Marcus W. Robbins, Historian & Archivist
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Blog #63.  February 24, 2019

History Matters:  75th Launching Anniversary of USS Shagari-La

After a 40 month personal absence (retirement can be busy) today marks resumption of my periodic long form "History Matters" writings because there is always an important story to tell about the old Norfolk Navy Yard.

Today I wish to look back upon the 75th Launching Anniversary of USS Shagari-La but what better way to set the scene than to first see some actual film footage of the event taken at Norfolk.

Also it was important to write home about these historic events as depicted by this rare postal cover from the day of the launching at the Norfolk Navy Yard on February 24, 1944.

Launching Aircraft Carrier USS Shangri-La cover canceled at the
Portsmouth, Virginia Navy Yard on February 24, 1944
(Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins collection)


It is a long standing tradition and celebration of sorts to break a bottle of champagne upon the bow of a ship to properly christen it and then watch it slide into its element.  On this day Mrs. James H, Doolittle bestowed those same honors with Shipyard Commander Rear Admiral Felix Gygax nearby upon the platform along with an estimated 100,000 souls watching the event (note the people on top of the Building 163 roof in the distance).

Photo #1 ~ CV-38 USS Shangri-La
(Historic Norfolk Navy Yard Film Collection, Photo Serial 7203(44) taken on 2/24/1944 - cropped image)

The many untold thousands of men and women that have labored here at Norfolk, especially in the World War II era, really did help win the war on the Homefront.   I'll provide some personal closing observation comments at the end of this blog but I feel that today's story is best told from the perspective of Lieutenant Commander Arthur Sydnor Barksdale Jr. who wrote a very detailed yet unpublished typescript entitled "History of the Norfolk Navy Yard in World War II".  Page 166 through a portion of Page 168 follow are now presented as written in 1945.

5. The Big Flat Tops

The largest capital ship new construction program which the Norfolk Navy Yard engaged in during World War II was the aircraft carrier program, three 34,800-ton Essex class aircraft carriers having been built during the war.  These vessels were the U.S.S. SHANGRI-LA, CV38; U.S.S LAKE CHAMPLAIN, CV39; and the U.S.S. TARAW, CV40.

The order for these three carriers was placed with the Navy Yard in a SecNav Dispatch on August 7, 1942.  The ships were the same class as CV20, the ESSEX, which was launched in Newport News on July 31, 1942, the first of the new fleet of big flattops that was destined to carry the war to Japan.

The first of these vessels to be begun in the Navy Yard was the CV38, then unnamed.  The keel was laid on January 15, 1943, on Buildingways No. 1, from which the second group of four LSTs had been launched in December.

Two months later, on March 15, 1943, the keel for the CV39 was laid in Drydock No. 8, following the launching of the final group of LSTs from that dock.  Lacking additional facilities to accommodate a third capital ship, the Yard could not lay the keel for the CV40 until one of the others two ships was completed.

The big flat tops were given high priority by the Navy Department because of the necessity for combat carriers in Pacific operations.  With the work well underway on the DE and LST programs. The Yard devoted full energy of its new construction division to these vessels.  All of the tank landing ships had been launched by the time the keel of the CV39 was laid, but the destroyer escorts were under construction on Buildingways No. 2  and in Drydock No. 2 simultaneously with work on two big carriers, so that the early spring and summer of 1943 saw the Yard carrying its heaviest new construction workload.

Few ships built in the Norfolk Navy Yard aroused so much interest on the part of the employees as did the SHANGRI-LA.  The usual practice in assigning ships for construction is to assign them simply as hull numbers, and to designate the name of the vessel subsequently.  In the case of the CV38, the name SHANGRI-LA was not assigned until August, 1943, a year after the ship had been ordered.  The announcement from Secretary Knox of the naming of the vessel was greeted with enthusiasm by Yard personnel.

The story of this name is perhaps well known, but it bears brief repetition here.  The originator of "Shangri-La" was James Hilton in his novel "Lost Horizon," the name being given to a mythical location in Asia.  Questioned by reporters as to where the American planes which bombed Tokyo in the first raid on the Japanese capital came from, President Roosevelt quipped that they came from "Shangri-La".  Much later, the actual source of the attack was disclosed as USS HORNET, the ill-fated aircraft carrier which was lost in the battle of Santa Cruz, October 16, 1942, with B-26's under then Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle making the raid on April 18, 1942.  From the President's grim wisecrack came the name of the CV38.

