The sprawling Nevada Test Site is littered with remnants of odd objects once used in atomic tests: Department store mannequins, the stubble of the atomic forest, the rubble of obliterated buildings.
But this gun turret got physicist Rob Hoffman’s full attention, because no one could answer a key question, “They couldn’t tell me what ship it came off of,” Hoffman said.
The turret was used as a movable sensor station during four atomic tests in 1957. Three of the devices were detonated within a mile of the thick metal structure. Those explosions, plus six decades of baking in the blistering hot desert, have worn it down a bit.
But Hoffman noticed evidence of another kind of trauma, indications that the turret had been in combat.
This piece right here, this green piece that looks fairly new, had to have been replaced, because that entire piece was blown into the turret when the bomb and the kamikaze actually landed on top of it.Rob Hoffman
Test Site officials have long known the turret was obtained from Mare Island Naval Shipyard in San Francisco, and that it most likely was from a cruiser. Ten heavy cruisers saw action during World War II. But until Hoffman applied his detective skills and dug into various historical archives, no one could say for sure the name of the ship.
Hoffman studied the telltale scars on the turret, then compared them to combat records from the wartime cruisers. One by one, he eliminated names.
“Every one of those ships served in World War II with great distinction. Some of them didn’t last very long. Four of them were lost to enemy action. Two of them were actually expended due to friendly fire in Operation Crossroads, which was the first atomic weapons test to occur after World War II,” said Hoffman.
A faded inscription on a hatch door suggested that turret was from the USS Pensacola, but Hoffman determined the door was itself a repair added later. The clincher for Hoffman was a chiseled inscription he found on the side of the turret. It matched perfectly shipyard records he’d found. “The ship it came off of was the USS Louisville, just like the Louisville Slugger,” concluded Hoffman.
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A slugger is right. The Louisville engaged in some of the deadliest naval battles of the war. Hoffman tracked down three crew members who confirmed to him how some of the damage was inflicted. “A kamikaze airplane actually landed right on top of it. Just on the left side here. The bomb, according to the repair yard, went off right above the left gun here as the plane was impacting on the turret,” said Hoffman.
During a battle off the Philippines in January, 1945, kamikazes hit the Louisville twice in two days. The second deadly attack was recorded on film. The video shows the kamikaze slammed directly into the top of the turret, setting off a bomb and a fireball, killing 38 crew members and leaving more than 100 others with burns, including the ship’s captain. The Louisville stayed in the fight for another day before heading for repairs. The sailors were buried at sea.
“When she came back, they wanted to turn her around fast. They had a spare turret at the yard. They pulled the old one off, put the new one in and sent her back and she got hit a third time when she went back to Okinawa with another kamikaze, so three times,” concluded Hoffman.
The turret that was hit by the kamikaze was repaired, but the war ended before it was needed again. It sat on a dock for 10 years before it was picked for a special job at the Nevada Test Site. The USS Louisville was mothballed and eventually sold for scrap, but a piece of it is still around.
“It’s a piece of history that you would drive right back here and never see. We almost lost it,” Hoffman said.