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Life Aboard the USS Salt Lake City

Two World War II Sailors walking together

Clayton "James" Kearl (right) walks with friend Joe Larsen at Pearl Harbor. Photo courtesy: Kearl Family

By Jeremy M. Laird
Sunday, September 2, 2018

Guadalcanal. Marshall Islands. Philippines Liberation. Iwo Jima. Okinawa. V-J Day.

All extraordinary dates in World War II history that most learn about in high school history class. But WWII Veteran Clayton “James” Kearl, not only witnessed history, he helped make it. A life-long Utahan, Kearl, was assigned to the U.S.S. Salt Lake City, a Pensacola-class heavy cruiser that was awarded 11 service stars for its duty in the Pacific.

“The Salt Lake City saw more action, fired more ammunition, than any other ship in ship in the United States Navy,” said Kearl, proudly nearly 74-years after he last set foot on the Salt Lake City. 

Kearl, 21, enlisted in the Navy in August of 1942—despite knowing it broke the heart of his then girlfriend, and future wife, Betty. The Navy sent him to Pearl Harbor for fire control school and soon after graduation, he was assigned to the U.S.S. Salt Lake City, his “home” for the next three years. Onboard, his captain assigned him a new job using a revolutionary new technology that would change the course of warfare – radar.

Watch: U.S.S. Salt Lake City

 “Radar then was probably one of the most secret weapons that the United States had,” Kearl said. “They had developed during the process a thing called IFF, which is identification friend or foe. And if it was the enemy, we picked them up and nothing would happen we would just have the signal.  But if it were U.S., they would send us a signal back and we’d pick up that signal.  Knowing that it was friendly.”

Battle of the Komandorski Islands

Just weeks after joining the crew of the Salt Lake City, the ship headed for the Aleutian Islands—specifically the islands of Attu and Kiska. Japanese forces set up two garrisons on the islands, and the Salt Lake, a light cruiser and four destroyers were ordered to stop the Japanese navy from reinforcing the garrisons.

On March 26, 1943, the Salt Lake City found what it was looking for. “We picked up the Japanese convoy,” said Kearl, “…three heavy cruisers, six destroyers, and then two transports loaded with Japanese soldiers.”

During the ensuing battle, known as the Battle of the Komandorski Islands, the Salt Lake City lived up to her nickname “The One Ship Fleet” helping hold off the Japanese force twice the size of her own. Over course of the battle, she fired over 800 shells at the Japanese ships—in spite of being “dead in the water” for three hours, after rounds from a Japanese cruiser hit the Salt Lake six times.

“The captain came on the loudspeaker and said ‘I hate to say this, but it is necessary that I command you to prepare to abandon ship,’” recalled Kearl. “So, we were just waiting there for the Japanese to come and take over and all of a sudden, I was sitting at the radar table and I saw our dot was moving, and we were under way.”

Although she suffered grave damage—the Salt Lake and the rest of the US force rebuffed the Japanese and the islands were not reinforced. For her actions, the Salt Lake City was award the Navy Unit Commendation.

“We lost five good men in the engagement and they were buried in Alaska,” said Kearl.

WWII Cruiser, USS Salt Lake City

The USS Salt Lake City laying off the Mare Islands 1944. The cruiser saw more action, fired more ammunition, than any other ship in the United States Navy during WWII. Photo: National Archives.

Invasion of Gilbert and Marshal Islands

In October 1943, the Salt Lake City moved from the north Pacific to the south Pacific. While there, she participated in the invasion of the Gilbert Marshal Islands.

“We received information that the Gilbert Island was ready to take back,” said James. “There was an old wreck, an old ship, and our captain asked the admiral if we couldn’t go in and throw a few shells into it. The admiral told our captain, ‘No, that is just a waste of time and ammunition.’ … So of course, we went back to bombarding the beach and our marines started to go in. And as they started to go, the sides of this old ship opened up and it was just full of guns—40 millimeters. We lost 500 Marines within the next two hours, because our intelligence had given us the wrong information. So immediately, without getting permission, we went in and laid about 12 8-inch shells into this old ship and of course destroyed everything, but the damage had been done.”

 At this point Kearl had been on the Salt Lake City for over year, participated in three major naval battles, and finally, he and the rest of the crew received a much-needed break from the action in the Pacific.  Kearl made the most of his shore leave in the states.

Photo of Young James KearlYoung Betty Kearl, wife of James.
A young James Kearl and his wife Betty. The Kearls married during World War II. Photos courtesy: Kearl Family

Leave & Marriage

“I came home and Betty and I were married on the 12th of May 1944,” said Kearl. “My division officer called me and said that he had acquired a Quonset hut for me so I could bring my bride with me. She had the privilege of going aboard the USS Salt Lake City.”

The honeymoon was soon over for the Kearls. Jim would spend the next 18 months onboard the Salt Lake City and Betty would spend it at home in Salt Lake City.

James Kearl salute.

James Kearl returning a salute after the Memorial Day Parade and events at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.


Iwo Jima & Okinawa

The next year would be a busy one for the Salt Lake City as the crew participated in the bombardment of Wake Island, acted as a decoy to distract the Japanese away from the Philippines, conducted a raid on Formosa, participated in the second battle of the Philippines Sea and invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

The Salt Lake City started bombarding Iwo Jima and the surrounding islands in November 1944—two months before the first Marines set foot on the island.

When the actual invasion started in February 1945, the Salt Lake City provided bombardments of the island for nearly a month straight. According to the official Naval history of the Salt Lake City, during the bombardment of Iwo Jima the ship expended nearly 7,700 rounds.

It was during this time that Kearl witnessed one of the most iconic events of World War II.

 “They ordered us to go around to the north side of island,” said Kearl, “and give the Marines support because they were going to raise the flag on Iwo Jima… I was free of duty for a while so …  [I]walked up on the bay of the ship and I saw them raise the flag.”

The Salt Lake City then moved further north. During the invasion of Okinawa, the Salt Lake City threw down more than 30-thousand rounds, downing two Japanese planes and repulsing several Kamikazes.

Victory in the Pacific

After Okinawa, Kearl remembers the Salt Lake heading back to the Philippines to resupply and then in late July heading north.

“We were going be in a convoy that was going to bombard Tokyo Bay.. we were put out in front because we had the longest range and could warn quicker about any enemy in the area than any other ship.”

Along the route the ship’s captain told the crew to tune the radio to a certain frequency.

“It was the Enola Gay,” said Kearl. He listened as the crew of the Enola Gay prepared the bomber for its historic drop.

“We heard him [the pilot] order the crew to their assigned positions… and then we heard him say all right prepare. He said ‘five, four, three, two, one. There she goes.’ The next thing we heard the pilot of the ship say, ‘Oh, my!’ He said the concussion from the bomb blew the Enola Gay fifty feet straight into the air.”

Just a week later, the bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. “Of course, after the second atomic bomb was dropped, the [Japanese] Navy surrendered,” said Kearl. “And, on September the second, why of course, you all know, that the treaty was signed.”

The end of war didn’t end Kearl’s time on the Salt Lake City. Despite having enough points to be discharged, his captain told him he’d have to remain onboard until his replacement arrived because he was the only the man onboard who knew how to operate two machines.

“Well that period of time didn’t go very fast,” Kearl said laughing. Finally, he was released from duty and Kearl made it back to Salt Lake and his beautiful bride. They lived there the rest of their lives—raising a family of seven kids.

Kearl passed away in April 2018, at age 97 just a few weeks short weeks short of his 74th wedding anniversary. A few months later his wife also passed away.


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