USS SAN DIEGO: The Unbeatable Ship That Nobody Ever Heard OfUSS SAN DIEGO: The Unbeatable Ship That Nobody Ever Heard Of
Few knew of her during World War 11, and few know of her even today: a ship named for the city of San Diego. The light antiaircraft cruiser USS SAN DIEGO (CL 53) received the honor of being the first victorious American warship to enter Tokyo Bay. A former crewman, Bill Butcher, gunners mate second class, wonders about the SAN DIEGO and her place in history books. He recently wrote, “…Nothing ever happened to us that was ‘headline news’ until we were the first major Allied warship to enter Tokyo Bay. We were straddled by bombs, dodged torpedoes and (were) attacked by suicide planes that missed. We never lost a man in combat, never surrendered to the enemy, and earned eighteen battle stars while steaming 300,000 miles without a major overhaul.” (Butcher now lives in Massachusetts and is petitioning Congress and the Postal Service to put the SAN DIEGO on a commemorative postage stamp.)
John Supino, seaman first class, was assigned to a specialized damage control party whose duties were to make repairs when the ship got hit. Supino maintains that since the ship never got hit, the damage control people virtually had a pleasure cruise. (Supino. who entered the Navy from Everett, Massachusetts, still lives at the same address.)
World War II went out with two stupendous, thundering booms in August, 1945. The atomic bombs brought the Japanese to the peace table. On August 15 Japan gave up, and everything changed. Only a few months earlier, everyone believed that to end the war, Japan would have to be invaded at a cost of a million lives or more.
Now the ship’s crew suddenly realized the end of the war was at hand, and got to wondering about going to Tokyo. It turned out that a little delay going home via Tokyo was quite acceptable, especially when they were being honored to act as flagship as well as the first ship to dock in Japan. That would fulfill a promise made back in Boston in January 1942, “that she wouldn’t stop until she dropped her hook in Tokyo Bay.”
On August 12, Admiral William “Bull” Halsey, colorful commander of the huge United States Third Fleet, sent a message to a light cruiser, the USS SAN DIEGO (CL 53), as follows: “SAN DIEGO designated as flagship for Commander Task Force 31, and thus in the center of all activity. Seeing an imminent end of combat, Halsey handpicked the SAN DIEGO to be the first major warship to enter Tokyo Bay once the enemy surrendered unconditionally. That event happened two days later, on August 14, signaling the end to the long and vicious fighting that started with the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941.
The crew of the SAN DIEGO felt that they had rightfully earned the honor with a remarkable wartime record. She’d won 18 battle stars. She took part in 34 major battle actions; steamed an incredible 300,000 miles at sea with only short stops at such out-of-the-way places as Majuro, Eniwetok and Ulithi atolls; and never took a direct hit or lost a man in combat from the day she was commissioned in January’ 1942. Bob Alderson, yeoman third class, attributed the success of the SAN DIEGO to his shipmates. He said, “I think it was the accuracy of our aim. The more our ship was in battle, the greater our chances of survival because we knew what we were doing. We had complete confidence and good skippers.”
Then there was the design of SAN DIEGO, which made life a nightmare for the enemy aviators. As one officer observed, “When seven turrets with fourteen five-inch guns were all firing at the enemy, it looked like the ship itself was on fire.”
A rather crusty Rear Admiral Oscar Badger had been selected by Admiral Halsey to be Commander Task Force 31 on the SAN DIEGO. The accompanying minesweepers, destroyers, seaplane tenders, and high-speed transport making up Task Force 31 had also compiled exceptional combat records. The task force headed into the narrow but heavily fortified entrance to Tokyo Bay after taking some Japanese navigational pilots aboard. Heeding Admiral Halsey’s warning “to be vigilant in light of the enemy’s reputation for treachery,” all ships stayed at General Quarters, manning; their battle stations while en route to their anchorage in the Bay just outside the Yokosuka Naval Shipyard.
The previous day, Rear Admiral Badger had given Lieutenant Junior Grade Will Templeton, the SAN DIEGO Officer-of-the-Deck (OOD), a sample of his personality. A Japanese tug with thirteen military personnel waiting to board the ship was standing off some distance away. When Templeton asked the admiral what signal he should send the tug, the Admiral barked that when he was ready, he would say what he wanted to do. “Yes sir!” said Templeton, who now lives in Oceanside, CA. Rear Admiral Badger had a mean look and a nasty disposition when encountering those Japanese.
