Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Call Sign Thunder: Last of the All-Gun Cruisers

USS Newport News (CA 148) at sea in September 1951, roughly a decade before her extensive modernization into a flagship for the 2nd Fleet. (National Archives and Records Administration, 80-G-442188 via Naval History and Heritage Command Photo Curator/ Flickr)
By M.C. Farrington
HRNM Historian

When USS Newport News (CA 148) was commissioned on January 29, 1949, the war that brought her into existence, the Second World War, had been over for over three years, but the next major conflict for the United States Navy, the Cold War, was in its infancy. The second of three Des Moines-class heavy cruisers to be commissioned (of nine originally ordered), Newport News ultimately served longer than her sister ships through the thick of the Cold War at Sea, from the Cuban Missile Crisis to the Vietnam War.

A roughly 15 foot-long model of the heavy cruiser USS Newport News (CA 148) dominates the War at Sea area of the new exhibit, The Ten Thousand-Day War at Sea: The US Navy in Vietnam, 1950-1975, which opened in October 2019. The display also features the heavy cruiser's name plate. (M.C. Farrington)  
Newport News was the 18th and last cruiser constructed at Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company, the sprawling shipyard on the banks of the James River, but the battle to name her for the city that the shipyard called home began long before construction began in November 1945. On April 17, 1944, the Peninsula Chamber of Commerce started a petition drive to give the as-yet unnamed vessel the name Newport News, which quickly reached 40,000 signatures. Five days later, a telegram was sent to Navy Secretary Frank Knox requesting Navy Department approval. Less than a week later, however, Knox died, and the decision fell to his successor, James Forrestal. The day of her launching, March 6, 1947, was the birthday of former shipyard president Homer L. Ferguson. It was proclaimed “Newport News Cruiser Day” by Newport News Mayor R. Cowles Taylor, whose wife Elise served as sponsor, and a crowd of 20,000 braved heavy weather to witness the commissioning at Newport News Shipbuilding.

The Name Board of USS Newport News currently on display above the model at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum. (Naval History and Heritage Command 1991-167-A)
Newport News, measuring in at 716 feet, 6 inches in length and displacing 21,500 tons fully loaded, was larger and heavier than any of the battleships of the Great White Fleet four decades before, yet she was a bit smaller than the 887 foot-long Iowa-class battleships that were her contemporaries. When delivered, she was equipped with nine 8-inch/ 55 caliber rapid-fire guns, 12 5-inch/ 38 caliber guns, 24 3-inch/ 50 caliber guns, and 12 20mm antiaircraft guns. This is the configuration shown on the 15 foot, two-inch-long model currently in the HRNM gallery, but the majority of the 3-inch and 20mm guns were removed after her first decade in service.

From its 8-inch rapid fire and 5-inch guns and their fire control systems right down to stanchions, deck gear and boat booms, the Des Moines-class cruiser model depicting USS Newport News (CA 148) is rich in detail.  (M.C. Farrington)
The aft main deck of the model complete with 3-inch/ 50 caliber gun mounts in gun tubs on either side of the fantail. The model also features an aircraft crane similar to those also found on battleships, but by the time the Des Moines-class cruisers were entering the fleet in the late-1940s, there was no necessity to carry floatplanes and the steam catapults they required for launching. (M.C. Farrington
The 5-inch gun turrets ahead of and on either side of the bridge remained for the cruiser's service life, yet most  of the 20mm antiaircraft guns mounted around the decks were removed during the first decade after commissioning.  The superstructure aft of the bridge of Newport News was expanded for flag staff and communications spaces between 1961 and 1962. (M.C. Farrington)
The model's starboard side amidships showing 3-inch mounts on either side of a stowed 26-foot motor whale boat. Note the small fire control tub supporting the 3-inch guns on the left and the much larger Mk 37 director on the right capable of supporting either the 5-inch or 8-inch guns.  (M.C. Farrington)
Newport News spent her first decade serving as Sixth Fleet flagship on eight separate occasions, responding to crises such as those in Syria and Lebanon in 1957 and 1958, and steamed more than 1,200 miles in 40 hours to come to the aid of Earthquake survivors in Morocco in 1960. She underwent a modernization program starting in 1961, the superstructure amidships was expanded for flag spaces and enhanced communications equipment, including a large Naval Tactical Data System antenna that loomed over the forecastle, was added, and the cruiser became the Second Fleet flagship in April of the following year. Her first test as a command ship occurred when tactical command over the quarantine of Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis was directed from the cruiser. 
The cruiser Newport News (CA 148), which for most of its service left was based at naval Station Norfolk, Virginia, fires a salvo off the coast of South Vietnam in June 1972 during her third combat deployment to Vietnam.  The ship was instrumental in providing gunfire support to Republic of Vietnam forces as they countered the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese regulars during their Easter Offensive earlier that spring. (US Navy Photo 1141898 via Cold War Gallery/ Flickr)

On her first deployment to the waters off Vietnam from October 1967 to April 1968, Newport News participated in Operation Sea Dragon, expending 59,241 rounds of high explosive ammunition and earning the Navy Unit Commendation. The enemy answered with over 300 rounds in response during 17 separate attacks, yet she was never hit. Her second deployment from December 1968 to June 1969 was similarly successful, and the ship garnered the Meritorious Unit Commendation. The most demanding deployment to Vietnam started in April 1972, during which she led the first cruiser-destroyer surface actions against Haiphong Harbor in North Vietnam.

