'Hell Broke Loose' at Leyte Gulf

By Marc D. Bernstein

That morning Mitscher's superior, U.S. Third Fleet commander Admiral William F. Halsey, ordered a major carrier-plane strike against a large Japanese force of battleships and cruisers in the Sibuyan Sea off Mindoro Island; however, TG 38.3 aircraft could not immediately participate in the attack. Many of Sherman's fighters were battling several groups of Japanese land-based planes that had approached the task group. The American aircraft succeeded in shooting down or driving off all but one of the intruders-a D4Y Judy dive bomber that went undetected and broke out of the clouds above the Princeton, dropping two bombs at 0939 and scoring one hit. 3

The carrier immediately reported the attack to Admiral Sherman in the Essex (CV-9), who at 0953 ordered the antiaircraft light cruiser Reno (CL-96) plus the destroyers Cassin Young (DD-793), Gatling (DD-671), and Irwin (DD-794) to stand by the damaged ship. About ten minutes later, with no reason to think the Japanese air attacks would cease, the Birmingham was ordered to stand by the Princeton. Ironically, both ships had originally been laid down as Cleveland-class cruisers, but the Princeton had been completed, along with eight other ships, as an Independence-class light carrier. 11

"I had previously given some thought to the possibility of assisting a carrier on fire," Captain Inglis later wrote, "as it was readily conceivable that such an accident might occur. I had decided that in case the Birmingham was allowed any discretion in the matter that I would take my ship alongside the windward side of the carrier, close aboard, put my hoses over and fight the fires, drive them back down-wind until they were completely extinguished." 4

While en route to the burning carrier, Inglis ordered his crew to "lead out all fire hoses, put full pressure on the fire mains and make every preparation for fighting the fires on the Princeton as effectively as possible." He later said he believed that 

[T]he Birmingham was the best ship present to fight the fires because of our superior equipment, because of our greater deck space for working with the hoses, because of our superior pumping capacity and greater number of hoses which could be led over. . . . My plan was to start fighting the fires from the forward end of the Princeton and as they were extinguished work aft, gradually moving the Birmingham aft relative to the Princeton as the work proceeded. 5

Because of the air attacks, the Birmingham had been at general quarters. Her skipper, however, reduced the readiness level to condition III, normal wartime cruising readiness, "so that plenty of men would be made available for fire-fighting or survivor rescue." The ship reached the carrier's vicinity at 1010. 6

Minutes earlier, two heavy internal explosions had wracked the Princeton, rendering her unable to maneuver. She was soon dead in the water. The Birmingham proceeded to close with the carrier but was delayed by continuing air attacks. Meanwhile, the Princeton's commander, Captain William H. Buracker, ordered his crew to abandon ship, leaving just 50 officers and men, including himself, on board the stricken vessel. Buracker requested additional destroyers to assist in rescuing Sailors from the water, and Sherman detailed the Morrison (DD-560) for the task. 7

When the Birmingham finally maneuvered into position off the Princeton's port beam, two major fires-whipped by a 20-knot wind-were raging on board the carrier: one in the area of the bomb hit and the other aft. The destroyers Irwin and Cassin Young were alongside the Princeton, with the cruiser Reno and the destroyer Gatling screening against air and submarine attacks. 8

On arrival, Inglis became the senior officer present and took charge of the salvage group. According to his description, the carrier was

burning furiously from the vicinity of her bridge all the way aft. The fires appeared to be originating in the hangar deck just below the flight deck. The entire ship aft the bridge was in flames and heavy clouds of smoke. Forward of the bridge the ship was undamaged, including a number of aircraft.

Minor caliber ammunition was continuously exploding like strings of firecrackers inside the Princeton. There were also occasional heavier explosions which I judged to be burning TNT or possibly small bombs. 9

At 1100 the Birmingham began using her hoses on the carrier, and two lines were put over. The cruiser had a great deal of trouble remaining in position for effective firefighting because of the Princeton's greater freeboard and consequentially greater leeway (drift). The Birmingham was forced to use her engines continually to maneuver close to the carrier. Meanwhile, the cruiser had assumed fighter-director duties for Essex planes flying combat air patrol over the Princeton-Birmingham group of ships. 10

The cruiser would remain alongside the carrier for 2 hours. During that period, the two ships frequently made contact, with the Princeton's flight deck overhang and 40-mm gun sponsons in particular damaging the smaller vessel. According to Harry Popham, a Sailor on board the Birmingham, the carrier and cruiser smashed "into each other in the incessant swells. It was sickening to watch; it seemed as though the two ships were attempting to destroy each other."

