By the time World War 2 had ended in 1945, the USS San Diego (CL-53) would become the second-most decorated ship in the history of the United States Navy (USN). Prior to the war, a naval race was underway with both Germany and Japan building powerful navies in preparation for war. The War Department informed American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt of the threat to which, in 1938, the president signed an appropriations bill from Congress authorizing the building of new American warships. Citizens went to Washington D.C. to request that one of the new vessels be named after the city of San Diego, California. The President agreed and the Navy department formally commissioned one of their cruisers as the USS San Diego (CL-53).
Her keel was laid down on March 27th, 1940, through the Bethlehem Steel Shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts. The ship when then fitted out at the Boston Navy Yard and, about a month after Pearl Harbor attack (December 7th, 1941) the CL-53 was officially commissioned in a ceremony on a snowy January 10th, 1942. Her full complement of 650 men and officers had been assigned and were present on commissioning day - the crew consisted of green sailors and officers from the Naval Academy as well as reserve officers and experienced Navy petty officers.
She was the third of eight ships in the Atlanta-Class, a new type of ocean-going cruiser designed to protect aircraft carriers and battleships from attacking enemy aircraft and surface ships through a network of heavy anti-aircraft guns and torpedo. This was a change from the previous 6-inch gun class cruisers built for ship and shore bombardment. Lighter anti-aircraft main guns were chosen; 16 x 5-inch (127mm) /38 cal guns were fitted in 8 x twin gun mounts - three forward and three aft - in a tired effect along centerline. The remaining two turrets were mounted at starboard and along port slightly aft of amidships. The Navy Department considered the dual mounts of the 5-inch (127 mm) /38 cal guns as more effective over the single mounted guns utilized prior. This also created a weight savings through use of eight fewer individual gun mounts distributed over the ship and not all being found on the center line. The complete battery could fire over 17,600 pounds (10,560 kg) of shells per minute, including the new radar-fused "VT" anti-aircraft projectile. This weight savings allowed for additional anti-aircraft weapons to be fitted so 16 x 1.1-inch (28mm) /75 cal guns and 6 x 28mm anti-aircraft cannons completed her arsenal. In a throwback to World War 1-era USN ship design, 8 x 21" torpedo tubes fitted across two quad launchers mounted fore and aft made the Atlanta-class the only USN ships built after 1940 to be armed with torpedoes tubes during the War.
The class was designed with a 3.5-inch armor belt with 2-inches of deck armor. The light cruiser was 541 feet in length with a beam of 53 feet and a draught of 24 feet. Her full load displacement was 8,200 tons full and she could make 30 knots through use of 2 x geared steam turbines generating 75,000 horsepower.
The USS San Diego was ordered to make her training shakedown cruise in the Chesapeake Bay In February of 1942 and, when her construction was wholly completed, she was transferred to the Port of San Diego via the Panama Canal in May of 1942 for final fitting out before reporting to the Pacific fleet. CL-53 left San Diego as an escort for the carrier USS Saratoga to join the carrier force at the Battle of Midway. Even at flank speed CL-53 and Saratoga were not able to reach Midway for the pivotal carrier battle in time, thus missing out on the Battle at Midway. CL-53 was then ordered to proceed to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii and, in mid-June 1942, was assigned as one of the escorts to the carrier USS Hornet (CV-8) for continued operations in the South Pacific.
In late July, the War Department learned that the Japanese were building an airfield on Guadalcanal and quickly rerouted Task Force 61 (TF61) to counter the threat. On August 7th, 1942 the Battle for Guadalcanal officially began as the task force approached Savo Island and Tulagi then to Guadalcanal to the south. This would be the first large scale American invasion force of the war. The Expeditionary Force of 82 ships was commanded by Vice-Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher. Assigned to protect the 23 transports and cargo ships carrying the 19,000 US Marine expeditionary force personnel and their supplies was the USS San Diego plus an additional seven cruisers and fifteen destroyers. The landing was a complete surprise to the Japanese but the defenders soon rebounded to fiercely challenge the American invasion on land, sea and in the air.
