USS Wichita (CA-45)

USS Wichita (CA-45) was the last heavy cruiser to be produced for the US Navy before the outbreak of the Second World War, and the last to be restricted by the interwar naval treaties. She served with the British Home Fleet and took part in Operation Torch, the battle of Rennell Island, the Aleutian campaign, the invasions of the Marshall and Mariana Islands, and the battles of the Philippine Sea, Leyte Gulf and Okinawa. Wichita was awarded 13 battle stars for her World War II service.

In 1929 the US Navy had adopted an ambitious plan to produce fifteen 8in cruisers, five in Financial Year 1929 (FY29), five in FY30 and five in FY31. This would have given the navy a total of twenty three 8in cruisers, but the 1930 London Naval Treaty restricted the US to eighteen 8in cruisers and also placed limits on construction in any particular year.

Most of the treaty cruisers were of a similar design. This originated with the Pensacola class heavy cruisers, built under the restrictions of the 1921 Washington Naval Treaty. This allowed the construction of an unlimited number of ships under 10,000 tons standard displacement and armed with 8in or smaller guns. The Pensacola class ships carried ten 8in guns and were quite weakly armoured. They were followed by six ships of the Northampton class, with nine 8in guns, improved lines and hangers for their aircraft.

In 1929 the US Navy introduced a plan to construct fifteen new cruisers. An original plan to build some as repeat Northampton class ships was abandoned when it became clear how underweight they were. Instead the first batch of five was split between two Portland class cruisers and the first three New Orleans class ships (New Orleans CA32, Astoria CA34 and Minneapolis CA36. The construction programme was then hit by the London Naval Treaty, which limited the United States to eighteen 18in cruisers. The 1929 plan would have produced twenty-one 18in cruisers, and so in response to the treaty three of the second batch of five were built as New Orleans class cruisers, but the remaining two were built as Brooklyn class light cruisers, as were three of the last batch of five.

This left space for two heavy cruisers. CA-44 was laid down in 1934 as the New Orleans class cruiser USS Vincennes. The final heavy cruiser was laid down in 1935, but in March 1934 the Navy decided to build this on the basis of the Brooklyn design, which was considered to have better lines, a better layout of heavy AA guns and improved storage for the aircraft.

By time these ships were completed the US had six Northampton class cruisers, two Portland class cruisers, seven New Orleans class cruisers and the Wichita. This was a total of only sixteen heavy cruisers, the Navy having decided to focus on the Brooklyn class light cruisers instead.

Design

The Brooklyn class ships were considered to be a better design than the line of heavy cruisers than ended with the New Orleans class cruisers. They had been designed to use the new 1.1in anti-aircraft gun. One result of this was that the aircraft were moved from a position in the middle of the ship to the tail. A fantail was installed, with the crane at the rear. The anti-aircraft guns could then be installed amidships. The aircraft were stored in a hanger below the quarterdeck. As well as clearing space this made the cruisers less vulnerable to fires caused by aviation fuel - any fires that did break out would be in a less important part of the ship. The Brooklyn class ships also had better lines than the heavy cruisers, so handled better at sea, and carried more fuel, increasing their range.

The decision was made to build CA-45 to a new design based on the Brooklyn class ships. The new design was delayed by attempts to solve a problem with the triple 8in guns - there was too much dispersion of shot between the three guns. The eventual solution was to increase the gap between the gun barrels to reduce interference between them. In order to fit the wider turret the barbette was given a conical top, expanding out from its normal size lower down in the ship.

Secondary armament was provided by the new 5in/38 Mk 12 gun. This was a better gun than the 5in/25 used on older cruisers, but was also heavier and so the Wichita was given eight guns in single mountings instead of the double mountings normally used when the gun was installed on battleships and aircraft carriers. At first only six were installed, but the last two were added in 1939.

When the ship was first built she only had eight .50in anti-aircraft guns, the new 1.1in guns being in very short supply.

