Naval History/USS Wichita CA-45


USS Wichita CA-45

Wichita

(CA-45: dp. 10,000; 1. 608'4", b. 61'9", dr. 19'10" (mean); s. 32.5 k. (max.); cpl. 929; a. 9 8", 8 5",8 .50-car. mg.; cl. Wichita)

The first Wichita ( CA-45) was laid down on 28 October 1935 at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, launched on 16 November 1937; sponsored by Mrs. William F. Weigester, the daughter of the Honorable W. A. Ayres, chairman of the Federal Trade Commission; and commissioned on 16 February 1939, Capt. Thaddeus A. Thomson in command.

After fitting-out, Wichita sailed south for the Gulf of Mexico and arrived at Houston, Tex., on 20 April to take part in a dedicatory and memorial service at the San Jacinto Battle Monument and War Relic Museum. Ten days later, she received a silver service from representatives of the city government of Wichita Kansas, the cruiser's namesake city. After leaving Houston on 1 May, Wichita conducted her shakedown cruise, visiting the Virgin Islands, Cuba, and the Bahamas before she returned north to her builder's yard for post-shakedown repairs.

She was still undergoing availability when war broke out in Poland on 1 September 1939. Less than a month later, on the 25th, Wichita reported for duty to the Commander in Chief, United States Fleet and was assigned to Cruiser Division (CruDiv) 7, Atlantic Squadron. She accordingly departed Philadelphia bound for the Virginia capes, and reached Hampton Roads two days later.

Wichita departed Hampton Roads on 4 October and relieved Vincennes (CA-44) on Neutrality Patrol that day. She remained at sea until the 9th, when she returned to Hampton Roads. She then shifted to the Norfolk Navy Yard on the 12th and underwent repairs there until 1 December.

Three days later, Wichita got underway for Cuba and arrived at Guantanamo Bay on the 8th. Upon her arrival there, her commanding officer, Capt. Thomson, assumed command of the newly formed Caribbean Patrol which included: Wichita and Vincennes, the flush deck destroyers Borie (DD-215), Broome (DD-210) Lawrence (DD-250), King (DD-242), and Truztun (DD-229) and patrol plane (VP) squadrons VP-33 and VP-5i. All units were based upon Guantanamo Bay or San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Over the ensuing weeks, Wichita and her consorts of the Caribbean Patrol exercised out of Guantanamo Bay. Four days before Christmas, the heavy cruiser departed Cuban waters bound for Puerto Rico and reached San Juan two days later. She then visited St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, briefly on 28 and 29 December 1939 before returning to San Juan and remaining there until 2 January 1940.

Arriving back at Guantanamo Bay on the 3d, Wichita exercised locally from 8 to 24 January and then departed Cuban waters as flagship of the newly constituted Antilles Detachment, which also included Vincennes and Destroyer Squadron (DesRon) 10. Two days later, the force separated, with Wichita and Destroyer Division (DesDiv) 82 visiting Willemstad Curacso, Netherlands West Indies from 26 to 30 January before getting underway to rendezvous with Vincennes and her group of destroyers on 31 January, en route back to Puerto Rican waters.

Wichita conducted exercises in the Guantanamo, Culebra, Puerto Rico, area through late February, when she sailed for Hampton Roads. She arrived at Norfolk on 4 March and spent five days before moving north to Philadelphia, where she remained a fortnight. After returning to Norfolk at the end of March, Wichita then operated out of Hampton Roads on exereises well into the spring.

In June, however, the heavy cruiser drew the assignment of "showing the flag" in South American waters to counter Cerman propaganda in some of America's "good neighbors" to the south. As early as mid-May 1940, while the Germans were executing their devastating blitzkrieg against the Low Countries and Franee, Edwin C. Wilson, the United States Minister to Uruguay, had reported from Montevideo of an upsurge in Nazi propaganda. The State Department and the President himself eame to share Wilson's concern over the German effort to extend its influenee into the western hemisphere.

Quincy ( CA-39) was the first ship dispatched to Uruguay's capital city, Montevideo, reaching that port on 20 June to a tumultuous reception. Ten days later, Wichita—with Rear Admiral A. C. Pickens, Commander, CruDiv 7 embarked—joined Quincy there after stopping at Rio de Janeiro en route.

The influence of those heuvy cruisers, ". . . to furnish a reminder of the strength and the range of action of the armed forces of the United States . . ." continued when Wichita and Quincy sailed on 3 July. They visited Rio Grande de Sol; Santos; Rio de Janeiro; Bahia, and Pernambuco, Brazil, before they returned to Montevideo on 23 August. The ships then "showed the flag" at Buenos Aires, Argentina, and at Rio de Janeiro again before they returned to Hampton Roads on 22 September.

