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“Our steel ships too, are served by iron men”

April 8, 2011

Port broadside view of the USS Birmingham (CL-62)

The USS Birmingham (CL-62) was a Cleveland-class light cruiser which saw action in the Mediterranean and the Pacific during World War II. In addition to 24 large guns and a crew of 1,200 men, the “Mighty B” carried with her the well-wishes and patriotic fervor of Birmingham’s industrious citizens.

Hattie Green, Mayor Cooper Green’s first lady, traveled to Newport News, Virginia to christen the Birmingham’s bow on January 29, 1943. Over the next 28 months CL-62 saw action in two theaters of war, taking damage from torpedoes, aerial bombs, nearby explosions, and a kamikaze attack. Local citizens were kept apprised of the ship’s rough-and- tumble career in dispatches printed in the Birmingham News and Birmingham Age-Herald.

After a “shakedown cruise”, the Birmingham, under the command of John Wilkes, cruised to the Mediterranean to provide long-range gun support during “Operation Husky”, the U.S. Marines’ invasion of Sicily. During that invasion General Patton’s command advanced beyond its supply train. The Birmingham answered the call for supplies and delivered 2,000 SPAM™ sandwiches to army quartermasters on shore via whaleboat.

Its European mission complete, the Birmingham returned across the Atlantic, navigated the Panama Canal, and, under command of its new captain, Thomas Inglis, bee-lined for Pearl Harbor to join the Pacific Fleet. She was assigned to a carrier task force that assisted in raids on Tarawa, Wake Island, and the Battle of Empress Augusta Bay.

One stormy evening while the Birmingham was providing cover fire for a Marine landing force, she came under enemy fighter attack. Gunners on the Birmingham brought down a few enemy craft and suffered only minimal casualties, but the ship was damaged by two torpedoes and a dropped bomb. The next morning the Birmingham began a 5,000-mile trek to California for repairs. During the trip a deck vent was opened to relieve pressure from water entering the torpedo holes. The resulting geyser was dubbed “Old Faithful” by the crew.

The patched-up Birmingham next took part on the Battles of Saipan, the Philippine Sea, Tinian, Guam, and the Philippine Island raids of September 1944. She joined raids on Okinawa, Luzon and Formosa in October and was part of the Battle of Leyte Gulf on October 24.

Crewmen fight fires on the deck of the USS Princeton

During that last battle, the Birmingham and three destroyers left the fleet to assist the crippled carrier USS Princeton. The Birmingham pulled along side the carrier to aim hoses at deck fires. Before it could be extinguished, the last fire reached the carrier’s magazine. The explosion tore through the larger ship and shrapnel ripped across the side of the Birmingham, instantly killing 229 crewmen and injuring 420 more. The ceremonies for the dead who were buried at sea lasted for hours on end. Captain Inglis praised his men for not falling prey to “confusion or hysteria” and for their “selfless devotion to duty, ship and shipmates.” He concluded his report with the reassuring words that “Our steel ships too, are served by iron men.”

Back at Mare Island for repairs, the Birmingham was out of commission through the holidays and rejoined the Pacific Fleet in January 1945. The cruiser supported the Battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. One day, despite the pilot’s ejection, a lone Japanese kamikaze plane, laden with a 500-pound bomb, succeeded in reaching the starboard deck. Fifty crewmen were killed in the explosion. The ship limped back to Pearl Harbor and was just returning to service with the 5th Fleet when news of Japan’s surrender arrived.

The Birmingham, described as one of the navy’s “fightingest” ships, received eight battle stars for combat service. She was kept in reserve at San Diego for 12 years before finally being sold for scrap in 1959. Surviving crewmen from the Birmingham still meet for an annual reunion. The 8-foot-long waterline model at the Birmingham History Center is on loan from the United States Navy. The model is installed in a custom-designed exhibit case with related artifacts and informational displays.

Detail of the waterline model of the USS Birmingham

 

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Kevin Wymond permalink
    February 1, 2017 5:48 am

    My Father served abourd This mighty ship! His Name Was John Henry Wymond! He did not talk to much about what he did! But it makes me wonder why Great men Like my Dad .My Brother Joined at at a time when men were burning their Draft Cards John J.Wymond served! And 10 years later I joined! We the people of this Great Country Can never forget What the Men and Women gave so much for us all! KP Wymond.

    Like

  2. Scott Mitchell permalink
    February 17, 2014 12:20 am

    My grandfater was a surgeons mate from 1944-1945. A doctor told my gradfather to take a cigarette break moments before an explosion from a kamikaze wiped up everyone in the oeprating room. He also assisted in the rescue from the USS PSrinceton. 60 years later my dad has lunch with our pastor, only to find out that our pastor’s father was one of the men rescued on the Princeton by the Birmingham. I’m filled with pride to learn about what my grandfather and that crew went through.

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  3. Paul Fite permalink
    December 1, 2012 11:03 am

    My dad served on the Birmingham. He just turned 90. He talks about having to cot covers for the dead after the Princeton episode and having to collect body parts on a blood slippery deck.

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  4. Dez permalink
    April 14, 2011 9:20 am

    For a fascinating account of the World War II career of the USS Birmingham by its Captain, Thomas Inglis go to http://www.researcheratlarge.com/Ships/CL62/MightyB.html.

    It includes a detailed account of the ships valiant attempt to rescue the USS Princeton during the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

    During the invasion of Saipan, Captain Inglis logged the following as a typical half-hour period.

    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.

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  5. Dez permalink
    April 14, 2011 8:58 am

    I bet they would not get half of the $420,000. However, we could offer to throw in the case, it would make an interested conversation piece in a family living room or den.

    I am fascinated by the fact that the veterans of the USS Birmingham still meet for an annual reunion. Most of the survivors must be in their 80s or 90s by now. I wonder if they have ever met in Birmingham or would be interested in doing so?

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  6. April 12, 2011 7:23 pm

    I’d like to see the Navy put it on eBay and see if they get $420,000.

    Like

  7. Dez permalink
    April 12, 2011 9:08 am

    The story of how the USS Birmingham model got here is long, involved and predates my appearance on the scene by several years. Since we were dealing with the U.S. Navy, the paperwork ended up being 3 large, 3 inch thick files. At one point, the Navy would not give us a loan agreement until we had transport insurance to bring the model the 8 miles from the Southern Museum of Flight. The insurance company, in a Catch 22 moment, then would not give us transport insurance until we had a loan agreement from the Navy. In addition, since the Navy claims that the model is valued at $420,000, we were required to keep insurance at or above that level. We then had the additional problem of building a case for the 14 foot long model that would make it fairly simple to move the model in and out of the case for cleaning. Our solution was an ingenious platform on rollers in a plexi case that eventually ended up costing about $11,000.

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