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U.S. Navy Destroyers: Evolving and Engaged

From 1902 until today, the greyhounds of the sea have been engaged and evolving

Official U.S. Navy histories attribute the birth of the destroyer to some significant events that occurred during the last decade of the 18th century. The first involved the introduction of the torpedo boat, which the histories describe as “swift, small craft [that] were able to dash in close to larger ships, loose their torpedoes, and dash away.” In demonstrating their naval combat contributions in the Chilean Civil War and Sino-Japanese War of 1894, the torpedo boats heightened a global awareness among many of the world’s navies of the need for a counter weapon. It was to fulfill this role that the torpedo boat destroyer, later just “destroyer,” was born.

Few military platforms in history have witnessed the growth of both mission responsibilities and capabilities experienced by the destroyer. From their initial “torpedo boat destroyer” role, these versatile ships have dramatically expanded their military contributions through the assumption of anti-submarine, air defense, strike warfare, and other unique mission roles. Most significantly, that tactical evolution now continues into the 21st century with the Arleigh Burke and Zumwalt classes of destroyers.

Paul Jones, Stewart, Perry, Preble

The Bainbridge-class destroyers Paul Jones, Stewart, Perry, and Preble shown off of Seward, Alaska, some time between 1918 and 1920. The U.S. Navy’s first class of destroyers, they typically displaced 710 tons full load, were nearly 250 feet in overall length, and carried two 3-inch and five 6-pounder guns as well as two 18-inch torpedo tubes. Maximum speed was 28.4 knots. Library of Congress photo

Given the critical role that destroyers play in U.S. Navy surface fleet inventories, it is somewhat ironic that the service’s first encounter with destroyers involved hostile ones attempting to attack a squadron of U.S. Navy ships.

On July 3, 1898, during the Spanish-American War, Spanish Adm. Pascual Cervera sent two destroyers against a U.S. Navy squadron in Santiago Harbor. Service histories note that the “American cruisers quickly took aim on the destroyers, blowing one out of the water. An American armed yacht, USS Gloucester, moved in on the second destroyer and sank it. Our Navy, realizing that had these destroyers had better handling and thus could have inflicted serious damage, sent out orders to speed the American destroyer program, then in its infancy.”

USS Preston

USS Preston (DD 19) was part of the five-ship Smith class of U.S. Navy destroyers. They featured an all big gun armament of five 3-inchers, and three 18-inch torpedo tubes on a 293-foot, 10-inch hull displacing 916 tons full load and with a draft of only 8 feet. They were the first turbine-powered American destroyers and the last to be coal-fired. Library of Congress photo

USS Bainbridge (DD 1) was the first ship classified as a destroyer by the U.S. Navy. Built in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the 420-ton destroyer was launched on Aug. 27, 1901, and commissioned in November 1902, subsequently remaining in reserve status until February 1903. The lead ship in her class of 16 ships, she had an overall length of 250 feet, a top speed of 29 knots, a crew of 75, and was armed with two 3-inch guns, five 6-pounders, and two 18-inch torpedo tubes.

In December 1903, USS Bainbridge left the United States, accompanied by four of her sister destroyers, and steamed to the Philippines by way of the Atlantic, Mediterranean, Suez Canal, and Indian Ocean. Arriving near Manila in April 1904, she served in the Far East for the next thirteen years, primarily around in the Philippine Islands and along the China coast.

Henley DD 39

The Paulding-class destroyer USS Henley (DD 39). The Pauldings improved upon the Smith-class machinery with oil-fired turbines, and were actually lighter at 901 tons full load on the same length, while carrying three more 18-inch torpedo tubes and the same gun armament of five 3-inchers.

Yet even while USS Bainbridge was still serving in Asian waters, the Navy introduced several new modifications and classes of destroyers, including the Hopkins, Lawrence, Truxton, Smith, Flusser, Paulding, Roe, Monaghan, Cassin, Aylwin, O’Brien, Tucker, and Sampson classes.

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Scott Gourley is a former U.S. Army officer and the author of more than 1,500...