JCHA NEWSLETTER –SUMMER 2019

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Elfreda Mais
First Woman Race Car Driver and Stuntwoman


W

omen race car and stunt drivers were quite popular in the early days of automobile racing. One outstanding driver was Elfrieda Mais who was born June 19, 1893 in Indianapolis, Indiana was perhaps the first. She was billed as the “only woman auto racer in the world,” in the Wichita Beacon of Wednesday, June 28, 1916 when she was scheduled to drive her $10,000 "Mais Special" in an exhibition race against time on the West Side Speedway July 4th. Miss Mais lived in many places during her life which included Salina, Kansas; Dodge City, Kansas; San Antonio, Texas, Phoenix, Arizona; and Tampa, Florida.

"In 1911, Elfrieda married John A. "Johnny" Mais who drove racing cars and competed in the 1915 Indianapolis "500". Elfrieda was later married in 1924 to her second husband, William Pond Chapin and in 1928 to her third husband, Robert Emmett Wallace, before being married to her fourth husband, Ray LaPlante, sometime after 1930 but she continued to appear at racetracks and in stunt shows billed as "Miss Elfrieda Mais".

On September 27, 1934, Mais lost her life as a crowd watched her drive her automobile through a blazing wall of fire at the Alabama State Fairgrounds in Birmingham, Alabama. She had successfully completed this stunt many times before, but this time the car shot through the race track guardrail and down an embankment. The car hit a road scraper and plowed through the fairground wall. "Two boys, John Draper and Duncan Davenport, who were sitting on the roof of an automobile outside the fairgrounds, were hurt when the daredevil driver’s car struck theirs. Jenks Hoagland, a fair performer, was also injured."

According to a news report, "Ray La Plante of Newark, N. J., the woman’s husband, saw the accident. He expressed the belief his wife had been burned as the car went through the wall. She was injured in 1928 in Jackson, Miss., and last winter in Tampa, Fla. Mississippi."

She started working as an airplane stunt woman and wing walker in 1910 but switched to driving race cars in 1912. Racing sanctioning bodies of her time did not allow women to compete against the men so Elfrieda’s efforts were mostly confined to speed trials against the clock and stunt driving exhibitions. She plied those skills at an IMCA race at West Side Speedway in Wichita, Kansas on July 4, 1916 where she set an unofficial two-lap track record of 1 minute, 24 seconds on the half-mile racetrack. Four days later (July 8, 1916), she ran two laps on the half-mile racetrack at the Kansas State Fairgrounds in Hutchinson in 1 minute, 20.2 seconds.

Elfreda Mais.

Elfreda Mais.

On July 20, 1918, she ran exhibition laps at a race at the North Central Kansas Fairgrounds at Belleville, Kansas. On October 14, 1919, she drove exhibition laps between the races at the fairgrounds at Great Bend, Kansas. On June 15, 1920, Elfrieda returned to the Great Bend Fairgrounds where she covered one mile in 1 minute, 8 seconds on the half-mile racetrack. Elfrieda lowered her own time to 1 minute, 11.6 seconds on the half-mile Kansas State Fairgrounds racetrack on July 5, 1920. She also ran on the one-mile racetrack at Salina, Kansas on Labor Day of 1921. She returned to Wichita on August 7, 1932 where she again ran speed trials during breaks between the auto races at the Bo Stearns track north of town.

The only actual auto races she was allowed to compete in were "outlaw" (or non-sanctioned) races promoted by her then husband, Johnny Mais.”



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USS Birmingham Returning to the U.S.

USS Birmingham Returning to the U.S.

The Heroic USS Birmingham,
"Japan’s Favorite Target"

—by: Tom Badham


O

n February 17, 1941 the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company laid the keel of a new Cleveland class of light cruiser. Mrs. Cooper Green, wife of the president of the Birmingham City Commission, launched the USS Birmingham (CL- 62) on March 20, 1942, with the ship commissioned on January 29, 1943.