The new ship had a similar internal arrangement to the Brooklyn class cruisers, with six boilers installed ahead of the turbines. Power was about the same as on the Brooklyn or New Orleans classes.

The Wichita was better armoured than the New Orleans class ships. The main belt was 6in thick, reducing to 4in at the ends. The armoured deck was 2.25in thick. The turret barbettes had 7in of armour, the conning tower 6in. The end bulkheads were 6in thick. She carried a total of 1,437 tons of armour. In contrast the New Orleans class had 4in thick belt armour and 5in barbette armour.

Modifications

The first modification was the installation of two quad 1.1in anti-aircraft gun mountings in the summer of 1941. At the same time her first radar set was installed.

The .50in machine guns were soon replaced with single 20mm guns, and by 1944 she carried twenty two of these guns.

In late 1943 she had a three month long overhaul. This saw the forward superstructure reduced in size and weight. At some point the 1.1in guns had been replaced by quad 40mm mountings, and during this refit two more 40mm quad mountings were added, along with two twin 40mm mountings. This gave her sixteen 40mm guns in quad mountings and four in twin mountings. In order to save weight the number of 20mm guns was reduced to eighteen.

Towards the end of the war another two twin 40mm mountings were added at the stern to increase her ability to cope with kamikaze attacks.

1939-1941 Service

The Wichita was laid down in October 1935, launched in November 1937 and commissioned on 16 February 1939. Her shakedown cruiser took her to the Virgin Islands, Cuba and the Bahamas. After this cruise she returned to port for the normal post-shakedown cruiser repairs and modifications, and these weren't quite complete when the Second World War broke out in September 1939.

USS Truxtun (DD-229), 1934, Panama Canal Zone
USS Truxtun (DD-229), 1934, Panama Canal Zone

The Wichita was ready for service by the end of the month and joined Cruiser Division 7 in the Atlantic Squadron. Her first combat patrol saw her replace the Vincennes on Neutrality Patrol duties for six days in early October. In December she was sent to the Caribbean, where she became the flagship of the new Caribbean Patrol (Wichita, Vincennes, the destroyers Borie (DD-215), Broome (DD-210), Lawrence (DD-250), King (DD-242), and Truxtun (DD-229) and two squadrons of patrol aircraft. In late January she moved from Cuba to become the flagship of a new Antilles Detachment (with Vincennes and a destroyer squadron). She returned to US home waters in March and remained there until she was sent on a goodwill cruise of South American waters in June-September 1940. This was followed by a three month spell as a training ship.

At the start of January 1941 she returned to Cuba and she remained in the Caribbean until March. In April-May she operated in the North Atlantic, getting to within 800 miles of Ireland.

In July-August 1941 the United States replaced British troops on Iceland (Operation Indigo II). The Wichitatook part in the original occupation, then in September was allocated to Task Force 16, a more sizable fleet that was to be based at Iceland. This included the carrier Wasp (CV-7), the battleship Mississippi, and four destroyers. Wichita was anchored at Hvalfjordur when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour.

1942  

Within days of the Japanese attack Hitler declared war on the United States. The detachment at Iceland was now free to take an active part in the Battle of the Atlantic. Wichita's first effort was a patrol in the Denmark Strait in early January. She was then damaged in a bad storm and in early February had to return to New York for repairs.

In March the Wichita was assigned to a task force that was being created to support the British Home Fleet. This force included the Wasp and the battleship Washington(BB-56) and was commanded by Rear Admiral John W. Wilcox Jr. Wilcox was lost at sea during the Atlantic crossing and succeeded by Admiral Robert C. "Ike" Giffen. The Wichita served as his flagship.

At the start of April the American task force reached Scapa Flow and joined the Home Fleet. Wichita's first task during this period was to escort Convoys QP-11 and PQ-15 on the Murmansk route. She then returned to Iceland, before joining the escort for Convoys PQ-17 and QP-12 towards the end of May. In June she was back on patrol in the Denmark Strait.

