President Coolidge, with his favorite cover aboard the Mayflower, 1925.
Authorized by two Congressional acts, one calling for eight vessels in December 1924 another sixteen (cruisers plus one carrier) in February 1929, the first ships built under the terms of the 1922 Washington Treaty, were constructed as a result of President Coolidge. He signed both bills into law not to renew an armaments race but to diffuse it, in order to leave the nation adequately defended when that day would come that parchment had failed and the discipline to remain at peace gave way to conflict again. No one could have known it would be a mere twelve years later that the attack on Pearl Harbor would unleash once more global war. While the first eight would be finished by 1930, only nine provided under the 1929 Cruiser Act would see completion. Together with the carrier, the first to be built as such from the keel up, these cruisers, provisioned under the 1929 Act approved by Coolidge, would be some of the most distinguished ships of the Second World War. It was the Coolidge Cruisers, and Coolidge Carrier, that saw every phase of operations in the Pacific and some of the pivotal events elsewhere, such as the Normandy landings and operations in the Mediterranean. Here is a look at each of these illustrious fighting ships, the nucleus of those which avoided destruction at Pearl Harbor and contributed mightily to pushing back the Japanese war machine and ultimately winning the war. It was Coolidge’s vision, a conviction that while no invincible force could ever be manufactured an adequate defense was essential to the preservation of American lives, property, and the Republic’s direct interests. Here they are, the seventeen Coolidge Cruisers and America’s first original carrier, with a particular look at where they were on that fateful day, 7 December 1941:
I. Pensacola Class: unique for its compact design, mixing a turret system (four total) usually paired with longer-hulled ships.
Armed with ten 8-inch guns in two triple turrets set above two twin turrets, she and her sister, USS Salt Lake City, were America’s first heavy cruisers. Pensacola was laid down October 1926 in New York Navy Yard and launched over a month after Coolidge left office. She was part of a convoy to Manila when Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941, valiantly supporting carrier Lexington at Coral Sea, Enterprise at Midway and helping to turn back Japanese momentum at Guadalcanal. Fighting at Tassafaronga, Wake Island, Leyte Gulf, Formosa, Saipan, Iwo Jima and Okinawa, she would perform her final service as target ship for Operation “Crossroads,” testing the atomic bomb at Bikini Atoll before being decommissioned in 1946.
Earned thirteen Battle Stars for service rendered during World War II
USS Salt Lake City (CA-25), was laid down on 9 June 1927 in Camden, New Jersey, launched 23 January 1929, in the final months of Coolidge’s Presidency. Beginning service with the Atlantic Fleet, she was transferred to the Pacific in 1932. Salt Lake City was coming back from Wake Island when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, escorting Enterprise some 200 miles west when they heard the news. She engaged retreating enemy submarines three days later and went on to screen and protect the carriers Hornet and Enterprise at the Marshall Islands then Yorktown and Lexington at Coral Sea. She was there throughout operations in the Solomon Islands, Aluetians, and Operation “Galvanic,” collaborating with her sister Pensacola at Wake Island before going on to the Battle of Philippine Sea, Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Sunk as a practice target for the atomic bomb, 25 May 1948.
Earned eleven Battle Stars
II. Northampton Class: added a forecastle deck for better movement through the water, especially rough seas, with three instead of the four turrets used by the Pensacola Class, allowing for greater space in the boiler rooms, increased aircraft space and compensating armor. The Class essentially set the standard for design and balance of speed with protective armor.
USS Northampton (CA-26), was laid down by Bethlehem Steel Corporation out of Quincy, Massachusetts on 12 April 1928. Launched in September 1929, it was sponsored by none other than Northampton’s own, Mrs. Grace Coolidge. In this way both Coolidges sponsored her creation. Northampton, escorting the carrier Enterprise through open sea when the Japanese attacked. Quickly joining the search for the enemy fleet, she screened Enterprise‘s maneuvers at Midway that halted the Japanese advance. Helped do the same at Guadalcanal for the Hornet and fought fiercely in the Battle of Santa Cruz Islands, Tassafaronga and successfully prevented the reinforcement of Japanese forces at Guadalcanal before being sunk on 1 December 1942. She may not have lived as long as some of the Coolidge Cruisers but she was effective with the time allotted her.
