Friday, December 12, 2014

Remembering USS San Diego at Christmastime

USS San Diego as Pacific Fleet flagship before the American entry into the war.  Note the Christmas tree on her forecastle. (NavSource Online. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Collection of Thomas P. Naughton, 1973)

United States Ship San Diego was the only large man-of-war lost by the United States Navy in World War One. 
USS San Diego was first commissioned as USS California on August 1, 1907. (NavSource Online/ Collection of Darryl Baker) 
San Diego was one of the Pennsylvania-class cruisers and displaced approximately 15,000 tons fully outfitted.  Her main batteries were comprised of four 8-inch rifles and between twelve to fourteen 6-inch rapid fire guns.  Along with twenty-two 3 inch guns and various other secondary armaments, the ship was outfitted with two 18-inch submerged torpedo tubes.  She also wore a belt of armor six inches thick and up to nine inches thick in the conning tower.  On September 1, 1914, she was renamed San Diego in order for her name to be given to a new, larger vessel.

California sailed as part of President Roosevelt’s “Great White Fleet” during the Pacific Ocean portion of the voyage. (NavSource Online)

San Diego photographed from an airplane in San Diego harbor, California. (Naval Historical Center photograph. Collection of Thomas P. Naughton, 1973)
On July 29, 1917, three months after the United States declared war on Germany, San Diego entered the Atlantic Ocean bound for Hampton Roads. She briefly served as the flagship for Cruiser Force, Atlantic Fleet, and on August 19, 1917, Captain Harley H. Christy was given command.  San Diego held a perfect record with all the ships she was assigned to escort through the submarine-infested North Atlantic without mishaps.

On the morning of July 19, 1918, she was bound from the Portsmouth Naval Yard to New York where it was to undertake yet another convoy escort voyage.  Many of the Sailors on board, wanting to take advantage of their limited time in New York, had already changed into their liberty uniforms.  Sometime around 10am, a lookout aboard the ship spotted what was believed to be a periscope in the water.  The gun crews quickly responded by firing at the object until it was no longer observed.  This marked the first time San Diego fired her guns at a suspected enemy force.

The cruiser continued to steam toward New York making approximately 15 knots in a zig-zag style pattern when at 11:05 am the ship was rocked by a massive explosion on the port side.  Capt. Christy was in the wheel house when hit and assumed the ship had been torpedoed.  He sounded the ship to quarters and ordered gun crews to fire on anything resembling a periscope in the water.  Twenty-two year old Sailor George F. Jarrett recalled, “After we were hit there was a great outburst of firing.  Every gun on the boat began to shoot at targets in the water, in case there might be a submarine.  There was a constant rattle of shots for several minutes.  I saw a barrel blown to pieces, but do not know whether the sub was hit or not.” 

Crew members abandon USS San Diego after striking a mine believed to be from the German submarine U-156 off Fire Island, New York, on July 19, 1918. (Painting by Francis Muller, Naval Historical Center Photograph, courtesy of the Navy Art Collection, Washington, DC.)

Capt. Christy ordered the ship to shoal water immediately, however the blast had disabled both engines and the areas below the water line were rapidly filling with water.  Approximately ten minutes after striking the mine, the ship began to list to port.  The captain issued the order to abandon ship with the exception of the gun crews who stayed in position to continue to engage any suspected enemy submarines.  The larger boat cranes were non-operational due to failed electrical winches.  The life rafts, whale boats, and dinghies were launched by hand.  These, along with mess tables, benches, hammocks, and lumber, comprised the floating equipment upon which the crew abandoned ship. 

The officers and men left the ship in expert order while the gun crews continued to engage targets until the list on the ship was such that the starboard guns were pointing up into the air and the port guns were below the water line and rapidly flooding.  The crews fired an additional 20 to 30 shots at mysterious targets in the ocean until they too were forced to abandon the ship at their captain’s orders.  True to naval traditions, Capt. Christy remained on board the ship until the end and was reportedly the last person into the water.  The cruiser is reported to have floated bottom-up briefly before slipping beneath the sea. 

George Dewey Neal, serving on board
San Diego when it sank, recounted his ordeal once the ship sank.  “There were not enough life rafts so some had to hold on to the rafts.  We were in the water some four hours when a freighter came by and picked us up.  They carried us to New York where we were put on a battle ship.  We went from there to Norfolk, VA.  I was in Norfolk when the Armistice was signed.” 

Initial reports of the sinking of
San Diego by the New York Times estimated “probably 40 lives lost.”  The official Navy investigation, however, concluded that only six sailors were killed and three to six more injured.  Three sailors were killed immediately upon the explosion.  C.E. Sims was on the bridge when the explosion occurred and later recalled the following, “…the smokestacks broke loose, one of them fatally crushing a sailor in the water.  Another crew member died when a life raft fell on his head.  A sixth sailor drowned after becoming trapped inside the crow’s nest.”

U-155, like U-156, was a large-cargo-carrying submarine before the war and was pressed into service with the Kaiserliche Marine in February 1917.  Unlike U-156, she survived the war and is seen here on display in London after the German surrender in 1918. (Wikipedia) 
The official Naval Court of Inquiry concluded that the sinking of San Diego had been caused by an external mine, probably laid by the German U-Boat U-156.  The U-boat is credited with sinking 36 vessels in the Atlantic before she succumbed to the same fate as San Diego.  The submarine is assumed to have struck a mine and went down with all hands somewhere between Scotland and Norway.  

San Diego is currently a popular dive site as she rests just 11 miles from Fire Island inlet, Long Island, New York in approximately 115 feet of water.  The cruiser rests upside down and many of the 3-inch guns can still be seen protruding from their mounts, just as the gunners left them in 1918. 

Pencil drawing of USS San Diego as she appears today off Fire Island, New York ( 
Story by Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator Joseph Miechle. 

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