In reality, of course, the Birmingham was doing everything possible to save the Princeton. The other ships in the group were also carrying out their assigned duties with grim determination. The Reno and the destroyers made several attempts to assist by coming along the leeward side of the Princeton, but their efforts proved ineffectual in the extreme heat and smoke emanating from the carrier. The rescue of the crew, however, went well. More than 90 percent of her complement of over 1,500 officers and men would survive the ordeal. 12

By around noon, firefighters were spraying water from at least 14 Birmingham hoses onto the Princeton and making excellent progress against the carrier's forward blazes. 13 At 1212, the first fire was under control and the cruiser backed down to place her bow abreast the Princeton's stern, remaining in that position for more than an hour. Because of the continuing threat of air attack, the Birmingham had again gone to general quarters, but at 1235 condition III was reset. Twenty-five minutes later, Captain Inglis sent a volunteer firefighting detail consisting of 38 men under Assistant First Lieutenant Alan Reed across to the carrier, and at about that time the destroyers completed their search and rescue work. At the request of Captain Buracker, the Morrison returned Princeton engineering personnel to the carrier, but the destroyer became fouled on the Princeton's starboard side and lost her mast before backing clear. 14

Just as it looked like the salvage effort was succeeding, an air attack and possible submarine contact were reported in the vicinity. At 1330 all but two members of the firefighting party returned to the Birmingham, and the cruiser cast off to join the carrier's screen of ships. 15 The air attack would be turned away without loss, and the submarine contact prove false. At 1406, the Birmingham reported to TG 38.3 that the carrier's fires were confined to the after part of the ship, with "prospects very good now." 16

Soon after 1430, the Birmingham began once again moving toward the crippled carrier to resume fighting the aft fire. Lieutenant Reed estimated that one more hour's work would be sufficient to bring the remaining blaze completely under control. 17 Meanwhile, the question of towing the damaged Princeton arose. Of the two cruisers on the scene, the Birmingham was considerably more damaged, from banging against the carrier, than the Reno. Captain Inglis later related that 

Captain Buracker of the Princeton first suggested that the Reno be designated to take the Princeton in tow, but the Captain of the Reno reported that his towing gear was out of commission. . . . I felt that the strategic and tactical situation was so tight that it would be extremely undesirable to risk damaging a second cruiser, namely the Reno, and that as long as the Birmingham was already somewhat damaged it would be much better for her to continue fighting the fires alongside of the Princeton than to risk damage to the Reno.

So, I asked Captain Buracker whether he recommended that we [the Birmingham] take the Princeton in tow and let the fire continue to burn, or whether we put the fire out first and then take the Princeton in tow. As I anticipated he replied with the recommendation that we extinguish the fire first which was, of course, the logical thing to do, not being able to foresee the future. 18

By this time the wind had strengthened and was pushing the Princeton, making it harder for the Birmingham to move into position along her port side. A spring line was finally secured to a forward point on the carrier at around 1520. Dropping back on the line, the Birmingham reached a position with her foremast about abreast the Princeton's midsection. Nearly 50 feet of ocean separated the ships at the closest point. 19

On board the cruiser, far more than the usual complement of men crowded the deck and superstructure. In addition to Sailors manning antiaircraft batteries, crewmen were standing by with hoses to battle the carrier's fires, and a volunteer party was ready to reboard the injured ship. Still more men were topside to handle lines and work the towing gear. 20

Without warning at 1523, the after portion of the Princeton erupted in a terrific blast as the carrier's after torpedo storage locker, which also contained bombs, detonated. Harry Popham, on the starboard wing of the cruiser's open bridge, saw "a single tongue of flame shoot out from the area of the after elevator, followed by an enormous puff of white smoke like a billowy cumulus cloud. To our horror, a slender column of pale orange-colored smoke shot several hundred feet straight up. All hell broke loose with an enormous eruption." 21

According to the Birmingham's war damage report:

A veritable rain of debris fell upon this ship ranging in size from microscopic pieces of shrapnel to large sections of plating and including such items as: 40 MM barrels, dress blues, lifejackets, gas masks, steel helmets, beams from flight deck, chunks of rock and cement, tool chests, pieces of machinery, CO2 bottles, 40 MM and 20 MM powder grains, armatures, etc. For several seconds, the air was filled with such debris. Fortunately several huge pieces of ship, declared by some observers to have been the size of a house, missed the Birmingham.