Birmingham began a sterling combat record earning eight battle stars during World War II. Her officers and crew members were awarded: 4 Navy Cross Medals, 9 Silver Star Medals, 3 Legion of Merit Medals, 9 Distinguished Flying Cross Medals, 2 Navy and Marine Corps Medals, 56 Bronze Star Medals, 1 Air Medal, 77 Letters of Commendation with ribbons, 7 Letters of Commendation without ribbons, one Gold Star in lieu of 3rd Purple Heart Medal, 33 Gold Stars in lieu of 2nd Purple Heart Medals, 795 Purple Heart Medals. This totaled 994 Combat Awards with 301 awarded posthumously. Naval historian, Samuel Eliot Morrison called the Birmingham "Japan’s favorite target".

Characterized as one of the "fightingest" ships in the Navy, the Birmingham suffered heavy battle damage on at least three separate occasions with the ship’s company showing exceptional bravery and skill, especially in the attempts to save the carrier USS Princeton.

Due to the limited size of its main guns, Birmingham was designated a light cruiser. Her main armament consisted of four turrets with three six-inch guns and six secondary turrets of dual-mounted five-inch guns. Displacing 10,000 tons, the Birmingham was 610 feet long, 66 feet wide, capable of speeds of up to 33 knots per hour, and crewed by 1,200 officers and men. Nicknamed "The Big B," more than a dozen of her crew hailed from their ship's namesake city. Most of her crew were young men with only a few senior chiefs and senior officers over thirty years old. Most were in their early twenties or late teens.

Assigned to the Atlantic Fleet after her shakedown cruise, she departed Norfolk, Virginia, on June 2, 1943, to participate in Operation Huskey, the amphibious landing in Sicily. she provided naval artillery support to our invading troops coming ashore. During the invasion her two OSU2U Kingfisher floatplanes came under attack. Mackey Prutilpac, the radio operator and gunner of one of the planes, was wounded and killed during the plane’s violent maneuvers. He was Birmingham’s first war casualty.

She was then ordered to the Pacific. On September 11, 1943, the Birmingham sailed from Pearl Harbor as part of Task Group (TG) 15.1. Consisting of the carriers Lexington, Princeton and Belleau Wood; the Birmingham acted as one of the screening ships for the carriers as they launched air strikes against Japanese gunboats and air defense positions on Tarawa and Makin.

As part of the carrier screen, her job was to be eyes and ears over the horizon. Her radars would warn of attacking enemy planes while her sonar would search for enemy submarines. She carried as many anti-aircraft guns of different calibers as could be fitted to help protect the carriers from attack.

On November 8, 1943, Birmingham, two other light cruisers and four destroyers took up a patrol position to the southwest of Espiritu Santo. Between noon and six that afternoon, Birmingham and the light cruiser Mobile picked up thirteen enemy air contacts on their radar screens. None closed and it was not until 6:30 pm that a single Mitsubishi AGM twin-engine bomber approached the task group. While it was circling the American warships, a large raid was picked up on radar at a range of 25,000 yards.

At 7:11 p.m., the three light cruisers began firing 6-inch gun salvoes at a range of 18,000 yards as the dozen or so Japanese aircraft closed on the formation. By the light of green, red, and yellow flares, Birmingham’s 40-mm and 20-mm gunners picked up an Aichi D3A Val very low and close on the port quarter. Taken under fire, the bomber burst into flames and crashed into the water 750 yards off the port beam.

Stern bomb damage to the USS Birmingham

Stern bomb damage to the USS Birmingham

Almost simultaneously, the stricken plane’s bomb skipped into the Birmingham, blowing a 15-foot hole in the starboard hull near the stern and demolishing her float plane hanger. One minute later, an aerial torpedo dropped from another aircraft exploded on the port bow, blowing a 30-foot diameter hole in the hull and splashing seawater up and over the open bridge. This hole, just above the chain locker, flooded two fuel oil compartments and buckled numerous decks and bulkheads.

As the light cruiser’s crew struggled to patch holes and put out fires, Birmingham steamed through a sea lit up by the pyres of six splashed Japanese planes burning on the surface of the sea. Just as the damage and flooding was contained by shoring-up the surrounding bulkheads, another Japanese Val swung past a destroyer and made a run against Birmingham from the port beam.

