The approach of Memorial Day evokes different memories for different people. For Gordon Crane, Kamiah, his years on the USS Salt Lake City come to mind.
A cruiser built in 1927, she was a vital part of the US war effort in the Pacific following the bombing of Pearl Harbor--and a part of Crane's life for almost two years. He went aboard the ship in Mar. of 1942 as a fuse-pot loader on the 5" open mounts. However, Crane says he didn't like the noise, so transferred to B Division, otherwise known as the fire or boiler room, trading noise for insufferable heat.
The USS Salt Lake was spared destruction during the Pearl Harbor bombing for one reason: it was out of port, heading back to the Hawaiian Islands with a task force that had just delivered a dozen planes to historic Wake Island. consequently, the ship's normal duties as escort ship were altered for the remainder of the war.
Assigned to escort troops and ships, the Salt Lake City, like her sister ship the Pensacola, was named one of the most powerful boats (apart from the battle wagons) in the Navy. Equipped as an attack ship for hit and run maneuvers, she packed 10 guns.
Her gun crew claimed a 3.9 peach time average, hitting an average nine out of 10 targets at 28 miles away. One of the few strong ships remaining, she often found herself in battles for which she was not designed and was often used for "softening up" enemy islands in preparation for the main attack.
Crane recalls one adventure referred to as the "Tokyo Express." "It was like a sea hunt," he says.
In an effort to stop the Japanese from claiming the sea lanes as their own, a task group was assigned to "derail the Express." The USS Salt Lake City was along and, in the heat of battle, claimed an enemy light cruiser, heavy cruiser, auxiliary ship, and a destroyer.
In turn, she sustained three major caliber hits and lost five men with 21 wounded. From then on, the fight men of the Pacific referred to her as the "one ship fleet."
Prior to this, the USS Salt Lake was involved in one of the most famous attacks in the war's history: Doolittle's 30 second raid over Tokyo. Just weeks after Crane signed on board, the Essex, Enterprise, Wasp, and Hornet left port along with the Salt Lake serving as escort.
En-route to Japan, the fleet ran into a Japanese sampan about 500 miles out. Though it claimed it was simply a fishing boat, US servicemen suspected it was actually a Japanese gunner in disguise. but they couldn't prove it until the sampan made the mistake of opening radio contact with the Japanese, reporting the fleet's position. It was the last radio contact the little ship ever made.
American ships remained too far off shore for crewmen to see the actual raid, but Crane has vivid memories of watching the planes take off from the Hornet...something experts said couldn't be done.
The boost to morale this war venture provided did not soften the intensities of war that were to follow. On Sept. 15, crewmen of the Salt Lake City witnessed a grim attack on the Wasp. She took eight torpedoes in her side and lay helpless in the water--but still afloat. The Japanese claimed credit for sinking her, a report Crane claims is untrue.
As he recalls, the Wasp was damaged beyond any hope of repair. So to keep the Japanese from getting her, the US was sent in after dark to finish her off.
"This was kept secret till after the war," notes Crane
He recalls another encounter which came to be known as the Battle of Komandorski. The Japanese were forming a line of destroyers along the Aleutians, boasting that soon their troops would be fighting on the soil of the American continent itself.
Nonetheless, the task force of which the Salt Lake City was a part had a fairly routine mission: to prevent supplies and reinforcements from reaching Japanese garrisons.
"We got up to clear weather, the water as smooth as the top of a mirror," he recalls.
But the crew never got the big breakfast they were promised that morning because a huge Japanese battlewagon appeared on the horizon. "Planes spotted 8 troop carriers behind it," added Crane.
When the final figures were tallied, however, it was found the complete Japanese task force was comprised of two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and six destroyers--a group twice as powerful as the American group it was bearing down upon.
According to Crane, the Richmond, equipped with "pea shooters", took two American destroyers and left for help, never to be seen again until the three hour and 42 minute battle was over.
After the American's initial run, the Japanese positioned themselves between the US Ships and their home port at Adak. The fleet was on their own. No air support. Planes were icing up at Adak and couldn't get off the ground at Dutch Harbor due to a snow storm.
Three hours into the battle, after some of the most intense fighting in wartime history, the Salt Lake lay dead in the water. Due to a smoke screen put up by an American destroyer, however, the Japanese were unaware their #1 opponent had become a sitting duck. They perceived it as a trick. Meanwhile, troops aboard the Salt Lake were trying to plug holes with anything available and managed to shift the fuel supply so uncontaminated oil could be fed to the cruiser's power plant.
At noon, the cruiser was making 15 knots. About the same time, a torpedo fired in desperation from a US Destroyer found its mark and threw the Japanese into a frenzy. They circled wildly, then headed west.
The Salt Lake City, though badly crippled, managed to hook onto one of their disabled destroyers and tow it back to port.
At the end of the longest sea engagement in the Navy to that date, the US task force lost two men and 13 wounded.
Cranes years aboard the Salt Lake also included three months serving as escort and support around Australia, another spot the Japanese intended to invade. He recalls that thick jungles created extra hazards for American forces, and cost the first Marine division.
Crane returned to the Pacific on a trip to Hawaii three years ago. He noted a drastic change due to so many condominiums; diamond Head is nearly covered up. And he recalled that the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, now a lush tourist resort, used to "dock" troops for a dollar a night and 15 cents a meal.
Times change. the USS Salt Lake City is no more. She was relegated to a watery grave at the hand of the US military at Bikini atoll years ago. But the memories of those who served on board her live on.