Launched on March 20, 1942, the USS Birmingham (CL-62) was a light cruiser of the so-called Cleveland class, named after the first such ship—the USS Cleveland. The Birmingham saw action in the Mediterranean in 1943 and later in the Pacific Theater of Operations, where the ship participated in numerous battles and was heavily damaged on three occasions. The ship was the second ship to bear the name of Alabama's industrial center. The first Birmingham, an armored scout cruiser, served the U.S. Navy from 1908 to 1923. It made history on November 14, 1910, when Eugene Ely made the first airplane take-off from a warship from a modified platform on its deck. Later, the ship participated in the United States' intervention in Vera Cruz, Mexico, and operated in the Atlantic during World War I. A third vessel honored the city, the nuclear powered submarine USS Birmingham (SSN-695), that sailed with the U.S. fleet from 1977 to 1997.
The USS Birmingham (CL-62) was constructed by the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company in Virginia. The ship was designated a light cruiser not because of its displacement, but rather because of the limited size of its main guns. The Birmingham's main armament consisted of four turrets with three six-inch guns and six secondary turrets of dual-mounted five-inch guns. Displacing 10,000 tons, the Birmingham was 610 feet long, 66 feet wide, capable of speeds of up to 33 knots per hour, and crewed by 1,200 officers and men. Coincidentally, more than a dozen of her crew hailed from their ship's namesake city.
The Navy commissioned the Birmingham on January 29, 1943, and placed the ship under the command of Captain John E. Wilkes, a 1916 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. Five months later, the ship sailed for the Mediterranean, where it joined other warships staging for Operation Husky—the invasion of Sicily. The Birmingham's baptism of fire came on July 10, 1943, when the ship shelled German and Italian positions near Licata, Sicily, in support of the Third Infantry Division's landing. The vessel suffered its first casualty that day as well, when Mackey Prutilpac, a radio operator and gunner serving on one of Birmingham's OS2U Kingfisher spotter planes, was killed by friendly fire.
After the Sicily operation, the Birmingham returned to the United States barely long enough to pick up a new captain, Thomas Inglis, a 1918 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. Under Inglis's command, the Birmingham traversed the Panama Canal and sailed to Hawaii. From there, the cruiser supported raids on the Japanese-held islands of Tarawa and Wake. The ship then sailed south to the Solomon Islands (made famous by land and sea battles over Guadalcanal), northeast of Australia. The ship's first real action against the Japanese came on the evening of November 8-9, 1943, when the Birmingham and a collection of other warships came under attack by enemy planes after escorting a convoy of troops to the Solomon island of Bougainville. Birmingham's gunners shot down at least four enemy aircraft but suffered three hits in return, likely two bombs and an aerial torpedo. The ship's casualties included two killed and 34 wounded.
The Birmingham sailed to California for repairs and rejoined the fleet in the spring of 1944, providing fire support in the invasions of Saipan, Tinian, and Guam. The crew also weathered a dysentery epidemic on board and helped rescue the crippled cruiser USS Houston (CL-81) off the coast of Formosa (now Taiwan). The greatest challenge, however, came on October 24, 1944, when the Birmingham drew alongside the light carrier USS Princeton (CVL-23) which had been set ablaze by a Japanese dive bomber during the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
On board the Birmingham, sailors manned fire hoses and sprayed water on the flaming carrier's decks. For a time, it seemed as though their efforts were succeeding, but then one of the Princeton's bomb magazines exploded, tearing apart the rear of that ship. The Birmingham was enveloped in the blast and battered with lethal chunks of shrapnel and debris. "The carnage on board the Birmingham was something terrible," Inglis wrote after the war. In the bloody aftermath of the explosion, it was difficult to even determine an accurate casualty count but, according to the ship's post-war cruise book, 239 men died, 408 were wounded, and the bodies of four were never recovered. Once again, the Birmingham was forced out of the war, but only temporarily. The ship returned to service the following year in time to support the invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, earning an eighth and a ninth battle star for that service.
During the campaign for Okinawa, disaster struck again, this time in the form of a kamikaze attack. On May 4, 1945, a Japanese pilot smashed his aircraft into the cruiser just aft of the No. 2 turret. His aircraft's bomb punched through three decks and detonated in the heart of the ship's sick bay. The resulting explosion killed 45 men and wounded another 83. By the time Birmingham completed repairs and returned to the Pacific, the war was over. The ship participated in closing down U.S. military bases in Australia and returned to California on March 22, 1946. Within a year, the Navy decommissioned the Birmingham and on December 9, 1959, sold it for scrap. In 2006, some two dozen veterans of the ship gathered in the city of Birmingham to remember their service on the warship that bore that city's name.
James L. Noles Jr.
Published January 10, 2008
Last updated October 6, 2009