Taken under fire, the bomber exploded over the warship and splashed 100-yards off the starboard beam. The stricken plane’s bomb hit turret #4, damaging the mount and all three gun-barrels in the ensuing explosion. Two sailors were killed and 32 wounded in these attacks.

Despite these multiple hits and damage, the light cruiser maintained 30-knots speed and remained in formation fighting off frequent Japanese bomber attacks though the night. No other damage was suffered that night and the task group retired to the central Solomon Islands. The next morning. Birmingham then moved to Florida Island on November 10,1943, for temporary repairs.

After work crews reinforced her damaged bulkheads, the light cruiser’s damage control team constructed an open passageway up to the main deck from the damaged compartments forward. This allowed water to vent from the compartments open to the sea and relieved pressure on the shored-up bulkheads. When underway, this resulted in a geyser of water spouting out the trunk at every pitch, earning Birmingham the nickname "Old Faithful."

She returned to Pearl Harbor for a short period in dry dock patching her hull damage enough to sail to San Francisco’s Mare Island shipyard.

Over the next six weeks, Birmingham received a major overhaul and battle damage repairs, including the replacement of six of her 6-inch guns and both airplane launching catapults. She arrived back in Pearl Harbor on February 23, 1944.

Assigned to Task Group 52.17, the light cruiser steamed to Saipan on June 14, 1944 to cover mine sweeping operations, support Underwater Demolition Team (UDT) operations, and fire on Japanese positions ashore. Birmingham closed to 3,000 yards to cover a UDT beach reconnaissance mission. Suddenly, at 8:46 a.m., the light cruiser was fired on by a half-dozen Japanese shore batteries.

Bracketed by numerous enemy shells, one of which landed 20-yards over the starboard bow, she was sprayed with shrapnel and suffered light damage to her superstructure and electronics antennas. Over the next two hours, Birmingham dueled with the persistent Japanese shore batteries, successfully diverting most enemy fire away from the UDT operations ashore. At 8:18 p.m., her guns blew up a Japanese ammunition dump and, following a second such explosion at 10:30 p.m., enemy gunfire slackened considerably.

By the time Birmingham and the UDT withdrew at 11:30 a.m. the next morning, the light cruiser had expended 1,345 rounds of 6-inch and 1,172 rounds of 5-inch ammunition. Birmingham quickly re-armed and replenished alongside the supply ship Alhenar before putting to sea on June 17th.

After rendezvous with TG 58.3, built around the carriers Enterprise, Princeton and San Jacinto the warships took up a patrol station some 150 miles west of Saipan. From that position, the light cruiser participated in the Battle of the Philippine Sea. Birmingham was part of the three carriers’ screen when their planes attacked and sank the Japanese light carrier Hiyo.

Mrs. Cooper Green comissioning the USS Birmingham.

Mrs. Cooper Green commissioning the USS Birmingham.

From June 1944 through the end of the war, Birmingham was in combat with the Japanese performing bombardment and screening missions. Her finest hour came on October 24, 1944. At 9:30 that morning, a single Yokosuka D4Y Judy carrier dive bomber swept down over Princeton. A single bomb dropped and hit the carrier between the elevators, penetrated into the hangar and exploded. Severe fires set off secondary explosions forcing her to drop out of formation. Birmingham, the cruiser Reno and three destroyers detached and stood by to render assistance to the Princeton.

With fires burning in Princeton, the destroyers made repeated attempts to go alongside and spray water hoses on the flames. Heavy seas frustrated these moves, however, and destroyers Morrison, Gatling and Irwin all took serious damage in collisions with the heaving carrier.

Kamikazi damage aboard the USS Birmingham.

Kamikaze damage aboard the USS Birmingham.

Now Birmingham moved alongside Princeton since the cruiser could better withstand any blows. Within a short period of time, the light cruiser sent 14 water hoses and 38 men from her damage control teams over to the carrier. This extra assistance helped extinguish one of the two major fires in the carrier.

That afternoon, however, Birmingham received word that several Japanese planes had broken through the carriers Combat Air Patrols and, almost simultaneously, a destroyer reported a submarine contact at a mere 2,000 yards from the Birmingham. The warship quickly pulled in almost all her fire hoses and backed off to gain sea room for maneuvering.