To build this vessel a nationwide war stamp and bond campaign was conducted, especially among school children, who bought stamps to raise funds for the carrier.  Upon completion of the fund raising drive, the name of the ship was assigned, and Norfolk was given the privilege of building her.

This nationwide interest in the SHANGRI-LA followed the ship through the final stages of its building, and the most colorful launching ceremony in the Norfolk Navy Yard's history resulted when, on February 24, 1944, the ship, Norfolk's first aircraft carrier, went down the ways.

Present at the ceremony was Mr. Hilton, author of the book, and Mrs. Doolittle, wife of General, who christened the vessel.  The Governor of Virginia, Colgate W. Darden, Jr., made the principle address.  The largest throng ever gathered in the Yard saw the ceremony.  War time restrictions stripping launching ceremonies of most of their colorful trappings were in effect, but for this significant event, regulations were relaxed sufficiently to permit all Yard employees and their families to be present for the occasion.  The yard newspaper, "Speed Victory" estimated the throng at 100,000.

Commissioned on September 15, 1944, The SHANGRI-LA was delivered to the fleet on November 1.

So as to reflect upon the moment the ship's Sponsor, Mrs. James H. Doolittle and her Flower Girl, Miss Mary McClellan (14) a daughter of a Navy Yard workman look out upon the crowd that has gathered to witness Norfolk's first aircraft carrier launching.

Photo #2 ~ CV-38 USS Shangri-La
(Historic Norfolk Navy Yard Film Collection, Photo Serial 7212(44) taken on 2/24/1944)

Norfolk has provided the United States Navy with the tools of the trade to maintain a global force for peace for in excess of  251 years by not only repairing warships but for a certain time in our proud heritage also building them. 

The USS Shangri-La's launching seventy-five years ago on this date as Norfolk's first aircraft carrier that was crafted by the talented men and women of this shipyard in order to take the fight to Japan in the Pacific is a very noteworthy achievement because –"history matters".

Blog #64, March 9, 2019

History Matters: 157th Anniversary of the Battle of Hampton Roads

I first wrote this (7) years ago. Update the event to (157) years ago today in 2019.

Locally as you pass over either of the two river crossings between the northern and southern shores of the Hampton Roads harbor the waters between them east to west form the canvas to where this naval revolution took place on March 9, 1862.

Sometimes you don't have to write new text, you just share the story with the next generation. The men and machines that contributed to these great naval innovations on so many levels were indeed ahead of their time.  It has been said that the age of wood and sail gave way to the age of iron and steam and that naval warfare worldwide would never be the same but as my friend the great naval historian John V. Quarstein would say "it happened right here in Hampton Roads." 

Blog #18. March 4, 2012.

BATTLE OF IRONCLADS, March 8 & 9, 1862 – 150 Years Ago

As the spring of March 1862 approached, the nation had been at civil war within itself for almost a year. No place held more strategic importance in eastern Virginia’s theater of war than the harbor known as Hampton Roads.

This vast natural deep water harbor receives the rivers Nansemond, James and Elizabeth before exiting into the Chesapeake Bay and afforded miles of shoreline for each side to establish defenses. Both the Northern Federal and Southern Confederate forces realized that control of this waterway would be vital to their individual cause.

The Federal forces occupied Newport News Point with a heavily reinforced Camp Butler, the man-made Rip Rap Island found at the channel entrance otherwise known as Fort Wool which gave the Union forces a great forward observation point. Most importantly, Fortress Monroe functioned as a secure base for both land and sea operations.

On the southern shores of the Hampton Roads harbor, the Confederate forces established reinforcements at Pig Point, Craney Island and Sewell’s Point. Also they held control of their grand prize of the war that was abandoned by the Union burning of April 1861, found by sailing 10 miles down the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth: the Gosport Navy Yard.

Sides had been drawn, the center harbor cleared and in a matter of time the contestants would appear to do battle.

