- USS Des Moines CA-134, the first of the last.

Des Moines-class Heavy Cruisers: The Best and Last of Their Kind

The story of the best and last heavy cruisers ever built, from the lessons learned from previous designs, to the last heavy cruiser in the world.

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During the summer of 1942, US Navy cruisers of the Pensacola, Northampton, Portland, Astoria, Brooklyn, and Atlanta-classes participated in some of the most brutal naval battles in the waters surrounding Guadalcanal and the Solomon Islands. The losses in this campaign led to Savo Sound, the body of water in which most of the combat took place, to be renamed Iron Bottom Sound. Over the course of this campaign, the cruisers Northampton, Astoria, Quincy, Vincennes, Atlanta, and Juneau would be lost in battle, their crews making the ultimate sacrifice, while others were heavily damaged. This left the Navy with a number of lessons which they had gained at a steep price. These lessons would go towards refits for older classes, and work would begin on a new class, one that would far exceed preceding designs in terms of firepower and survivibility. This would be the class of heavy cruisers to end all heavy cruisers: the three-strong Des Moines-class.

Hard Lessons Learned

During the Guadalcanal Campaign, the US Navy made heavy use of their cruisers: notably the heavy cruisers of the Northampton-class, Portland-class, and Astoria-class, and the light cruisers of the Brooklyn-class and Atlanta-class. The first lesson they learned was that they were not satisfied with the performance of the main-battery guns of their cruisers. The 8-inch (203 mm) guns on the heavy cruisers had a slower rate of fire than the Navy would've liked, with a good gun crew at best managing 4 to 5 salvos a minute. Meanwhile, the 6-inch (152 mm) guns of the light cruisers had a significantly better rate of fire, able to achieve about 7 salvos a minute. This was in no small part due to the copper cases that contained the propellant, being more easily handled than the bagged propellant used in the heavy cruisers. The main drawback here was that the 130 lbs. (58.9 kg) 6-inch projectile fired by the light cruisers were less likely to successfully penetrate enemy armor than the 335 lbs. (151.9 kg) 8-inch projectiles fired by the heavy cruisers.

The second lesson they learned was that the bridges of previous classes were poorly armored. This weakness reared its ugly head twice. The first time was during the Battle of Savo Island, when a shell hit the bridge of the Astoria-class heavy cruiser USS Quincy CA-39, killing all but one of the bridge crew, including Captain Samuel N. Moore. The second time was during the night action in the Battle of Guadalcanal, when a similar direct hit to Quincy's sister ship USS San Francisco CA-38 killed Rear Admiral Daniel J. Callaghan and Captain Cassin Young. Because many surviving ships of the Astoria-class were heavily damaged, these lessons were incorporated into a refit of the class, renamed the New Orleans-class after the loss of the lead ship USS Astoria CA-34.

The third lesson was that the turrets and propulsion systems were prone to being knocked out in the heat of battle. During the Battle of Savo Island, the cruisers Astoria, Quincy, and Vincennes were left dead in the water when gunfire and torpedoes took out their turrets and engine rooms. Fortunately, the one-off cruiser USS Wichita CA-45 had introduced a better turret armor-scheme which would be used in the Baltimore-class and Oregon City-class.

The fourth lesson was that a more compact superstructure would allow for better firing arcs for the anti-aircraft armament. Implemented first on the Oregon City-class cruisers, this consisted of consolidating the exhausts into one stack.

The Design Work Begins

Drawing of the turret and autoloading mechanism for the 8"/55 caliber Mark 16 guns

Drawing of the turret and autoloading mechanism for the 8"/55 caliber Mark 16 guns

One of the first elements of the design to come together was the main armament. During World War II, the US Navy began work on an 8-inch gun with a higher rate of fire. The first improvement was the use of cased propellant in the place of the bagged powder used by previous heavy cruisers. The main innovation was the auto-loading system that would feed the main battery guns. The automated system would allow for an unheard of rate of fire of 10 rounds per minute, all while firing the 335 lbs. (151.9 kg) super heavy armor-piercing round. Even better was that the system was superbly reliable. Being subject to harsh stress-testing and not breaking or malfunctioning once. They additionally could be fired and reloaded at a 41-degree elevation, allowing for them to be used in an anti-aircraft role with proximity-fused shells loaded. The 8"/55 caliber Mark 16 gun had proven itself to be effective, and the US Navy sought a suitable platform for this formidable firepower.

The forward 8-inch gun turrets of USS Salem. Note the hatches below the gun barrels for ejecting spent powder casings.

The forward 8-inch gun turrets of USS Salem. Note the hatches below the gun barrels for ejecting spent powder casings.

