Prewar Voyage Down Under

By John J. Domagalski

The admiral’s force consisted of the cruisers Chicago, Portland (CA-33), Savannah (CL-42), and Brooklyn (CL-40),along with a group of destroyers. After informing the ships’ captains of his instructions, Newton briefly called on Admiral Kimmel, then made ready to depart. “He had no information except what was contained in this brief dispatch,” Newton later said. “He could give no information as to my probable ultimate destination.”

The U.S. warships would be sailing into a Pacific Ocean fraught with tension. The United States and Japan had been slowly drifting on a collision course since the early 1900s. Japanese aspirations to expand grew as the young century progressed. While militaristic leaders gained power in the Japanese government throughout the 1930s, the nation assumed an increasingly aggressive posture. Japan soon withdrew from various naval limitation treaties, began an intensive shipbuilding program, and seized territory in China. 2

Alarmed U.S. leaders moved the Pacific Fleet from California west to Hawaii and initiated a series of embargoes against Japan beginning in July 1940. The prohibited materials included strategic minerals and chemicals, scrap metal, and aviation fuel—all key ingredients needed to feed an expanding war machine. 3 Shipments of American oil to Japan ultimately were curtailed. Relations between the two nations steadily deteriorated as 1941 dawned. War already was raging in Europe, and its spread to the Pacific seemed inevitable.

The British government wanted the U.S. Pacific Fleet to visit its strategically located colony of Singapore as a show of force and deterrence. 4 The U.S. State Department agreed, but the Navy resisted, not wanting to disrupt training schedules. Naval officials instead decided to send a flotilla to Australia and New Zealand. The goodwill tour was to demonstrate support for the British Commonwealth nations in the South Pacific. The voyage also would provide a group of young enlisted sailors on board the Chicago the trip of a lifetime.

Journey’s First Leg

The sudden return to port and rush of activity began to raise suspicions among Chicago sailors. Seaman Second Class Don Wallace remembered an air of excitement about the ship. “We got some good news,” he later wrote. “We were going on a cruise so secret that even the skipper wouldn’t know where.” 5 Wallace had been all of seven years old when he first had thought about the Navy, after seeing several warships up close when they paid a visit to Santa Cruz, California, in 1928. He joined the Chicago while she was still homeported in San Pedro, California.

Newton’s ships headed southwest toward American Samoa after departing Pearl Harbor without fanfare. The admiral wanted to make the most of his time away from base. “I put in a system of training, both day and night, that would fit us for any eventuality,” he said.

Seaman Second Class Art King sensed something was different about the voyage. “You know we left Pearl Harbor under wartime conditions,” the Louisville, Kentucky, native later recalled. “We knew it was something terribly important because we sailed with live ammunition in the turrets.” Under normal peacetime conditions, the live rounds were stored in the magazine and training ammunition was put in the turrets. “We were steaming with darkened ship conditions at night and we knew it wasn’t a drill anymore.” 6

The ships proceeded toward American Samoa under complete radio silence to await further instructions. The voyage took the Chicago across the equator. A longstanding seafaring tradition required all those making their first equatorial crossing, known as pollywogs, to be initiated through an elaborate ceremony.

The event was orchestrated by shellbacks—veteran crewmen who already had made the crossing—and often was overseen by an elder shellback statesman dressed as King Neptune. In this case the king was Chief Boatswain’s Mate Steve Balint. The well-liked career Navy man donned a white robe, crown, and pitchfork for the occasion. The ceremony lasted a good part of a day, with a series of activities to initiate the pollywogs.

Seaman First Class George Pursley joined the Navy in 1940, just two weeks after graduating from high school in Indiana. Less than a year later he was in the middle of the Chicago’s elaborate “crossing the line” ceremony. He remembered that “all the pollywogs had to go to a court held by King Neptune. Each of us were [sic] charged with something.” Pursley was among a group sentenced to sing a song while under duress. “I had to go down on my knees and sing the song of the pollywogs,” he later recalled. “And they jabbed you in the butt with an electric fork while you was [sic] doing it and poured powder on the song so you couldn’t read it, but you had to keep doing it until you got it done.” 7

Art King remembered fulfilling his sentence near the bow of the ship. “I had my wool turtle neck sweater on, my dress blue jumper, my blue trousers, my wool cap,” he said. “I also had a couple of fire hose nozzles that were wired together to look like binoculars.” There seemed to be plenty of shellbacks hanging around to make sure King could not skirt his responsibilities. “Every once in a while one of them would tell me that my lenses were getting fogged up. So they had a roll of toilet paper hanging over my other shoulder and I’d have to reel off some toilet paper and pretend like I was wiping the lenses off. So I don’t know how long that was, but it seemed like forever.”

The ceremony continued with each pollywog having his hair either filled with grease or shaved off completely. Many had to kiss King Neptune’s belly. Few escaped getting dunked in a pool of fuel oil and saltwater.

