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