The South, lacking material resources and a robust industrial base, had raised and converted the burnt hulk of the steam frigate USS Merrimac. Torched and sunk by the Union abandonment at Gosport, the new ironclad Confederate States Ship, CSS Virginia, was commissioned in about nine months, yet it was still incomplete at time of sailing. Although not ideal, the South was forced to use what it could. To support the goal of survival by holding both Norfolk and Portsmouth (and ultimately Richmond), the South needed control of Hampton Roads and to break the Union blockade.

Virginia drew a great depth of water which would restrict operations and also required much room to turn and maneuver by the very size of the hull. Given marginal performance of the steam engines, Virginia made up for any shortcomings by way of firepower between two seven-inch Brooke rifled guns, six nine-inch Dahlgren smoothbores and two 6.4-inch Brooke rifled pivot guns. It sailed with a casemate of two alternating layers of bolted two- inch iron bars over a 24-inch wooden backing all configured at a 35-degree angle in order to best deflect shot. Virginia also had an iron ram mounted to the bow, a feature that would be soon tested with much success against wood.

On the morning of March 8, 1862, Virginia slipped away from Gosport and sailed into history. Flag Officer Franklin Buchanan commanded his flagship against the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron consisting of the USS Roanoke, USS Minnesota, USS Congress and USS Cumberland which had escaped certain destruction the year prior by being towed away from Gosport as the inferno began under the Union match.

With certain direct maneuver, Buchanan set his target upon Cumberland with a goal of sinking by a massive broadside hit of the ram. It has been said that the resulting impact was wide enough to let in a horse and a cart. Still yet, Cumberland and Virginia exchanged fire as she sank, her flag still flying with honor.

Next, Virginia turned attention back to Congress which up to this point had only received some passing shots and continued to pour shot upon the ship until the white flag was raised. Virginia ceased fire so the smaller vessels of the Confederate James River fleet could approach Congress to remove the surviving officers as prisoners before burning the ship. The Newport News shore batteries would have nothing to do with the surrender and began to fire a hail of bullets from the shore. It was at this time that Commander Buchanan was hit by rifle shot in the leg and was taken out of action. Buchanan’s last order was to heat shells and send hot shot into Congress until the ship was burned. Shortly after midnight the Congress exploded and ceased to exist as the ruins slipped into the deep.

Lieutenant Catesby ap R. Jones, Virginia’s Executive Officer now found himself in command. With falling tide, proper attention could not be made to the USS Minnesota so Jones took up anchor under the guns of Sewell’s Point for the night. March 8, 1862, is recognized as the demise for the age of sail and wooden vessels against an ironclad; the Union fleet suffered terrible losses.

On the morning of March 9, 1862, naval warfare would be changed forever for it would now be ironclad against ironclad on the second day of the Battle of Hampton Roads.

As the fog burnt away on Sunday morning, something strange was seen alongside of the Minnesota. Described as a cheese box on a raft, it was the USS Monitor, the invention of Swedish designer, John Ericsson. The ship had made the voyage from the Brooklyn Navy Yard leaving Thursday at 11 a.m. and entered into Hampton Roads at 9 p.m. Saturday evening in time to witness Congress on fire.

Monitor was an experimental first-of-its-kind vessel, featuring a round rotating turret that was covered by eight inches of rolled iron plate. Inside the turret were two 11-inch Dahlgren cannon that could be trained in any direction by rotation of the turret. Given the shallow draft required and it being somewhat shorter in length, Monitor had greater maneuverability than Virginia in Hampton Roads.

Lieutenant Worden was Commander of the Monitor from her commissioning till the time of his wounding as the result of a direct hit while he was peering out the observation slit in the pilot house near the close of the battle that Sunday afternoon.

Much has been written pertaining to the first ever battle between two ironclad vessels, but in summary after four hours it was a tactical draw, a stalemate. There was no loss of life or damage to either ship and although worse for the battle, the Minnesota was saved and the Federal blockade remained. Each side claimed its own victory.

Today we can observe actual various artifacts from the ships involved in the Battle of Hampton Roads. Various relics from the CSS Virginia, USS Monitor, USS Congress and USS Cumberland are on display at various local museums and parks in eastern Virginia.