In addition to the damage on the Birmingham's deck, shrapnel from the explosion perforated her entire starboard superstructure. 22

The carnage on board the cruiser was horrific. Hundreds of men lay dead or wounded, and for a moment there was only silence. Out of a total complement of 1,243 officers and men, the Birmingham suffered 229 officers and men killed more or less instantly, 8 who would die from wounds within two days, 4 missing, 211 seriously wounded, and 201 with other injuries. Of the wounded, many had shrapnel wounds, and a significant number had perforated eardrums and compound fractures of arms and legs. 23

Among the injured were Captain Inglis, who sustained a broken arm and a number of shrapnel wounds, and the ship's executive officer, Commander Winston P. Folk. The pair had been on the bridge's starboard wing facing the carrier. Commander Francis Duborg, the ship's gunnery officer, had been standing on the upper bridge between two enlisted men at the time of the explosion and was not even scratched, though the two Sailors were killed. Despite shrapnel wounds and temporary hearing impairment, Commander Folk received the captain's permission to descend to the main deck to organize first-aid parties and assess the extent of casualties and damage to the ship. 24 There he "found blood so thick on the decks that sand had to be spread to prevent slipping." 25

The Birmingham's senior medical officer had previously been loaned to the Santa Fe (CL-60) for an emergency operation, and the ship's dentist was killed in the explosion. The initial burden of caring for the wounded therefore fell completely to the junior medical officer, Lieutenant James H. MacArt, and hospital corpsmen, who performed magnificently. The wounded themselves administered first aid and often refused treatment to free up personnel to tend to the most seriously injured Sailors. 26

Captain Inglis meanwhile ordered the Birmingham to back away from the Princeton, but in the process the cruiser's number one propeller became fouled on a large piece of floating debris from the carrier. 27 Amid the evolving crisis, the wounded captain began feeling faint, turned over command to Folk and the conn to Duborg, and went to his quarters. Before going below, however, he personally sent a message to the Reno, noting that the Birmingham had numerous casualties and recommending that personnel be removed from the Princeton and that she be sunk because it was useless to try to save her. 28

The Reno apparently did not receive the message because of damage to the Birmingham's TBS transmitter but nevertheless received a report from that cruiser on another circuit. The Reno's commander, Captain Ralph C. Alexander, had meanwhile independently reached the same conclusion as Inglis: The carrier should not be saved because her damage was now significant enough not to warrant continued exposure of other ships to enemy attack. 29 Admiral Sherman approved the sinking of the Princeton, but 5-inch gunfire and six torpedoes from the Irwin failed to do the job. At 1752 the Reno fired two torpedoes into the carrier's forward magazines and gas tank, setting off a terrific explosion that sent the Princeton down in 45 seconds. 30

The Birmingham made it back to Ulithi under her own power and was then sent to Mare Island, California, for repairs. Captain Inglis, who took several months to recover from his wounds, turned over command of the Birmingham at Mare Island on 22 November 1944. He earned the Navy Cross for his attempt to save the Princeton. "If I were faced with the same situation in helping a burning carrier again," Inglis said, "I should take the same action-providing the same factors were involved and I had no crystal ball." 31 By the end of 1945, he had been promoted to rear admiral and chief of Naval Intelligence. The Birmingham meanwhile earned a Navy Unit Commendation for her performance on 24 October 1944 and returned to duty early in 1945, taking a kamikaze hit off Okinawa in May of that year. 32

Rear Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison later said of the Birmingham: "She had set a new precedent for fire fighting on the high seas, which was put to good use later on [the carriers] Bunker Hill and Franklin." 33 The cruiser's crew had absorbed heavy losses, but damage to the ship herself was not considered serious. Despite the failure to salvage the Princeton, the Birmingham had lived up to the highest traditions of the U.S. Navy.