At the end of June she joined the Cruiser Covering Force protecting Convoy PQ-17. On 3 July a message suggesting that the Tirpitz was at sea was intercepted and the Admiralty decided to order the convoy to scatter. This left the merchant ships isolated and defenceless and they suffered very heavy losses at the hands of German aircraft and U-boats. The Tirpitz and her group never got involved in the battle. Wichita was ordered west, and was back at Iceland by 8 July.

A problem was now detected with propeller vibration at speeds over 20 knots. An attempt to fix the problem in the UK failed and in August the Wichita returned to New York for repairs.

After these repairs the Wichita was allocated to TG 34.1 (Rear Admiral H. Kent Hewitt), part of the fleet allocated to Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa. She departed for North Africa on 24 October, escorting one of the invasion convoys across the Atlantic.

On 8 November Wichita had the task of taking out the French gun batteries at Point El Hank and Table d'Aukasha. She prepared to attack at 6.23am, after it was clear that the French were going to resist the landings, and opened fire on El Hank at 7.06am. By 7.23 the French guns appeared to have been neutralised. She then fired on French submarines at Casablanca, then the Table d'Aukasha guns. Her next targets were French destroyers and the cruiser Primauguet. At 11.28 she was hit herself, by a 194mm shell fired from El Hank. This hit wounded 14 and caused light damage. The French fleet took an active part in the battle, and at 11.39 the Wichita had to avoid two submarines. Later in the day she once again opened fire on the Primauguet, preventing her from leaving the harbour. This largely ended her role in Operation Torch, and on 12 November she set sail for the US.

1943

At the start of 1943 the Wichita was moved to the Pacific Theatre. She arrived in time to take part in the battle of Rennell Island (29-30 January 1943), a Japanese victory in which aircraft sank the heavy cruiser USS Chicago (CA-29). The Wichitawas also hit by a torpedo during this battle, but it was a dud.

Soon after this the Wichita was ordered north to join the fleet operating in the Aleutian Islands. She was the flagship of TG 52.10 on her way north, then moved to TG 16.14 (three cruisers and four destroyers) for a sweep west of Attu in late April. She then became flagship of TG 16.7 and took part in the invasion of Attu of May 1943. She took part in the bombardment of Kiska on 22 July, but then returned to the United States for a three month long refit that lasted into December 1943.

1944

In January 1944 the Wichita was assigned to TG 58.3 for the invasion of the Marshall Islands. Her role was to provide part of the screen for the carriers (Bunker Hill CV-17 and two light carriers). On 29 January the carriers attack Kwajalein and on 30-31 January they hit Eniwetok.

Om February she was with TG 58.2 during a major attack on Truk. In the aftermath of this attack the Japanese damaged the carrier Intrepid (CV-11). The Wichita was assigned to TU 58.2.4, a temporary force created to escort the carrier back to safety.

In March the Wichita became the flagship of CruDiv 6. She supported the carriers as they attacked Yap, Woleali and the Palau Islands late in the month. In April she escorted the carriers as they attacked the Japanese on New Guinea. At the end of April the carriers attacks Truk again. After the air attack the Wichita was part of a cruiser force that carried out a shore bombardment of Satawan in the Caroline Islands.

In May-June she took part in the invasion of the Mariana Islands. On 14-15 June she carried out a shore bombardment of Saipan. On 16 June she hit Guam. She was then posted to the west of the Mariana Islands as part of a screen designed to watch out for the sizable Japanese carrier force known to be heading towards the area. This triggered the last major carrier battle of the war in the Pacific - the battle of the Philippines Sea (19-20 June 1944). On 19 June she was part of the anti-aircraft screen that took most of the sting out of the Japanese attack, claiming assists in the destruction of two 'Kates'. After the naval battle was over she returned to shore bombardment duties, hitting targets on Guam into mid-August.