One only needs to travel on either of the two bridge tunnel complexes that cross the Hampton Roads harbor and consider that they act as a natural picture frame showcasing where naval history was made 150 years ago upon these waters because - "history matters".

Circa 1905 postcard depicting the Merrimac and Monitor Duel. First battle of Ironclads. Hampton Roads 1862. (Courtesy of the Marcus W. Robbins collection).

Blog #65, May 5, 2019

100th Anniversary of the 1st Ship Entering Dry Dock #4

Drydock 4 at the Norfolk Navy Yard was at one time the largest concrete structure in the world.  With a usable length of 1,110'-10" and a floor thickness of 20' it can be summarized in one word – "massive."

As a structure it was begun on January 8, 1917, and was declared completed on April 1, 1919.  It along with so many other Norfolk Navy Yard facilities upgrades and expansions of the time was a direct result of World War I.

The 1st ship to enter the Navy’s largest dock to that time is the USS Wisconsin as shown in the first photo, (100) years ago today on May 5, 1919.  Dry Dock #4 has been in continual service to the fleet from that time to present, servicing all types of naval vessels for now a full (10) decades.

Photo #1 ~ USS Wisconsin
(Historic Norfolk Navy Yard Glass Plate Collection, #2225 taken on 5/5/1919)

Any place can have a river berth or a pier to safely tie a vessel up to but what sets apart a true shipyard is its ability to perform dry docking.  This location being the Norfolk Navy Yard along the Elizabeth River has the ability to take any vessel of Uncle Sam’s Navy out of its natural element (water) and allow it to become docked (dry) so craftsmen may preform repairs to the underwater hull sections and components.

This second photo of the USS Wisconsin’s stern sitting up upon the blocks is also a fitting way to see a glimpse of the World War I facilities expansion as the new modern Power Plant, Building 174, as it is nearing completion as viewed in the background.   But, for a moment focus upon the facility of Dry Dock #4 itself, I repeat with the same word I started with –"massive."

Photo #2 ~ USS Wisconsin
(Historic Norfolk Navy Yard Glass Plate Collection, #2227 taken on 5/5/1919)

As taken from the Naval History and Heritage Command website the following information is presented about the ship as background to our story.

The first Wisconsin (Battleship No. 9) was laid down on 9 February 1897 at San Francisco, Calif., by the Union Iron Works; launched on 26 November 1898; sponsored by Miss Elizabeth Stephenson, the daughter of Senator Isaac Stephenson of Marinette, Wis., and commissioned on 4 February 1901, Capt. George C. Reiter in command.

Then (19) years of full operational service follows and then finally:

Placed out of commission on 15 May 1920, Wisconsin was reclassified BB-9 on 17 July 1920, while awaiting disposition. She was sold for scrap on 26 January 1922 as a result of the Washington Treaty.

The ship meets the end of its famous career and is laid to rest at Norfolk until it is sold for scrap after World War I. As in any deactivation the docking period is critical, Dry Dock #4 provided the needed dry dock facility to support USS Wisconsin’s final mission.   The ship becomes the first United States naval vessel admitted into Dry Dock #4 as evidenced by this rare surviving artifact, the Dock Master's actual ledger book that depicts it's docking on May 5, 1919 and it's undocking on May 14, 1919.

Photo #3 ~ Dock Master's ledger book for Dry Dock #4
(Original document image from the Norfolk Naval Shipyard collection)

As I often state when conducting history lectures to today's NNSY workforce and others these ships that visit our shipyard are actually the sailor's home and we should respect that fact when preforming work upon same. No other image that I have ever come across illustrates this better than an extremely rare panoramic photo of USS Wisconsin of May 6, 1919 as found in the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum's collection. Look closely, those are bedding mattresses airing out on the cage masts and we all know sleep is essential for an effective naval warrior.

Photo #4 ~ USS Wisconsin
(Original photograph from the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum's collection, taken on 5/6/1919)

Dry Dock #4 now enters its second century of continuous service for the United States Navy here at "America’s Shipyard" because –"history matters".


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