Bonner, Kit

The famed heavy cruiser Des Moines (CA-134) is towed to Texas for scrapping after years of searching for a port to berth her as a memorial war ship fail

Just after 1700 on 21 August 2006, the 58-year-old heavy cruiser USS Des Moines (CA-134) “was warped away from its pier at the former US Navy Yard at Philadelphia (inactive Ships Maintenance Facility) for the long voyage to Brownsville, Texas. Three local harbor tugs assisted in getting the old ship out of the anchorage and to the USNS Grasp (ARS-51) a Navy salvage ship. The 214-ft-long tow vessel with 2400-shp diesels has adequate power for towing a ship like the Des Moines at 4- to 6-kts, providing the seas are cooperative. The journey to Texas was uneventful, and the Des Moines was cast loose from the Grasp shortly after arrival at ESCO Marine in Port Brownsville, Texas on 7 September 2006. Port Brownsville is the home of at least four major ship disposal and recycling operations (All Star Metals; ESCO Marine; Marine Metals; and the largest firm, International Shipbreaking Ltd, LLC). International has received contracts to recycle such ships as the ex-USS Iwo Jima (LPH-2); ex-USS England (CG-22) and the ex-USS Sterrett (CG-31). The Naval tonnage alone has been nearly 100,000 in renderable metals. However, the Des Moines has been acquired by ESCO Marine.

As soon as the cruiser arrived at the ship breaking site it was taken over by ESCO Marine. Under a $924,000 contract, ESCO will scrap the ship and dispose of the metals. The high grade steel in the armor and copper from the cabling is some of the finest available. Likely, the ship will be placed in a makeshift dirt slip and slowly reduced from the top through the superstructure and down to the hull as the dirt pit is drained. Having intricate plans of the ship and having the company’s experts study the interior is vital to safely breaking the ship apart without injury to the workers. As the hulk is lightened, a powerful winch will pull it up further into the slip for the final effort to cut up the remainder. The slips are cutouts adjacent to a deep water channel. The length varies from 400-ft to 700-ft and up to 120-ft in width. Essentially, it is a dirt dry dock. Scores of ships have been broken up in this way including the infamous USS Cabot (CVL-28)/SNS Dedalo (Spanish), a light carrier with a sterling WWII record. The story of this ship has been sadly chronicled in previous issues of Sea Classics, and is an indictment of people who know little or nothing about ship museum preservation.

Soon after the cruiser arrived at the ESCO facility, the staff received over 200 communications from former crew and others interested in taking the ship back as a museum piece; acquiring memorabilia and such. The ship is now under the control of ESCO pursuant to a US Navy contract, so they are unable to grant the majority of the requests, and especially those to donate the ship as a museum piece! The time for that passed years ago, and ESCO is in the business of selling ship parts, materials, equipment and memorabilia. It is reasonable to expect that some memorabilia will be up for sale in the future, however, that is a decision that ESCO will have to make.

For those who love ships, seeing the grand old cruiser in a dirt slip is not a pretty sight; however, the Navy could not continue funding the preservation of a ship whose worth expired decades ago, and there were no successful bids by private interests to make the ship into a museum or any other entertainment venue. The Navy did not consider the Des Moines suitable for a SINKEX assignment, so the only avenue left was to dispose of this fine ship through the use of a ship recycling firm.

Veterans who either served aboard this ship or love cruisers as I do have to face the unpleasant reality that ships like the ex-USS Des Moines are too expensive to maintain. Vessels that are far more modern (e.g. USS California (CGN-36), USS America (CV-66); and scores of nuclear attack submarines) have already been recycled or sunk in tests over the last few years. Retaining the Des Moines was literally impossible, especially in today’s economic climate and the Navy Department’s need to conserve taxpayer dollars for ship modernization, new ships, and most importantly attention to crew training, retraining and habitability issues. Keeping the Des Moines in the Navy’s inventory was costing an estimated $800,000 per year, and this is untenable in any economic times whether good or bad.

However, the Des Moines is not simply a big steel ship that will save the taxpayers thousands of dollars by being scrapped. In years past, the ship played a part in the development of some of today’s most sophisticated Naval armament.