Rear Admiral Robert B. Carney was scheduled to take command of Yokosuka Naval Shipyard the next morning after the SAN DIEGO had moved from her anchorage to a dock in the Shipyard at 1000 (10 a.m.). By then a coxswain and sideboys piped aboard and saluted Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, Admiral Halsey and a bevy of V.I.P. admirals, generals and civilians, plus about 20 press and radio people. The radio group set up on the bridge for a direct broadcast to the USA.
Gun captain and coxswain Earl Burton said, “It was the damnedest day I ever spent on this ship, with more gold and silver aboard than any ship has ever had at one time. During all this, I had the Bos’n Side Boy watch and piped nearly all the big boys either aboard or over the side. I was glad when the sun set. Almost everybody aboard has all sorts of souvenirs.” Burton now lives in Endwell, N.Y.
Soon after Admiral Halsey came aboard, he decided he needed a haircut. With little ceremony, the Admiral was escorted down to the ship’s barber, Harry Mcllvaine, a young seaman first class, who easily clipped the Admiral. When Admiral Halsey was finished, he wanted to tip the barber, who said,” No thanks, but I sure would like one of your cigars.” The admiral gladly gave him one, the start of one more true sea story.
After the SAN DIEGO completed her historic mooring to mainland Japan, Admiral Badger decided he needed seven staff cars, so he summoned a Marine orderly. He bellowed to the Marine to go get seven staff cars. The bewildered orderly departed the ship with seven Marines following. They disappeared over a small hill nearby. Soon seven Japanese cars paraded up the dock. The Admiral smiled. The Marines had found a busy street right over the hill and simply went out and stopped traffic, commandeering seven decent cars.” (Yeoman third class Bob Alderson, who was the Captain’s yeoman, was witness to the show. He is retired in San Diego.) This and other incredible events capped the exceptional career of an exceptional ship and her crew.
The saga of the SAN DIEGO dates back to 1938 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a large appropriations bill to build new warships. The President believed what few did then, that Adolph Hitler was building a powerful armed force preparing to go to war against the Atlantic alliance, a conflict we could not avoid.
A strong contingent of energetic San Diegans went to Washington to support rebuilding the Navy, and to persuade the President to name a new cruiser after the city of San Diego. They were successful.
The keel was laid in March, 1940, for the new cruiser USS SAN DIEGO (CL 53) at the Bethlehem Steel Shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts. She was the third of eight of a new design that came to be known as the Atlanta Class, essentially constructed to produce heavy anti-aircraft fire from eight twin five inch 38 caliber gun mounts, along with many secondary machine guns. She had a three and a half-inch armor belt, with two inches of deck armor. The three tiered mounts forward and aft gave her a beautiful silhouette.
In July, 1941, the San Diego sponsoring group went to Quincy to take part in the christening and launching festivities. Mrs. Grace Benbough, wife of Mayor Percy Benbough, splashed the champagne for the launching. San Diego Chamber of Commerce members and other dignitaries attended.
The ship fitted out at the Boston Navy Yard, and about a month after Pearl Harbor the SAN DIEGO was commissioned on January 10, 1942. It was snowing, and the weather was cold and miserable, perhaps a portent of the tough year ahead. A nucleus crew of officers and senior crewmen had been assigned months prior to the completion of the ship. The full complement of 650 men arrived on commissioning day, consisting largely of graduate recruits from boot camp and reserve officers, to supplement the experienced regular Navy petty officers and Naval Academy-trained officers.
The ship’s Commanding Officer, Captain Benjamin Franklin Perry, commendably was a man of few but measured words. In the subzero temperature and eight inches of snow, Captain Perry said, “This ship will be an honor to the city of San Diego. The time for talk is over; let’s get going.” The executive officer was Commander Timothy O’Brien, who later made admiral.
The new light cruiser was 541 feet in length with a beam of 53 ft. Her full load displacement was 7,500 tons. She was destined to build a formidable record and set a high example for her seven sister ships.
SAN DIEGO went through a condensed shakedown and training period in the Portland, Maine, area. She then headed for the Panama Canal, en route to her namesake city for special training before heading, out to the Pacific combat zone.
From day one of the War, a cloak of secrecy surrounded all ship and personnel movements. Nearly everyone in the city of San Diego was unaware that her namesake had arrived in port on May 17, 1942. While the training exercises continued until the end of May, the crew took every opportunity for liberty when in port. One anonymous young fireman from the engineering department went on a royal “toot”. At length, he encountered a local policeman who noticed his instability. As the hour was late the policeman asked, “Where are you from, sailor?” The sailor: “SAN DIEGO.” Policeman: “What part of San Diego?” Sailor: “The forward boiler room.” The policeman led the sailor off to the drying-out tank, having never heard of a ship with that name.