After the first phase of Guadalcanal, Task Force 61 was broken up into different commands and USS San Diego was assigned as the USS Hornet's screen when the aircraft carrier USS Wasp was sunk nearby on September 15th, 1942. During the Battle of Santa Cruz Island, the USS San Diego was stationed on the port side of the USS Hornet and unable to protect her starboard side as she was bombed and torpedoed. However, CL-35's five-inch AA guns shot down three enemy planes as they attacked Hornet and the carrier's own crew did their best but in defense but the vessel could not be saved. The USS San Diego moved alongside USS Hornet, making herself a target, and rescued 200 of Hornet's crew while continuing to provide protection from air attack.
USS San Diego then provided anti-aircraft protection to the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise during the definitive naval battle of Guadalcanal from November 12th-15th, 1942. On the morning of November 13th, the Japanese battleship IJN Hiei was attacked repeatedly by USN Grumman TBF Avenger torpedo planes from Henderson Field and additional TBFs and Douglas SBD Dauntless dive-bombers from USS Enterprise. The Hiei had taken a number of hits and started taking on water; the decision was made to have the IJN Kirishima battleship move in with her screen to save IJN Hiei and move her out of the combat zone under tow. Now both Japanese battleships were screened by the cruiser IJN Nagara and accompanying destroyers provided air and submarine protection during the salvage action. However, IJN Hiei continued to flounder and had to be abandoned. Planes from USS Enterprise, supported by USS San Diego, again found Hiei, hitting her with bombs and torpedoes. She sank by the stern north of Savo Island during the evening of November 13th, 1942. The naval battle of Guadalcanal concluded when the IJN retired following all of the eleven participating Japanese troop ships being sunk or beached on Guadalcanal with an estimated loss of 24,000 Japanese troops.
Early in February of 1943, the Japanese sent 20 destroyers at flank speed down the slot from Bougainville to Guadalcanal. The American Navy assumed it was to be an attack on Henderson Field after landing troop reinforcements. However, within days, it was found that it was an evacuation of the entire 11,000 Japanese force left on the island. The withdrawal ended the Guadalcanal stalemate and, after several months of service in the contested waters of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, USS San Diego sailed to Auckland, New Zealand for resupply and needed shore leave for her crew.
In July 1943, USS Enterprise was placed in overhaul so the light cruiser USS San Diego, working out of New Caledonia, was ordered to join the carrier USS Saratoga - now the only American carrier available in the South Pacific. In February of 1942 Japanese naval and air forces attacked Rabaul, New Guinea which was defended by the Australian New Guinea Volunteer Rifles. The base at Rabaul was built up to be a stronghold for over 100,000 Japanese troops. The defenders were no match for the Japanese and the soldiers who were captured, along with their families, were loaded onto the Japanese transport Montivideo Maru. On the way to Japan, the vessel was tragically sunk by the American submarine USS Sturgeon and the ship's total complement of about 1,140 prisoners and 88 Japanese crewmen perished -18 crewmen surviving.
In 1943, Operation Cartwheel was the decision by the American and British to suppress the primary Japanese Pacific Forward Operating Base (FOB) at Rabaul. On November 5th, 1943, USS San Diego joined the cruiser USS Princeton supporting USS Saratoga and the British carrier HMS Victorious through successful raids against the Japanese base. The Army then built air bases on the islands of Munda, New Georgia, and Bougainville islands around Rabaul and moved two-engine medium bombers in to fly daily sorties against the base, denying it from being used as a major staging point by the IJN. Despite these efforts, Rabaul was held by the Japanese until their complete surrender at the end of the war in August 1945 - by this time the forces having been cut off from resupply and becoming almost useless to the Japanese war effort.
USS San Diego was then ordered to support Operation Galvanic on November 20th to 23rd, 1943. The mission was to capture Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands and the Japanese 4,000-foot landing strip on the 300 acre Betio Island in the Tarawa Atoll. The overall plan was to seize islands having airfields as the fleet traveled ("island-hopped") across the Pacific on their march towards the Japanese homeland. Operation Galvanic was supported by 200 American ships congregating around the Tarawa atoll and Makin Island group. Five aircraft carriers in the fleet contained 900 aircraft that bombed and strafed the islands while the carriers were defended by USS San Diego and other AA cruisers. The US Marines took heavy losses with 990 Marines killed and 2,296 wounded during the fighting on Tarawa atoll and Makin Island. A Japanese submarine sank the carrier USS Liscome Bay (CVE-46) near Makin killing 644 sailors. The Japanese lost 4,690 marines in defense of the island - the bloodiest battle of the Pacific war so far.
