusion, each craft seemed to know exactly what to do, and the senior officers had perfect control over the operation at all times. On the BIRMINGHAM we had $6.60 orchestra seats, close enough to the anxious but determined faces of the Marines crouched in the landing craft.
On the nights of 15 and 16 June the BIRMINGHAM again led a group of ships in harassment fire. It was then necessary to take on more ammunition, after which we were suddenly ordered to join the Carrier Task Force of the Fifth Fleet. Our High Command had received information that the Japanese Navy was preparing a counter-offensive to our invasion of Saipan. The greater portion of the Japanese Fleet, including their best carriers, were proceeding toward the Marianas. We sailed out to meet them.
The ensuing engagement was the First Battle of the Philippine Sea.
The Japanese made the first move by sending a mass air attack against our task force. But our own fighters were out to meet them in what the fliers called, “The Mariana Turkey Shoot.” The Japs were not only stopped cold, but lost some 450 Jap planes in the fight. The few enemy planes that did manage to get through fighter interception were destroyed by our own ships anti-aircraft fire. Following the “Turkey Shoot,” a counter-attack was made by our own planes against the Japanese Fleet. They were successful in damaging, if not sinking some of the Japanese carriers.
It was shortly before this action that we intercepted from one of our scouting planes “Enemy Fleet sighted! Enemy Fleet sighted.” I immediately thought of the many times I had heard that report in peacetime tactical exercises-but this was the real thing.
Surface fleet action for the BIRMINGHAM seemed almost in sight. The Japs, however, had other ideas. Badly mauled, they turned tail and ran for home with 300 miles head start. Our forces pursued them for a while, but had to turn back when fuel got low.
The BIRMINGHAM returned to Saipan, arriving the 26th of June. From that date until the 18th of July, our duties were of a somewhat routine nature. They included firing on special targets inland on Saipan on call from the Marines, night harassing fire, and bombardment of Tinian in preparation for the assault on that island which was to follow. On one occasion during the bombardment of Tinian Town we dropped a shell in some buildings which turned out to be Japanese barracks. Out popped the Japanese Soldiers like so many rats, and ran pell mell down the road. So we placed a salvo in the road and sent them scattering into cane fields on either side. Finally we dropped white phosphorous shells into the cane fields and sizzled the remaining Japs.
We were present for D-Day at Guam supporting the assault troops but left that night for Tinian which was to be invaded two days later.
In the invasion of Tinian, the BIRMINGHAM was engaged in pre-assault bombardment and fire support of the landings made on D-Day. Followed the usual night harassing fire and close support of advancing Marines by day until “all organized resistance ceased” on 1 August 1944.
The conquest of Tinian wound up the BIRMINGHAM’S participation in the Marianas campaign. As I said in my action report, “For my ship’s company I have nothing but praise. It was an arduous task covering three months, from the beginning of special training to the end of the campaign. Over 18,000 rounds of six-inch and five-inch shells were fired at hostile objectives by the BIRMINGHAM alone. At times we were under enemy fire for prolonged periods. There was no flinching, no shirking, and no grumbling. Never was a Captain favored with a finer crew.”
Our next campaign was the assault on Palau. The BIRMINGHAM was now attached once more to a carrier task force. And as a result, the campaign was a comparatively uneventful one for us, for our surface ships met no opposition. We did have some diversion, however, when some of our planes spotted a convoy of small Japanese ships which they proceeded to bomb. A group of destroyers and cruisers including the BIRMINGHAM again under Admiral Dubose, were detached and sent to mop up whatever was left of the convoy. We found about 20 ships still afloat and immediately proceeded to sink them. The BIRMINGHAM accounted for four, plus four more “assists.”
The “B” continued to keep busy. Our carrier task force made air strikes on Mindanao, on the Visayaus, on the Manila area, on Okinawa and on Formosa all in preparation for the re-conquest of the Philippines. During the Formosa strikes we participated in an event which will go down in naval history as a classic. For security reasons it cannot be told now. On 21 and 24 October, strikes were launched in direct support of the Leyte landings.
In the early morning of the 24th the Japanese shore-based aircraft made the first of a series of strong counter-attacks against our task group, under Admiral Sherman, then less than 100 miles from the Philippines. The weather was squally with scattered showers and scattered low overcast. Admiral Sherman took advantage of the weather conditions to conceal our disposition, which measure together with the usual sterling defense of our fighter cover, completely frustrated the Japs counter-attack completely, that is, except for one lone plane. Unfortunately, the same cloud cover which concealed us afforded a hiding place for the Japanese plane which had sneaked through.