Earned six Battle Stars
USS Chester (CA-27), was launched on 3 July 1929 at Camden, New Jersey, the day before Coolidge’s birthday. She, too, was returning from Wake Island when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Patrolling Hawaiian waters in the following days, Chester went on to serve in support of landings at Samoa, raids on Taroa and operations throughout the Pacific theater all the way to Okinawa, helping to bring troops home with the end of the war. Decommissioned 1946.
Earned eleven Battle Stars
USS Louisville (CA-28), was launched 1 September 1930 from Puget Sound Navy Yard, Bremerton, Washington. On 7 December 1941, Louisville was escorting the liners A. T. Scott and President Coolidge to Pearl Harbor from East Borneo, arriving only to witness the damage and proceed to California. Its role in operations off Gilbert and Marshall Islands, the Aleutians, the Battle of Rennell Island, serving as convoy escort and in the push all the way to Okinawa, evacuating POWs and receiving the surrender of Japanese ships, made it all the more impressive that it was still going strong when decommissioned in 1946.
Earned thirteen Battle Stars
USS Chicago (CA-29), launched 10 April 1930 from Mare Island Navy Yard, was operating with Task Force 12 in the open Pacific when Pearl Harbor was attacked. Chicago joined in the five-day sweep of the ocean forming the Oahu-Johnston-Palmyra triangle in search of the Japanese. Afterward, she went with offensive operations in New Guinea and New Caledonia, supporting Yorktown in the Solomon Islands. Fighting in the Battle of Savo Island then at Rennell Island, Chicago was struck by enemy torpedoes, towed by sister ship, Louisville, only to be attacked and sunk by four more torpedoes on the way back to shore.
Earned three Battle Stars
USS Houston (CA-30), launched from Newport News, Virginia, 7 September 1929, was dispatched to resolve the boiling conflict between China and Japan, 1932. Pictured here during that time with the Asiatic Fleet, Houston was heading to Darwin, Australia from Panay Island when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. She went on to reinforce Timor, fight at the Battle of Java Sea and Banten Bay, engaging the enemy valiantly until sunk, the heroics of her officers and crew not known to the rest of the world until disclosed nine months later. She would earn a Presidential Unit Citation for her bold and tenacious actions.
Earned two Battle Stars
USS Augusta (CA-31), the fourth vessel by that name in the United States Navy, she was laid down on 2 July 1928 in Newport News, Virginia. Launched on 1 February 1930, she served with the Houston in the Asiatic Fleet, designated as the flagship. Augusta became the setting of more than one illustrious meeting, from that of FDR with Churchill in August 1941, carrying General Patton to North Africa in 1942, General Bradley to Normandy in 1944, screening FDR’s return from Yalta, to hosting President Truman, General Eisenhower and numerous other VIPs. As the Presidential flagship, three sitting or future Presidents came aboard its decks through the course of the war. Augusta too part in Operation “Torch,” opening Morocco to the Allied advance, escorted ships across sub-infested waters of the North Atlantic, downed a German plane and poured into shore defenses at Normandy, fought in the Mediterranean as part of Operation “Dragoon” and finally in “Magic Carpet” efforts, bringing servicemen home from Europe after war had ended. Put out of commission on 16 July 1946, the parts were sold for scrap to Robert Benjamin of Panama City, Florida.
Earned three Battle Stars
III. Portland Class, containing three cruisers, form the first of those authorized under the Act signed by President Coolidge in 1929. They followed essentially the design of the Northampton Class.
