USS San Diego photographed 28 January 1915, while serving as flagship of the
Pacific Fleet. Her name had been changed from California on 1 September 1914.
Note two-star Rear Admiral's flag flying from her mainmast top.
As USS California in the "Great White Fleet" circa 1908. An act of Congress reserved
state names for battleships only, so the cruiser California had to be renamed San Diego.
Nowadays, state names are used on ballistic missile submarines; the last four
battleships ( including New Jersey ) have been retired.
Joining the 2d Division, Pacific Fleet, California took part in the naval review at San Francisco in May 1908 for the Secretary of the Navy. Aside from a cruise to Hawaii and Samoa in the fall of 1908, the cruiser operated along the west coast, sharpening her readiness through training exercises and drills, until December 1911, when she sailed for Honolulu, and in March 1912 continued westward for duty on the Asiatic Station. After this service representing American power and prestige in the Far East, she returned home in August 1912, and was ordered to Corinto, Nicaragua, then embroiled in internal political disturbance. Here she protected American lives and property, then resumed her operations along the west coast; she cruised off California, and kept a watchful eye on Mexico, at that time also suffering political disturbance.
California was renamed San Diego on 1 September 1914, and served as flagship for Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet, intermittently until a boiler explosion put her in Mare Island Navy Yard in reduced commission through the summer of 1915.San Diego returned to duty as flagship through 12 February 1917, when she went into reserve status until the opening of World War I. Placed in full commission 7 April, the cruiser operated as flagship for Commander, Patrol Force Pacific Fleet, until 18 July, when she was ordered to the Atlantic Fleet. Reaching Hampton Roads, Va., 4 August, she joined Cruiser Division 2, and later broke the flag of Commander, Cruiser Force, Atlantic, which she flew until 19 September.
San Diego's essential mission was the escort of convoys through the first dangerous leg of their passages to Europe. Based on Tompkinsville, N.Y., and Halifax, N.S., she operated in the weather-torn, submarine-infested North Atlantic safely convoying all of her charges to the ocean escort. On 19 July 1918, bound from Portsmouth, N.H., to New York, San Diego was torpedoed by the German submarine U-156 southeast of Fire Island. The cruiser sank in 28 minutes with the loss of 6 lives, the only major warship lost by the United States in World War I.
-- from Navy historical records
Painting by Francis Muller, 1920 depicting the ship sinking off Fire Island, New York,
after being "torpedoed" by the German submarine U-156, 19 July 1918. It is generally
accepted that the ship struck a floating mine, but the Navy records still say torpedoed.
Originally launched as the California on April 28, 1904, by Union Iron Works in San Francisco, the San Diego was commissioned on August 1, 1907. She was 503' 11" long by 69' 7" wide and had a displacement of 13,680 tons. She served as part of Theodore Roosevelt's Great White Fleet. Her twin props pushed her at a top speed of 22 knots. The warship's armament consisted of 18 three inch guns, 14 six inch guns both mounted in side turrets, four eight inch guns and two 18 inch torpedo tubes. On September 1, 1914, she was renamed San Diego and served as the flag ship for our Pacific fleet. On July 18, 1917, she was ordered to the Atlantic to escort convoys through the first dangerous leg of their journey to Europe. The Diego held a perfect record, safely escorting all the ships she was assigned through the submarine infested North Atlantic without mishaps.
On July 8, 1918, the San Diego left Portsmouth, New Hampshire, en route to New York. She had rounded Nantucket Light and was heading west. On July 19, 1918, she was zigzagging as per war instructions on course to New York. Sea was smooth, the visibility 6 miles. At 11:23 AM, an ear shattering explosion tore a huge hole in her port side amidships. Captain Christy immediately sounded submarine defense quarters, which involves a general alarm and the closing of all water-tight doors. Soon after, two more explosions ripped through her hull. These secondary explosions were determined later to be caused by the rupturing of one of her boilers and ignition of her magazine. The ship immediately started to list to port. Officers and crew quickly went to their stations. Guns were fired from all sides of the war ship at anything that was taken for a possible periscope. Her port guns fired until they were awash. Her starboard guns fired until the list of the ship pointed them into the sky.
Under the impression that a submarine was surely in the area, the men stayed at their posts until Captain Christy shouted the order " All hands abandon ship ". In a last ditch effort to save his ship, Captain H. Christy had steamed toward Fire Island Beach, but never made it. At 11:51 AM the San Diego sank, only 28 minutes after the initial explosion. In accordance with navy tradition, Captain Christy was the last man to leave his ship. As the vessel was turning over, he made his way from the bridge down two ladders to the boat deck over the side to the armor belt, dropped four feet to the bilge keel and finally jumped overboard from the docking keel which was then only eight feet from the water. As the Captain left his ship, men in the life boats cheered him and started to sing our National Anthem. Most survivors were picked up by nearby vessels, but at least four life boats full of men rowed ashore, three at Bellport and one near the Lone Hill Coast Guard Station. The San Diego was the only major warship lost by the United States in World War I.
