On December 11, 1929, the Salt Lake City went into commission at the Philadelphia Navy Yard and became the pride of the fleet.
Her commissioning was a national event. She was the first major naval vessel to be commissioned in two years. She was a symptom that the nation was rousing from an optimistic dream world in which serious people believed that peace would last forever. Other nations had started intensive cruiser building programs, and the Salt Lake City was the first example of our answer that was to play an important part in the greatest war of history.
The Salt Lake City was built by the New York Shipbuilding Co. at Camden, NJ. She was ordered July 9, 1926, and her keel was laid June 9, 1927. The launching took place on January 23, 1929, with Miss Helen Budge of Salt Lake City, Utah, acting as sponsor and Miss Gaylie Rich as maid of honor. A sister ship, the Pensacola, had been ordered sixteen months before the Salt Lake City, but she was built at the New York Navy Yard and was not commissioned until two months after the Salt Lake City.
Commissioning ceremonies were simple. The flag was run up. Admiral Julian T. Latimer, USN, read the commissioning order. The Star Spangled Banner was played by the ship's band.
Capt. Fredrick L. Oliver, U.S.N., took command and addressed the crew. Mr. A. L. Mackenzie, representing Salt Lake City, Utah, presented a silver service, the city's gift to the ship, and the cruiser became a part of the United States Navy.
The ship was built under the limitations of the Washington Arms Conference, which sought to end war by limiting the size of weapons. Her 10,000 tons nudged the treaty maximum. Her eight inch guns were the largest allowed. Although later cruisers so outstripped the Salt Lake City in protection that she and the Pensacola were referred to as "tin clads", her light armor and compartmentation were hailed then as outstanding.
"The ten long range eight inch guns of the Salt Lake City and the Pensacola set them in a class by themselves as modern, high speed cruisers go," wrote one of the reporters who visited the ship shortly after her commissioning. "None of the other powers has in commission any vessels of this class with as powerful a main battery except Japan. Our two cruisers represent, probably, the finest balance of all requisite peace and wartime qualities of any vessels of their type now afloat and ready for sea. Everybody who loves ships can feel the beauty of the Salt Lake City's swift, graceful lines."
The original armament of the Salt Lake City consisted of her ten eight inch guns, four five inch 25 caliber dual purpose guns, two three-pound saluting guns and six 21-inch torpedo tubes in triple mounts.
Externally, she differed considerably from her present wartime appearance. The foremost was less cluttered, the mainmast was a tripod form. The forward five inch battery was not installed nor were the six 40 MM quadruple mounts and twenty 20 MM guns. Two torpedo tubes were on the main deck, on each side and just forward of the after stack. The extensive radar equipment, of course, was not to appear until the war years.
Inside, the ship was far less crowded. Her complement consisted of 538 enlisted men, half the wartime crew, and 30 officers, about a third the number carried during the war.
After the commissioning, the Salt Lake City made a shakedown and goodwill cruise to Brazil where her crew was royally entertained at Rio de Janeiro and at Bahia. She joined the scouting fleet March 31, 1930, at Guantanamo, Cuba.
The ship's favored position in the fleet became apparent the next spring, when she was selected to be the presidential reviewing vessel at fleet maneuvers. Thirty-five miles off the Virginia capes on May 20, 1930, President Herbert Hoover, the Secretary of the Navy, the Chief of Naval Operations and other dignitaries stood on the deck of the Salt Lake City and watched American naval might engaging in mock battle. It was the first time a President had ever reviewed three dimensional maneuvers--surface, air and submarine.
- See Pictures of Pres. Hoover & others on board the SLC
The size of the fleet reviewed, contrasted with the hundreds of vessels engaged in the late war, indicates wartime growth of the Navy. The fleet reviewed by President Hoover consisted of ten slow, cage-masted battleships, nine cruisers, thirty destroyers, two aircraft carriers, two submarines and the dirigible Los Angeles.
During the maneuvers, the Salt Lake City had her first "air attach", a playful zooming by planes from the Saratoga, a far cry from the startling Kamikaze attacks she was to undergo later.
In subsequent years, the Salt Lake City proved her leadership in the peacetime fleet competitions. She was first in engineering performance among Pacific Fleet heavy cruisers. She made the highest torpedo score ever made by a cruiser of the United States Navy and in 1933 her aviation unit won the highest merit for aircraft gunnery in the heavy cruiser class.
In sports, she was outstanding. Her crew contained the all-Navy wrestling champion and the wrestling and boxing champs of the scouting force. She won the general excellence athletic trophy for the year 1933-34, and her whaleboat crews were the best in the fleet. From 1931 to 1933, her whaleboaters scored the highest number of points in the scouting force. Her first enlistment crew was especially good. It lost only one race, and that by only two-fifths of a second.
THE ONE SHIP FLEET
7 December 1941 to 12 October 1942
"She is the oldest heavy cruiser in the U. S. Navy. So bare of streamlined beauty is her ungainly silhouette that correspondent Bob Casey (Torpedo Junction) fondly fastened the nickname 'Swayback Maru' on her when the censors would not let him reveal her real name. Because she never got hit hard enough to be sent home for repairs, she never got much publicity. But many a high-ranking Navy man willingly conceded by last week that on performance the Salt Lake City was the No. 1 U. S. cruiser of the war..".. From TIME, March 8, 1943.
- See TIME Magazine Article
When war came, the Salt Lake City was 200 miles west of Oahu, steaming back to the Hawaiians with a task group that had just delivered a dozen planes to a remote, sandy American outpost, Historic Wake Island.
By that quirk, the cruiser escaped the fiery hell of Pearl Harbor and was with the group that made the first independent American reprisal. The Enterprise carrier with that task group, launched planes which cut down some of the straggling Jap sneak attackers.
The task group refueled at smoldering Pearl Harbor, then patrolled the area near Oahu against a reappearance of the Japanese fleet. The next patrol duty, ten days later, was scheduled originally to provide relief for besieged Wake, but with the fall of that atoll, it was switched to cover reinforcement of Midway and then of far-off Samoa.
Then the Salt Lake City participated in the first American offensive action of the war. On February 1, 1942, a task group commanded by Rear Admiral Halsey, U.S.N., conducted an air and surface bombardment of Wotje atoll, one of the principal Jap bases in the mandated Marshall Islands. The Salt Lake City opened fire a few seconds before her fellow ships. The fact has never been officially established, but is probable that her missiles were the first American naval shells of the war to fall on Jap-held land.