U.S. Navy - A Brief History of Aircraft Carriers: The Loss of USS Princeton

The Carriers header
A Brief History of U.S. Navy Aircraft Carriers
USS Princeton (CVL 23) is sunk

Sources: "Saga of the Carrier Princeton" by Capt. William H. Buracker, USN,
The National Graphic Magazine, Aug. 1945
United States Naval Aviation, 1910-1970 [NAVAIR 00-80P-1]
Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships

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USS Princeton sinking Oct. 24, 1944 - USS Princeton (CVL 23) was lost in an air attack in the Sibuyan Sea during the Battle for Leyte Gulf. On the 20th, Princeton, commanded by Capt. William H. Buracker, USN, sent her planes against airfields on Luzon to prevent Japanese land based aircraft attacks on Allied shipping massed in Leyte Gulf. On the 24th, Japanese planes from Clark and Nichols Fields found Princeton and her task group.

At 9:38 a.m. on Oct. 24, 1944, a lookout aboard Princeton spotted a single Japanese plane making a shallow dive on the ship. The plane had come out of low-hanging clouds and while under fire from Princeton's guns and those of other ships in company, dropped a 500-pound bomb from under 1,200 feet. It hit forward of the after elevator and slightly to port of the center line, crashed through the flight deck and hangar, then exploded. Flames shot down to the engineering spaces aft and back into the hangar. The explosion also knocked out the after fire-fighting system. Initial fires soon expanded.

The smoke was very thick and flowed across the after part of the ship. The heat from the fires and the dense smoke forced many of the men on the stern of the ship to jump overboard.

USS Princeton on fire The first major explosions rocked the light carrier at about 10:02 a.m., engulfing the ship in more heavy billowing smoke and flame. The first blew out the after elevator; the second, shortly after the first, buckled the flight deck. The explosions also sent fragments of the ship flying in all directions, causing many casualties.

At about 10:10 a.m., USS Irwin (DD 794) went alongside the burning carrier to port. The seriously injured were lowered from the carrier onto the destroyer. Irwin continued to play hoses into the forward part of Princeton's hangar and to take aboard the carrier's crew to the point where between 600 and 700 men were packed like sardines on the small destroyer's decks.

The Task Force commander, Rear Adm. Forrest C. Sherman, seeing the heavy explosions, dispatched the cruiser USS Birmingham (CL 62) and another destroyer to the Princeton's assistance.

USS Birmingham fighting fires onboard USS Princeton At about 10:55 a.m., Birmingham came alongside the blazing Princeton. Shortly after, USS Reno (CL 96) also came alongside but could not remain due to dense smoke and the scorching heat from the fires. As the crew worked the fires toward the after part of the carrier, Birmingham shifted back there as well. By about 1 p.m., enough progress had been made so that it looked as though the fires might be out within 20 or 30 minutes.

Just as Princeton's fires were about to be extinguished, Japanese aircraft were said to be in the vicinity. Immediately, at about 1:30 pm, Birmingham pulled away to get set for a fight that didn't come. Meanwhile, with very little fire-fighting capability on the carrier, Princeton's blazes grew again.

At 3:23 p.m., as Birmingham approached Princeton for the second time, the carrier's reserve bomb and torpedo stowage blew up, blowing away part of the stern. Shrapnel from the blast ripped across Birmingham killing 229 and injuring 420, far more than those hurt on the carrier.

The injured Birmingham was obliged to back off. Princeton had no fire-fighting capability left aboard, and at 4:40 p.m., Capt. Buracker left the carrier, the last to go. A message came from Rear Adm. Sherman: "Destroy Princeton. Remaining ships join task force." Shortly after 5 p.m., USS Irwin began to fire torpedoes at the burning hulk.

At 5:46 p.m., USS Reno relieved Irwin and at 5:49 p.m. the carrier's torpedo warhead storage exploded. Flames and debris shot up 1000 to 2000 feet. Princeton's forward section was gone and what was left of her after section appeared momentarily through the smoke. By 5:50 p.m., she disappeared. Ten officers and 98 enlisted men had been lost, but 1,361 of her crew survived.

Included in that number was Capt. John M. Hoskins, who had been prospective commanding officer of CVL 23 and had lost his right foot with her. Despite this, Capt. Hoskins would become the first commanding officer of the fifth Princeton (CV 37).

Last Update: 15 June 2009