USS San Francisco (CA-38)

Introduction and Pre-War Service

USS San Francisco (CA-38) was a New Orleans class heavy cruiser that was present when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and that fought in the Solomon Islands, at the battle of Cape Esperance, the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, in the Aleutians, during the invasions of Makin, the Marshall Islands, the invasions of Saipan and Tinian, the battle of the Philippine Sea and the invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. San Francisco(CA-38) earned 17 battle stars and a Presidential Unit Citation during World War II, making her the second most decorated US warship after the USS Enterprise.

Detail from Battle of Scheveningen by Willem van de Velde the Elder
USS San Francisco (CA-38)
at Mare Island,
19 May 1942

The San Francisco was laid down on 9 September 1931, launched in March 1933 and commissioned on 10 February 1934. Tuscaloosa and San Francisco were given a lighter 8in gun and turret than earlier members of the class, saving about 40 tons. The extra weight was used to increase the thickness of the barbette armour, but this took them close to the treaty limits and the level of protection had to be reduced on the final ships in the class, Quincy (CA-39) and Vincennes (CA-44). San Francisco (CA-38), Quincy (CA-39) and Vincennes(CA-44) were the first US cruisers to be fitted with emergency diesel generators.

The San Francisco's shakedown cruise took her to Mexico, Hawaii, the US North West and the Panama Canal Zone. On her return to Mare Island she was converted into a flagship, and she didn't join CruDiv 6 at San Diego until February 1935. Soon afterwards she took part in that year's fleet exercise - Fleet Problem XVI. In January 1939 she took part in Fleet Problem XX in the Atlantic. In March she became flagship of CruDiv 7, and in her new role carried out a goodwill tour of South America that lasted from April to June and involved a complete circumnavigation of the continent.

Wartime Service

After the outbreak of the Second World War the San Francisco was allocated to the US Neutrality Patrol. Her first patrol took her into the West Indies, but this was her only active contribution to the patrol. She was at Norfolk from mid October 1939 to January 1940, when she departed for the Pacific. In March she sailed for Pearl Harbor, where she joined CruDiv 6. In May 1940 she went to Puget Sound Navy Yard for an overhaul (in which she was given some 3in anti-aircraft guns), returning to Pearl Harbor in September 1940. In May 1941 she became the flagship of CruDiv 6. In October she began an overhaul in the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard. By December her engineering plant had been dismantled, her 3in guns had been removed (but the 1.1in quad mounts that were to replace them hadn't been installed). Her .50in anti-aircraft guns were being overhauled, and her 5in and 8in ammo had been placed into storage. She was effectively immobile and unarmed when the Japanese attacked on 7 December 1941.

During the Japanese attack the San Francisco herself wasn't very effective, but some of her crew moved to the New Orleans to help man the anti-aircraft guns, while .50in ammo was moved to the Tracy. After the attack she was rapidly brought back into commission, and she left the yard on 14 December. On 16 December she joined Task Force 14, which was attempting to relieve Wake Island, then being attacked by the Japanese. Wake fell on 23 December and the Task Force went to Midway Island instead before returning to Pearl Harbor on 29 December.

USS San Francisco (CA-38) underway, 8 April 1944
USS San Francisco (CA-38) underway, 8 April 1944

In January 1942 the San Francisco joined TF8, which was covering transport ships moving troops to Tutuila. She then joined TF17, which was about to carry out a raid on the Gilbert and Marshall Islands. She was detached from the force before the raid and instead was used to cover the transport ships while the main task force carried out the attacks. In February she joined TF11 for an attack on Rabaul, but the US force was detected too early and the attack was abandoned. In March she was part of the fleet that carried out a carrier attack on the Japanese at Lae and Salamaua, flying across New Guinea from the Gulf of Papua on the south coast to hit the Japanese on the north coast. After that raid she returned to Pearl Harbor. In late April she was part of the escort for a convoy heading to San Francisco. She was then used to escort convoy PW 2076, a troop convoy moving the 37th Army Division from the United States to Suva, along with some troops intended for Australia. The San Francisco escorted the convoy to Auckland, New Zealand, and then returned to Pearl Harbor, arriving at the end of June.  One final convoy duty followed, escorting a convoy to Fiji.

The San Francisco was then attached to the Solomon Islands Expeditionary Force, and helped support the landings on Guadalcanal and Tulagi on 7 August 1942. She remained off Guadalcanal throughout August, becoming the flagship of Rear Admiral Norman Scott, commander of the cruiser force, during the month. At the start of September the task force visited Noumea, New Caledonia, to resupply. On 8 September the fleet began an operation to bring reinforcements to Guadalcanal, operating alongside TF 17 (USS Hornet). On 15 August, while steaming towards Guadalcanal, the carrier USS Wasp was hit by a torpedo. San Francisco prepared to tow the stricken carrier, but the fires were soon out of control and instead she was used to evacuate the survivors of the attack. The Wasp was then sunk by the destroyer Lansdowne.

