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Home > December 2013 > This Month in Intrepid’s History
This Month in Intrepid’s History
Posted: 12/12/2013 2:37:09 PM

Intrepid at War: December 1943


USS Intrepid was commissioned seventy years ago this past August 16, joining the U.S. Navy in the middle of World War II. For the next two years this ship and crew trained, fitted out and then fought their way across the Pacific Ocean. Along the way, the contributions the ship and crew made to victory were vital and the price they paid heavy. Travel with our Museum Tour Guides here each month as they follow Intrepid’s journey and its crew’s experience throughout World War II.

December 1943: Passage

At the beginning of December 1943, Air Group 8 reported back onboard Intrepid in Norfolk, Virginia, and was preparing to set sail for the Pacific Ocean, headed for the Panama Canal. The United States had constructed the canal thirty-nine years earlier because President Theodore Roosevelt and U.S. Navy leaders were very concerned about their ability to move ships between oceans quickly enough to defend both coasts. In fact, in 1898 during the Spanish-American War, it took the battleship Oregon nine and a half weeks to travel from California to the scene of the fighting around Cuba. While the ship’s race around the Western Hemisphere was a major technological achievement and quickly became the stuff of legend, it also drew public attention to the need for a more direct route. Had the canal existed, Oregon’s trip would have taken only three and a half weeks. After ten years of work, the canal was completed in August 1914.


For Intrepid and other ships like it, the canal was more than just a route to the Pacific Ocean; it was also a major factor in their design. The canal’s locks are only 110 feet wide. Until the Midway-class carriers were commissioned just after World War II, U.S. Navy ships were legally required to be narrow enough to pass through. The reason that Intrepid was equipped with only a portside deck edge elevator in World War II was because a second on the starboard side would have interfered with canal transit.

On December 8, Intrepid arrived at Colon, Panama, and the following morning headed into the canal. The crew quickly discovered that while their ship may have been purposely built to fit through, it was still a tight squeeze. Crew members observed that there appeared to be less than a foot to spare on either side of the hull in certain places. As they moved through tighter parts of the waterway, the ship made regular contact with the sides, scraping and groaning along. With two-thirds of the transit complete, Intrepid entered the Culebra Cut, one of the more narrow sections that was then known as the Gaillard Cut. Though wider than the locks, the Cut had several tight turns and high cliffs on either side.

Though wider than the locks, sections of the canal like this, with tight turns and high walls, and could be much more dangerous to transit. (1963 Cruise Book)

There are several different versions of what happened next, but many agree that while the ship was navigating a left turn, the bow swung starboard instead, heading toward the cliffs to the right. Orders were rapidly issued to reverse speed and drop the port anchor. Meanwhile, in the anchor chain room, a large group of men were gathered around the port anchor chain transfixed by the vertical wall they were rapidly approaching. As they were too close for the port anchor to be safely dropped, starboard was dropped instead pulling the ship further to the right. Intrepid’s bow plowed into the canal’s sidewall. Despite the damage, watertight doors were quickly sealed and the ship completed canal transit the same day. However, once Intrepid reached Balboa on the Pacific side, it spent five days undergoing temporary repairs and the ship was then sent to San Francisco for permanent repair. A later board of inquiry exonerated all those involved and placed blame for the incident on a combination of suction created by such a large ship in such a small a body of water, and a water surge caused by the opening of a lock elsewhere in the canal hours earlier. In any case, on December 23, Intrepid was taken to the Hunters Point Shipyard, near San Francisco, and dry-docked so that major repairs could begin.

Intrepid’s damage was severe enough to require a trip to Hunters Point, California for drydock and repair. (1963 Cruise Book)

While their wounded ship was on the mend, Intrepid’s crew entertained themselves with a combination of Christmas celebrations both on board and on liberty in San Francisco. Former crew member Raymond Stone remembers what became known as “Operation Tree,” when he spotted a Christmas tree outside one of the shipyard offices in Hunters Point and reported his findings to Lt. MacGregor Kilpatrick. The two decided to “borrow” the evergreen and managed to smuggle it over a fence, aboard the ship and down to the Combat Information Center (CIC), lights and all. They set up the tree in front of one of the larger plotting boards and used green and red wax pencils to decorate the board and write “Merry Christmas Intrepid” in large letters. At one point Captain Thomas Sprague himself was invited down to CIC to inspect their Christmas display. The Captain not only approved, but proceeded to join officers and crewmen alike in a series of Christmas carols. All the while, repairs continued. Finally on January 5, a fully functional Intrepid left Hunters Point to continue its journey to war. Though Intrepid’s first stay at Hunters Point was over, it would not be the ship’s last.



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