Friday, March 25, 2016
USS Minneapolis, battle damage, and coconut logs
Among the books I'm reading at the moment is 'Beans, Bullets and Black Oil', a history of US Navy logistics operations in the Pacific during World War II.
As a student of military history, logistics has long been of interest to me. It's an old but true saying that 'Amateurs study tactics, professionals study logistics'. (There are some great quotes about logistics from military leaders [link is to an Adobe Acrobat document in .PDF format] at the Air University Web site.) I'm therefore enjoying the book very much, and learning a lot about what went on behind the scenes during the Pacific war. (As Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King allegedly put it, "I don't know what the hell this ‘logistics’ is that Marshall is always talking about, but I want some of it.")
One of the activities involved in fleet support is the repair of battle damage to ships. In the first couple of years of the Pacific war, before resources had been built up and bases established, sometimes ships were lost simply because there weren't enough support vessels to tow them to safety, plug holes or shore up damaged bulkheads. Those that could be patched up often had to be content with makeshift work using whatever materials were available. One such ship was the heavy cruiser USS Minneapolis, severely damaged during the Battle of Tassafaronga in 1942. She was struck by two torpedoes, one blowing off her bows and the other severely damaging a fireroom. Details of her battle damage may be viewed here.
Here's how Minneapolis' bows looked before repairs were attempted. (Click each image for a larger view.)
Makeshift repairs were made at Tulagi by her crew, with the help of some Seabees from a shore base. In the process, an explosion caused by a welding torch caused her bow to sink another seven feet, which necessitated even more repairs before she could proceed to a naval base for proper attention. Here's how her bow looked after that explosion. Note the size and strength of her internal structures; they're all that kept the ship afloat after the torpedo hit.
After cutting away the damaged steel, divers riveted and welded plates over the openings below the waterline. A temporary bulkhead of coconut palm logs was constructed above the waterline. More logs shored up the welded plates below. These makeshift repairs enabled the ship to limp slowly to the US forward base at Espiritu Santo.
At Espiritu Santo a temporary, short and very blunt steel bow was constructed to cover the opening, allowing the ship to proceed slowly to Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. There, construction had already begun on a new bow for the cruiser, which would be almost ready by the time she arrived.
At Pearl Harbor the new bow was fitted, whereupon Minneapolis left for San Francisco for a major overhaul and upgrade at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard. She would not return to action until late 1943.
Saving Minneapolis and getting her fighting fit once more is a remarkable story of determination and hard work in the forward areas, with very little support or materials. Later in the war, dedicated engineering, depot and repair vessels were on standby in forward anchorages to make such repairs much faster and easier. We're accustomed to thinking of logistics in terms of the supply of oil, food, ammunition and other necessities of war, but repairing battle damage and keeping ships in the fight is just as important a support function.
I recommend RAdm. Carter's book to all students of military and naval history. If you'd like to know more about logistics in the Pacific war, here's a very good overview of the subject covering all the combatants. Britain's Royal Navy had to deal with the same challenges; how they did so is described in this forum thread, while John Winton's excellent book 'The Forgotten Fleet' (which I have in my library) also has a lot of information.