Early in December, the USS San Diego was reassigned to defend the carrier USS Lexington's port side as she steamed forward on the Kwajalein raid starting on December 4th, 1943. Launching planes at 5am for the morning strike found and damaged two enemy cruisers in the bay then sank the freighter SS Kembu Maru. The aircraft from "Lady Lex" destroyed 30 enemy aircraft before returning to the carrier. Around 1pm, the Japanese regrouped and attacked Lexington from the port side, allowing USS San Diego to shoot down two of the attacking enemy torpedo planes. A well-coordinated Japanese Army/Navy night attack of land based Army aircraft that dropped parachute flares illuminating Lexington allowed an IJN submarine that had scored a torpedo hit into Lexington's starboard side. The crew was able to make temporary repairs to the hull and USS San Diego was assigned as escort to the USS Lexington as she limped home to Pearl Harbor on December 9th, 1943. USS San Diego then continued on to San Francisco for needed upgrades, a modernized Combat Information Center (CIC) and new enhanced radar equipment. The 16 x 1.1 in (27 mm) AA guns were removed and were replaced by 8 x 40mm /56 cal Bofors anti-aircraft guns as a major increase in firepower. The 2 x dual 5-inch gun mounts on the port and starboard sides were replaced with 8 x Bofors 40mm, highly effective anti-aircraft guns chosen as the Navy's standard anti-aircraft weapon. After the upgrades were completed and the normal crew changes were made, supplies were stored below San Diego's decks and she weighted anchor and steamed back to Pearl Harbor for reassignment.
Back at Pearl in January of 1944, USS San Diego was assigned as an escort to the Fast Carrier Task Force 58 (TF58), the most powerful carrier task force in recorded naval history under the command of Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher. The upgraded massive AA fire power of USS San Diego was an asset to the task force in Operation Flintlock - the operation designed to capture the island of Kwajale, which held airfields, and the island of Majuro. The outcome was never in doubt with 8,100 Japanese defenders against 42,000 army troops and marines plus a large number of supporting carrier aircraft. The strategy developed by the Navy Department was to use Task Force 58 - USS San Diego was assigned to TF58 for the balance of the war in the Pacific and was front-and-center for the next attack against the strong Japanese naval base at Truk. The Japanese felt Truk was their "Pearl Harbor" with a naturally deep depth able to support capital ships and land mass large enough for a number of airfields and troop encampments. The decision was to attack the island stronghold on an ongoing basis, keeping the Japanese on the defensive and making Truk ineffective as a Forward Operating base. Truk was still in Japanese hands when the Empire surrendered in August 1945 but the troops there were also made ineffective and faced starvation due to Allied progress elsewhere before they were returned to the Japanese homeland.
USS San Diego was recalled to the United States in April of 1944 to receive an updated and powerful radar suite before her return to carrier Task Force 58. In June of 1944, Task Force 58 sailed against Wake Island and the Marcus Islands. The islands were attacked by Task Force 58's carrier aircraft but the islands were deemed militarily unnecessary for invasion. After Wake Island, USS San Diego was assigned to carrier Task Force 38, a division of TF58, as the invasion of Saipan was about to begin. Saipan was a mass 15 miles long and protected by 31,000 Japanese Army/Naval troops, including a Tank Battalion of 48 tanks and an airfield making Saipan strategically important and requiring invasion. USS San Diego was ordered to participate in the First Battle of the Philippine Sea on June 19th-20th, 1944. The American carrier groups had 100 warships and 28 submarines at her disposal.