USS Portland (CA-33), pictured here decked out in tactical colors, became the first constructed with the authorization of President Coolidge under the Cruiser Act of 1929. She was laid down by Bethlehem Steel Company out of Quincy, 17 February 1930 and launched in May 1932. She was two days en route to Midway when Pearl Harbor was attacked on 7 December 1941. Her list of operations reads like a catalog of Pacific theater events: from the search for the Japanese fleet west of Hawaii to the Battles of Coral Sea, Midway, Eastern Solomons, Santa Cruz, Guadalcanal, and the campaigns in the Gilbert and Marshall Islands, the Philippines, Lingayen Gulf, Okinawa and receiving the surrender of Japanese forces at Truk Atoll. Portland completed her wartime work bringing six hundred servicemen home before being decommissioned in 1946.
Earned sixteen Battle Stars
USS Indianapolis (CA-35), was laid down in Camden, New Jersey on 31 March 1930, launched in November the following year and was commissioned in Philadelphia Navy Yard, 1932. She distinguished herself early as the President’s flagship for his “Good Neighbor” cruise of Central and South America. Indianapolis would become the flagship of the prestigious Fifth Fleet. Engaged in simulated bombing exercises to the southwest of the Hawaiian Islands when Pearl Harbor was attacked, she immediately joined in the hunt for the Japanese carriers responsible. She would go on to take the fight to the enemy, going deep into hostile waters more than once during the war, supporting amphibious landings from Tarawa to Saipan, shooting down an enemy plane at the Battle of Philippine Sea, participating in the first attack on Tokyo since Doolittle’s raids, serving as support for the landings at Iwo Jima, shelling beach defenses for seven straight days, shooting down six planes and helping to splash two others. Her final mission was the delivery of nuclear materials to be used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, racing five thousand miles in ten days from San Francisco to Tinian. Hit by two torpedoes upon her return, she was torn open and sank in twelve minutes on 30 July 1945. The crew drifted two days in open ocean before finally being discovered by random patrols on 2 August, clinging to life, fending off sharks and waiting for rescue. Tragically, only 316 were recovered from a total count of 1,199. Despite her misfortune, she stands among the greatest of the Coolidge cruisers for her fortitude and perseverance.
Earned ten Battle Stars
IV. New Orleans Class: The result of a more thorough overhaul of the extant design, implementing a more scientific approach to balancing protection with the same speed and armament abilities of the earlier Pensacola and Northampton classes. Those designs, especially conscientious about the 10,000 ton displacement limit, resulted in vessels severely underweight by as much as a thousand tons. The New Orleans Class corrected this with a heavier complement of armored plating where it would be most vulnerable, the transfer of the magazine below the waterline, and the development of “safety zones” where armor was allocated based upon the nature of a ship’s tactical use and range of a given caliber of shell fired against it. Indiscriminately applied armor failed to adequately prepare vessels for the situations and weaponry they would face, the New Orleans redesign was an effort to correct that in America’s cruisers. Coolidge ensured that process of innovation and improvement could proceed long after he was gone. The nation would be better equipped for it.
USS Astoria (CL-34), was laid down one year and seven months after the 1929 Act, 1 September 1930 in Puget Sound Navy Yard, Bremerton, Washington. Reclassified as a heavy cruiser in July 1931, she was launched in December 1933. Beginning service career with the Asiatic Fleet, Astoria was screening Lexington seven hundred miles west of Hawaii when the Japanese attacked there. Joined by her sister USS Indianapolis to seek and destroy in the days after the attack, she then took part in operations in New Guinea, throughout the South Pacific as a protector of Lexington, then Yorktown at Midway. After covering the landings at Guadalcanal, she took sixty-five hits at Savo Island before sinking at sea.
Earned three Battle Stars
USS New Orleans (CA-32), was laid down in New York Navy Yard on 14 March 1931 and launched on 12 April 1933. She was one of two Coolidge Cruisers to be “caught” at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked on the morning of 7 December 1941. After a desperate ten minutes under enemy assault, the entire anti-aircraft battery of New Orleans was in action against Japanese planes. She would survive that day to take part in each of the major offensives of the Pacific, from Coral Sea to Leyte Gulf to Mindoro, ending her career evacuating POWs and bringing them home. Decommissioned in 1947, she had protected carriers, hit her targets, supported landings and ensured ground success at Okinawa.