To fit this powerful armament and to allow for better protection, the hull would be larger than the Baltimore-class upon which the class would be based. the hull would be 716 ft. 6 in. (218.4 m) long, have a beam of 75 ft. 6 in. (23.32 m), and a 25.9 foot (7.9 m) draft. The hull displaced 17,255 long tons standard load. This allowed for an armor belt that covered the ship's vital systems in between 4 inches (102 mm) and 6 inches (152 mm) of armor. 5-inch (127 mm) bulkheads were placed fore and aft of the citadel, which itself contained 2.5-inch (64 mm) and .75-inch (19 mm) subdivision bulkheads. Horizontal protection was provided by a 3.5 inch (89 mm) main armor deck covered by a 1-inch (25 mm) thick bomb deck intended to detonate enemy bombs before they fell deep into the ship. The barbettes that the turrets would sit on top of would be 6.3 inches (160 mm) thick.

Despite using the same powerplant as the preceding Baltimore-class and Oregon City-class, one of the changes this class would incorporate would be a machinery layout similar to that used on battleships. This would reduce the risk of the engines being knocked out of action in the event of a direct hit from a torpedo. This also had the bonus of allowing the exhausts to exit through one stack, which allowed for better firing arcs for the anti-aircraft battery.

The bridge and helm were housed in an armored conning tower in the bridge superstructure. To avoid a repeat of the decimation of bridge crews suffered by earlier cruisers, the conning tower would be encased in 6.5-inch (165 mm) armor, even thicker armor than the main belt or the barbettes. Additionally, these ships were equipped with a combat information center. This would allow the ships to function as flagships and coordinate with friendly ships. This design would go on to be the basis for all combat information centers that would be implemented in US Navy ships afterwards.

The armored CONN of USS Salem.

The armored CONN of USS Salem.

The guns were housed in 3-gun turrets with 8-inch thick face armor, 4-inch (102 mm) roof armor, 3.75-inch (95 mm) side armor, and 1.5-inch rear armor (38 mm). Similar to US battleships, each gun in the turret could elevate independently of one-another, allowing the other guns in the turret to continue operating should one be knocked out in combat. The turrets allowed for the guns to be elevated up to 41 degrees and depressed to -5 degrees to allow for a longer firing range and some anti-air capability. Three of these turrets would house the main battery of these ships, two forward of the superstructure in a superfiring layout, and one aft of the superstructure. The turrets were designed to fit optical range-finders, but these were ultimately not installed. The central fire control systems were very advanced systems that allowed for superb accuracy over long ranges. The main battery was controlled by 2 Mark 54 fire control directors coupled with Mark 13 radar. This allowed the guns a maximum range of 30,050 yards (27,480 m).

The secondary battery was the same as the Baltimore-class and Oregon City-class, consisting of 6 twin Mark 12 5"/38 caliber dual purpose guns, two superfiring over the fore and aft main battery turrets, and two on each side of the superstructure. This gun turret was a proven design used on many other US Navy vessels, from the secondary battery of the fast battleships to the main battery of the Allen M. Sumner-class and Gearing-class destroyers. These guns commonly fired tracer rounds and anti-air shells. While not being autoloading weapons, they could achieve a similar rate of fire as the main battery. They were controlled by 2 Mark 37 fire control systems working in tandem with Mark 34 radar.

A view overlooking the forward 5"/38 turret and the forward main battery turrets of USS Salem

A view overlooking the forward 5"/38 turret and the forward main battery turrets of USS Salem

The anti-aircraft armament consisted of 24 3-inch autoloading anti-air guns in twin mounts. Two were mounted at the bow, four were mounted on each side of the superstructure, and two were mounted at the stern. These were the smallest guns which could fire proximity-fuse shells and were substantially more effective than the 40 mm Bofors anti-air guns fitted to preceding cruisers. These were controlled by 4 Mark 56 fire control systems with Mark 35 radar and two Mark 63 directors with Mark 34 radar. Due to damage from waves, the forwardmost dual 3-inch mount was removed from all ships of the class. The anti-air battery was rounded off by twelve single-mount 20 mm Oerlikon autocannons, which were also removed from the class in subsequent refits.

T​he ships would have another significant first besides their autoloading main battery: they would be the first surface warships equipped with air conditioning, a large step towards improving crew conditions. Similar to battleships, these cruisers would feature a “Geedunk”; a soda fountain that would also serve ice cream and candy to sailors. The increase in crew comfort over previous classes would make these cruisers good candidates for flagships and platforms with which to host foreign dignitaries.