The ship’s disbursing officer (paymaster), Ensign Len Shea, had handled millions of dollars with great integrity throughout his regular Navy career. But finding himself a bit shy on funds while ashore on liberty, he sauntered into a bank to cash a check. His uniform said he was in the Navy but when the cautious teller asked what ship he was on Ensign Shea stalled a bit before finally revealing the name “SAN DIEGO.” The teller rather sourly said, “Get outa here! There’s no ship named SAN DIEGO.” (The former paymaster retired as captain, and lives in Coronado.)
Two weeks later, on June 1, 1942, the ship departed San Diego. (It would be 41 months before the city and the USS SAN DIEGO would get together again, and that for a huge postwar victory jamboree.)
The ship escorted the SARATOGA, a large carrier, to Pearl Harbor. Further training, exercises over four weeks brought the feeling of war closer, until in mid-August the SAN DIEGO got underway as part of Task Force 17 escorting carriers and tankers to the battle area in the southwest Pacific. She arrived a week after the tragic Battle of Savo Island.
For 41 days the ship was at sea supporting the Marines’ invasion of Guadalcanal. Fierce fighting called for periodic reinforcements for both the Marines and the Japanese. While on patrol off Guadalcanal, the ship’s crew saw the carrier WASP sunk by torpedoes from a Japanese submarine, which also damaged the destroyer O’BRIEN and the battleship NORTH CAROLINA.
Toward the end of September, Task Force 17, headed up by Rear Admiral George D. Murray, sailed into Noumea, New Caledonia. After provisioning in four days, they set out to sea for what proved to be the first action of the War for the SAN DIEGO. A raid on enemy islands Buin and Faisi earned the ship her first battle star.
At the end of October came the Battle of Santa Cruz Island, considered by the crew as the first major action of their careers. American naval forces were beginning to threaten Japan’s control of the sea and the air around Guadalcanal, in the Solomon Islands. The enemy mounted a large force of carriers and heavy ships to wipe out the threat. The SAN DIEGO was stationed to protect the port side of the valiant USS HORNET which had been bombed and torpedoed on the starboard side. The carrier could not be saved, but the SAN DIEGO took off 200 survivors. Her five-inch guns were credited with bringing down three planes. Gunner’s mate Tom Kane, manning a 20 millimeter machine gun on the aft end of the ship, shot down a torpedo plane directly astern. The gunnery officer, Lieutenant Commander Brooke Schunim, witnessed and confirmed the kill. (For 30 years after the war, Kane was a writer for actor John Wayne.)
The enemy, failing to unload a large contingent of infantry reinforcements, suffered three damaged cruisers, a wounded battleship and 123 planes knocked down, and then withdrew from the fray as did the enemy troop ships. The SAN DIEGO survived without casualties or real damage, and won its second battle star. Santa Cruz was decisive because the expansion of Japan’s power was stopped cold by a US force whose warships were outnumbered 46 enemy ships to 33 of ours.
Nearly everyone on board the SAN DIEGO remembers well the days their task force spent near Guadalcanal at night. An enemy twin-engined plane, nicknamed “Washing Machine Charley,” flew over nearly every night. His engines were out of synchronization, and made a loud, annoying noise, enough to keep everyone awake. He’d drop a few bombs but never hit anyone.
Many of the crew recalled tying up alongside anchored sister ship SAN JUAN, in one of several atolls. In the evening, while awaiting movies on the fantail, a potato fight would break out between ships, amid hearty insults flying back and forth. That would bring some officers roaring back to the fantail to halt “the disrespectful treatment of Navy food.” Entertainment was difficult to come by.
November 1942 found the enemy making a last desperate attempt to reinforce their beleaguered troops and regain control of the Island and Henderson Field. At the conclusion of the decisive Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, all 11 Japanese troop ships involved were destroyed – either sunk or beached – with an estimated 24,000 personnel losses. This time the SAN DIEGO was with the carrier ENTERPRISE, whose planes helped demolish the reinforcement effort. The action earned the light cruiser another battle star.
Early in February 1943, the Japanese frantically sent 20 destroyers at high speed “down the Slot” to Guadalcanal. It appeared to be still another reinforcement action, but was, in fact, a clever evacuation of 11,000 enemy troops, which Admiral Nimitz praised. That ended the Guadalcanal stalemate. From then on, the American forces took the offensive that led to Tokyo, as a relentless flow of new ships and planes established superiority over a weakening enemy. The SAN DIEGO survived the darkest days, fighting in nearly every battle to finally turn the tide.