The original casualty reports ranged from 30 to 40. Apparently, the muster roll on the San Diego was not saved. The only list of men on board was the payroll of June 30, but since the end of June, they had received and transferred over 100 men. When the Navy eventually finalized the death toll, the official count was only six.
Since her sinking, there has been much debate about whether it was a torpedo, German mine or U.S. mine that sent the cruiser to Davy Jones' Locker. Captain Christy wrote in his final log that they had been hit by a torpedo. The Navy, however, found and destroyed five or six German surface mines in the vicinity, so it is generally accepted that a mine laid by the U-156 did the job. Ironically, the U-156 was sunk on its homeward journey possibly by a U.S. mine.
On July 26, 1918, the U.S.S. Passaic arrived over the wreck. Two divers were sent down to report on the condition of the San Diego. They reported the following; " Many loose rivets lying on the bottom ... masts and smoke stack are lying on the bottom under and on starboard side of ship ... ship lies heading about north depth of water over starboard bilge is 36 feet ... air is still coming out of the ship from nearly bow to stern. It seems likely that as air escapes and she loses buoyancy, she may crush her superstructure and settle deeper". From this report the Navy concluded that the vessel was not salvageable. As quoted from their letter to the Chief of Naval Operations, " In view of the reported condition and position of the San Diego, the Bureau is of the opinion that an attempt to salvage the vessel as a whole, or to recover any of the guns, would not be warranted". They did, however, have concerns about the site being a hazard to navigation and the possibility of dynamiting her to increase the available depth of water over the wreck. On October 15, the U.S.S. Resolute took another sounding on the site. It found that the wreck had settled slightly and now had 40 feet of water over her, so the wreck was not blown up.
In 1962, salvage rights to the San Diego were sold for $14,000. The salvage company planned to blow up the wreck for scrap metal. Several groups including the American Littoral Society, Marine Angling Club and National Party Boat Owners Association banded together and lobbied. After a lot of bad publicity, public outcry and a financial compensation, the salvage company agreed to give up the job. The wreck, now an artificial reef, supports teeming amounts of aquatic life, not to mention many charter boat operations.
Another interesting side step to the San Diego story occurred when a Long Island diver attempted to raise the one remaining, 18 foot in diameter, 37,000 pound bronze propeller. He succeeded only in sinking his barge-mounted crane, which now rests on the bottom a short distance from the San Diego's stern. This barge has herself become a good lobstering dive. Someone else made off with the valued propeller.
On June 3, 1982, the N.Y. POST reported that the bomb squad had been tipped off that a local diver had recovered a two foot long, five inch diameter artillery shell from the San Diego. The diver had planned to sand-blast it and stand it next to his fire place. The shell was confiscated, but because it was too powerful for Suffolk's detonation site it had to be transported to Ft. Dix, New Jersey and detonated by the Army. Lt. Thomas, commander of the Suffolk bomb squad, said, " it's the biggest warhead I've ever seen; it could go off just from drying out".
Today, the San Diego lies upside down and relatively intact in 110 feet of water, 13.5 miles out of Fire Island Inlet. One of the nicest aspects of this wreck is that it can be enjoyed at various depths. Divers can reach her hull in approximately 65 feet of water while her stern ammo room is in 90 feet and her stern wash out reaches a maximum depth of 116 feet of water. Besides supporting a huge array of fish life, she is one of Long Island's scuba diving hot spots. Divers can find artifacts such as bullets, portholes, cage lamps, china and brass valves. The portholes found on this wreck are unique. They are made up of three parts, each of which is serial numbered: the backing plate, which is bolted into her armor plating, a swing plate window and a brass storm cover. What makes these portholes desirable to sport divers is the fact that the backing plates are almost impossible to unbolt while underwater. This means that while many divers have swing plates or storm covers, very few have a complete set and even fewer have a set with matching serial numbers. For the underwater photographer, this wreck provides structures, hallways and compartments which all make for beautiful photos.
Excerpted from Wreck Valley CDROM by Dan Berg
Armor plating makes most warships top-heavy compared to other vessels, and as a result they flip over when they sink, just as the San Diego has. The old hull is more or less intact, but rusting through in many places, allowing access to new parts of the interior all the time.
The ship is still full of live ammunition, and every so often some idiot will bring a piece of it up, resulting in a very interesting day for the local bomb squad. Explosives generally become more unstable with age, and being immersed in the water does little to change that. Souvenir shells from the San Diego could go off from a tap, or even just from drying out!
Since the Navy claims ownership of the San Diego, and because of its status as a war grave, it is strictly illegal to "salvage" any artifacts from the wreck anyway. In addition, the San Diego has recently been declared it a "National Historic Site."
Propeller from the San Diego, salvaged before the Navy changed their minds.
For more on the San Diego see Gary Gentile's book USS San Diego: the Last Armored Cruiser.
USS San Diego CL-53 of World War II - anti-aircraft light cruiser 1941-1946
541 ft, 6000 tons
USS San Diego AFS-6 - combat stores ship 1968-1997
581 ft, 17,400 tons full load
Future USS San Diego LPD-22 amphibious assault ship
684 ft, 24,900 tons full load
With hovercraft in the well deck