Wichita stayed at Norfolk for a week before she proceeded to New York City, arriving there on 30 September. During the next three months, Wichita served as a training ship for Naval Reserve midshipmen of the V-7 reserve program and conducted gunnery practices, primarily in the vicinity of the Southern Drill Grounds off the Virginia capes.

The heavy cruiser departed Hampton Roads on 7 January 1941, bound for Cuban waters, reaching Guantanamo four days later. During the next two and onehalf months, Wichita participated in fleet maneuvers in the Caribbean and took part in practice amphibious landings at Puerto Rico. During that time, the ship called at Portland Bight, Jamaica; Culebra; Guayanilla, Fajardo Roads, and Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, before she arrived at the New York Navy Yard on 23 March.

Wichita sailed for Bermuda on 6 April and reached her destination two days later. Subsequently, in company with Tuscaloosa (CA-37), Wichita operated in the North Atlantic, sailing to within 800 miles of Ireland, she then returned to the New York Navy Yard on 17 May and went into drydock on 21 June.

After finishing that period of repairs on 2 July, Wichita shifted to Newport, R.I., whence she sortied on 27 July and headed for Iceland in the van of Task Force (TF) 16 as part of Operation "Indigo II," the occupation of that strategic island. She arrived at ReykJavik on 6 August but returned to Newport on the 20th. She then shifted to Casco Bay, Maine, from 25 to 27 August before she sailed for Newfoundland reaching Placentia Bay soon thereafter for a month long stay. American planners, however, fearing a German response to the United States' increasing role in the Battle of the Atlantic, meanwhile authorized the movement of a task force to Iceland, to base there and sweep into the Denmark Strait. As part of this movement, Wichita set sail for Ieelandie waters on 23 September—in company with Wasp (CV-7), Mississippi (BB-41), Vulcan (AR-5), and four destroyers—and arrived at Reykjavik on 28 September.

Two days prior to Wichita's arrival, the ships of the Atlantic Fleet received orders to protect all ships engaged in commerce in United States defensive waters. The Navy was authorized to patrol, cover, escort, and report or destroy any German or Italian naval forces encountered. This action came within a week of the first United States Navy-escorted convoy eastbound to Great Britain and within two weeks of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "shoot-on-sight" orders authorizing American naval units to attack any vessel threatening United States shipping or shipping under American escort.

Wichita—as part of Task Group (TG) 7.5 (nicknamed the "White Patrol" )—remained engaged in patrol operations in Icelandic waters through the end of the fateful year 1941, and the ship lay at anchor at Hvalfjordur, Iceland, when the Japanese attack upon Pearl Harbor plunged the United States into World War II on 7 December 1941.

Wichita got underway on 5 January 1942 and made a refresher training and raider sweep into the Denmark Strait before returning to HvalfJordur on the 10th. Five days later, a hurricane-force storm, with gusts up to 100 knots, hit Iceland. Wichita rode out the storm well until the seaplane tender Albemarle (AV-5) began to drag her anchors in the gale, as did the nearby merchantman SS West Nohno. Wichita maneuvered to avoid Albemarle, but West Nohno fouled the heavy cruiser's anchor cable and struck her side against Wichita's bow. Later Wichita collided with a British trawler, before she ran aground at 1641 on an even keel. The cruiser then spent the rest of the night where she was, in the wind, sleet, and rain that resulted in reduced visibility conditions.

The next day, Wichita took stock of her condition. Investigation disclosed minor damage from the collisions, some leakage, and "repairable" damage to hull and stem from grounding. After effceting temporary repairs, Wichita sailed for the New York Navy Yard and arrived there on 9 February.

After repairs and alterations at the yard, Wichita sailed for Newport, R.I., on the 26th, touching briefly there before moving on to Boston the following day. Shifting from thence to Caseo Bay "Base Sail," Maine the heavy cruiser exercised in those waters until 1; March, when she sailed for Boston for ammunition but returned to Casco Bay soon thereafter.

Wichita was then assigned to a task force formed around Wasp and Washington (BB-56), the group coming under the command of Rear Admiral John W. Wilcox, Jr., embarked in the latter. Wichita sortied on 26 March, slated to report to Commander, Naval

Forces, Europe, for duty, in company with Wasp Washington Tuscaloosa, and eight destroyers. The next day, tee force ran into heavy weather, during which time Admiral Wilcox was washed overboard from his flagship. Despite an intensive search, none of the ships recovered the missing flag officer. Command of the task force thus devolved upon Rear Admiral Bobert C. "Ike" Giffen, who flew his flag in Wichita.

On 3 April, Wichita's task force rendezvoused with three British light cruisers, HMS Edinburgh, HMS Gambia, and HMS Frobisher. Eldinburgh then guided the American ships into Scapa Flow their new base of operations, arriving there on the 4tL. Over the weeks that ensued, Wichita exercised out of Seapa Flow with units of the British Fleet.