On 23 September the San Francisco became the flagship of TF 64 (Rear Admiral Scott), which included the cruisers Salt Lake City, Boise, Helena, Minneapolis, Chester and Destroyer Squadron 12. This force took part in the Battle of Cape Esperance (11-12 October 1942). During this battle the Salt Lake City and Boisewere both damaged and the destroyer Duncan was sunk, but the Japanese also lost a cruiser and a destroyer.

On 31 October the San Francisco became the flagship of CTF 65 (Rear Admiral D. J. Callaghan). This force escorted troops to Guadalcanal at the start of October, but by 10 October had been redesignated again. San Francisco was now the flagship of TG 67.4 and on 10 November she began another run to Guadalcanal. On 12 November, just after leaving Guadalcanal, the group came under air attack. The San Francisco was hit by a damaged torpedo aircraft, losing 15 dead, 29 wounded and one missing, and losing the rear anti-aircraft director and radar.

Early on 13 November a Japanese surface force was detected (Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, 13-15 November 1942). Admiral Callaghan ordered his task group to attack the Japanese force, and at 1.48am the San Francisco opened fire on a Japanese cruiser. She soon came under fire herself, becoming the target of a battleship, a cruiser and a destroyer. She was hit by fifteen shells, including one that hit the navigation bridge, killing most of its crew. In return she scored a crucial hit on the Japanese battleship Hiei, wrecking her steering compartment. This damage left the battleship in a vulnerable position at dawn and she was damaged by US aircraft and scuttled by her own crew, making her the first Japanese battleship to be lost during the Second World War.

The San Francisco had to be controlled from the conning tower, but that was also soon knocked out. Amongst the dead were Admiral Callaghan and Captain Young. The San Francisco was temporarily out of control, but by 4am she was under control again, and retreated through Sealark Channel, along with the Helena. Later in the morning the medical crew from the Juneau transferred to her to help with the wounded, meaning that they escaped when the Juneau was destroyed by a torpedo hit at around 11.00. The blast was so severe that the San Francisco was damaged by several fragments. This ended her participation in the battle, for which she was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation. She had to return to the United States for repairs, and reached Mare Island in mid-December.

The repairs took until late February 1943. The San Francisco was then used to escort Convoy PW 2211 to the Pacific theatre. She was then sent north to join Task Force 16 in the Aleutian theatre. In May 1943 she took part in the invasion of Attu, and in July the unopposed occupation of Kiska. She was finally ordered back to Pearl Harbor in mid-September.

After a short period of repairs she joined TF 14 and took part in a raid on Wake and Wilkes Islands in early October. Later in the month she took part in the invasion of Makin, starting with the pre-invasion bombardment of Betio. She was then attached to TG 50.1 (with the carriers Yorktown, Lexington and Cowpens) and took part in a raid on Japanese forces around Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands (4 December). During this raid she was attacked by three Japanese torpedo plans and suffered one dead and twenty-two wounded after she was strafed. Later on the same day the Lexington was torpedoed and the force pulled back to Pearl Harbor.

In January 1944 San Franciscowas part of TF 52 and took part in the invasion of Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands. On 29 January she bombarded nearby Maloelap and on 31 January she reached Kwajalein itself. She spent the first week of February supporting the fighting on Kwajalein before being sent to join TF 58, the fast carrier task force.

In mid-February 1944 the carriers carried out a raid on Truk. On the following night the Intrepid was torpedoed and San Franciscowas one of the ships that escorted her part of the way back to Pearl Harbor. After a brief visit to Pearl Harbor herself the San Francisco took part in a raid on the Western Caroline Islands. In late April she supported the Allied landings at Hollandia on New Guinea. Truk was attacked at the end of April, but San Francisco and eight other cruisers were detached and bombarded Satawan.

In June she formed part of TG 53.15, the bombardment group for the invasion of Saipan. She bombarded Tinian on 14-15 June, then supported the fighting troops fighting on Saipan and Guam. The American invasions of Saipan and Tinian triggered a massive Japanese response - the battle of the Philippine Sea (19-20 June 1944). The San Francisco was attacked by Japanese aircraft at around 10.46am on 19 June and again at 2.24pm. On 20 June she moved west in an attempt to catch the retreating Japanese. She then returned to Saipan, where she continued her shore bombardment. In July she supported the fighting on Guam, before at the end of the month she departed for San Francisco and an overhaul.