Pursley was among those who got a soaking. He was pulled out of the pool and put down a small slide back onto the deck. “You had to run to the hangar deck, about thirty feet away,” he continued. Two lines of shellbacks were on hand with leather belts to pelt the helpless sailors making the sprint. The ritual concluded with a short speech by Chicago Captain Bernhard H. Bieri. “The band played and we had a big Sunday like dinner,” Pursley remembered.

With the ceremony completed, the flotilla traveled a relatively short distance to Pago Pago, American Samoa, arriving on 8 March. Newton received additional orders that night. He was to divide his force, sending two cruisers and some destroyers to Auckland, New Zealand, and accompany the remaining ships to Sydney and Brisbane, Australia.

Festive Arrival at Sydney

Word quickly spread among the Chicago men of their destination. Sydney had long been considered a good liberty port. The fleet had visited the city in late 1920s, and some U.S. warships also stopped there in 1938. 8

Seaman Ken Maysenhalder had yearned to see the world as he grew up watching Navy ships in the San Francisco area. He joined the Chicago in Pearl Harbor in early 1941—just in time for the trip Down Under. “There was a lot of great happiness because a lot of the old timers had been to Australia and were telling us all the good times they had in the early days,” he recalled of the excitement. 9

The Chicago and Portland, accompanied by the destroyers Clark (DD-361), Cassin (DD-372), Conyngham (DD-371), Reid (DD-369), and Downs (DD-375), departed Pago Pago during the early morning hours of 12 March with the flagship in the lead. The voyage would take about a week.

Lookouts on board the Chicago sighted the Macquarie Head Light, near the entrance to Sydney Harbor, from a distance of 36 miles at 0230 on 20 March. “The night before arriving, I sent a dispatch to the Sydney authorities saying that I would be off the entrance at 6:00 a.m. the following morning,” Newton later said. The harbor pilot was soon on board to guide the ship through murk and rain toward Sydney Harbor. 10 The Australians “had ships come out and meet us in the channel,” Pursley recalled, “because the fleet had not been down there in a body since 1927.”

The bow of the Chicago finally poked through the haze in full view of the city. The gloomy weather did not stop crowds of Australians from gathering near the docks to welcome the U.S. ships. “We could see people on the roofs waiting to see us as we broke through the fog and saw the whole, the cliffs of Australia,” Maysenhalder remembered of the moment. “Sydney harbor was beautiful.”

The arrival of the squadron was front-page news, and the city took on a festive atmosphere. Even the Australian Parliament adjourned for the day so members could be on hand for the event. The Australian people were war-weary, having fought the Germans as part of the British Empire for nearly a year and a half. Many of their young men were in North Africa, about to face the onslaught of Lieutenant General Erwin Rommel’s panzers. “The resulting vacuum left a ratio of about eight women to every man,” Don Wallace later wrote. “No elaboration needs to be made on that point.”

The heavy cruiser fired a 21-gun salute and flew Australian colors on her mainmast. The cannonade was answered in kind from guns at a nearby fort. Meanwhile, a group of Australian warplanes flew escort overhead.

Blue-uniformed sailors lined the Chicago’s deck while the ship’s band began to muster. The rain squall had lifted as the flagship slowly glided to her berth amid the cheers of the crowd. Admiral Newton and Captain Bieri exchanged greetings with Australian dignitaries, who formally welcomed them to the nation. A small contingent of sailors quickly left the flagship for shore-patrol duty.

Every Sailor’s Dream

More men followed in a marching procession into the downtown area. A local newspaper reporter noted that “thousands of eyes strained from the tops of tall buildings; girls prepared confetti and streamers; and crowds, showers or not, lined the route of the march hours before time.” 11 It was every sailor’s dream. Maysenhalder remembered that “all the young women would run out and try to grab our handkerchiefs or hat—anything for a souvenir. You could just make friends with the young ladies. Being a young man at the time was just a wonderful situation.” The parade ended with a formal welcoming at the town hall.

The days that followed were packed with activities, including parties, speeches by dignitaries, and plenty of liberty for the crew. Local drinking establishments and dance clubs the likes of Prince’s, Ramona’s, and The 400 Club opened their doors to the American visitors. Many businesses did not charge the sailors for their purchases. 12 “We all were treated like kings,” George Pursley recalled.

Art King left the ship for some liberty only to run into a wall of humanity. He quickly found himself surrounded by people asking questions, giving him gifts, and wanting his autograph. The young sailor was soon pinned against a building, unable to escape the crowd. A door suddenly opened from behind and he was pulled into a bar filled with men. “When they asked me where I was from, and I told them Louisville, Kentucky, they went wild because they were real big into horses down there,” King later said. “And they just thought I was an expert on horse racing. I knew where Churchill Downs was, but I had never been there. I never saw a horse race in my life.”

He was befriended by a local family who took him home to see their house. A friend of the family was getting married, and King was taken along to the reception. He also spent time ashore with a small group of Chicago sailors mixing with the locals.

