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Ships named Salem

 

There have been three US Navy ships named Salem. All were cruiser-type ships - one scout (light) cruiser, one heavy cruiser, and one large minelayer (the large minelayers were considered cruiser-type vessels, as the first minelayers were converted cruisers). The first Salem was named in honor of the Massachusetts city of that name, and the later two ships perpetuated the name, honoring both the city and the previous ships. The following provides the history of the three ships named USS Salem. 

The First Salem

The first USS Salem was a scout cruiser commissioned 1 August 1908. She was built by the Fore River Shipbuilding Company, Quincy Mass., and was designated as Scout Cruiser No. 3 (CS-3). She was one of three near-sisters the others were Chester and Birmingham. These ships were the US Navy's first "modern" cruisers, and were the only large, fast scouts available to the battle fleet. In addition to their scouting role, they were floating test beds for propulsion technology. Each of the three ships had a different type of propulsion plant - Chester had Parsons turbines, Birmingham had conventional triple expansion reciprocating engines, and Salem had Curtis turbines. Chester and Salem were the first and second turbine-driven ships in the US Navy. The Navy conducted extensive tests and trials with this experimental trio, learning a great deal about the strengths and weaknesses of each propulsion system.

Although initially painted in elegant white-and-buff, Salem soon was repainted to dark gray as the fleet shed its peacetime colors. Salem cruised in the Atlantic, carrying out various peacetime missions, until decommissioned to reserve in 1912. From 1912 to 1917 she alternated between the reserve fleet duty as a receiving ship, active service with the Cruiser Squadron, and various subsidiary duties. The rapid advance of naval technology had quickly rendered Salem and her sisters obsolete, but in 1917 she was overhauled at Boston and had her original turbine engines replaced by newer more efficient types. 

In 1917 and 1918 Salem served as a support ship for several squadrons of submarine chasers. WWI brought a few minor changes in the ship's appearance, including additional superstructure and mast platforms. Following WWI, Salem was transferred to the Pacific, and in 1920 she was designated as a light cruiser (CL 3). She was decommissioned on 16 August 1921 and laid up at Mare Island Navy Yard. Salem remained in reserve for 8 years, until she was stricken on 13 November 1929, and sold for scrapping a few months later. 

The Second Salem

The second USS Salem was a minelayer (CM 11) commissioned in 1942. She had been constructed in 1916 as the railroad ferry Joseph R. Parrott. The railroad ferry was acquired by the Navy 8 June 1942, and commissioned 9 August, following a rapid conversion to her wartime role. Salem laid minefields off Casablanca and Sicily in support of Allied invasions in those locations, and was preparing to support landing in Italy when that nation surrendered. In mid-1944 Salem was transferred to the Pacific, where she served mainly as a munitions transport. Late in 1944 she was converted to serve as a net cargo ship, and served in that role for the remainder of the war.

On 15 August 1945 she was renamed Shawmut so the name Salem could be assigned to a new cruiser, CA 139. Shawmut decommissioned  6 December 1945 and was sold into merchant service under her original name, in 1947. She remained in service until 1970.

The Third Salem

The third USS Salem (CA 139) was a heavy cruiser, and was among the last and largest of her type. Salem and her sisters (Des Moines, and Newport News) were designed as the ultimate heavy cruisers, taking into account the lessons of WWII, and carrying the heaviest and most versatile battery ever fitted in a heavy cruiser. The primary innovation of this class was found in the main battery - although a battery of nine 8"/55 caliber guns had been standard in US cruisers for many years, these ships used semi-fixed (cased charge) rounds, rather than separate shell-and-bag loading. This allowed the guns to attain a much higher rate of fire, making them suitable for antiaircraft fire. This was the first time that such a large gun had been considered useful against aircraft.

Salem and her sisters also brought other changes from previous practice - they were completed with the new 3"/50 cal antiaircraft gun in 12 dual mounts, in place of the quad 40mm gun that had been standard during WWII. In addition, they were among the first ships designed with a centralized Combat Information Center (CIC), and they made greater use of radar than had previous ships.

Salem and her sisters also marked the end of an era in many ways. They were clearly the last and greatest of the heavy cruisers. They were among the last US ships built with free-swinging 20mm guns as part of their antiaircraft battery (these guns, which had been considered largely ineffective towards the end of  WWII, were fitted at delivery, but removed before the ships entered service). The big heavy cruisers were also the last US ships designed with seaplane hangars and catapults, and a crane to serve them. The catapults were never installed (those aboard Des Moines were partially installed at delivery, but were removed before commissioning), but the hangar, aircraft elevator, and crane served the ships throughout their careers. the large, open deck aft of the #3 turret, originally intended for seaplane operations, provided a useful helicopter landing spot.

Salem was built at Bethlehem Steel, Quincy (the same yard in which the first Salem had been constructed), and served in the US Navy from 14 May 1949 to 30 January 1959. For much of that time she served as the flagship of the US 6th Fleet, and made port visits all around the Mediterranean. She made a total of seven deployments to the Mediterranean as the flagship of the 6th Fleet, alternating with the Des Moines and Newport News. In 1959 she joined the reserve fleet, first at Norfolk, then at Philadelphia. She remained in the mothball fleet until 1994, when she came home to the yard where she was built, and became the centerpiece of the United States Naval Shipbuilding Museum.  


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