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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

When the war broke out in Europe on Sept. 3, 1939, the United States again, as it had in World War I, “officially” attempted to remain neutral. That neutrality, however, might have seemed questionable to some in light of the agreement, just one year later (Sept. 2, 1940), between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill. That agreement led to the transfer of 50 World War I destroyers to the Royal Navy to assist in combating German U-boats. In return, the U.S. was given 99-year leases to British bases in Bermuda, Newfoundland, and the West Indies.

USS Fanning DD 385

USS Fanning (DD 385) escorting USS Enterprise (CV 6) on the day the Doolittle Raid aircraft were launched, April 18, 1942. Destroyer in the background, headed left, is USS Balch (DD 363), flagship of Destroyer Squadron Six. U.S. Navy photo

But, once again, it was the German submarine threat that caused the greatest strain to stated neutrality. On the morning of Sept. 4, 1941, just one year and two days following the “Destroyers for Bases Agreement,” the destroyer USS Greer (DD 145) was traveling from Newfoundland to Iceland when she picked up a German submarine on her sonar.

As described in U.S. Navy histories:

“A British patrol plane had warned Greer that the U-boat was lurking in her path earlier. The destroyer made and held contact uneventfully for nearly 3 1/2 hours, when suddenly, a torpedo was spotted heading for the ship. Greer turned sharply, avoiding the torpedo, and let loose a salvo of depth charges. Again, a sharp turn and another torpedo charged by the destroyer, which was followed by a salvo of depth charges from Greer. By late afternoon, Greer lost contact and after a three-hour search, she continued on to Iceland. Apparently, the sub had dropped the fight, but the attack prompted President Roosevelt to issue orders to ‘shoot on sight’ any warships within ‘our defensive waters.’”

USS Buchanan (DD 484) alongside USS Wasp (CV 7) to refuel, while en route to the Guadalcanal-Tulagi invasion area, Aug. 3, 1942. One of 66 Gleaves-class destroyers built between 1938 and 1942, Buchanan displaced 1630 tons and was designed to make over 37 knots. She was armed with six 5-inch guns, six 20mm cannon, six .50 caliber machine guns, five 21-inch torpedo tubes, and two depth charge racks. National Archives photo

USS Buchanan (DD 484) alongside USS Wasp (CV 7) to refuel, while en route to the Guadalcanal-Tulagi invasion area, Aug. 3, 1942. One of 66 Gleaves-class destroyers built between 1938 and 1942, Buchanan displaced 1630 tons and was designed to make over 37 knots. She was armed with six 5-inch guns, six 20mm cannon, six .50 caliber machine guns, five 21-inch torpedo tubes, and two depth charge racks. National Archives photo

In mid-October 1941, just weeks after President Roosevelt had issued his September 11 order, the destroyer USS Kearny (DD 432), in company with the destroyers Plunkett (DD 429) , Livermore (DD 431), and Decatur (DD 341), was dispatched on an emergency mission 350 miles south of Reykjavik, Iceland, where a Canadian convoy was being attacked by German submarines.

During the ensuing engagement, Kearny was torpedoed on her starboard side by one of the German U-boats. Fortunately, the crew was able to confine and minimize the flooding, with Kearny eventually regaining power and making her way to Iceland for repair. Eleven crewmen were killed and 22 others were injured in the attack.

USS Callaghan DD 792

The Fletcher class was the largest class of U.S. Navy destroyers during World War II. USS Callaghan (DD 792) shown here in 1944-45, demonstrates the standard armament of five 5-inch guns, six to ten 40mm Bofors guns 7-10 20mm Oerlikon cannon, two depth charge racks, six depth charge projectors, and 10 21-inch torpedo tubes on a 2500-ton hull. The Fletchers were designed for 36.5 knots.

Two weeks later, on Jan. 31, 1941, the destroyers USS Reuben James (DD 245), USS Tarbell (DD 142), USS Benson (DD 421), USS Hilary P. Jones (DD 427), and USS Niblack (DD 424) were escorting a convoy of 44 merchant vessels about 600 miles west of Ireland when a torpedo struck and sank Reuben James. With only 45 of the 160-man crew surviving, Reuben James became the first destroyer casualty of World War II.

While World War II saw the destroyers continuing long established roles like convoy protection and submarine engagements, the conflict, coupled with new classes of destroyer platforms, saw the ships expand their critical roles and missions to perform patrol missions, amphibious landing support, shore bombardment, and air defense.