The heavy cruiser, her training and indoctrination with the Royal Navy completed, subsequently put to sea on 28 April to cover the movement of Convoys QP11 and PQ 15—ships sailing to and coming from the vital lend-lease port of Murmansk. Evidence of German activity soon appeared in the form of reports of shadowing aircraft and lurking U boats. Moreover there were problems on the Allied side. On 1 May 1942 the British battleship, HMS King George V, rammed and sank the destroyer HMS Punjab), necessitating the former's returning to port for repairs. Her place was taken by sistership HMS Duke of York.

After the force had completed its coverage of QP-11, it returned toward Seidisfjord, Ieeland. The men-ofwar from the United States Navy of the mixed Ameriean-British force were detached and put into HvalfJordur where they arrived on 6 May.

Following almost a week in port, Wichita got underway on the 12th and relieved Tuscaloosa on patrol in Denmark Strait, between Ieeland and Greenland. A week later, she returned to Hvalfjordur only to put to sea as part of a joint American-British covering force protecting one leg of the movement of Murmanskbound Convoy PQ-16 and eastbound QP-12 before returning to Seapa Flow, her mission accomplished, on the 29th. While at that port, King George VI inspected Wichita and other ships of the task force, ineluding Washington, on 7 June.

Underway for HvalfJordur on the 12th and arriving on the 14th, Wichita relieved the heavy cruiser HMS Cumberland on "White Patrol" in Denmark Strait soon thereafter. While on patrol on the 17th, Wichita spotted a Focke-Wulf (FW) 200 "Condor," a fourengined maritime reconnaissance and bomber aircraft, and opened fire, driving off the snooper. Three days later, the heavy cruiser scared off another FW-200.

Enemy activity near the Murmansk convoy routes and in Denmark Strait area did not let up over ensuing days. On the 21st, Wichita sighted a submarine periscope and took evasive action—no attack was forthcoming, though, and the cruiser soon resumed her patrolling. The next day, she spotted her third "Condor" but did not fire.

Wichita then proceeded to Hvalfjordur and steamed thence to Seidisfjordur at the end of June. Underway from the latter port on the 30th to cover Convoy PQ-17, the warship sortied as part of the "Cruiser Covering Force" ( Wichitu with three other heavy cruisers and a trio of destroyers). Other support forces included two battleships, a carrier, one heavy and one light cruiser apiece, and nine additional destroyers.

The convoy itself was a large one—36 merchantmen (laden with a variety of war cargo consigned to the Russians under lend-lease) and one "CAM-ship" (a catapult-equipped merchantman with one "Hurricane" fighter for local convoy defense). Unfortunately, an ordeal lay ahead of these Allied ships.

By 1 July, it was evident that the Germans had detected this movement of shipping since directionfinder bearings indicated increasing U-boat activity to the east. One intercepted German message actually told of the convoy's being spotted. Wichita sailors noted
that the weather was becoming foul. Visibility was poor; ceilings never rose above 200 feet and sometimes closed down completely.

At 2340 on 2 July, German aircraft—long-range "Condors"—radioed the position of the convoy as it headed through the wintry seas toward Russia. The next day, an intercepted message revealed that the Germans were dispatching a strong surface force—built around the vaunted battleship Tirpitz, the sistership to the late Bismarck—to intercept the convoy. Early in the afternoon, photo reconnaissance of Trondheim (Norway) harbor, confirmed that Tirpitz, the heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper, and four destroyers were at sea.

U-boats and "Condors" consistently shadowed the ships of PQ-17—an ominous portent. On 4 July, Independence Day, Wichita launched two Curtiss SOC Seagull floatplanes, each armed with depth charges, to reconnoiter the fringes of the convoy and attack the shadowing U-boats. The planes returned at 1645 having sighted no enemy submarines but having tangled with some of the enemy's scouting planes.

The feared attneks finally materialized later that day—25 Heinkel (HE) 111 bombers, armed with torpedoes, swarmed against the starboard side of the convoy: three ships took "fish"—they were later abandoned and sunk, one ship had already been torpedoed the previous night. The situation, however, would not get better.

The presence of German heavy units—Tirpitz and Admiral Hipper with their screen—at sea forced the convoy to change course. At 1923, the convoy received the fateful message: "Owing to threats from surface ships, PQ-17 is to disperse and proceed Russian ports." That order sealed the fate of most of the merchantmen. At 1936, the Admiralty message came through: "Convoy is to scatter."

The pell-mell rush to Murmansk was on, unhelped by the covering force, for on the heels of the orders to "scatter" came the dispatch to the cruiser force at 1944: "Withdraw to westward at high speed." Obeying, Wichita and the others came about and, at 2025 on the 4th, increased to 25 knots. The next day while south of Spitzbergen, the ships were spotted anl shadowed by a pair of FW-200's. Both Wichita and Tuscaloosa opened fire with their antiaircraft guns, but the elusive "Condors" slipped away.

