USS San Francisco: A Story That Links Four National Parks, From the Pacific to New England

San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park


In a corner of the artifact collections facility of San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park there is a relic of World War II which displays signs of extreme violence.

My name is Christopher Edwards and I am one of the park rangers here at San Francisco Maritime. I,and many staff, are surprised to come across this artifact in our collection. And in fact few people actually know of this item’s existence. Though there are students of naval history who are aware of the context of the story behind this item, and there are sister artifacts that are on display at a memorial at Land’s End in Golden Gate National Recreation Area here in San Francisco.

Alright, so here we are at the USS San Francisco Memorial, which is in a place called Lands End in San Francisco. And Lands End is actually part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area, so it makes it our second national park with the story - San Francisco Maritime, and now Golden Gate National Recreation Area. And this memorial to the USS San Francisco is usually what people think of if they are familiar with the story of this ship.

Now, this memorial does a number of things pretty well, but one of the things that I think is really nice about this memorial is the image of the ship that you see on the stone here - it captures the ship in profile very, very well. And San Francisco would have been categorized as a heavy cruiser. So, that’s kind of an intermediate sized ship, but this image really captures that well in terms of what that meant. It meant that she carried an eight-inch gun, which you see here in the forward gun turrets, versus the Japanese ships they were facing that night which were much bigger.

In this case, the two Japanese battleships involved had fourteen inch guns, versus the eight-inch guns that were on board the San Francisco. So, it was a pretty desperate situation when you consider the smaller US ships versus the much larger Japanese ships of that night, and in particular how the two fleets got intermingled.

It’s been described by some of the veterans of this battle as just a bar-room brawl of US ships firing at Japanese, Japanese firing at US ships, the US firing at their own forces, the Japanese doing likewise… it was just a pretty desperate situation.

But that’s really what this naval battle was all about. The Guadalcanal campaign had been going on for months, and it led up to this very pivotal moment which was actually two different night battles - the first of which produced the memorial that we see here right now.

But if you look closer at the memorial, you’ll see what’s typically done at memorials or museum ships, which is preservation. This is outside, so it’s exposed to the elements. Very typically what you'll see is the Hayes grey color painted on the memorials and museum ships that are around the country, which is kind of what makes the piece that San Francisco Maritime has in their collection stand out because it preserves the original paintwork of that night. But this memorial really well preserves the desperateness and the violence of that night so we’ll take a closer look at that.

Okay, so we’re here on the opposite side of the memorial and you can see two of the hits that the San Francisco sustained during this night-time gun battle. And this entire side is peppered with damage, but these two particular openings right here represent two hits that the Navy labeled as hits number eight and nine, and they were apparently five-inch gun hits. So, fairly small, if you remember the San Francisco had eight-inch guns, these are five-inch, so small as far as gun-fire is concerned - but they can be equally deadly.

But this was thought to be produced from a Japanese destroyer - so one of the smaller ships. And, typically those ships have two guns per gun mount, so if it fired both of those guns it’s not therefore surprising that these two holes were produced maybe by that one volley. So, we’ve got these two large holes here, but it’s the fragments that fly outward, and in this case inward, that can really cause the injuries and the deaths among the crew.

So, here we are in the interior - what would have been the bridge area of the USS San Francisco. So, you can see the interior results of those two hits that we just saw from the outside. It’s important to remember that this was the bridge of the USS San Francisco, so it’s the command center if you want to think of it.

San Francisco, the ship, was also the flagship of the US task-force that night, so in addition to the captain being here, and the immediate staff of the captain, you also had the admiral and the staff of the admiral in this immediate area. So, a large number of the ship's crew in this top-side station exercising command of the ship and command of the fleet. And when hits like these came through and burst, it would have spread fragments spraying in amongst those people. And that’s why there were so many casualties from hits like these.

This memorial is all about those people. And so in addition to preserving these pieces there’s also a plaque that records the name of the people lost on the ship that night.

Okay, so here we’re at the center of the memorial. There’s a number of plaques on display here including this long, thin one - the Wounded in Action. So, as you can see it’s a very, very long list of those that were hurt during the battle but actually survived. So, that’s the plaque for these crew members. There’s a separate one just around the edge here for those that did not survive.

So, likewise, it’s a pretty long list of all the ship's crew, the Navy sailors, and down at the bottom we have the Marine detachment of those that were killed in action. I’m just going to point out a couple of these names here. This first one - Daniel J. Callaghan. That was the admiral of the US task force during that battle.

So, he and his staff would have been in this spot onboard the San Francisco. And, from what I have read, almost all of his staff were killed during that action, including him himself. But it wasn’t just the admiral’s staff that were up here. This was the command center for the ship itself. So, you also had the ship’s captain that was up here - Cassin Young.