Their patrol value was actually demonstrated a month prior to the country’s official entry into the conflict, on Nov. 6, 1941, when USS Somers (DD 381), working together with the cruiser USS Omaha (CL 4), captured the Odewald, a German blockade runner, in the Central Atlantic. The Odewald had been operating under the disguise of an American merchant vessel.

Desron 21 to Vella Lavella

Three Destroyer Squadron 21 (DESRON 21) ships underway in the Solomon Islands, Aug. 15, 1943. The Fletcher-class destroyers are (from front to rear): USS O’Bannon (DD 450), USS Chevalier (DD 451) and USS Taylor (DD 468). Photographed from USS Nicholas (DD 449), while the ships were en route to the landings at Vella Lavella, which took place on the same day. National Archives photo

On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, the Wickes-class destroyer USS Ward sighted a midget submarine’s conning tower and periscope trailing the USS Antares into Pearl Harbor through the open submarine nets. Increasing speed to attack, Ward opened fire and the No. 3 gun scored a direct hit at the junction of conning tower and hull. As the submarine slowed it was caught in a spread of depth charges from the Ward, and sank in 1200 feet of water. Ward had fired the first shots of the Pacific War. “We have attacked, fired upon, and dropped depth charges on a submarine operating in defensive sea areas,” Ward radioed, but no further action was taken by headquarters, and a little more than an hour later the first Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor.

Burke aboard Ausburne

Captain Arleigh A. Burke, USN, Commander Destroyer Squadron 23 (seen in profile, fifth from left) reading on the starboard bridge wing of his flagship, USS Charles Ausburne (DD-570), during operations in the Solomon Islands in 1943-1944. The DesRon 23 “Little Beaver” insignia is painted on on the ship’s bridge wing. Note scoreboard painted on the side of the Mark 37 gun director. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command photo

Destroyers also played leading roles in many early operations in the Pacific. One example of these early contributions took place just six weeks following the country’s official entry into the conflict, as the tired old destroyers of the Asiatic Fleet fought a hopeless battle for time against the all-conquering Japanese. On June 20, 1942, USS Edsall (DD 219) cooperated with Australian forces to sink Japanese submarine I-124, the first Japanese submarine to be destroyed by forces that included U.S. surface forces.

USS Hoel

USS Hoel (DD 533) underway in San Francisco Bay, California, Aug. 7, 1943. Hoel would be lost in 1944, taking on Japanese battleships and cruisers in trying to protect the escort carriers of Taffy 3 during the Battle off Samar. U.S. Navy History and Heritage Command photo

Four days later, destroyers USS John D. Ford (DD 228), USS Parrott (DD 218), USS Paul Jones (DD 230), and USS Pope (DD 225) surprised a Japanese invasion force off Balikpapan, Borneo. The U.S. ships sank 4 of 12 transports and a patrol boat during the nighttime attack known as the Battle of Makassar Strait.

USS Aaron Ward (DM-34)

USS Aaron Ward (DM 34) in the Kerama Retto anchorage, May 5, 1945, showing damage received when she was hit by several Japanese suicide planes off Okinawa on May 3. Note three-bladed aircraft propeller lodged in her superstructure, just forward of the after 5″/38 twin gun mount. Destroyers, used as picket ships against the Kamikaze, suffered heavy losses. U.S. Navy photo

Destroyers participated in a range of impressive operations over the next year and a half, stretching from the Aleutian Islands (the Battle of the Komandorski Islands – March 1943) to the central Solomon Islands (the Battle of Vella Lavella – October 1943).

Then on Nov. 25, 1943, Capt. Arleigh Burke’s Destroyer Squadron 23 intercepted the “Tokyo Express,” the American nickname for small units of fast Japanese warships carrying troops and cargo, transporting troops to Buka, just north of Bougainville. During the ensuing Battle of Cape St. George, Burkes’ destroyers sank three of the five Japanese destroyers, with the other two leaving the area. On the U.S. side, Burke’s Squadron did not take a single hit. Nicknamed the “Little Beavers,” after the character from the popular Red Ryder comic strip, the Navy notes that Destroyer Squadron 23’s performance had “been termed a ‘near perfect tactical action’ by military historians, the Little Beavers destroyed three ships of a larger Japanese force while sustaining no damage…Capt. Burke’s ability to lead his squadron in spectacular dashes at high speed earned him the nickname ‘Thirty-One Knot Burke’…” In actuality, Burke’s nickname came as much from an exchange of messages with Adm. William F. Halsey as the sea battle itself.