The overhaul was complete by 31 October and on 21 November the San Francisco rejoined the fleet at Ulithi, becoming flagship of CruDiv 6 once again. In mid-December she departed to the Philippines. On 14-15 December, while carrier aircraft attacked Luzon, she was used on anti-submarine and sea-air rescue duties. The fleet was then hit by a typhoon that sank three destroyers, and San Francisco played a part in the rescue mission that followed.

At the start of 1945 the fleet began a prolonged series of raids. Formosa was hit on 2-3 January. Luzon was the target on 5-7 January, Formosa on 9 January. Next was the South China Sea. Hong Kong was hit on 15-16 January, Formosa again on 20-21 January and the Ryukyus on 22 January. After a brief break the fleet began another series of raids on 10 February. This time the Japanese Home Islands were hit first, with air facilities on Honshu coming under attack on 16-17 February. On 19 February the fleet supported the attack on Iwo Jima. San Francisco carried out shore bombardment duties on 20-23 February, then supported a raid on Tokyo on 25 February.

Next was Operation Iceberg, the invasion of Okinawa. The San Francisco formed part of TF 54 during this campaign. Her first task was to protect mine sweepers and divers operating west of Okinawa (25 March). On 26 March she supported the landings at Aka, Keruma, Zamami and Yakabi. On 28 March she moved to Okinawa itself to take part in short bombardments. On 1 April, the day of the invasion, she operated in fire support sector 5, west of Naha. She spent five days supporting the troops fighting on Okinawa. She was away for part of 6 April to replenish, but returned in time to fight off a large air raid on 7 April in which a kamikaze aircraft came within 50 yards of her. She was then briefly posted to the east coast to support TF 51, but was back in the west with TF 54 by the afternoon of 7 April. On 13-14 April she was back with TF51 on the east coast. On 15 April she was posted to the transport area, where on the night of 15-16 April she sank a Japanese suicide boat. On 16 April she bombarded an airfield at Naha and on 17 April another airfield at Machinate. On 18 April she operated off the east coast and on 19 April off the south coast. From 21-24 April she operated against the Naha area, and then returned to Ulithi to resupply.
San Francisco returned to Okinawa on 13 May, operating against targets in the south of the island. She was heavily involved in bombardment duties and was out of 8in shells by 22 May. On 27 May she supported the 77th Infantry Division, before spending three days away resupplying. For two weeks from 30 April she supported the 1st and 6th Marine Divisions.

That ended her active service. On 21 June she joined TG 32.15, providing cover 120 miles to the south-east of Okinawa. At the start of July she protected the eastern anchorage area, but on 3 July she was ordered back to the Philippines, to join the fleet being prepared for the upcoming invasion of the Japanese Home Islands. The Japanese surrender in mid-August meant that this campaign wasn't needed.

At the end of August the San Francisco was sent to the Chinese coast to help take the Japanese surrender. She was at Korea by mid-October, before on 27 November she set sail for San Francisco. She reached the west coast in mid-December and Philadelphia on 19 January 1946. She was decommissioned on 10 February and was part of the Reserve Fleet until she was finally struck off the Navy List on 1 March 1959. She was sold for scrap on 9 September 1959.

Wartime Modification

All members of the New Orleans class received quad 1.1in gun mounts early in 1942, with two on the quarterdeck and two at the same level as the chart house. They also got search radar and had the foremast reduced in height.

All four of the ships that survived 1942 were given more anti-aircraft guns over time, with six quad 40mm mountings replacing the 1.1in guns and 20mm guns in single mountings added in large numbers (the San Franciscocarried 12 single 20mm guns in 1942 increased to 26 in August 1944). They didn’t have much spare weight for these additions and so the conning tower and one of the cranes were removed and the bridge lightened. In 1945 one of the aircraft catapults was also removed.

Displacement (standard)


Displacement (loaded)


Top Speed



10,000nm at 15kts

Armour – belt

5in to 3.25in over 0.75in STS

 - over machinery


 - magazines

4in-3in side
2.25in above

 - barbettes


 - turrets

6in face
2.25in roof
1.5in side


588ft oa


Nine 8in/55 guns (three 3-gun turrets)
Eight 5in/25 guns (eight single positions)
Eight 0.5in guns (eight single positions)
Four aircraft

Crew complement


Laid Down

9 September 1931


9 March 1933


10 February 1934


1 March 1959

US Heavy Cruisers 1941-45: Pre War Classes, Mark Stille. Looks at the 'treaty cruisers' built in the US between the wars, limited by treaty to 10,000 tons and 8in guns. Five classes of treaty cruisers were produced and they played a major role in the fighting during the Second World War, despite the limits imposed on them by the treaty restrictions. [read full review]
cover cover cover

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (11 December 2014), USS San Francisco (CA-38) ,

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