Construction Begins

Design drawing close to the original design. The key difference is that this drawing lists 40 mm Bofors anti-air as opposed to the 3”/50 anti-air that the completed ships would be equipped with

Design drawing close to the original design. The key difference is that this drawing lists 40 mm Bofors anti-air as opposed to the 3”/50 anti-air that the completed ships would be equipped with

By December 1st, 1943, the design for the CA 139-142, 134 design heavy cruiser had taken shape, and shortly after, orders were placed for ships of this class. In total, twelve ships of this class were ordered: six from the Bethlehem Steel Fore River Shipyard in Quincy Massachusetts, two from Newport News Shipbuilding of Newport News Virginia, and four from the New York Shipbuilding Corporation in Camden New Jersey. In the end, all were cancelled except for the three farthest along in their construction. These were Des Moines CA-134 and Salem CA-139 under construction in Quincy Massachusetts and Newport News CA-148 being built in Newport News. All others including Dallas CA-140 were cancelled or broken up on the slipways.

Ships of the Class and Their Service Careers

USS Des Moines CA-134

USS Des Moines CA-134

Des Moines CA-134 was the first of the class to commission. She was laid down 28 May 1945, launched 27 September 1946, and commissioned into the Navy 16 November 1948. After maneuvers in the Caribbean, Des Moines (nicknamed "Daisy Mae" by her crew) sailed to the Mediterranean Sea to take up position as the flagship of the 6th Fleet. The ship also conducted Midshipman training cruises annually from 1954 to 1957, as well as participating in NATO operations in 1952, 1953, and 1955. Des Moines also paid rare visits to Yugoslavian ports. She also was present in the Atlantic during the Suez Crisis of 1956 and served as a control center for US forces during the Lebanon Crisis of 1958. Des Moines also featured along with other ships of the 6th Fleet at the beginning and end of the movie John Paul Jones. Des Moines was decommissioned into the reserve fleet in 1961.

USS Salem CA-139

USS Salem CA-139

Salem CA-139 was the second of the completed Des Moines-class cruisers to be laid down and launched, with the keel being laid down July 4th 1945 and the hull launching March 25th 1947, yet was the last of the three to be commissioned into the Navy May 14th 1949. Salem visited her namesake city of Salem, Massachusetts (for which she would be nicknamed "Sea Witch"), then headed for shakedown trials at Guantanamo and returning to Boston before joining the 2nd Fleet in the Atlantic. From May to September 1950, Salem would work a shift as the flagship of the Mediterranean 6th Fleet, paying visits to numerous European Ports. After returning to Boston, she once again deployed for maneuvers with the Atlantic Fleet, and then back to Guantanamo in 1951 for gunnery training. Then she relieved Newport News as Flagship of the 6th Fleet until September 1952, when she headed back to Boston. Her next deployment would see her once again as flagship in the Mediterranian, where she would be among the first ships to provide aid for the Ionian Earthquake of 1953 until relieved by Des Moines. 1954 and 1955 would be a repeat of Salem's usual schedule: training in Guantanamo Bay, deployment as flagship in the Mediterranian, and then back to Boston for an overhaul and then repeat. 1956 was shaping up to be the same as the previous two, but while en route to the Mediterranian the Sues Crisis broke out, and Salem was sent to Rhodes and take up position as flagship there. She would be present when the fighting commenced in October of 1956. She would aslo portray the German cruiser Admiral Graf Spee in the movie Battle of the River Plate, being about as if not more worthy of the title of “pocket battleship” used to refer to the ship she played the part of. Throughout 1957, the 6th Fleet with Salem as flagship would show support for the government of Lebanon as it faced political turmoil. After another cruise in the Mediterranean in 1958, Salem was scheduled to be deactivated, but was called upon when the Lebanon Crisis broke out, and became the flagship of the 2nd Fleet. Salem was decommissioned on December 30, 1959 and was placed in mothballs in the Atlantic Reserve Fleet.

USS Newport News CA-148

USS Newport News CA-148

N​ewport News CA-148 was laid down 1st of November 1945, launched the 6th of March 1948, and commissioned January 29, 1949, built in her namesake city by Newport News Shipbuilding. Her early career played out similar to her sister ships, with annual deployments as flagship of the 6th fleet And midshipman cruises as flagship of Cruiser Division 2, always reporting back to Norfolk, Virginia. In 1962 after her sister ships were decommissioned, she was refitted with facilities to accommodate the command staff of the 2nd Fleet. She then participated in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, stopping the Soviet vessel Labinsk and participating in the count of missiles removed from Cuba. In 1965 she participated in the Dominican Republic Crisis. Newport News then sailed to Vietnam in 1967, almost immediately engaging shore emplacements. Throughout the rest of 1967, she engaged shore batteries and logistics ships. After this operation, she went on to provide naval gunfire support for the Third Marine Division near the DMZ. After a lengthy overhaul in Norfolk, Newport News redeployed to Vietnam for a second combat patrol in 1968. During this deployment, she participated in gunfire support operations in support of Vietnamese forces in the Vĩnh Bình province. This tour ended in 1969, when she returned to Norfolk. Newport News deployed for one more combat patrol in 1972. She participated in Operation Custom Tailor, a mission to bombard Haiphong. Afterwards, she joined the Seventh Fleet in Operation Linebacker. Tragedy struck when Newport News was operating off the DMZ. on October 1, 1972. A shell loaded into the center gun of turret 2 detonated due to a faulty fuse. The explosion resulted in 20 crew killed, a further 36 wounded, and the turret being rendered inoperable. Newport News was out of action for a few weeks while the damaged mount was removed from number 2 turret. Plans to cannibalize one of her decommissioned sister ships was not pursued, and turret 2 would remain inoperable for the rest of her time in service. Despite the damage, Newport News would return to gunfire support off Vietnam until December 1972. After training cruises in 1973 and 1974, Newport News was decommissioned June 27, 1974 and joined Des Moines and Salem in the reserve fleet.

