On the morning of February 6, 1930, the USS Pensacola was commissioned at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York, launching the career of the third and most famous U.S. Navy ship to bear the name.
The ship — often called a “treaty cruiser” owing to its design’s adherence to the restrictions outlined in the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty — was first laid down some three and a half years prior, and had been launched the previous April. After the relatively uneventful first decade of the ship’s life, the United States was plunged into World War II, and the Pensacola spent its final five years on the front lines, seeing action in some of the war’s most pivotal battles, including the Bougainville Campaign, the Battle of Midway, the Guadalcanal Campaign, the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the Battle of Iwo Jima, and the Battle of Okinawa.
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle documented the commissioning ceremony:
“With a flutter of flags and of feminine hearts, the Pensacola was today commissioned at the Brooklyn Navy Yard as Uncle Sam’s latest active warship,” wrote reporter O.R. Pilat. “Those present were able to inspect decks and living quarters of the new treaty cruiser, even though the secrets of the turrets and engines were barred to them.”
“The Pensacola looked very trim and businesslike,” the Daily Eagle report continued. “Her decks had been holystoned until they shone, though they would have been whiter had they been washed down with fresh instead of salt water. The polished barrels of her 10 eight-inch guns swung ominously above double formation at bow and stern. Bunting hung aloft.”
“One of the feminine spectators,” the report continued, “who had heard the ceremony previously described, was relieved to learn that ‘breaking the jack’ merely meant loosing a flag of white stars on a blue background, and that when the ‘ensign was hoisted’ not a young commissioned officer but the Stars and Stripes dangled in the wind!”
Captain Alfred G. Howe lauded the work of the Navy Yard’s workforce.
“I have high praise in my mind for the workmanship of the men at Brooklyn Navy Yard,” Howe said. “This is the first ship finished here since the battleship Tennessee in 1920. I hereby promise to contribute my best efforts to keep the Pensacola at a high plane of efficient operation.”
The Pensacola cost $11 million to build — about $161 million in today’s dollars — and was required to weigh less than 10,000 tons to conform to the 1922 treaty.
“Everything has been done to save weight,” the Daily Eagle reported. “Though the armor is thick at and just below the waterline, it is rather light on her decks and sides.”
At her commissioning, the ship carried a crew of around 600, including a detachment of U.S. Marines, or as the Daily Eagle report called them, “40 devil-dogs.” The Pensacola was capable of a speed of 32½ knots and had a range of 14,000 miles.
On March 24, 1930, the Pensacola departed New York on its maiden voyage, transiting the Panama Canal and visiting Callao, Peru and Valparaiso, Chile before returning to New York on June 5. For the next four years, the Pensacola operated along the eastern seaboard and in the Caribbean Sea, several times transiting the Panama Canal for to participate in combined fleet battle practice ranging from California to Hawaii.
On January 15, 1935, the Pensacola departed Norfolk, Va. to join the Pacific Fleet, arriving in her new home port of San Diego on Jan. 30. From there, she ranged to Hawaii, Alaska, and briefly back to the Caribbean Sea before sailing in October 1939 to base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Over the next two years, maneuvers took the Pensacola to Midway Island, the French Frigate Shoals, and Guam.
The Pensacola departed Pearl Harbor on Nov. 29, 1941 — little more than a week before the Japanese attack on the base which pulled the U.S. into World War II — with a convoy bound for Manila in the Philippines. After the Pearl Harbor attack on Dec. 7, the convoy was diverted to Australia. The Pensacola returned to Pearl Harbor on Jan. 19, 1942.
Over the course of the next four years, the Pensacola would participate in some of the most pivotal campaigns and battles of the Pacific Theater. The ship was with the carrier Lexington near Bougainville in Feb. 1942, where the Pensacola‘s gunners helped repel two waves of Japanese bombers.
In June 1942, the Pensacola was on hand for the Battle of Midway, a pivotal naval battle at a tiny atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The battle — which military historian John Keegan has called “the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare” — resulted in a decisive American victory, crippling the Japanese fleet.
Following the battle, the Pensacola returned to Pearl Harbor to pick up Marine reinforcements, delivering them to Midway later that month.
After several months of patrol duty, the Pensacola set a course for the Solomon Islands, where Marines were storming the shores of Guadalcanal. In October, the Pensacola joined the carriers Hornet and Enterprise at the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands. While the Japanese fleet won a narrow victory, Japan’s loss of irreplaceable veteran aircrews would prove to be a long-term strategic advantage for the Allies. The Pensacola picked up some 188 survivors from the Hornet, which was abandoned during the battle, and carried them to Nouméa.
At the Battle of Tassafaronga in November 1942, a Japanese torpedo struck the Pensacola below the mainmast on her port side. The ship’s engine room flooded, three gun turrets went out of commission, and her oil tanks ruptured. Flames engulfed the Pensacola‘s main deck aft, where torpedoes and machine gun ammunition exploded. Despite the heavy damage, the crew managed to save the ship, and it limped to Tulagi, arriving there with fires still smoldering. The Pensacola lost 7 officers and 118 sailors in the battle.
At Tulagi, the crew camouflaged the ship as part of the island while making emergency repairs which enabled the Pensacola to make it to Espiritu Santo, where the tender Vestal made further repairs. In Jan. 1943, the Pensacola headed back to Pearl Harbor, where she spent most of 1943 undergoing a refit.
In Nov. 1943, the Pensacola bombarded the islands of Betio and Tarawa in advance of troop landings. In Jan. 1944, she moved to the Marshall Islands, where she bombarded Tarao and Wotje. In June, as U.S. troops invaded Europe on the other side of the world, the Pensacola was in the northern Pacific, inflicting damage on the Japanese-occupied Kuril Islands.
In September and October, the Pensacola participated in bombardments of Wake Island and Marcus Island before heading to the Philippines, where she participated in the Battle of Leyte Gulf. In December, the Pensacola headed to Iwo Jima, bombarding the island periodically over the following months in advance of the U.S. landing there in February 1945, and in March and April supported the invasion of Okinawa Island.
After Okinawa, the Pensacola was ordered home, arriving at Mare Island Navy Yard on May 7 for an overhaul, though with the war winding down, the ship had seen its last action. Even though it was only 15 years old, the Pensacola had been built in another age, designed for treaty restrictions which no longer existed, and was made obsolete by the rapid advances of the war years. In 1946, the Pensacola was used as a target ship in atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll.
The Pensacola was finally decommissioned at Kwajalein in Aug. 1946 and was sunk as a target ship off Washington State in Nov. 1948.