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The lead of her class, she was initially classified as a light cruiser because for relatively thin armour but was later reclassified to a heavy cruiser owing to her 8-inch guns. She served in the Pacific theatre as part of USS Enterprises task force, screening the carrier at the Battle of Midway. She later participated in the operations of Guadalcanal.
During attempts to prevent Japanese reinforcements to Guadalcanal, she fought in the Battle of Tassafaronga. Towards the end of this engagement, Northampton was struck by two torpedoes and was sunk, though most of her crew survived and were rescued and picked up by Task Force 67.