Powerless at Pearl Harbor: USS New Orleans
February 19, 2018
It was a worst-case scenario, one that couldn’t have been prepared for because it seemed so unlikely. And yet on the morning of December 7, 1941, the men of the USS New Orleans (CA-32) were forced to try and do the impossible – survive a surprise aerial attack without power.
As the sun rose on that Sunday morning, the New Orleans was moored at Pearl Harbor, her engines undergoing repairs. With her main power supply out of commission, her only power source was from the dock. Though she ran as normal using the external power supply, it was a temporary fix that, come 0755 hours, would cease to operate.
When Japanese aircraft flew over Pearl Harbor and unleashed their stunning attack, the electricity supply to the New Orleans was severed. Power to the navy yard was lost, leaving ships like the USS New Orleans to run manually. For the men aboard the cruiser, that meant handling many of her operations without the benefit of machinery.
Though everything had to be done by hand, sailors aboard the New Orleans still attempted to fight back, arming themselves with rifles and pistols and firing on incoming Japanese fighters and bombers. The normally-automated 5” 25 caliber anti-aircraft guns had to be loaded, aimed, and fired manually, which involved hoisting heavy shells through a manual lift system. While this was going on, Japanese machine gun fire peppered the deck of the cruiser, threatening the lives of every man working to fight back. Despite this, the men of the USS New Orleans made it through the attack with no losses, though several were injured when a fragmentation bomb exploded nearby.
Damage sustained by the cruiser was minimal, allowing her to return to service almost immediately. For the first few weeks after the United States entered the war, the USS New Orleans ferried troops to Palmyra and Johnston Atoll using only three of her four engines.
The USS New Orleans at War, 1942
On January 13, 1942, the New Orleans sailed to San Francisco to have her fourth engine repaired to ensure she was at full capacity when she returned to the War in the Pacific on February 12. She first led an escort to Brisbane, Australia before following a troop convoy to Noumea. Before the start of the Battle of the Coral Sea, she joined Task Force 11 at Pearl Harbor and on April 15 she sailed to New Hebrides where she helped in driving back a Japanese force that threatened to move in on Australia and New Zealand. When the aircraft carrier USS Lexington (CV-2) suffered extensive damage, crew from the New Orleans risked their lives by diving overboard to rescue those who were forced to abandon ship. Of the Lexington crew who escaped the burning carrier, the USS New Orleans rescued 580 men, who they transported to Noumea before patrolling the Solomon Islands and returning to Pearl Harbor.
Following the Battle of Coral Sea and the rescue of the Lexington’s crew, the USS New Orleans once again found herself engaged with the Japanese fleet. On May 28, 1942, she sailed to Midway Atoll, escorting the carrier USS Enterprise (CV-6) into battle. After Midway, the crew of the New Orleans had a brief respite from the war at Pearl Harbor before setting off for Fiji. There, she assisted the carrier USS Saratoga (CV-3) in what would be known as the Battle of the Eastern Solomons.
Having been present in the Solomons and the Coral Sea for more than two months, supplies aboard the USS New Orleans were diminished and food supplies were running low. Before being able to restock at Pearl Harbor, the crewmen were forced to live on half rations, but that didn’t stop them from springing into action when the Saratoga was torpedoed and required an escort back to Oahu.
The last major battle of 1942 that the USS New Orleans took part in was the Battle of Tassafaronga. After being resupplied, the New Orleans sailed to Espiritu Santo in the Solomon Islands to engage the enemy on November 30. The battle didn’t go as well as previous ones, however, and while trying to avoid a collision with the damaged USS Minneapolis (CA-36), inadvertently steered into a torpedo.
The explosion detonated her forward magazines and gas tanks, severing 150 of her bow. With nothing holding it in place, the bow swung to port and punctured holes in her hull. Though she was crippled, the New Orleans remained afloat, moving under cover of camouflage at a painfully slow speed of 2.3 mph to Tulagi Harbor. Over the days that followed, her crew cleared away wreckage before she could sail to Cockatoo Island Dockyard in Sydney.
1943 and Beyond
Compared to the previous year, 1943 proved to be quiet for the USS New Orleans and her crew. She joined a cruiser-destroyer force on October 5 to bombard Wake Island before sailing between Pearl Harbor, the Gilbert Islands, and the Marshall Islands before assisting the men of the new USS Lexington (CV-16) after she was torpedoed.
At the start of 1944, the New Orleans returned to the Marshall Islands to strike airfields and other Japanese installations. Over the course of the remainder of the war, she took part in bombardments across the Pacific. She was present during the raid on Truk in the Carolines, the landings at Hollandia in New Guinea, and the Battle of the Philippine Sea. In 1945, she returned to Hawaii for training before rejoining forces at Okinawa. She was replenishing at Subic Bay when Japan signed the surrender documents ending the war in the Pacific.
After the war ended, the USS New Orleans served as transport for liberated Allied prisoners of war. On March 12, 1946, she arrived at the Philadelphia Navy Yard where she remained through her decommissioning on February 10, 1947 and was struck from the Naval Vessel Register on March 1, 1959. Six months later, she was sold for scrap.
For her service, the New Orleans earned 17 battle stars, the American Defense Service Medal, the American Campaign Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, the World War II Victory Medal, five Navy Crosses, 10 Silver Stars, one Bronze Star, and one Air Medal. She stands as one of the most decorated American World War II ships.