Wichita joined up with the rest of the Fleet on 6 July and proceeded thence to Hvalfjordur, arriving two days later. Within a week, the heavy cruiser again became a flagship, this time for Rear Admiral Giffen once more, for TF 99. Underway for Scapa Flow on the 19th, the ship arrived on the 21st, only to set out the next day for the Admiralty dockyard at Rosyth, Scotland. Arriving on the 23d, Wichita was drydocked for repairs on the 24th and remained there until 9 August.

However, the repairs to correct a propeller vibration appeared to be ineffective as the naval attache in London radioed on 12 August that the ship's combat efficicney was seriously lessened at speeds in excess of 20 knots. Accordingly, two days later, Wichita received orders to head, via Hvalfjordur, for the United States. As she returned homeward, the cruiser was complimented on her "smartness and efficiency" by Admiral John C. Tovey, Commander in Chief, Home Fleet, who visited the ship prior to her departure and addressed her crew.

After a quick stop at HvalfJordur, Wichita reached New York on 22 August and entered drydock at the New York Navy Yard the same day. Undocked on 5 September, the heavy cruiser underwent post-repair trials before moving down to Hampton Roads within a week. She conducted gunnery exercises in Chesapeake Bay; visited Baltimore from 24 to 28 September; and returned to the Virginia capes operating area to resume exercises and training.

Underway for Casco Bay on 5 October, she reached her destination on the 6th. She then loaded ammunition at Boston and returned to Caseo Bay for exercises which lasted into late October, when the cruiser was assigned to TG 34.1. Commanding the task group was Rear Admiral H. Kent Hewitt in Augusta (CA-31). Other ships included the new battleship Massachusetts (BB-59), Tuscaloosa, Cruiser Division 8, and Destroyer Squadrons 8 and 11. Underway on 24 October, Wichita set course for North African waters, screening the passage of the invasion convoy slated to earry out Operation "Torch."

On the day of the initial assault, 8 November 1942 Wichita went to general quarters at 0540, tasked with neutralizing French shore batteries at Point El Hank and Table d'Aukasha and French warships in Casablanea harbor. Beeause of the unknown attitude of the French forces toward the landings, Wichita and the other ships were ordered not to open fire "unless and until hostile intent" was indicated.

However, the French decided to resist; and they proved stubborn. Ordered to attack at 0623, Wichita stood toward the North African coast, her spotting planes—Curtiss SOC's—airborne to spot her fall of shot. French fighters—possibly Dewoitine 520's or Ameriean-built Curtiss Hawk 75's—attacked the "Seagulls," and one had to make a forced landing. Its crew was picked up by one of the heavy cruiser's escorts.

At 0704, the guns of the French battleship Jean Bart boomed from Casablanea harbor, as did the ones emplaced at El Hank. Although moored to a pier and still incomplete, Jean Bart paeked a powerful "punch" with her main battery. Massachusette subsequently opened fire in return at 0705; and Tuscaloosa did so shortly thereafter.

Wichita's 8-inch battery crashed out at 0706, aimed at El Hank. Cheeking fire at 0723 when her spotting planes informed her that the French guns appeared to be silenced, the heavy cruiser shifted her 8-inch rifles in the direction of French submarines in Casablanca harbor. Subsequently eheeking fire at 0740, Wichita began blasting the French guns at Table d'Aukasha shortly before 0800

After resumption of firing on French shipping in Casablanca's harbor, Wichita received orders at 0835 to cease fire. At 0919, however, she opened fire again— this time directing her guns at French destroyers in harbor and at the light cruiser Primauguet. Later, at 1128 Wichita came within range of the French battery at El Hank, and the Vichy gunners scored a hit on the American cruiser. A 194-millimeter shell hit her port side, passed into the second deck near the mainmast, and detonated in a living compartment. Fragments injured 14 men—none seriously—and the resulting fires were quickly extinguished by Wichita's damage control parties.

Torpedoes from a Vichy French submarine caused Wichita to take evasive action at 1139. Two "fish" went by a length ahead of the ship, and another passed deep under the bow or slightly ahead. After ceasing fire at 1142, Wichita received orders an hour later to attack French ships making for the harbor entrance at Casablanca. Accordingly, the heavy cruiser—aided by improved visibility and air spotting—again battered Primauguet, starting fieree fires that gutted a large part of that ship. At 1505, Wichita ceased fire; and her guns remained quiet for the rest of the day. That evening, she steamed seaward to avoid nocturnal submarine attacks and, over the ensuing days, patrolled offshore between Casablanea and Fedhala. Ordered to return to the United States, her task with "Torch" completed, Wichita sailed for Hampton Roads on 12 November. Diverted to New York while en route, she reached her revised destination on the 19th for repairs.