At about 0940 that morning while our own planes were returning to their carriers, this lone Japanese plane suddenly dove down through the overcast and made a perfect direct hit on the flight deck of the PRINCETON. The immediate damage was not disabling. But at about 1005 two heavy internal explosions shook the carrier. They left her dead in the water, without motive power or steering control. The Admiral had previously ordered the Reno and 3 destroyers (Gatlin, Irwin, Cassin Young) to standby the PRINCETON and now ordered the BIRMINGHAM to augment these forces. At my request a fourth destroyer, MORRISON was later sent us to assist. As we approached a few planes from another Jap air raid broke through our fighters. The Reno, Captain Ralph Alexander, brought down two of these in flames. The others fled.
I had previously given some thought to the possibility of assisting a carrier on fire, and had decided that I would take my ship alongside to windward of the burning ship. There, for close aboard, I could put my hoses over and fight the fires, driving them down-wind until extinguished. When the “B” arrived on the immediate scene of action, we found two destroyers close aboard the PRINCETON which was dead in the water and burning furiously. Captain Buracker had ordered abandon ship except for himself and about 50 officers and men. The destroyers, Irwin and Cassin Young had been alongside ten or fifteen minutes taking survivors aboard and attempting to fight the fires. The Reno and a third destroyer Gatling were circling nearby for AA protection. The “B” had superior firefighting equipment, a larger complement and better working space on deck. The destroyers were more maneuverable for picking up survivors and better equipped for anti-submarine work. The Reno was valuable both for AA and AS work. Accordingly, when I found myself Senior Officer Present, I instructed the destroyers to concentrate on recovering the PRINCETON’S personnel from the water. The Reno I instructed to circle the group, providing anti-aircraft and anti-submarine protection. I then approached to put the BIRMINGHAM alongside. The two destroyers with their customary and laudable zeal to be right in there pitching were reluctant to leave and I had to send them and “expedite” to clear the PRINCETON’S side.
The sea was moderately choppy and a good breeze was blowing. The carriers high freeboard gave her more leeway than my ship. So there was some difficulty in maneuvering the BIRMINGHAM alongside and holding her there. I found it necessary not only to run a line between the two ships to keep them together, but to work the engines almost constantly. We had completed preparations to fight the fires as we drew near and started work as soon as we had a line over. After about a half hour, I called for a volunteer fire party to transfer from the BIRMINGHAM to the PRINCETON. A party of 38 men was quickly formed and put over on the burning carrier. The fire fighting continued very satisfactorily until, two and a half hours later, all the fires had been brought under control except for one still raging in the vicinity of the PRINCETON’S after magazine. In addition, the hundreds of PRINCETON men who had abandoned ship had now been picked up by the destroyers in a truly remarkable job of rescue well over 90% of the PRINCETON’S total complement.
I directed the destroyers to join the Reno in the circling AA,A/S screen as soon as they were sure they had completed rescue work.
During this time a peculiar incident occurred. Captain Buracker asked for a destroyer to come alongside his starboard side (BIRMINGHAM was to port, the windward side) and return more PRINCETON’S personnel to help fight the fires by getting some of the machinery back in operation if possible. I doubted the feasibility of bringing a ship alongside to leeward of another ship on fire but wished to leave no stone unturned to comply with Captain Buracker’s recommendations. I was occupied with handling my own ship so told my communications Officer to detail a destroyer to carry out PRINCETON’S request if practicable. The communications officer sent this message to the MORRISON but through some misunderstanding omitted the “If practicable.” Hence the MORRISON received the message as an unqualified order and got into the difficulties described in C.S. Forester’s recent article in the Saturday Evening Post.
At about 1330, another Japanese air raid broke through our fighter interception and headed for our group around the PRINCETON. At the same time, one of the destroyers picked up a possible submarine contact in the immediate vicinity. In the face of these reports it was imprudent to remain alongside the PRINCETON dead in the water, so, after taking back the volunteer fire-fighting party, we reluctantly cast off. At the same time I ordered the MORRISON to clear the PRINCETON. She had lost her foremast and was jammed in the PRINCETON’S top hamper but succeeded in extricating herself with some help from the Irwin.
