Originally constructed as the Santa Barbara, was completed in 1928 and acquired by the Navy from the Grace Lines on 26 July 1940.
Re-named McCawley on 29 July and commissioned on 11 September.
On 19 February McCawley got underway for Iceland with troops embarked. She returned to New York on 25 March and then steamed to Norfolk en route to a new assignment with the Pacific Fleet. Transiting the Panama Canal on 18 April, she discharged marine aviators at Pago Pago on 8 May and then continued on to Wellington, New Zealand. Joining Amphibious Force, South Pacific, she became the flagship for Rear Adm. R. K. Turner shortly before the first Allied counterinvasion of the war at Guadalcanal. On 7 August the campaign started and at 0800 landings were made at Tulagi and at 0919 on Lunga Point, Guadalcanal. Air raids commenced on the 8th with McCawley’s guns scoring their first kills, destroying three, possibly four planes. On the 9th she witnessed the flares of the Battle of Savo Island, in which Canberra, Astoria, Vincennes, and Quincy were lost and Chicago severely damaged. The transports continued to unload cargo until sailing for Noumea that afternoon. McCawley returned to Guadalcanal 18 September with supplies and reinforcements, departing again the same day with wounded and POWs. Unfortunately, carrier Wasp was lost and North Carolina and O’Brien were damaged by torpedoes while protecting this troopship convoy. On 9 October the transport again got underway for Guadalcanal in a convoy carrying over 2,800 reinforcements. One of the support groups for the convoy was Rear Adm. Norman Scott’s cruiser force, which, on the night of 11 and 12 October, defeated an enemy force off Cape Esperance, insuring successful completion of the troop movement. McCawley landed her troops and cargo, returning once more to Noumea with wounded and POWs. On 8 November, McCawley departed Noumea with other units of TF 67 for Guadalcanal. Two cruisers and three destroyers supported them. Transports from Espiritu Santo arrived at Lunga Point on the 11th, McCawley’s group from Noumea on the 12th. By dusk on the 12th, as reports of Japanese ship movements from Truk increased, 90 percent of the transports’ lading had been discharged, despite torpedo plane attacks. The transports were pulled out and sent back to Espiritu Santo, while Admiral Callaghan’s and Admiral Scott’s combined force gallantly engaged the enemy fleet in the initial action of what would later be called the Naval Battle for Guadalcanal. The battle, lasting 12 to 15 November, cost the Japanese two battleships, one cruiser, three destroyers, and 11 transports. The United States lost two cruisers and seven destroyers, and Admirals Callaghan and Scott were both killed. On 24 November, McCawley departed Noumea for overhaul at Wellington.
She returned to New Caledonia on 10 January with 1st Marine Raiders and the 3rd Parachute Battalion. After discharging those units, she loaded Army troops and construction equipment and resumed supply runs to Guadalcanal. McCawley was redesignated as APA-4 on 1 February and continued to supply Guadalcanal until mid-June. At that time, she began preparations for the New Georgia and central Solomons campaign. At 0643 on 30 June, she began off-loading for the landing at Rendova Island, near New Georgia. Twice, before completion at 1350, operations were halted to prepare for air attacks which did not materialize. Then, as the withdrawing column entered Blanche Channel, torpedo planes attacked. McCawley’s gunfire brought down four, but a torpedo hit in McCawley’s engineroom, killed 15 of her crew, and knocked out all power. Following the attack, Admiral Turner and his staff transferred to Farenholt (DD-491). Rear Admiral Wilkinson remained in McCawley to command salvage operations, while Libra (AKA-12) took the transport in tow and Ralph Talbot (DD-390) and McCalla (DD-488) stood by to assist. At 1640 all the crew, except the salvage party, were taken off by Ralph Talbot. Soon afterward, the group was attacked by dive bombers, and McCawley was strafed, but no further damage was inflicted as the salvage party manned her guns to splash one of the three planes destroyed. By 1850 the draft aft had increased to 38 feet, and Admiral Wilkinson ordered McCalla alongside to take off the salvage party. Within the hour all hands were aboard McCalla and pulling clear of the stricken transport. At 2023 the final blow came. The doomed ship was again torpedoed and in 30 seconds she sank in 340 fathoms. The following day it was learned that six motor torpedo boats had torpedoed an “enemy” transport in Blanche Channel, after having been informed there were no friendly forces in the area.
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