This feature article appeared May 17th, 1948 in the Milwaukee Journal. It was illustrated with a picture of the cruiser and two cartoons reproduced from the ship's history. Contributed to the USS SLC Website by
Veteran, James O'Hara
They're taking the old Swayback Maru out and sinking her. And that's more than the Japs could ever do!
The news of her fate was in the newspapers a week or so ago. The item said:
Vallejo, CA. --- AP --- The heavy cruiser Salt Lake City, radioactive from her role in the Bikini Atomic Bomb Test, will be sunk this month, according to officials of the Mare Island Navy Yard.
This news item, to anyone who ever knew the old girl, is grossly inadequate. The Salt Lake City was not the best ship in the world. She was a cantankerous, rough riding, flea bitten, left handed old rust pot, with a past, but no future.
Any of the 1,100 men aboard would have told you that. But they might have poked you in the nose if you agreed. She looked like something the cat dragged in. She was as glamorous as a middling beautiful warthog. She was as luxurious as a garbage truck. Public acclaim passed her by. But she could fight, brother, she could fight.
Just to put the thing in focus, here's what she did:
She fired the first American shells to land on Jap held soil. In one battle, she accounted for two Jap heavy cruisers, a light cruiser, a destroyer and an auxiliary vessel. She got the destroyer in a single salvo. She fought in the longest naval duel ever staged by American ships and in standing off twice her own weight, may have saved the invasion of Attu.
She engaged in 91 days of bombardment in a period of 101 days, probably a world record. And she was, without doubt, the only modern ship whose steering wheel fell off twice in battle.
Proved Her Mettle at Savo Island
Her surface fights were dandies. In the first American surface bombardment --- that of Wotje atoll --- her guns had been the first to speak, but it was off Savo Island, where heat lightning ran lurid across a midnight sky, that she really proved her mettle.
That was the grim time of the struggle on Guadalcanal, when Japan's Tokyo Express ran to supply her warriors and American success hinged on stopping it.
It was Oct. 11, 1942. The Swayback and the other good ships were out that night, looking for Japs. They ran into them in the blackness off Savo and there followed as clawing a mix-up as ever infested a seaman's nightmare. The battle revolved around the Boise, a gallant light cruiser, stricken almost to death by the guns of an enemy heavy.
The Swayback saved her, steaming between her and the Jap. It was at point blank range, and the Swayback's ungainly bulk was silhouetted for the enemy by the flames of the Boise. But the Swayback fired first. After that the Jap was never able to fire at all.
Outnumbered by Japs, 2 to 1
When they counted the toll of the battle, they notched up this for the Salt Lake City. Two heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, one destroyer, one auxiliary. The Boise went back to Philadelphia and got a deserved hero's welcome. The Salt Lake City --- she was hurt too --- went quietly to Pearl Harbor.
If her first surface fight was a classic, her second was an epic. It took place March 26th, 1943, off the Komandorskie Islands, in the gray swells of the icy Bering Sea.
The Japs were on Attu and the Americans wanted Attu, so they were out to cut off Jap reinforcements. The Swayback was on the prowl with an infinitesimal task force --- an old light cruiser and half a dozen destroyers. They ran into the Japs in the half light of early dawn, and they found them to their sorrow. For the Japs had two heavies, two lights and more destroyers --- a force almost exactly twice as big as the American.
The brunt of the battle fell on the heavies. In Naval warfare the chances of success in combat are equal, not to the numbers engaged, but to the square of those numbers. This gave the Salt Lake City a tidy one in four chance of survival. It looked like suicide .... and that's what it should have been.
For three hours and 42 minutes ---- the longest ship duel in American history --- the two Jap vessels and the Salt Lake City blazed away at each other. The Salt Lake City was hit and badly damaged. Her engineers worked in shoulder deep water. A few minutes before the battle ended, she lay motionless, with water pouring in and contaminating her oil.
But she had given more than she had taken. All her guns were shooting. On one of the Jap heavies, only one turret was in operation. On the other, little brown sailors were fighting fires. One of the two lights was damaged.
The American destroyers charged gallantly into the maw of the enemy guns. There was a salvo of torpedoes and the Jap convoy turned back licked, its belly full of fighting.
The Swayback went back to San Francisco that time, but the invasion of Attu was imminent and details of the battle, for a long time, were suppressed.
Return to Battle of the Komandorski Island Index
Looked Like A Tipsy Dowager
To a man who came aboard later, it was odd to think that the Salt Lake City had once been a bulwark against the rising tide of Japan. That tide was receding. America had put out newer, sleeker ships and the Swayback --- now 14 years old --- was fast becoming antediluvian. Her towering tripod foremast had become outmoded. At the end of the war, it was the only one on any active cruiser in the fleet.
Somewhere, she had picked up a perpetual list, which gave her the look of a tipsy dowager. People who viewed her in shocked awe for the first time confessed later they expected her to hiccup.
She picked up tons of water. Her gear was old, her look shopworn. In the "passion pit" where ensigns lived their hodgepodge lives, there was whispered doubt as to whether her watertight doors were really watertight. The crew said that a seaman chipping paint had driven his hammer right through one rested outside plate. And the legend started that the Swayback kept afloat only because the cockroaches formed a ring around her hull and held hands.
One new engineer came aboard, fresh from the States and full of "book-learning". It took seven cups of the lethal wardroom coffee to restore him to speech after his first inspection trip.
"My God," he said. But the Swayback made her 30 knots in the second battle of the Philippines.