Earned sixteen Battle Stars
USS Minneapolis (CA-36), laid down in 27 June 1931 in Philadelphia, she was launched in 1933. Practicing its gunnery twenty miles from Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked, Minneapolis joined in the patrol for enemy carriers and would later fight at Coral Sea, Midway and, with especial success, at Tassafaronga, sinking two enemy ships. She would fight ferociously at Guam, Leyte Gulf and in the opening operations of Okinawa, sinking ships and downing aircraft more than once. Near the end of her wartime service, Minneapolis received the Japanese surrender of Korea from her deck. Finally decommissioned in 1947 after returning troops back to the United States from the Pacific, she had seen some of the hardest fighting and given much toward final victory.
Earned sixteen Battle Stars
USS Tuscaloosa (CA-37) laid down on 3 September 1931 in Camden, New Jersey, she was launched in November 1933. Tuscaloosa, with her sister ships San Francisco and Quincy, participated in the January 1939 goodwill tour of Latin America. By August, she was carrying the President to New Brunswick to watch naval exercises there, not the last tour of Central and South America nor with the President aboard. She would go on to encounter German vessels as part of the Neutrality Patrol, operating in the Atlantic in 1939-41. Sent in search of the Bismarck, May 1941, with shanghaied crews from sisters Quincy and Vincennes, she found nothing and returned to Neutrality enforcement until war was officially declared on 11 December 1941. Working together with the British Home Fleet, Tuscaloosa served to screen carriers and supply land forces throughout 1942. Sent to provide withering fire on enemy positions in Morocco’s Operation “Torch,” Tuscaloosa went on to collaborate with Coolidge Carrier, USS Ranger (CV-4), in the North Sea. Helping to secure the beachhead at Normandy with its relentless 8-inch guns, Tuscaloosa then went to French North Africa, as part of the bombardment of batteries entrenched along the coast. Finally dispatched to the Pacific, Tuscaloosa took part in the move on Iwo Jima and then Okinawa before joining the Seventh Fleet for missions in China, Korea and the Philippines. Deployed until January 1946, she would bring hundreds of personnel home with her before being retired from service that February.
Earned seven Battle Stars
USS San Francisco (CA-38), laid down at Mare Island Navy Yard, Vallejo, California on 9 September 1931, she was launched in March 1933. Beginning her career in the Pacific, she took part in the early tactical exercises called “Fleet Problems” in the 1930s. Anchored for extensive repairs at Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941, with all her weaponry dismantled and ammunition in storage, only small arms and two .30 caliber machine guns could be brought to bear against the onslaught of Japanese planes. By 0755 her crew was desperately seeking any means with which to fight back, some even crossing onto the New Orleans, employing her anti-aircraft guns. Rapidly repaired for active service, San Francisco was soon out in search and support missions. Shielding American units in the area, she was contributed heavily to the Guadalcanal offensive alongside sister Minneapolis and two other Coolidge Cruisers, Salt Lake City and Chester. For repelling the attack of three enemy ships, silencing a battleship, a cruiser, and a destroyer, she was recognized with the Presidential Unit Citation. Continuing through operations all the way to Okinawa, San Francisco closed her service in Korea, receiving surrender of Japanese forces there by late August 1945. Retired on the east coast, she was decommissioned early in 1946, having more than compensated for her vulnerability at Pearl Harbor. She is the most decorated of the seventeen Coolidge Cruisers. Courtesy of the Naval Historical Center.
Earned seventeen Battle Stars
USS Quincy (CA-39), was laid down by Bethlehem Shipping Corporation out of her namesake city, 15 November 1933, launching in 1935. Operating in the Atlantic for the next seven years, she finally transferred to the Pacific theater in order to assist with the upcoming Guadalcanal offensive. Having decimated an enemy oil depot and other sites vital to Japan’s war effort, she was caught during a patrol off Savo Island by a large Japanese fleet early on 9 August 1942. Taking countless hits, her guns disabled, she sank with the loss of 379 men to the ocean floor, the first to descend into what would become known as “Ironbottom Sound.” Sadly, she is the least fortunate of the Coolidge Cruisers.