So, he had been in command for a week or so, maybe two weeks at most - not very long. But, he two was up on the bridge of the San Francisco during that battle, and just like the admiral he did not survive. And it’s amazing to think of a single name like this having so many connections right into the modern day with the US National Park Service, because it’s the story of Cassin Young that really links four different National Parks.

So, here we have that last, forgotten, surviving piece from the USS San Francisco - which for many, many years, people just didn't know had actually indeed survived. It is obviously a smaller piece than what we saw out at the Land’s End Memorial. And it’s from a less recognized part of the ship - although it is still from the bridge structure, where the captain would have commanded the ship during the battle that produced the damage that we see.

Specifically, this is a piece of bulwark, which is kind of like a railing of a ship. But when you say bulwark it’s referring to a solid piece as opposed to individual sections. So, a solid single piece here, of bulwark from the very back end of the bridge of the USS San Francisco. So, for the crew, who would have been manning the bridge during the Battle of Guadalcanal, they would have been on the opposite side. So, what you would have seen the crew moving around on the ship would have been from this perspective here.

So, facing towards you, what that would mean if I was to use ship nomenclature would be that I am facing aft. That means I’m looking towards the back end of the ship. But this bulwark, like most bulwark designs, does have a bit of a shelf here. So, if you can imagine some of the crew, captain, maybe the admiral who was also on board the ship during the battle… They often would be carrying binoculars to take close looks at things that were spotted. So, the shelf here is actually really well placed for elbows so that they could actually steady what they were looking at.

And at the same time, if you were an enlisted crew member, maybe working up here also as a lookout or some other functionary - one of the common ones was called a talker. He would often wear a big headset and a microphone so he could spread the captain's orders via the communication system. But he’s also trying to stay out of the way of the captain. So if you can imagine the crew really trying to be out of the way of the captain. The captain is literally going to knock people aside if they are in his way. A lot of activity going back and forth here. Especially, because during that battle it was chaotic.

So, in terms of the damage that we can see in this surviving piece, it’s predominantly this major hole here along with fragment damage around - which is also visible on the backside. But, according to US Navy documents, this hole was produced by what they estimated to be a six-inch shell. So, that would be six inches in diameter, and about yay long.

According to Japanese documents, the only two ships in that battle that could have produced a shell that hit the San Francisco at this point were the battleships Hiei and Kiroshima. Now, their primary batteries were large fourteen-inch guns, but their secondary batteries were six-inch guns. And those were the only Japanese six-inch guns present. So, that is most likely what we’re looking at here, with the trajectory of the shell coming ever so slightly up, and at an angle through here, penetrating the bulwark, and at some point beyond the shell would have detonated.

But aside from preserving the damage and displaying the ferocity of the battle, this piece also preserves a lot of the paint. Now, due to the fact that this was inside and didn't need to constantly be repainted… what you tend to see with a lot of museum ships and memorials today is the standard Navy gray, but this is actually a little bit different. This appears to be a gray, but it has kind of a dark, bluish or greenish tinge to it. So that was one of the major things that stuck out, and why I was so thrilled to find that there had been another piece preserved that was rarely outside.

Now, there are many stories that an artifact can tell, especially in a situation like this where we’re talking about a Naval battle where many thousands of sailors were involved - the San Francisco herself having between eleven and twelve-hundred crew members. But if we just focus down on one particular person, the captain of the USS San Francisco, we find a very interesting and curious link between many different National Parks. And that is the captain of the ship, Captain Cassin Young.

Now, Cassin Young was already pretty well known for his actions at Pearl Harbor, where he had been instrumental in saving his ship, which was named USS Vestal, which was a repair ship that had been right alongside the USS Arizona when it exploded. And for his actions in saving the USS Vestal he was awarded the medal of honor. Later on, he was given command of the heavy cruiser, USS San Francisco. But it was only a matter of days before the San Francisco went into battle and he was killed.

Now as a matter of recognizing the loss of Cassin Young and the fact that he was a medal of honor winner, it was Navy practice to name new ships, destroyers after such people. And so he did have one named after him, and that ship still survives today in another US National Park, which is Boston National Historical Park.

So, today visitors there can board the USS Cassin Young and get a look around a World War II destroyer. But between the Arizona Memorial, which is another National Park site in Pearl Harbor today, which has very close links to the story of the repair ship Vestal that Cassin Young was in command of, Golden Gate National Recreation Area that has the memorial to this ship, this specific piece that survives here in San Francisco Maritime, and Boston National Historical Park, it is a pretty amazing connection of just one person's story from World War II.


Discover how the USS San Francisco’s heroic WWII Guadalcanal campaign links four national parks, stretches from the Pacific to New England, and is preserved in both a windswept overlook and a controlled museum facility.


12 minutes, 42 seconds


Elliot Lockwood

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