Over the next six months or so, the SAN DIEGO operated in and around Espiritu Santo and Noumea, either on patrol or on exercises, with one large interlude. On March 14, the ship got underway bright and early. At 0600, Captain Perry announced over the public address system that “this ship is underway for Auckland, New Zealand, for about a 12-day stay. We will steam at 26 knots.” It was an electrifying message. New Zealand was a dream place for liberty, dining and friendliness.
Auckland was magnificent, as were such treats as fresh milk, fresh vegetables and excellent waitress service. (Americans tipped handsomely, contrary to Kiwi practices). The crew favored the nightlife at the Peter Pan Ballroom, especially the New Zealand girls from 15 to 50 who mobbed the place. During their stay, a special national holiday festival was held to honor the Maori natives. Prime Minister Peter Fraser and the King and Queen of the Maori tribe attended. Seventy-five sailors from the ship were invited. Some hostesses were present, but most of the sailors arranged their own dates. What a highlight!
On March 19, Captain Perry was relieved of command by Captain J. L. Hudson. Under the firm leadership of Captain Perry, SAN DIEGO had established a solid reputation for being dependable and always ready to go. He’d fashioned a fine ship while earning the first four of eighteen battle stars.
Except for 30 days from the end of June, when the SAN DIEGO joined Task Force 14 to provide support for the successful invasion of Munda, a British protectorate in the Solomon Islands, the ship sailed mostly in and around New Hebrides and New Caledonia. Bill Butcher, a gunner’s mate second class, recalled that before arriving in New Hebrides someone removed some water from a flask on a life raft and replaced it with some raisins. With the normal motions of the ship at sea, the flask got quite a shaking, so much so that when the ship entered port in New Hebrides, it blew up. Since there were many mines in those waters, some sailors celebrated, thinking the ship had taken a hit, and would be heading home.
Starting in November, SAN DIEGO and her “playmates” were assigned to the Central Pacific theater, joining the Third Fleet, which became the Fifth Fleet by a flick of the numbers. Many new ships were steadily arriving and the task forces were burgeoning into powerful groups.
In November, the SAN DIEGO participated in two raids on the Japanese strong -hold base of Rabaul (another battle star) followed by the invasion and capture of the Gilbert Islands (still another battle star).
With her sister ship SAN JUAN, SAN DIEGO was dispatched to Mare Island in December for more extensive yard work. The weather en route was pretty rough. Cliff Rayl, seaman first class, (now retired in California) was assigned a bunk directly below five inch twin gun mount number eight. While the ship tossed about in the rough seas, he and four shipmates were enjoying a friendly poker game. For a card table they were using the closed hatch to the ammunition magazine below; the hatch to the gun mount above was open for ventilation. On one bad roll, a five-inch shell broke loose, and fell down the hatch. It landed on their “card table” with a live nose fuse. An alert sailor picked up the shell, rushed it topside and threw it overboard. That wasn’t the end to their troubles.
Two new four-bladed propellers that had been welded and chained to the deck for transit to the States started to come loose in heavy seas. In the dark of night, deck hands were summoned topside to secure them. The decks were awash. Coxswain George Horton was hit by a wave coming over the port side that carried him through the lifelines. Just as it looked like he was a “goner” he was able to grab the middle guard line, when another wave washed him back on board.
In November came the gigantic typhoon that was the most violent anyone had encountered. The wind speed rose rapidly to over 100 mph. SAN DIEGO took rolls of 37 degrees then 45 degrees, then 50 degrees. A huge wave came over her amidships, tore the #1 motor whaleboat off the davits and sent it reeling into the superstructure, smashing it in two. Three men were injured when five-inch ammunition came loose and bashed them. Over 120 planes on board the carriers were wrecked by the fierce storm. Three destroyers capsized, they had been light on fuel and hadn’t sufficient ballast. A dozen other ships were damaged. It took four days for this worst of typhoons to fade, and was the most frightening, vicious storm in memory.
About mid-December Lieutenant Commander Joe Eliot, the gunnery officer, put out a special notice about a threat worse than typhoons – kamikaze attacks.”‘ More and more, the Japanese kamikaze tactic was seen as the last possible hope for Japan’s badly decimated air arm. These suicide missions caused tremendous damage to over one-hundred ships. The gunnery officer set about training gun crews to fire the guns manually, in case all electrical power was lost. It wasn’t much fun. But it paid off.