The myriad combat engagements and contributions made by destroyers over the following 18 months included the Dec. 2-3, 1944 attack made by destroyers USS Allen M. Sumner (DD 692), USS Cooper (DD 695), and USS Moale (DD 693) against a Japanese convoy landing reinforcements at Ormoc Bay on Leyte. The destroyers were engaged by land bombardment locations but were able to sink the Japanese destroyer Kuwa. USS Cooper took a torpedo hit and sank with 191 sailors.

USS Maddox Typhoon Cobra

USS Maddox (DD 731) struggles through heavy seas during Typhoon Cobra in December 1944. Three destroyers were lost during the typhoon. Maddox was a Sumner-class destroyer, a larger, 3500-ton full-load improvement on the Fletcher class, with three twin 5-inch turrets, 12 40mm and 11 20mm cannon, two depth charge racks and six K-gun depth charge projectors, and 10 21-inch torpedo tubes. The class could make 34 knots. U.S. Navy image

Just over two weeks later on Dec. 18, 1944, USS Hull (DD 350), USS Monaghan (DD 354), and USS Spence (DD 512) capsized during a typhoon off the Philippine coast. More than 765 men drowned as a result of the storm. Navy histories note that Adm. Halsey faced a court of inquiry regarding the matter and was found to be principally responsible for failing to get the ships out of the typhoon path.

Closer to the European Continent, destroyers played critical roles in the support of World War II amphibious landings. During the June 6, 1944 D-Day landings, for example, service historical summaries note, “At Utah Beach, destroyers Fitch (DD 462), Corry (DD 463), and Hobson (DD 464) were the first ships of the invasion force to shell the shore. At Omaha Beach, destroyers Baldwin (DD 624), Carmick (DD 493), Doyle (DD 494), Emmons (DD 457), Frankford (DD 497), McCook (DD 496), and Thompson (DD 627) came in so close to the beach that their hulls rested on the bottom as their guns raked the enemy strongholds. It was the gunfire support of these and other ships that kept the German army from moving in reinforcements.”

USS Ernest G. Small

USS Ernest G. Small (DD 838) loses her bow in heavy seas four days after striking striking a mine off North Korea, October 1951. Shore batteries and naval mines posed a threat throughout the Korean War. National Archives photo

Meanwhile, the destroyer’s roles and missions continued to expand into air defense assets as Japan introduced “Kamikaze” attacks in the war’s waning stages. Destroyers acted as pickets around the fleet to both warn of Kamikaze attacks as well as destroy a proportion and “soak up” some of damage that would otherwise be inflicted on heavier units of the fleet. On April 6, 1945, for example, USS Bush (DD 529) and USS Colhoun (DD 801) were among the ships that shot down several Japanese planes off the coast of Okinawa. Both Bush and Colhoun were subsequently sunk by the Kamikazes.

Over the following month, additional Kamikaze attacks off Okinawa would sink or heavily damage USS Mannert L. Abele (DD 733-sunk), USS Pringle (DD 477-sunk), USS Laffey (DD 724-heavily damaged), USS Little (DD 803-sunk), USS Luce (DD 522-sunk), and USS Morrison (DD 560-sunk).

USS Bigelow (DD-942)

The Forrest Sherman-class destroyer USS Bigelow (DD 942) underway on Jan. 30, 1967. Originally all-gun destroyers, with three 5-inch and four 3-inch guns, along with anti-submarine torpedoes and “hedgehog” anti-submarine mortars, they displaced more than 4,000 tons full load. Several of the class were modified with a Standard Missile launcher in place of the aft 5-inch mount, among other armament changes. U.S. Navy photo

Although several destroyers were lost, an example of both their simultaneous air defense contributions to the fleet during this period, as well as their ordeals, can be seen in Laffey’s commander, Frederick Julian Becton’s oral history, recorded in the Operational Archives Branch, Naval Historical Center:

“Our tour of duty on this picket station was uneventful until the morning of April 16th, when we underwent a concentrated attack by Japanese suicide planes. The attack commenced about 8:27 [a.m.] when we were attacked by four Vals [single-engine Japanese Aichi D3A naval dive bomber with a 2-man crew], which split, two heading for our bow and two swinging around to attack us from the stern. We shot down three of these and combined with a nearby LCS [support landing craft] in splashing the fourth one. Then two other planes came in from either bow, both of which were shot down by us. It was about the seventh plane that we were firing on that finally crashed into us amidships and started a huge fire. This marked us as a cripple with the flames and smoke billowing up from the ship and the Japs really went to work on us after that…”

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