Earned one Battle Star
USS Vincennes (CA-44), laid down by the Bethlehem Shipping Company in Quincy, Massachusetts, 2 January 1934, and launched in 1936, was the last of the cruisers authorized by President Coolidge under the 1929 Act. Maneuvering with the Neutrality Patrol off the coast of South Africa when she learned Pearl Harbor had been attacked and we were now at war, Vincennes completed her mission and returned to the States to outfit for war. Assigned to the Pacific, working in tandem with sister Astoria, she fought doggedly at Midway. At Guadalcanal, she preempted a counterstrike by the Japanese. Protecting the invasion landings on Savo Island, Vincennes and her sisters Astoria and Quincy, prepared for an imminent attack, and met one in the night. Spotlighted in the dark by the Japanese, she opened her batteries taking out the light, only to meet a torrent of fire from the enemy before she could escape. Vincennes was hit 57 times until dead in the water, unable to fire back, finally sinking 9 August 1942 at 500 fathoms depth. Officers and crew abandoned ship, watching a great lady leave the surface after a brief but effective record in the Pacific.
Earned two Battle Stars
USS Ranger (CV-4), named for the famous sloop that had been the first ship flying the American flag to be saluted back in 1778, CV-4 was the first built from the keel up as a carrier. In a real sense, Coolidge made this essential component of America’s navy possible when he approved the Cruiser Act. Laid down on 26 September 1931 in Newport News, Virginia, Ranger would be launched two years later and commissioned in 1934. She was returning from patrols in the Caribbean when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The largest carrier in the Atlantic Fleet at that time, she led the amphibious assault on French Morocco in 1942, launching 496 sorties over three days, forcing the enemy to capitulate before Allied pressure. Returning to home coasts, she patrolled the Atlantic seaboard until joined to the British Home Fleet, protecting the approaches to those islands. Taking the offensive to Germany’s back door, she waged war in Norwegian waters, successfully targeting convoys, tankers, merchant ships and transports. Winding down her wartime service, Ranger carried planes to Casablanca then personnel to the Pacific and finally brought essential training to both air and sea units operating out of the west coast. Working her way back to the east coast, she retired from the service over a year after the end of the war, October 1946.
Earned two Battle Stars
“Presenting him with twins,” by “Ding” Darling, The Des Moines Register, November 28, 1928. Despite the cartoonist’s not-so-veiled criticism at a perceived inconsistency between these twin policies advanced by Coolidge, Cal reminds us that peace and adequate defense go hand-in-hand. One does not undermine the other. To Coolidge, naval strength meant a responsible use of service to certain ideals, not merely projecting power around the world but being more than merely “naked force,” instead “an instrument of righteousness,” calling into “action the spiritual and moral forces of mankind.” As Coolidge put it another way, “I believe in the maintenance of an Army and Navy, not for aggression but for defense. Security and order are our most valuable possessions. They are cheap at any price. But I am opposed to every kind of military aggrandizement and to all forms of competitive armament.” Again, he says,”I am for peace and against aggressive war. I am opposed to warlike preparations. But I am in favor of an adequate Army and Navy to insure our citizens against any interference with domestic tranquility at home or any imposition abroad. It is only in peaceful conditions that there is a real hope of progress.” Cartoon courtesy of the Ding Darling Foundation.
For further reading, see John Jordan’s Warships After Washington: The Development of the Five Major Fleets 1922-1930. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2011; John T. Kuehn’s Agents of Innovation: The General Board and the Design of the Fleet That Defeated the Japanese Navy. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2008; and Leo Marriot’s Treaty Cruisers: The First International Warship Building Competition. Barnsley: Maritime, 2005.