Admiral Newton was the guest of honor at a local luncheon. “The traditional friendship between the British Empire and the United States of America may be the panacea for the evils of today,” he told an enthusiastic crowd. “The United States has never been more ready, better prepared, or more willing to throw all her engines and resources into the defense and preservation of democracy.” 13

After two days of activities and entertainment, it was time for the U.S. sailors to begin preparations for departing Sydney. More than 600 Australians—both dignitaries and locals—came aboard the Chicago for a going-away party the evening of 22 March. Guests were served a variety of nonalcoholic drinks along with sandwiches, cookies, and ice cream. Many left for a stop on board the Portland before heading home in preparation for local parties that were sure to go long into the Saturday night.

Six sailors were recorded as missing when the Chicago crew mustered the next morning. Some made it aboard as the vessel completed final preparations for departure. Steam from four boilers was filling the main lines by early afternoon. The heavy cruiser began moving at exactly 1507 on 23 March. 14 The goodwill visit, however, was not yet over, as the flotilla began a short trip north along the Australian coast to Brisbane.

Newton’s ships were moored in the new city by the middle of the next day. The port visit was a virtual repeat of the stop at Sydney, with the flotilla greeted by throngs of cheering people. Formal events, liberty, and celebrations followed. A local reporter even noted, “Never before in its history has Brisbane seen such gay and enthusiastic scenes.” 15

The American sailors departed Australia for good on 28 March after enjoying a warm and friendly stay. The flagship led the flotilla back to Pearl Harbor with a short stop in the Fiji Islands. The Chicago moored in Pearl Harbor just after 0800 on 10 April.16 The last major prewar journey for the ship had ended.

Admiral Newton thought the voyage to Australia was a resounding success as both a goodwill visit and a worthwhile training experience. “I consider it one of the finest battle training cruises possible,” he later said. The enlisted men mostly remembered the liberty. “The three days in Sydney and three days in Brisbane were probably the best liberty that we would ever enjoy,” Don Wallace later wrote. Although their world would soon be shattered by war, the Chicago sailors were left with fond memories.

1. United States Congress Joint Committee on the Investigation of the Pearl Harbor Attack, Pearl Harbor: Attack. Hearings before the Joint Committee on the Investigation of the Pearl Harbor Attack, vol. 26 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1946), 340.

2. Samuel Eliot Morison, History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, vol. 3, The Rising Sun in the Pacific (Edison, NJ: Castle Book, 2001), 19.

3. Ibid, 60.

4. John Costello, The Pacific War (New York: Rawson, Wade Publishers, 1981), 77.

5. Don Wallace, unpublished narrative sent to the author, correspondence, and interview.

6. Art King, interview with the author.

7. George Pursley, unpublished narrative sent to the author and interview.

8. “Throng In Sydney Hails US Sailors,” The New York Times, 21 March 1941, 5.

9. Ken Maysenhalder, unpublished narratives sent to the author and interview.

10. Deck log, USS Chicago (CA-29)(hereafter Chicago deck log), 20 March 1941, Record Group 38, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD.

11. “Sydney Gives Glad Hand to USA; Fleet Arrival Begins Momentous Day,” The Sun (Sydney, Australia), 20 March 1941.

12. William Generous Jr., Sweet Pea at War: A History of USS Portland (Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 2003), 21.

13. “Democracy’s Mission to Save Weary World,” The Sun (Sydney, Australia), 21 March 1941.

14. Chicago deck log, 21 March 1941.

15. “Brisbane’s Souvenir of the American Fleet,” pamphlet courtesy of Fred Tuccitto.

16. Chicago deck log, 10 April 1941.

Mr. Domagalski is the author of Under a Blood Red Sun: The Remarkable Story of PT Boats in the Philippines and the Rescue of General MacArthur (Casemate, 2014) and Into the Dark Water: The Story of Three Officers and PT-109 (Casemate, 2014).

The Heavy Cruiser’s Fate

At sea on 7 December 1941 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the Chicago supported the invasion of Guadalcanal eight months later. She was damaged by a Japanese destroyer’s torpedo at the 9 August 1942 Battle of Savo Island but continued fighting until the action ended. Repairs took her to Noumea, New Caledonia; back to Sydney; and finally to San Francisco.

In late January 1943, the Chicago was part of Task Force 18, on its way to make a sweep of the southern Solomon Islands. Early on the night of the 29th, at the Battle of Rennell Island, Japanese aircraft launched torpedo attacks. A G4M “Betty” bomber crashed into the sea off the heavy cruiser’s bow, its flames silhouetting the Chicago for other attackers. Two torpedoes quickly slammed into the ship, bringing her to a halt. Other vessels took the crippled Chicago in tow, but enemy bombers again attacked the next afternoon, putting four more torpedoes into the cruiser, which sank.

For her World War II service, the Chicago received three battle stars. Her name lived on in the Navy with a Baltimore-class heavy cruiser, CA-136, and the Los Angeles–class nuclear attack submarine SSN-721, which is still in active service.



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