The Third Fleet became the Fifth Fleet in the first part of February, 1945 as the same ships in the same groups took off to support the invasion of Iwo Jima. As March came in, the SAN DIEGO joined Rear Admiral F. E. M. Whiting with VINCENNES (CA 44), MIAMI (CL 89) and Destroyer Squadron 61 for a shore bombardment of Okino Daito (or Borodino) Island, 195 miles east of Okinawa. The force made three firing runs on a reported enemy radar station there.
In mid-March, and for the next two months, life for the SAN DIEGO crew was an endless schedule of sorties to support invasion landings in the Okinawa area. The one important diversion involved towing and escorting the USS HAGGARD (DD 555), a destroyer that was terribly damaged by a kamikaze. The SAN DIEGO took off 31 of the badly wounded while en route to Kerama Retto, a protected island repair base off Okinawa. The crew turned from fighting to tending the sick, giving up their bunks to the seriously wounded. They provided food, candy, ice cream; new uniforms and comfort. A few days later, the survivors were transferred to a hospital ship, and the SAN DIEGO rejoined its formation.
At the end of May, another switch in fleet numbers put everyone back in the Third Fleet, in support of the Okinawa campaign. Admiral Halsey commanded the Third Fleet, Admiral Spruance the Fifth.
For two days at the end of June, the ship was dry docked in the Philippines for minor repairs, a routine inspection of her bottom, and rest for the crew. In mid-July, SAN DIEGO skipper Captain William Mullan passed word to the crew that the ship would be going back to the States for a yard availability, or maintenance period, in mid-August. The crew exploded with joy. At the end of three years in the combat zone without a full overhaul, the ship and crew deserved a little relief. However, it was not to be: such are the Navy’s ways. The U.S. forces began massive and incessant B-29 bombing attacks and shore bombardment of the Japanese seacoasts by powerful naval forces -aggressive preparations for the invasion of Japan. SAN DIEGO was ordered back to operate with the Third Fleet through July into early August, when Admiral Halsey sent all fleet units to rendezvous 200 miles east of Tokyo. But two atomic bomb blasts virtually ended the War, and the Japanese Finally surrendered unconditionally in mid-August.
The climax of SAN DIEGO‘s war career was her selection to be flagship of Task Force 31. With her dramatic entry into Tokyo Bay, the United States accepted the surrender of the giant Yokosuka Naval Shipyard. The ship had been winning battle stars right up until September 2, when, weary of the great long battle, she headed for home, having thereby earned the Japanese Occupation Medal as well.
On the last of the three days they were docked in the Yokosuka Naval Shipyard, all of the SAN DIEGO‘s crew were allowed to set foot in Japan. One clever sailor put it, “It was like thirty seconds over Yokosuka,” but everyone was proud to be number one.
On September 1, they pulled away from the dock to anchor a short distance offshore, where they took aboard 250 officers and men as passengers. They were fully qualified for discharge and were eligible to go home. The following, morning, SAN DIEGO pulled her hook out of the Tokyo Bay mud and steamed out at 27 knots on a direct course for home – San Francisco. That same day, the formal surrender by Japan took place aboard the USS MISSOURI, as 258 allied ships filled the bay to celebrate their victory.
From the SAN DIEGO‘s cruise book: “Anchoring in Tokyo Bay will be remembered for two things. We saw a real setting sun over Fujiyama, and we had movies on the fantail. If we needed any last assurance that the war was over that was it.”
San Francisco gave a giant welcome to the decorated ship passing under the Golden Gate upon arrival in the USA. The city of San Diego then invited the USS SAN DIEGO to a much larger celebration on Navy Day, October 27th, the most extravagant bash the city ever hosted.
Chief electrician’s mate Mike Lawless, of the Navy Veterans Association, composed this tribute; “Of all the ships and all the crews I served with the U.S.S. San Diego, CL-53 and crew has a special place in my heart. It always has and always will be my favorite ship and crew. The day I left the San Diego CL-53, I walked from the gangway to the bow with my seabag slung over my shoulder, and I said to myself, I am just going to keep walking and not look back. When I was parallel to the bow, I stopped, took a look back at that beautiful ship and said, ‘You carried me all through that war safely and brought me back,’ then I proceeded to cry like a baby.”
USS SAN DIEGO was decommissioned and placed in the Bremerton, Washington reserve fleet on November 4, 1946. She was redesigned CLAA-53 (light antiaircraft cruiser) in March 1949, On March 1, 1959, the Navy struck her from the lists and she was scrapped.