Shortly thereafter, one Japanese plane was sighted but did not close to attack. In addition, the sound contact was classified a false alarm. Given the great success in fighting the fire up to that point, Birmingham again closed to help the still burning Princeton.

At 3:22 p.m., just as the light cruiser was moving back alongside the carrier, flames touched off Princeton’s after magazines. The cataclysmic explosion blew off the carriers’ stern and much of the aft flight deck. Birmingham was raked from stem to stern with steel plate fragments, wooden planking, and all manner of debris.

Over half of the light cruisers’ crew became casualties since virtually everyone on the starboard side was killed or wounded. The blast killed 233 men and seriously wounded 211, with another 215 suffering minor wounds.

Birmingham’s deck literally ran with blood and her surviving crew threw sand on the deck to provide a firm footing amidst the carnage. They then extinguished several fires burning topside and began to care for the hundreds of wounded as the light cruiser limped east out of the battle zone. In the meantime, continuing efforts by the other warships to save Princeton failed and the light cruiser Reno with the destroyer Irwin eventually scuttled the burning aircraft carrier with torpedoes.

Birmingham again limped into the Navy Yard, Mare Island, San Francisco, in early November, 1944, and commenced battle damage repairs and conversion into a flagship soon thereafter. The yard work included an overhaul of her boilers and other machinery, new propellers, the replacement of all 6- and 5-inch gun barrels, and the addition of two more quad 40-mm and four more twin 40-mm anti-aircraft gun mounts.

With repair work complete on January 17, 1945, Birmingham arrived off Iwo Jima on February 28, 1945. Assigned to the amphibious support force, she moved to the southern tip of the island and began firing at targets ashore later that morning.

On March 26, 1945, Birmingham joined the battleships Tennessee and Nevada, light cruisers St. Louis and Wichita along with supporting destroyers for fire support missions off the western beaches of Okinawa.

On May 4, 1945 at 8:40 a.m., a Japanese Kamikaze in a vertical dive crashed into her decks just aft of the number 2 turret with a 500-pound bomb. The ensuing explosion and fire wiped out the sick bay and ruptured the main, second, and third decks. Bulkheads were blown in and a five-foot hole was blown in the starboard side below the waterline. Four living compartments, the armory, and three ammunition magazines were flooded before the water was contained.

All fires were controlled by 9:14 a.m. and within an hour the more seriously wounded were transferred to the hospital ship Mercy via landing craft. Birmingham’s crew began making temporary repairs shortly thereafter. After repair crews pumped out most flooded compartments and shored up the damaged bulkheads, the warship got underway for Guam on May 5, 1945.

Arriving in Apra harbor on the 10th, her crew unloaded wet ammunition before guiding Birmingham into a floating dry dock on May 13th. Repair crews patched the damage to her hull and drained and cleaned the last flooded compartments. A few more bodies were recovered from these areas. Fifty-two crewmen were killed with 82 more wounded in the attack.

Birmingham departed Guam on the 21st and arrived at Pearl Harbor on May 28, 1945. She then moved into the Navy Yard, Pearl Harbor, on June 7th for six-weeks of repairs and alterations. Finished with yard work on July 22, 1945, the light cruiser rearmed, replenished and trained in Hawaiian operating areas in preparation for continued operations against Japan. With the news of the Japanese surrender on August 15, 1945, she was assigned duty with as flagship of the Commander U.S. Naval Forces, Australia-New Guinea.

Birmingham spent the next five months either in or steaming between the ports of Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane before finally returning to San Francisco on March 22, 1946.

The light cruiser moved to San Diego on April 2nd and reported to Commander, 19th Fleet, for inactivation that same day. On October 16, 1946, she was placed in reserve with the San Diego Reserve Fleet and on January 2, 1947, went out of commission in reserve. Her name stricken from the Navy list on March 1, 1959, and she was sold for scrap to National Metals and Steel Corp. on 13 October 1959.

 
Birmingham attempts to fight fires aboard Princeton.

Birmingham attempts to fight fires aboard Princeton.


 
 
 

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