Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Brooklyn on the High Seas

This article was written for The South Brooklyn Post:

November 30 marked the 75th anniversary of the light cruiser U.S.S. Brooklyn (CL-40) being launched at The Brooklyn Navy yards. The vessel was sponsored by Miss Kathryn Jane Lackey, daughter of Rear Admiral F. R. Lackey, and she was completed approximately a year and a half later, on July 18, 1938. The U.S.S. Brooklyn was the first in a class of nine light cruisers, and she was also the third U.S.S. Brooklyn in the history of the U.S. Navy. The first was a wooden sloop-of-war that served during the Civil War and subsequently up to the end of the 19th century, while the second was an armored cruiser and the U.S. flagship during the Spanish-American War. 

The U.S.S Brooklyn was designed according to the limits of the London Treaty of 1930, a treaty that attempted to limit naval arms races, but she was nevertheless a powerful vessel. Displacing 9,767 tons, the ship was armed with 15 six-inch Mk 16 rapid fire guns using semi-fixed ammunition that could fire a 130 lb shell up to 26,100 yards. She was also armed with eight five-inch secondary guns and a plethora of anti-aircraft artillery. The heavy armament did lead to modest armor protection in an effort to save weight, though.

Her four-shaft turbines could propel the Brooklyn at a flank speed of 32.5 knots, and she carried two catapults for launching aircraft. Most importantly, she was manned by 868 officers and enlisted men that would take part in fierce actions later on. One of these men was young Leonard Alfred Schneider from Mineola, who only later on was to become Lenny Bruce.

The U.S.S. Brooklyn saw much activity even before the United States joined World War Two. She was the base ship for the rescue of crew from the sunken submarine U.S.S. Squalus, performed a goodwill tour of the South Pacific, and took part in both a New York World’s Fair and the Golden Gate International Exposition. With war looming, the U.S.S. Brooklyn took part in convoy escort and neutrality patrols.

Once the United States entered the war, the U.S.S. Brooklyn escorted several convoys across the Atlantic. On September 3, 1942, Brooklyn rescued 1,173 troops from the Wakefield after a fire caused the Wakefield to be abandoned. Two months later, Brooklyn finally fired its guns at the enemy to support the Allied landings in North Africa (Operation Torch). The targets for Brooklyn were shore installations at Fédala, between Casablanca and Rabat in neutral French-controlled Morocco. She also suffered her first casualties during that engagement when French coastal artillery hit the Brooklyn. Fortunately, the shell was a dud, but five crew members were wounded and two of the Brooklyn’s guns were damage. U.S.S. Brooklyn took part in the on-and-off naval engagements between November 8 and November 16 around Casablanca, engaging a French destroyer flotilla on the late morning of November 8. Later that day, the French submarine Amazone fired a spread of torpedoes at the cruiser, fortunately without hitting the Brooklyn.

Following Operation Torch, the Brooklyn once again performed escort duties as well as exercises off the coast of Maine. She also received an overhaul at the Philadelphia Naval Yards.

On July 10, the cruiser brought the name of the Borough back to the place of origin of many of its inhabitants: Sicily. The Allied invasion of Sicily (Operation Husky) took place between July 10 and July 14, 1943, and the Brooklyn was tasked with supporting the landings near Licata on the south coast of Sicily, a small town that was the namesake of several Americans of Sicilian origin.

The Brooklyn sighted the Sicilian coast just after 4 AM in the morning of July 10 after braving heavy winds. By then, the Sicilian shore was already subject to both naval and aerial bombardment. The Axis forces ashore fire star shells to illuminate the Allied naval forces, and at 4:12 AM, the Brooklyn was subject to aerial bombardment herself. With bombs landing both port and starboard of the cruiser, the crew fired back with their anti-aircraft guns, reportedly hitting and shooting down an enemy bomber with 20mm fire. Sometime before 4:45 AM, the Brooklyn opened fire with its 6-inch guns against pre-determined targets, although the artillery spotters in the aircraft operated by the Brooklyn claimed that it was still too dark to see the targets and thus to correct the artillery fire.