The Des Moines was one of a limited number of what could be considered “very heavy” cruisers. As a class it was conceived in early WWII to combat the fast maneuvering enemy cruisers that the Allied ships met in the Solomons at night – particularly on 9 August 1942. Four Allied cruisers were lost in a surface action to well-handled Japanese ships that struck hard and left quickly. The US Navy needed a rapid fire 8-in gun cruiser that could respond to anything brought to bear by the Japanese, especially in a night surface action. Unfortunately, the aircraft carrier made this a mute issue, and by the time the rapid fire 8-in gun cruiser was commissioned, there was no further need for this type of ship. There would never be a need in the future either. Had the Des Moines-dass been available in 1942, the night surface actions would have resulted in entirely different outcomes.

The “Daisy Mae,” as it was dubbed by its devoted crews, was launched on 28 May 1945, and commissioned on 16 November 1948. The Des Moines was to have been the lead ship for ten cruisers in her class. However, the war came to an end, and only the USS Salem (CA-139) and USS Newport News (CA-148) were built and commissioned. All had highly satisfactory careers, and the Salem is now a museum ship in Quincy, Massachusetts. The Newport News was sold for scrap in February 1993. The Des Moines was designed for a full load displacement of 20,950-tons, yet that was exceeded early in its career. The cruiser is 716-ft 6-in in length with a beam of 76-ft 4-in at the waterline. She was powered by steam turbines and had a flank speed of over 33-kts. It could generate over 120,000-hp. Its complement consisted of 109 officers and 1690 enlisted ratings.

The Des Moines-class was famous for its rapid-fire 8-in/55-cal guns of which there were nine in three turrets complemented by a secondary battery of twelve 5-in/38-cal guns, and 24 3-in/50-cal guns for close in defense against aircraft and surface targets.

However, the cruiser is irrevocably tied to the last few months of the Pacific war, and decades later to the phenomenal Aegis system.

The weapons could be set on automatic or manual control. In any event, these cruisers were well-armed and armored and could fight most of the threats posed by the Navies of the day.

The Des Moines did a variety of tours in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, yet missile fever caused her, as well as many other ex-WWII/Korean War era ships, to be laid up. The Des Moines was decommissioned on 14 July 1961 after a mere 13-years of service. From 1961 until 2006, the cruiser aged and sat at the Inactive Fleet Maintenance site in Philadelphia. It rarely moved except when a reshuffling of the ships was necessary to accommodate new arrivals. On the other hand, the Des Moines served a vital and little-talked about service for the Navy and National Defense. It began with the kamikaze attacks on Allied ships moving toward Japan in 1944-1945.


As WWII entered its final months in the Pacific, and the Allies pressed closer to the Japanese home islands, the kamikaze (“divine wind”) became a fearful and legitimate weapon of war. What had been a random attack by a pilot who was fanatically devoted to the Emperor became a large scale and organized swarm of explosive-laden aircraft aimed at the Allied ships, which were coming dangerously close to Japan. The first recorded instance of what was thought to be a suicide attack, or kamikaze, occurred as early as 7 December 1941, during the Japanese air attack on Pearl Harbor when a Japanese Val bomber was hit by gunners aboard the USS Curtiss CAV-4). The pilot of the damaged aircraft swung down to hit the seaplane tender’s starboard crane in an obvious suicide dive. As the war progressed, other such attacks were noted, yet nothing on a massive organized scale until the Allies breached the last defensive ring around Japan.

When the landings took place in Leyte Gulf in the Philippines in October 1944, the kamikaze became a very real and determined method of combating the Allied ships. There is some argument over which ship was first hit by a kamikaze raid, however, the Kamikaze Special Attack Force was actually inaugurated on 25 October 1944, when five Zero or Zeke fighters attacked the USS St Lo (CVE-63). Only one Zero hit the jeep carrier, but its bomb and residual fuel was sufficient to cause explosions that sank the small carrier. Pumped up by this success, over 55 kamikazes in various raids took place as part of the Special Attack Force over the next two days. The targets were again the smaller American carriers, and at least 40 other ships. The resultant success of sinking five ships and severely damaging over 30 ships, gave hope to the Japanese military hierarchy and especially the propaganda architects that the suicide weapon could effectively stop the Allies from coming closer to the home islands. In fact, those that gave their lives for the Emperor would drive the enemy back across the Pacific allowing the Japanese Armed Forces to gain the upper hand.

