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Destroyers – The Most Versatile War Ships Ever Conceived
“When at grips with the enemy on the sea, under the sea, or in the air, no task force commander ever had enough destroyers. They were indispensable in every operation, a lance to thrust forward, a shield.” Admiral Walden L. Anisworth, Commander of Destroyer Forces in the Pacific, 1942
The naval destroyer is fondly known by two nicknames: Tin Can since its hull is only 5/8ths of an inch thick, and Greyhound Of The Sea since there are few ships more graceful than a destroyer with its knife-like bow slicing through the ocean at 35 knots.
The destroyer was developed by the British in 1874 to carry another of their inventions, the self-propelled torpedo, developed in 1866 as a weapon that was first controlled by men standing on shore pulling on ropes connected to the torpedo. Ship designers soon realized they needed something that could sink enemy vessels carrying torpedoes. That led to a counter-weapon called the torpedo boat destroyer. Soon the two separate ship types were adapted to one purpose and the ship class was simply called “destroyer.”
Though adopted by the world’s navies, the destroyer was slow to prove itself in combat. It was not until 1891 that a destroyer sank another ship using a torpedo – 25 years after the development of the weapon. It was not until the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 when Japanese destroyers sank Russian battleships on the open ocean – 39 years after the development of the torpedo – that the destroyer actually demonstrated its value. In 1903 the United States launched its first true destroyer, the USS Bainbridge (DD-1). Starting with the Bainbridge, each American destroyer would be designated by successive hull numbers and the designation of DD. Every destroyer is named after a naval hero. Some ships may be named after the same man if the previous ships are no longer in service.
By World War I, engine technology had improved so rapidly that destroyers could push a 300-foot-long hull displacing more than 1,000 tons more than 30 knots an hour. Torpedoes were 21 inches in circumference. Deck guns were 4 inches in diameter. Depth charge racks were added midway through the war to combat German U-boat submarines. With the invention of the depth charge, there was finally a means of not only escorting and protecting convoys of merchant ships, but of killing the U-boats that had been preying on them.
During the 1920’s Japan unveiled the fast, formidable Fubuki destroyer type, a design that so astonished the Americans and the British that they started crash campaigns to modernize their own destroyer fleets in the 1930’s. However, when World War II started, more than half of the American fleet of destroyers were based on World War I designs, and even our best destroyer classes were inferior to Japanese designs. The British destroyers were also better than the Americans. The Germans, known for building quality U-boats, tanks, and fighter aircraft, virtually ignored the destroyer class and did not develop a quality ship of that type.
American destroyers figured prominently in early American WW II history. Two were torpedoed by German U-boats in October 1941. One, the USS Reuben James (DD-245) sank with more than 100 sailors lost. There was no retaliation by the U.S. government which was still trying to keep the shooting war in Europe away from our shores. The USS Ward (DD-139) sank a Japanese mini-sub more than an hour and a half before the Japanese air attack on Pearl Harbor, but a warning of enemies in Pearl Harbor provided by the captain of that vessel went unheeded by his superiors and the individual ships were not warned to be on alert.
Starting in 1942 American destroyers began a slow but steady year-long progress in protecting ship convoys crossing the Atlantic. By May 1943, our escorting destroyers and hunter-killer teams of aircraft carriers and destroyers were sinking more U-boats than could be launched. Also starting in 1943 a new ship type, the smaller, slower destroyer escort type, started joining convoys as a more efficient ship for protecting the slow merchant ships and tankers.
It was late 1942 when the Fletcher class came into service that U.S. destroyers started their slow, but sure domination of the Imperial Japanese Navy. One hundred and seventy-five Fletchers were built during the course of the war, compared to just 20 of the comparable Yugomo in the same time frame. The Fletchers carried five 5-inch guns, 10 21-inch torpedoes, and batteries of 20 mm and 40 mm cannons for anti-aircraft and anti-submarine duty. They weighed 2,050 tons (twice the displacement of WWI-era destroyers), but were just 378 feet long, compared to 314 feet for the typical WWI American destroyer. Their top speed was 36 knots, not much faster than WWI destroyers.
By 1943 American destroyers were developing new tactics against the Japanese; creep up on Japanese fleets at night using radar, fire a spread of torpedoes, wait for any hits to illuminate the enemy, then run in and fire their 5-inch guns, before retreating out of range of Japanese guns. It was a deceptively simple plan that helped wear down and destroy the Japanese fleet.
Technology had improved so much during the war that a destroyer escort, the USS England (DE-635) sank six Japanese submarines in 12 days in 1944 using a mortar-like weapon called the hedgehog that had not even entered service until late in 1942.
In October 1944 at The Battle off Samar Island, one of the Battles for Leyte Gulf, a tiny force of destroyers and destroyer escorts protecting six escort carriers faced off against an entire fleet of Japanese battleships, cruisers, and destroyers. The American force was devastated but the Japanese fleet turned around, convinced it was facing a much larger force. The Battle off Samar is still regarded as the U.S. Navy’s destroyer force’s greatest battles in terms of the bravery exhibited by its Destroyer Men.
When the Japanese surrendered, three of the hardest-fighting destroyers were chosen to lead the American fleet into Tokyo Bay for the ceremony. It was a fitting gesture to honor the 71 destroyers and 11 destroyer escorts the United States lost during World War II.
The destroyer class of ship still serves the Navy today, but it looks nothing like the ships of World War I and II. The primary weapon of today’s destroyer is the guided missile, not the torpedo, the depth charge, the 5-inch gun, and the anti-aircraft batteries of 20 mm and 40 mm guns that were common 75 years ago.
Clint Johnson of Jefferson, N.C. is writer of TIN CANS & GREYHOUNDS: The Destroyers That Won Two World Wars, published in 2019 by Regnery History of Washington D.C. Copies can be obtained from him, bookstores, and at the Ashe County Arts Council in West Jefferson. See details at www.ClintJohnsonBooks.com.