As the sun rose, Radioman First Class Milton A. Briggs reported that “We have lost communication with our planes and are firing by radar only. Great billows of smoke can be seen rolling into the sky, as our shells explode in the town [Licata]. A lot of people must be dying in there. We have finished off all other targets and are ordered to resume shelling the town again.” The pre-planned naval gunfire was ordered to cease shortly after dawn, but the Brooklyn and her sister ship U.S.S. Boise (CL-47) continued to engage enemy artillery and mortars firing on American soldiers on the beaches west of Licata, eventually silencing the enemy guns at approximately 7 AM.

The Brooklyn and all other support vessels remained at general quarters, ready to provide fire support for the soldiers ashore throughout the next several days. The Axis forces – and the Germans in particular – responded by intense air attacks, sinking the destroyer U.S.S. Maddox as well as a transport vessel, a tank transport vessel (Landing Ship Tank, LST) and the ammunition ship S.S. Robert Rowan within eyesight of the crew of the Brooklyn.

The Brooklyn had managed to avoid getting hit by enemy ordnance, but near-disaster struck at 5:15 AM on July 14, when the cruiser struck at least two mines while patrolling southward and westward off Licata. But despite two mine explosions, the damage was slight: the Brooklyn’s main pumps were flooded and she lost 30,000 gallons of fresh water, not to mention losing the ability to maneuver and avoid enemy air attacks. Radioman Briggs described the mine explosions in the following way: “I have never been so shaken up in my life as I was when we hit those mines! The ship shook and jumped so that one's teeth clicked together like castanets.”

But the luck of the Brooklyn held, and she could leave the Licata area next day. In July the Brooklyn became the flagship of Cruiser Division Eight’s Rear Admiral Lyal A. Davidson, and she went on to support the Anzio-Nettuno landings on the west coast of Italy on January 22, 1944 (Operation Shingle). She also provided naval gunfire support for Allied troops in the Formia-Anzio area between May 13 and May 23, and she finally supported the Allied landings on the south coast of France (Operation Dragoon) on August 15, 1944. The U.S.S. Brooklyn remained on duty in the Mediterranean during the fall of 1944, but in November it was time for the Brooklyn to be extensively overhauled and altered.

She left Sicily on November 21 and arrived at New York on November 30. The overhaul of the Brooklyn took place at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and work was completed in May 1945. Post-overhaul exercises took place along the eastern seaboard between May and September of 1945, and when these exercises were complete, the Second World War was over. Thus, the U.S.S. Brooklyn sailed to the Philadelphia Navy Yard for a pre-inactivation overhaul, being commissioned to reserve on January 30, 1946. She was de-commissioned on January 3, 1947.

However, the vessel still had a long career ahead of her. On January 9, 1951, the former U.S.S. Brooklyn was transferred to the Chilean Navy as part of the Mutual Defense Assistance Program. The cruiser was renamed O’Higgins after Bernardo O’Higgins Riquelme, arguably the most prominent leader of the Chilean War of Independence and subsequently the country’s first dictator. O’Higgins served under the Chilean flag for 40 years, and she was sold for scrap in 1992. Perhaps time eventually caught up with her, since she foundered and sank off Pitcairn Island while under tow to ship breakers in India.

The United States’ naval contribution to the war in the Mediterranean is often overlooked, but it was a long and grueling campaign that lasted until V-E Day. The U.S.S. Brooklyn took part in both the Mediterranean naval campaign and perilous Atlantic crossings while escorting convoys for almost three years before returning to the Brooklyn Navy Yards. For her service during World War Two, the U.S.S Brooklyn received four battle stars. 

There is little left today to remind us of the most recent warship bearing the name of our Borough, but the 303-pound ship’s bell of the U.S.S. Brooklyn is on prominent display at the Brooklyn College Library.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this post. My dear grandfather served aboard this ship in the Pacific campaign and I enjoyed reading about its history. I have a lot of memorabilia from this ship that he left behind.