Her duty at that time was mostly of the type known as detached. With her fellow cruisers, the Chester and the Pensacola, almost equally old, and a handful of destroyers, she prowled the waters north of Saipan. To its unimpressed denizens, the task force was known as the "junkyard flotilla" and the quip was that it was kept away from the newer ships of the fleet because sight of it would ruin their morale. The admiral in command was known as "the mad mariner of the Mariners."
The force raided Iwo Jima and ran from a Jap air attack. It did the same thing again. In fact, it did it so often that the crew talked of getting in touch with the mikado? about a contract to carry the Iwo Jima mail.
By way of variety it raided Chichi Jima, 350 miles from Tokyo Bay, the closest that American surface vessels without air cover had been to the mainland of Japan.
When the Wheel Fell Off
On one of those raids the steering wheel, loosened by the jar of the firing, fell off. The helmsman held it up in his two hands. And he turned to the captain with deference.
"Sir," he said, "what do I do with this now?"
"Switch steering to auxiliary steering aft," ordered the sweating Captain.
The crew fell into a certain nonchalance about combat. At Saipan the officer of the deck accepted a line from a tanker and started fueling while an air attack was going on at an island two miles away.
During one bombardment some genius of the commissary discovered caviar left over from a gala in San Francisco a year before. Officers off duty munched it in the wardroom while the guns roared.
Off Okinawa, Poncho Miller, the boss of the lookouts, reported calmly, "Jap Betty (a bombing plane) is directly overhead."
"Signal it to keep going," was the reply.
For the Swayback was at Okinawa and she was in on the fall of Iwo Jima too. She stayed 25 days at Iwo, bombarding continuously, as long as any major bombardment ship. And 10 days later --- six of them
had been spent in traveling --- she was at Okinawa.
She stayed there 66 days. Her task was not nearly as dangerous as that of the heroic little vessels who went on radar patrol up Amami O Shima way. But it was uninterrupted drudgery, heightened by a remark by the admiral.
He was down to one ship then, for the Chester had been in a collision off Iwo Jima and the Japs had beaten up the Pensacola badly. The high brass at Okinawa had a plan for keeping the Jap suicide boats bottled up at night in Naha Harbor.
"I can do it better," said the admiral, in effect.
"You go do it" said the high brass.
So the routine was bombard by day and bombard by night and all hands to battle stations, there's a Jap air attack coming in. Men worked until their eyes and their brains became exhausted. And the only fun aboard was the trick that was being played on Alley Oop.
Alley was a senior officer who, by force of personality, had won a following of fanatical dislike. Men caught their sleep those days when they could --- all but Alley Oop. There was a five inch gun just outside his cabin, and when he sneaked in for a short nap, the word was passed quietly and the men on that gun went to work in unholy glee.
Now... the bark of a five inch gun 10 feet away is something no man can sleep through, unless that man be dead. It fetched Alley Oop bolt upright and swearing.
There was rejoicing aboard the Swayback when the trick reached its climax and the unfortunate man fell asleep at breakfast, with his face in his scrambled eggs.
At Iwo Jima and Okinawa, the Swayback fired 29,770 eight inch and five inch shells, in addition to the lighter stuff she tossed at Kamikazes.
She went away at last with a single destroyer escort. The whiplash from the firing had so cracked the antenna of her air search radar that whole areas of sky could not be surveyed, the rifling on her five inch guns was so worn that the guns couldn't twist a star shell enough to set it off.
The Unfailing Luck of the Swayback
A Jap plane spotted her off Formosa. Six could have sunk her, or maybe four, for her worn anti-aircraft's couldn't have hit the continent of North America. But nothing happened. The Swayback was a lucky ship.
At Marcus Island, a Jap battery had got her range and straddled her seven times, one shell falling just short, the other screaming over. Spray from one shell splashed her main deck, but nothing touched her.
Once at Iwo Jima she went fast aground. But the Japs failed to fire while she was helpless. Her closest call at Iwo was from the shell of an American battleship that missed the low part of the island and exploded so close to the Swayback that a fragment struck her above the bridge.
Off Kerama Retto she went through a Jap minefield at night with an air raid going on. At Okinawa, Kamikazes twice took out the next ship in line and coastal batteries sand another, but they never scratched her. In the China sea she brushed a floating mine, but it was a dud.
So she lived todays of peace and she helped occupy Japan. Then she got her reward, in a modified way, going back on Navy Day to be acclaimed by the residents of Astoria, OR.
And on the peacetime voyage home the luck of the Swayback almost ran out. She lurched across the ocean in heavy seas in the wake of a typhoon. At the mouth of the Columbia River, within sight of the land she had helped defend, a freak wave smashed her and rolled her 47 degrees off horizontal. She escaped capsizing by a terrifyingly small margin --- just eight degrees.
The Swayback was selected --- what else could you do with such junk? --- for the Bikini Atom Bomb Test.
Nobody who had been aboard would have given you a Chinese dollar for her chances. But she rode the waves that the bomb set up the way a duck rides over a ripple.
Now they are taking her out to sink her in the blue, clean water. Fish will play through the portholes of State Room 102, where
Lt. Wayne C. "Painless" McCall and Lt. James Nelson Liskey told such magnificent lies. They will swim through the haven of "the boys' choir of turret 3" which sang the Christmas hymns at Iwo Jima.
Sea creatures will crawl over the floor of the battle cabin of Mitch the Twitch and around the spot on the hull where Pem Gordon fell in. The waters will close over her and she'll be forgotten. But some of us will be sad at her going.
Donald C. Trenary, Lt.