After about an hour and a half all the Japanese planes had been either shot down or driven off, by AA fire from the ships and by a very efficient CAP which the ESSEX had turned over to BIRMINGHAM’S fighter director. Both Captain Buracker of the PRINCETON and myself felt encouraged over the possibility of saving the carrier.
We knew that the one small remaining fire had been burning near the after magazine but it had been burning for five hours with no serious consequences, and the leader of my volunteer fire party estimated that all fires could be extinguished in less than an hour’s more work. I reported the situation to Admiral Sherman, proposing to continue salvage operations. Captain Buracker, who was a stout fella to the last, showing the most steadfast determination to save his ship, asked that the Reno tow the PRINCETON while the BIRMINGHAM continue firefighting. The Reno’s towing gear was out of commission so that the BIRMINGHAM commenced rigging her towing gear. Captain Buracker then asked that the Reno fight fires while the BIRMINGHAM towed. I vetoed this proposal as the BIRMINGHAM was already bunged up from rolling together with the PRINCETON and I felt the tactical situation did not warrant damaging two cruisers. I asked Captain Buracker whether he wished me to tow and let the fire burn itself out or to put out the fire and then tow. He recommended the latter course, as I had expected, and I concurred in this procedure.
Therefore, I approached the PRINCETON a second time, came close aboard her, and put a line over in order to spring the two ships together. I had just given the order to back down on this line when the PRINCETON’S magazine exploded.
The consequences of the blast were unbelievable. The air was literally filled with debris of all sizes, from mere particles up to pieces weighing several hundred pounds. A column of smoke and flame billowed upward at least two thousand feet.
The carnage on the BIRMINGHAM was too terrible to describe adequately. Two hundred twenty-nine men were killed instantly, and over 400 more were wounded, many of them horribly. Beside me on the bridge, the Navigator and Officer of the Deck fell unconscious. The Executive Officer, Commander Winston P. Folk, who had received some minor shrapnel wounds and had been partially deafened, inquired as to my condition. I replied that my arm was broken but I would be able to carry on. I discovered later that I had six or eight minor shrapnel wounds as well. Folk then proceeded to the main deck to organize first aid parties and investigate the damage. He deserves the highest credit for his handling of the situation. He was faced with a grave emergency which he took charge of in accordance with the highest standards of the Naval service.
Commander Folk found blood so thick on the decks that sand had to be spread to prevent slipping. Our medical situation was serious. The Senior Medical Officer had been loaned two days before to another ship to perform an emergency operation. The dentist was killed in the explosion. The only officer of the medical department left on the BIRMINGHAM was the Junior Medical Officer, Lieutenant James H. MacArt, and it was due to his professional skill and executive ability that the loss of life among our hundreds of wounded was so small.
Meanwhile, on the bridge, I found myself growing faint despite all my efforts to carry on. I was forced to turn over tactical command of the group to Captain Alexander of the Reno and called for my Gunnery Officer Comdr Francis Duborg who was the senior unwounded officer, to take the con. He, incidentally, felt his life was charmed. At the time of the explosion, he was standing on the upper bridge between two enlisted men, one of whom was killed outright and the other fatally injured; but the Gunnery Officer had received not a scratch.
When he took over, we had already maneuvered clear of the PRINCETON, which was now hopelessly damaged. She was sunk by torpedoes from the Reno.
If I were faced with the same situation in helping a burning carrier again, I should take the same action—providing the same factors were involved and I had no crystal ball. Ever since James Lawrence said “Don’t give up the ship!” our service has been indoctrinated to exert every effort to save damaged ships. This indoctrination has proved to be sound and has paid dividends through the years, not only in a material but in a moral sense. It was most unfortunate that the PRINCETON was not saved. It was even more unfortunate that the BIRMINGHAM’S crew suffered so grievously in attempting to save the PRINCETON. Nevertheless, this tragedy should be considered, I think, as the exception that proves the rule. “Don’t give up the ship!” is still as sound as it is inspiring.
The performance of the Birmingham’s personnel after the explosion, without any known exception, was in accordance with the highest traditions of naval history. Every able-bodied survivor quietly performed his regular duties or assisted wherever needed. Where confusion and hysteria might have been excusable there was nothing but order, coolness and selfless devotion to duty, ship and shipmates. Even the most grievously wounded tried to get doctors and corpsmen to take care of their shipmates first. Young America need concede nothing in fortitude to other races or to other generations. Our steel ships too, are served by iron men.