Young men from all over Japan were pressed into becoming one-way pilots through peer pressure, family honor and devotion to the Emperor. Unfortunately, much of the lore surrounding the kamikaze concept was falsely presented to the pilots who were 17-20 years of age. The next task for the expanded Special Attack Forces or Corps was to seek out and destroy bigger targets such as the fleet carriers, battleships and troop and cargo transports. Later, as the Allied forces assaulted Okinawa, the kamikaze attacks were literally carried out around the clock and in multiple raids of over 50 aircraft per day. In fact, there were over 10,000 aircraft/suicide boats/Baka bombs being readied for use to drive off the invaders, even if the pilots had little or no experience and the aircraft were in poor condition. A few of the aircraft were the Ki-115 Tsurugi type which was simplistic wood frame flyable craft that used leftover crated engines from any aircraft. The landing gear was detachable and fell off when the aircraft left the ground. The gear could then be reused on another Tsurugi. They were only slated for a one-way journey.

In the battle between the Allied Navies and the Japanese airmen, it was a contest between men who sought to die versus those who wanted to live. The kamikaze soon became the greatest challenge to the Allied invasion force. Fortunately, the combination of large scale combat air patrols, organized anti-aircraft fire and well-placed defenses (destroyer picket lines) away from the main body of the fleet blunted what could have been a huge setback to Allied victory. These tactical methods plus the B-29 Stratofortress raids on Japan coupled with the two atomic bomb attacks put an end to the war before the kamikaze could do its greatest damage. Even so, the 3912 combined Army and Navy planes sunk 34 Allied ships and damaged 368 other craft. Nearly 5000 men were killed, and 4800 were wounded.

In terms of the success rate, 547 kamikazes fought their way through Allied defenses to hit their targets, and 8.5-percent of the ships that were hit did not survive. These figures were significant to anyone who had appreciation of Naval combat. A new weapon had emerged – a guided missile. Almost immediately, the Navy began to study ways and means of defeating enemy missiles that would be electronically flown as opposed to suicide pilot.

The value of this type of weapon was not lost on America’s potential enemies, and methods to shoot down incoming missiles at medium or distant ranges was given a high priority by the US Navy. One of the first items to be considered was the rapid-fire gun such as the 6-in/47-cal automatic weapons on the USS Worcester (CLAA-144) and USS Roanoke (CLAA-145), and the 8-in/55-cal guns on the USS Des Moines class of heavy cruiser. Of greater importance was an electronic system for detecting and tracking attacking missiles or high speed aircraft on a massed basis.


The Des Moines did not just simply sit in reserve and be ignored. In 1962, it was proposed that the Des Moines be converted to enable the use of the Typhon System and accompanying missile batteries. This system was designed to shoot down incoming swarm attacks of missiles and high-speed aircraft. The system consumed a tremendous amount of space and electrical power; thus a large ship with a powerful engineering plant was a basic requirement.

The Des Moines fit the bill. In addition, the ship would be modernized to defend it against enemy submarines, yet primarily its function would be somewhat like the Aegis system that would follow on the Ticonderoga-class cruisers. For over a year, the issue was studied and nearly came to fruition, however, advances in technology rendered the entire program obsolete before a prototype was built. It was however, a major stepping stone in the journey toward Aegis.

Typhon and the conversion of the Des Moines were formally cancelled on 25 January 1963. Aegis would supplant this concept, and this system would give the US Navy a quantum leap in Naval warfighting, as it enabled multiple targets to be prioritized and destroyed based system requirements. Had this been available on at least one ship protecting the carriers off Okinawa in 1945, the kamikaze would have been a minor threat. The Des Moines and the studies utilizing this cruiser helped lead the way to a massive improvement in fleet defense.


The Des Moines may have sat in Philadelphia for over four decades, but this cruiser served a vital need to Naval combat. It is not necessary for a ship to fight to the death to gain recognition. There are other ways, and the Des Moines deserves its place in the sun for its valued contribution.

Thanks to the following for the images: ESCO Marine; US Navy; Author’s Collection; Ed Zajkowski; Ray Miller; and Larry Rock.

Copyright Challenge Publications Inc. Dec 2006

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved

You May Also Like

TRICKY FORTUNES of the Esso Fleet

TRICKY FORTUNES of the Esso Fleet McLaren, Robert Flying the flag of the world’s largest oil cartel was no guarantee of security, lo…


SEA MAIL NO MORE MAGELLANS! I want to object to the Sea Classics March issue article about ocean spanning motor trawlers. Who cares…


SEAGOING PICKUPS Bloom, Jim Once little more than powered barges, a whole new generation of highly efficient work boats ply the Seve…


TEXAS NAVY, THE Wells, Tom H Little recalled today is the formidable fleet mustered as the Naval force of the Lone Star Republic …