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South Philadelphia sisters battle back after Pearl Harbor

December 7, 2016

Filed under Collections, Exhibit Opening, Military History

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Button commemorating the launch of the USS Cassin and the USS Shaw

This button, housed in the Military History collection of the State Museum, marks the October 28, 1935 launching of the USS Cassin and USS Shaw at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. The button was originally owned by Joseph Poncar, a former employee of the Navy Yard.

The Military History collection of the State Museum of Pennsylvania is home to a memento that marks the launching of the USS Cassin and USS Shaw at the Philadelphia Navy Yard on October 28, 1935 . A small celluloid and metal button commemorates the day in the appropriate colors of navy blue and gold. The button was originally owned by Joseph Poncar, a former employee of the Navy Yard.

Shipbuilding was one of the prime industries in the Philadelphia area for more than two centuries. The Philadelphia Navy Yard provided both shipbuilding and repair services to the nation and also served as a vital employer. This was especially true during the Great Depression.

One of the provisions of the Vinson-Trammell Naval Construction Act of 1934 was to order an additional 16 destroyers for the navy. The work was parceled out to various shipyards around the country. The Philadelphia Navy Yard was allotted the construction of two ships. The keels of the USS Cassin and USS Shaw were laid down on adjacent building ways on October 1, 1934. A little over a year later, on October 28, 1935, during the Navy Day event at the yard, an estimated 93,600 visitors watched as the two hulls were launched and maneuvered into dry dock.

Less than six years later, both ships received their baptism by fire in the attack that would lead the United States into World War II.

On the morning of December 7, 1941, after several years of service, the sister ships were in dry docks once again, this time for maintenance. Far away from Philadelphia, they were in the Pacific Fleet base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The Cassin was sharing Dry Dock No.1 with another destroyer, the Downs, and the battleship Pennsylvania. The Shaw was in a floating dry dock a short distance away. During the Japanese air raid, the Downs was hit by a bomb, starting a fire that engulfed both destroyers and scorched the bow of the Pennsylvania. As the dry dock was filled with water, the Cassin rolled over onto the Downs. Several bomb hits on the Shaw started fires that eventually ignited the ship’s forward ammunitio nmagazine. The resulting explosion blew the bow off of the Shaw and ruptured the floating dry dock, sending both to the bottom of the harbor.

After the smoke from the attack had cleared, the Navy began an extensive salvage operation to return as many of the damaged ships to service as quickly as possible. The fire-damaged hull of the Cassin was deemed unsalvageable, but the internal machinery was extracted and placed inside a new hull, also named USS Cassin. The sunken Shaw was raised and a short, temporary bow put in place to allow the ship to sail to San Francisco where the forward section of the ship was rebuilt. Both of the rebuilt destroyers returned to duty and participated in various operations until the end of World War II. The two sisters from south Philadelphia proved to be much more resilient than the Japanese navy had anticipated.

Earlier this week, Pennsylvania at War: The Saga of the USS Pennsylvania, a display that commemorates the 75th anniversary of the Attack on Pearl Harbor, opened at The State Museum. Pennsylvania at War Commemorates two of the 20th century’s greatest conflicts, World War I and World War II, and explores their impact at home and across the globe, through stories and related artifacts from the collections of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC).

This article was written by Bob Hill, History Curator at The State Museum of Pennsylvania.