Sailors from the Norfolk-based USS Gettysburg (CG 64), along with Conservator Brian Potter of the Office of the Curator of Models (looking away from the camera) move a 15 foot-long model of USS Newport News (CA 148) into the gallery of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum in September 2019. (M.C. Farrington)
The darkest day of the cruiser’s active service occurred towards the end of her third Vietnam deployment while providing gunfire support off the coast of the DMZ. On October 1, 1972, a faulty fuse within an 8-inch round within the bore of the center gun of the number two turret caused it caused it to detonate at the moment of firing. The force of the explosion vented into the turret itself and caused over 700 pounds of powder on the three hoists leading down to the weapons magazines to also explode. By some miracle the furious flames stopped short of the magazines themselves in time for them to be flooded by the crew. Twenty Sailors were killed and 38 were injured. Despite suffering a catastrophic accident that could very well have destroyed the ship, Newport News continued her deployment until December.

Conservator Brian Potter of the Office of the Curator of Models, located at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Bethesda, Maryland, calls out instructions as Sailors from USS Gettysburg (CG 64) lower a model of USS Newport News (CA 148) into position at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum in September 2019. (M.C. Farrington)
A few weeks after her final return from Vietnam, a Virginian-Pilot story revealed the Navy’s plans for the cruiser to become a museum ship on display near the Mariners’ Museum located in the City of Newport News. Instead, she remained in active service for two more years. Plans to replace the number two turret with a turret from sister ship Des Moines also came to naught.  Newport News finally officially ended her active service at Naval Station Norfolk, where her commissioning pennant was lowered for the last time on June 27, 1975. 
USS Newport News (CA 148) moored at Southern Scrapping Company, New Orleans, in 1993. (Operations Specialist 2nd Class John Bouvia via Wikimedia Commons)
Newport News was taken to the Inactive Ship Maintenance Facility in Philadelphia, where she spent the following decade slowly wasting away with an uncertain future. Plans emerged during the 1980s for the City of Duluth, Minnesota, to procure Newport News for their own waterfront museum, but those plans too fizzled, and her last journey ended at the Southern Scrapping Company in Louisiana after she was sold in February 1993.

Curator of Models Dana Wegner, Conservator Brian Potter, and Assistant Curator Jennifer Marland from the Office of the Curator of Models, located at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Bethesda, Maryland, conduct a post-delivery inspection of the ¼-inch to one-foot scale model of the Heavy Cruiser Newport News (CA 148) after it was installed in the Hampton Roads Naval Museum gallery. (M.C. Farrington)  
It might come as no surprise that the cruiser Newport News was built at Newport News Shipbuilding. What might surprise some admirers of the finely detailed model is that it was made at the very same shipyard, at the same time, as the ship it represents, but not at Newport News Shipbuilding. It was constructed of wood and brass, with linen and wire lines, by Bethlehem Steel at its Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts, under the same contract as the ship it represents. How can this be? The answer is that the model originally was not of USS Newport News at all, but USS Salem (CA 139). The model today remains as it was configured when that ship was commissioned on May 14, 1949.
The starboard side of the model of USS Newport News while it was still on display at the National Museum of the US Navy at the Washington Navy Yard, showing the extreme detail shipwrights at Fore River Shipyard put into the model when it was built there as USS Salem during the late-1940s. (Cold War Gallery via Flickr)

Although the model does not specifically depict Newport News, the three Des Moines-class cruisers deviated very little in appearance when they were originally commissioned. By the terms of the contract to build Salem, the configuration of the ship had to be shown in exacting detail. “If an object on the ship was six or more inches, it had to be represented on the model,” said Assistant Curator Jennifer Marland of the Office of the Curator of Models in Bethesda, Maryland.
The 1/4-inch to one foot scale model of USS Newport News (CA 148) as it appeared in the "Lion's Den" area in front of a recreation of the cruiser's bridge within the Cold War gallery of the National Museum of the US Navy from 2006 to 2019. (Cold War Gallery via Flickr)

The Salem–Newport News model was first put on display with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s NROTC Unit from 1951 to 1968 before starting a southern migration with stops at the Pentagon from 1969 to 1977, the Naval Academy from 1983 to 1987, the Cold War Gallery of the National Museum of the US Navy from 2006 to 2019, and in September 2019, this huge reminder of American firepower that answered to the call sign, "Thunder," moved to its current location at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum to be a signature part of The Ten Thousand-Day War at Sea exhibit.

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