The Task Force Battle Line was arranged in a circle about 6 miles in diameter with a battleship as the Flagship in the center of the circle. The sea area of 875 square miles was needed for the 128 ships and submarines to allow defensive maneuvering when attacked. Outwardly from the Flagship were placed defensive rings encircling the 15 carriers and their all-important aircraft numbering 960. Closest to the center by the Flagship were the carriers, then supporting battleships and heavy cruisers then Light cruisers, destroyers and, on the outer ring, the destroyer escorts. This design forced the Japanese aircraft hunting for the American carriers to fly through a lethal network of anti-aircraft fire from the ships in the defensive rings. Ships like USS San Diego with upgraded radar were stationed with the carriers at the center and helped locate the Japanese warplanes and direct American aircraft towards the inbound attacking forces. The outcome of the battle included 123 American aircraft destroyed and one battleship damaged. The Japanese lost 3 fleet carriers and 645 aircraft, 2 oilers and 6 ships damaged.
The USS San Diego, still assigned to fast carrier Task Force (TF38) was assigned to the invasion of Guam, the major island of the Marianas, 150 miles south of Saipan. The carriers of fast carrier Task Force launched air strikes on July 5th to July 21st, bombing and strafing Guam with no ground invasion. The Task Force then moved West towards the Palau Island group. General Douglas MacArthur was preparing the invasion of the Philippines and was concerned with the strong forces and airfield on Peleliu that would be a thorn on the invasion's right flank. As such, on September 12th, 1944, the US Navy began their pre-invasion offensive of Peleliu. Three fleet and five light aircraft carriers provided air support which, in turn, were supported by USS San Diego along with battleships and cruisers which covered the Marines landing on the Palau Island group. The island of Peleliu was 6 square miles while five battleships fired 519 rounds of 16-inch (410 mm) shells and 1,845 rounds of 14-inch shells during the fray. The carrier strike aircraft, loaded with 500 pound bombs, flew hundreds of sorties, dropping 1,793 x 230kg explosives on the island. However, major problems plagued the marine operation when 60 LVT and DUKW landing craft were destroyed by enemy fire before they could make landfall, forcing the marine contingent to wade ashore in deep water under heavy enemy fire. The naval shelling and air strikes did little to the concrete reinforced coral caves used by the Japanese defenders. Temperatures during the day proved unforgiving, as high as 115 F, and the island water supply was poisoned by the retreating Japanese with dead men or animals thrown in which forced the Navy to send water ashore in oil drums that had not been cleaned properly. This decision and lack of quality control resulted in additional Marine casualties from the contaminated water alone.
The invasion of Peleliu was a costly, and unnecessary, decision by MacArthur as the "Old Guard" 1st Marine Division suffered over 6,500 casualties, decimating the division as a fighting force and keeping them out of action until April of 1945. Also, the Army 81st Infantry Division supporting the Marines suffered 3,300 casualties during the battle. The concern that the Island group was a threat to the invasion of the Philippines was overstated and unfounded. The after-action reports of the battle around Umurbrogol Mountain, with its sharp coral spires and hidden reinforced caves, was and is considered by many to be the most grueling engagement of World War 2.
On September 21st, 1944 USS San Diego and the Task Force shelled and bombed enemy positions in the Philippine Manila Bay area. USS San Diego, needing armaments and food, steamed to the newly captured ports of Saipan and Ulithi. When the last of the cargo was secured onboard she sailed to rejoin TF38 for the first strike against the island of Okinawa - the Allied naval forces finally reaching the Japanese homeland. On to attacking the airfields of Formosa from October 12th-15th, the carriers were defended by USS San Diego's 5-inch guns. San Diego shot down two Japanese torpedo planes and kept seven Kate bombers at bay that were intent on attacking the carriers of the Task Force. The cruisers USS Houston and USS Canberra were attacked and damaged. The decision was made to have USS San Diego escort the heavy cruiser USS Wichita (towing USS Canberra) along with USS Houston moving under her own power (but listing to port) on a two-week slow speed trek to the port at Ulithi Island for repair. In January of 1945, USS San Diego would continue to support TF38 as they island-hopped into the South China Sea, attacking Japanese positions at Indochina (present-day Vietnam) and Formosa, China.
