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  The Historical Significance of USS Salem to Naval Warship Design and Construction (Shipbuilding)

 By Dr John Scholes

The USS Salem and her sisters represent the last big gun (6” or greater) armored warships designed or built for the US Navy. While other navies completed a very few 6” gun cruisers after the USS Salem, these ships were relatively minor updates and modifications of an earlier class of ships designed before WWII (USSR Sverdlov class), or modifications of ships initially designed prior to WWII, with designs modified during and after WWII, partially completed before the end of WWII, and then partially rebuilt (UK Tiger class; Netherlands de Ruyter class). Therefore, the USS Salem and her sisters actually represent the last chapter in the design and construction of all armored big gun warships, beginning with the French Gloire, British Warrior (preserved in Portsmouth, England) and the American USS Monitor / CSS Virginia (aka USS Merrimac) in the late 1850s –early 1860s. The USS Salem and her sisters also represent the final completed design of large warships whose principal armament was large guns (cannons), which had ruled the seas since the 1500s, beginning with ships such as the Mary Rose (also preserved in Portsmouth, England). Such ships, of course, had a profound influence on the history of the world for about 400 years.

In addition to being the last of an extremely important type of ship, the USS Salem and her sisters introduced a number of firsts in the area of warship design and construction. These innovations helped make the USS Salem one of the most advanced ships of her day and a technological wonder for her time. A number of these new features are seen in the design and construction of warships up to the present day and at least one feature has never been equaled.

The reason the USS Salem and her sisters were built was their most unique and innovative feature, their 8” 55 Rapid Fire (RF) guns, introduced, as we have seen, as a result of the WWII experience. The guns were unlike all previous large (6” or larger) guns, being fully automatic, entirely mechanically loaded, and utilizing metal powder cases instead of the (silk) bagged powder charges of previous US 8” or larger guns. The resultant rate of fire of 10 rounds per gun (rpg) per minute was considered absolutely phenomenal by naval experts and made the USS Salem and her sisters superior to all other gun cruisers, and also to many much larger ships of older design. The guns and turrets were such a radical advance (and of such mechanical and electrical complexity) that many questioned their reliability (especially as these guns and turrets were designed in the incredibly short time of 1 and ½ years). To answer such questions, extraordinary testing was performed to prove their reliability in operation. A trials turret (with only two guns) was built and tested at the Naval Proving Ground (now Naval Surface Weapons Center) in Dahlgren, VA (where it still exists). The guns automatic loading feature was tested through 15,000 continuous cycles without any malfunctions or failures and two cycles of 100 rounds of full power ammunition were fired continuously at the maximum rate of fire without stoppage or failure of any kind. These test results were confirmed much later in actual service when the USS Salem’s sister ship, the USS Newport News (CA 148) fired over 20,000 rounds of 8” ammunition through these guns without a single significant failure or malfunction in her first 6 month tour in Vietnam. The later tragic accident in the middle gun of turret two of the USS Newport News was the result of an incorrectly assembled fuse in an 8” HC projectile (because of the elimination of US Navy Bureau of Ordinance safety inspections being ordered by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, according to the official US Navy investigation and report) and was not due to any fault of the gun, the turret, or crew.

The 8” 55 RF gun and turret was so successful that a new 6” gun turret design based on it was begun during WWII to replace the 6” turrets of the USS Worcester (CL 144) and her sisters, which were of a new but completely different design, nonetheless already considered totally outclassed by the 8” 55 RF, and the new 6” turret design was only halted by the end of the war. The 8” 55 RF became the mechanical basis for subsequent US RF 5” gun mounts (MK42) and some of its design features are still used on the latest US Navy (and other) rapid fire naval gun mounts. If any further battleship (16”) turrets had been built they would have utilized features of the 8” 55 RF gun and turret. None of the subsequent guns based on the 8” 55 RF or any other large rapid fire guns, however, has ever equaled the power and reliability of the 8” 55 RF gun and turret.

The USS Salem and her sisters were, along with the USS Worcester and her sister USS Roanoke (CL 145), the first large (bigger than destroyers) warships of (essentially) all welded construction built by the US Navy (or any other navy). They were the culmination of the trend towards increased welding (and decreased riveting) in warship (and other ship) construction begun prior to and accelerated during WWII. Today all warships (and other large steel ships) are of entirely welded construction. As the USS Salem and her sisters were built primarily after WWII had ended, more time was taken with their construction, including welding, resulting in very uniform and careful welds. Such welds are now done mainly by automated machines (industrial robots), but are essential in the construction of modern ships, especially submarines.

 

The USS Salem and her sisters were the first class of warships in which exceptional priority was given to electronics and communications and were the first to have a large combat information center (CIC) as part of their original design. These priorities have continued (and in fact accelerated) in modern surface warships, so that in today’s warships the CIC is considered the most important space in the ship and electronics and communications now dominate the design of warships, taking priority over propulsion, protection and even weapons. The USS Salem and her sisters also placed greater priority on weapons control systems (fire control) and systems for the control of other ships and airplanes than any previous ships. This trend continues in today’s ships, where the control system is usually considered more important than the weapon it controls, and the systems to control other ships and aircraft are usually considered more powerful than the ships own weapons (“force multipliers”). The USS Salem and her sisters had the latest and finest radar and other electronic systems, along with radio and other communications systems, of any ship when they were put into service, and totally outclassed any other nation’s ships of any type in these systems at that time.

 The USS Salem and her sister ship the Newport News were the first entirely air conditioned (except the machinery spaces) ships built for the US Navy. Their design also placed a greater emphasis on crew comfort and facilities than any prior ship and were especially superior in this aspect to the ships of other navies. Today’s warships are entirely air conditioned, both in the US and other navies, and while naval warship accommodations could never be considered luxurious even in today’s ships, crew facilities and living spaces are far more spacious and comfortable than in the ships of WWII or earlier design.

 The USS Salem and her sisters were considered so technologically superior and advanced when they entered service, that part of their role in service was to demonstrate (“show off”, if you will) their technology as a show of support for our allies and friends and to deter our adversaries (aka the Soviet Union). This may explain why (at least in part), for the late 1940’s and 1950’s these “super cruisers” were assigned continuously to the 6th fleet in the Mediterranean.

 Thus, as the last of the armored big gun warships and the first warships with “designed in” modern control, communications, electronics, and environmental systems, the USS Salem and her sisters represent not only the final development of the big gun armored warship (and all primarily gun armed ships), but a “bridge” from the ships of WWII to today’s modern warships. Furthermore, the USS Salem and her sisters were so technologically superior for their day (especially as in regards to their extraordinary 8” 55 RF guns) that no other big gun armored warship ever equaled their advanced technical excellence. Thus, on a ton for ton basis, the USS Salem and her sisters may be considered the finest “big gun” ships ever designed and built. These features should ensure the place of the USS Salem, as the only surviving sister, in the history of warship design and shipbuilding and should (hopefully) ensure her continued preservation.


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