 



1. See, generally, Samuel Eliot Morison, Leyte, vol. XII, History of United States Naval Operations in World War II (Boston: Little, Brown, 1984), pp. 177-183; "Loss of USS Princeton, 24 October 1944," at http://www.history.navy.mil/photos/events/wwii-pac/leyteglf/cvl23-1.htm , accessed 9 July 2006; Narrative, Captain Thomas B. Inglis, transcript dated 23 January 1945 (hereinafter cited as Transcript), in Box 1, Folder TH-11A, p. 24, Thomas B. Inglis Papers, Hoover Institution Archives, Stanford, California.

2. Action Report, USS Birmingham, period 18-24 October 1944, in Box 3, Thomas B. Inglis Papers, Hoover Institution Archives; Harry Popham, "Eyewitness to Tragedy: Death of USS Princeton," World War II, May 1997, at http://historynet.com/wwii/blussprinceton/index.html , accessed 26 July 2006, p. 3.

3. See, material in Thomas B. Inglis Personal File, Box 1, Thomas B. Inglis Papers, Hoover Institution Archives; Morison, Leyte, pp. 176-178.

4. Inglis, Transcript, p. 24.

5. Inglis, Transcript, pp. 24-25.

6. Memorandum from Captain Inglis to Commander Winston P. Folk, regarding material for USS Princeton Action Report, 3 November 1944, p. 1, in Inglis Papers, Box 3, Hoover Institution Archives.

7. Memorandum, Inglis to Folk, p. 2.

8. Ibid., pp. 1-2.

9. Navy Department Statement on USS Birmingham, p. 4, in Thomas B. Inglis Papers, Box 3, Hoover Institution Archives.

10. Memorandum, Inglis to Folk, p. 2; Action Report, USS Birmingham, pp. 7, 9.

11. War Damage Report, USS Birmingham, 6; "Cleveland Class Cruisers," at

http://www.angelfire.com/fm/odyssey/LEYTE_Clevelands_htm , accessed 9 July 2006; Popham, internet version, p. 2.

12. Memorandum, Inglis to Folk, p. 3; Action Report, USS Birmingham, pp. 8, 21.

13. Action Report, USS Birmingham, p. 8.

14. Ibid., p. 9; War Damage Report, USS Birmingham, p. 6; Popham, internet version, p. 3.

15. Action Report, USS Birmingham, p. 9.

16. Ibid., p. 10.

17. Memorandum, Inglis to Folk, p. 5.

18. Inglis, Transcript, p. 26.

19. Memorandum, Inglis to Folk, p. 5.

20. Inglis, Transcript, p. 29.

21. Popham, internet version, p. 3.

22. War Damage Report, USS Birmingham, pp. 9-10.

23. Action Report, USS Birmingham, pp. 21-22.

24. Inglis, Transcript, p. 27.

25. See, article on the USS Birmingham in Shipmate, June 1945, p. 130, copy in Thomas B. Inglis Papers, Box 1, Folder TH-11A, Hoover Institution Archives.

26. Navy Department Statement on USS Birmingham, p. 5; Inglis Narrative, pp. 28-30.

27. Ibid., pp. 27-28.

28. Memorandum, Inglis to Folk, p. 6.

29. Inglis, Transcript, p. 27.

30. See, chronology in War Damage Report, USS Birmingham, pp. 3-4; Popham, p. 4.

31. Shipmate, June 1945, p. 130.

32. "History of USS Birmingham (CL 62)," in Box 1, Folder TH-11A, pp. 5-6, Thomas B. Inglis Papers, Hoover Institution Archives; Letter, Bureau of Naval Personnel to Inglis, 23 September 1946, in Thomas B. Inglis Personal File, Box 1, Thomas B. Inglis Papers, Hoover Institution Archives.

33. Morison, Leyte, p. 182.

Mr. Bernstein is the author of Hurricane at Biak: MacArthur Against the Japanese, May-August 1944 (Xlibris, 2000) and numerous articles on modern naval and military history. He is currently working on a study of critical decision-making during the Vietnam War.
 

Mr. Bernstein is the author of Hurricane at Biak: MacArthur Against the Japanese, May-August 1944 (Xlibris, 2000) and numerous articles on modern naval and military history. He is currently working on a study of critical decision-making during the Vietnam War.

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