In early February 1945, the Third Fleet (including San Diego) was folded into the Fifth Fleet and the fleet was ordered to support the invasion of Iwo Jima. In March, San Diego joined to provide protection for a bombardment mission against a radar station on Okino Daito Island being used to direct friendlies against Japanese warships and aircraft. The squadron was headed by the heavy cruiser USS Vincennes (CA-44) and the light cruiser USS Miami (CL 89) while being supported by Destroyer Squadron 61. On February 19th to 24th, 1945, USS San Diego returned to Iwo Jima for continued carrier operations support against the island. In early March, San Diego returned to Task Force 38 to protect her carriers against air strikes on Kyushu. Land-based Japanese planes attacked the carriers of Task Force 38 and, while in support, San Diego shot down 2 enemy aircraft.
On the night of March 27th-28th, USS San Diego participated in the shelling of airfields and Japanese strong points on the island of Minami Daito Jima. On April 11th, USS Haggard (DD-555) - a destroyer - was hit by a kamikaze attack and a bomb penetrated her hull, detonating in the engine room. The ship took on water and required towing. USS San Diego came alongside and took 31 of the badly wounded onboard. The USS Walker (DD-517) arrived to tow the damaged ship to Kerama Retto, near Okinawa. San Diego supported the tow and provided comfort to the seriously wounded and on May 1st, 1945. The wounded were then transferred to a medical ship for proper treatment.
From July 10th, 1945, off the coast of Japan, USS San Diego served with the carrier force until the end of the war in August. On August 12th, Admiral William "Bull" Halsey, commander of the United States Third Fleet, sent a message to the USS San Diego (CL 53) which read as : "SAN DIEGO designated as flagship for Commander Task Force 31, and thus in the center of all activity". The honor was bestowed on her for her outstanding record of service up to this point in the war. The USS San Diego was to be the first major warship to enter Tokyo Bay once the Japanese had surrendered. The ships chosen to accompany San Diego were ships with exceptional combat records and this included battleships, destroyers, minesweepers, a seaplane tender and PT (Patrol Torpedo) Boats making up the symbolic Task Force 31. After the Japanese high command signaled the surrender on August 27th, 1945, USS San Diego led Task Force 31 into the narrow, but heavily fortified, entrance to Tokyo Bay while all crew still managed their battle stations. No attacks were made on the force as they steamed to their arraigned anchorage position in the bay just outside the Yokosuka Naval Shipyard.
Three days later on August 30th, 1945, sailors from USS San Diego assisted in the Allied occupation of the Yokosuka Naval Base as the naval port of occupation for Allied ships and the surrender of the Japanese Battleship Nagato - the last surviving Japanese battleship of the war. On September 2nd, USS San Diego took aboard 250 officers and men as passengers. The following morning, San Diego steamed out of Tokyo Bay at 27 knots on a course for San Francisco, USA. As they left the harbor, USS San Diego steamed past the battleship USS Missouri which was actively serving as the formal surrender site by the Empire of Japan, the signing just underway on her deck. The 258 allied ships in the bay as part of the surrender saluted the USS San Diego as the first ship to be ordered home, she returning to San Francisco Bay on September 14th, 1945.
The city of San Francisco welcomed the second-most decorated USN ship as she passed under the Golden Gate bridge. Her next stop was the port city of San Diego on October 27th - "Navy Day". She then released most of her crew and, on November 4th, 1946, USS San Diego was decommissioned and placed in the reserve fleet. In March of 1949, she was reclassified as CLAA-53 (Light Anti-Aircraft Cruiser) to which then, sadly, on March 1, 1959 the Navy struck her from the Naval Vessel Register and she was sold for scrap in 1960 - having served just 10 years in reserve with no motion made to save her as a floating museum (a fate met by many classic US warships). She was the only ship of her class to survive the war without being damaged by enemy action and known to her crew and the US Navy as a lucky ship. She steamed over 300,000 nautical miles during the war, from first actions at Guadalcanal to the surrender at Tokyo bay, without given a proper major overhaul in all the years of fighting. None of her sailors were killed in the 34 actions against the enemy - all that sailed on her returned home safe and sound. She won 18 battle stars for her service in World War 2 across the Pacific Theater from 1942 to 1945 - only the USS Enterprise (CV-6) aircraft carrier was honored more with 20 total Battle Stars.