In The Mothball Fleet

The three ships of the Des Moines-class in mothballs at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. Des Moines CA-134 is tied up closest to the wharf, with Salem CA-139 in between and Newport News CA-148 farthest out.

The three ships of the Des Moines-class in mothballs at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. Des Moines CA-134 is tied up closest to the wharf, with Salem CA-139 in between and Newport News CA-148 farthest out.

For the remainder of the 1970s and into the 1990s, Salem and Des Moines would remain in the mothball fleet, with Newport News being stricken in June 1978. When President Ronald Reagan sought to build the Navy up to a 600 ship strong force, Des Moines and Salem were considered for modernization and reactivation along with the four Iowa-class battleships. While inspections of the ships found them in excellent material condition, the estimated cost of their modernization was around as much as the modernization of the Iowas, with less deck space with which to fit new weapons systems. They would remain in mothballs until they were stricken from the naval register in July 1991.

The Fates of the Three Cruisers

Of the three cruisers, Newport News, the longest serving of the three cruisers and the only one to see combat, was the first to meet her fate. She was sold for scrap February 25, 1993. Des Moines was put on hold for museum ship status, with interest to turn her into a museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Unfortunately, these efforts failed. Des Moines was towed to Brownsville, Texas, and was scrapped in 2007. The last of the three to commission, the first to decommission, and the last to be stricken from the naval lists, Salem, would fortunately avoid the breakers yard. The city of Quincy, Massachusetts was looking for a museum ship to breathe life into the Fore River Shipyard, the very yard that half a decade ago had built Des Moines and Salem, which had unfortunately closed up in 1986. In 1998, Salem was donated to the city of Quincy and was towed to the Fore River Shipyard. Salem remains at the shipyard to this day, hosting the United States Naval Shipbuilding Museum, the USS Newport News Museum, the US Navy Cruiser Sailors Association Museum, and the US Navy SEAL's Exhibit.

This ship, the last heavy cruiser remaining in the world, serves as a monument to the service of US Navy heavy cruisers and their crews, the shipbuilding history of Quincy, Massachusetts, and the sacrifices of the sailors lost in the Guadalcanal Campaign, where the lessons implemented in Salem and her sister ships were paid for in blood. These three cruisers, despite not seeing much of any combat, are symbolic of something the US Navy of today has lost. The navy that built these ships designed them from a wealth of experience they had, designing in-house a powerful and well-armored heavy cruiser that was designed to come out on top of any situation and if outmatched keep fighting until on the way to the seafloor. The Des Moines-class, while not serving in World War II, is a case study for post-World War II US Navy thinking. Hectic and costly battles had taught them to value firepower, survivablility, redundancy, and ships that fulfill their mission profiles to the best extent they can.

USS Salem CA-139 as she is now at the Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts, where she, Des Moines CA-134, and eleven preceding US Navy heavy cruisers were built.

USS Salem CA-139 as she is now at the Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts, where she, Des Moines CA-134, and eleven preceding US Navy heavy cruisers were built.

Thank you so much for reading this article. As you can tell, I am very passionate about this class of cruisers. My grandfather and great-grandfather worked in the Fore River Shipyard where Des Moines, Salem, and many other significant heavy cruisers were built, and I find this class of ships interesting from an engineering standpoint. I have visited the Salem in Quincy, hence the photographs throughout this article, and I can tell you that even in the pouring rain she is very much worthwhile to visit. So if you ever find yourself in the area, come visit USS Salem. You won't regret paying a visit to her, and the admission from your visit will go towards the preservation of this amazing ship. I can't thank you enough for reading this article. I know it is a bit of a read but I can't think of how else I can do justice to these ships. Thank you again for reading and I'll see you around Drivetribe!

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Comments (3)

  • Loved the article, thank you for writing such a comprehensive story!

      21 days ago
  • What an excellent and informative article you have got here Samuel!! Thank you for posting 😁

      25 days ago
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