In September she formed part of the escort for the carriers as they raided the Palaus, Carolines, Dutch East Indies and the Philippines. In mid-September she supported the invasion of Morotai in the Dutch East Indies. September ended with a raid on the Philippines

At the start of October she supported the carriers during a raid on Okinawa, followed by attacks on Luzon and then Formosa. The Japanese responded to this attack with a series of heavy air attacks on the fleet (battle off Formosa, 12-16 October 1944), in which they suffered very heavy losses, greatly weakening their ability to defend the Philippines. However on the night of 13 October they did badly damage the cruiser USS Canberra (CA-70). Wichita was given the task of towing the damaged cruiser to safety. On 14 October the Japanese also hit the Houston (CL-81), forcing the Americans to take her under tow. This group became known as 'Cripple Division', and played a part in the Japanese defeat. On 15 October the Japanese suffered heavy losses while attacking this division, and it also helped convince them that they had inflicted heavy losses on the Americans.

Wichita was detached from 'cripple division' in time to join TF 34 (Admiral Lee's battleships) during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. This task force was part of the fleet that Admiral Halsey ordered north to intercept the oncoming Japanese fleet carriers, and fought in the Battle of Cape Engano. The Japanese lost four carriers during this battle, but they had achieved their main aim, which was to draw the American fleet away from the landing beaches. Wichita played a part in the sinking of the carrier Chiyoda, which had been badly damaged by aircraft. A little later the cruisers found the Japanese destroyer Hatsuzuki and helped sink her.

The Wichita returned to Leyte to support the invasion, but in November damage to one of the propeller shafts was discovered. She had to return fairly slowly to the United States for repair. 

1945

The Wichita was ready to return to the fleet in February. She joined TF 54 at Ulithi on 20 March, and formed part of TU 54.2.23 during the invasion of Okinawa. On 25 March she supported some minesweepers. On 26 March she shelled Okinawa between 13.50 and 16.30. On 27 March she shot down a Japanese aircraft, than continued with shore bombardment duties. On 29 March she was one of the first ships to be replenished at Kerama Retto, a small island that had been captured with that in mind.

On 1 April, the day of the invasion, the Wichita provided heavy supporting fire for the troops landing on the southern beaches. She spent the rest of April providing fire support. She was hit twice during this period. On 27 April a small shell damaged a fuel oil tank below the water line. On 12 May she was accidently hit by an American 5in shell during a heavy air raid. Soon after this she returned to Leyte for a brief rest.

From mid-June to the end of the war the Wichita protected mine sweepers based to the west of Okinawa, and she was at sea when the Japanese surrendered.

Post-War Career

On 11 September the Wichita reached Nagasaki, where she formed part of the US occupation forces. After two months in Japanese waters she left for the United States as part of the Magic Carpet programme, returning military personnel home. She reached San Francisco on 24 November.  She was then altered to increase the number of men she could carry. Her second Magic-Carpet trip took her to Saipan, returning to the US on 12 January 1946.

This ended her period of active service. She was placed in the reserve fleet in July 1946, decommissioned in February 1947 and struck off the Navy List in March 1959. She was sold for scrap on 14 August 1959.

Displacement (standard

10,589t

Displacement (loaded)

13,015t

Top Speed

15kts

Range

10,000nm

Armour – belt

4-6in over 0.63in STS

 - deck

2.25in

 - barbettes

7in

 - turrets

8in face
2.75in roof
3.75in side
1.5in rear

 - conning tower

6in (2.25in roof)

Length

608ft 4in

Armaments

Nine 8in/55 guns
Eight 5in/38 guns
Eight 0.5in guns
Four aircraft

Crew complement

929

Launched

16 November 1937

Completed

16 February 1939

Broken up

November 1959

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (13 January 2015), USS Wichita (CA-45) , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_USS_Wichita_CA45.html

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