The destroyers of the Wickes and Clemson classes defined the destroyer force of the U.S. Navy. In 1916 with the advent of the submarine as an effective weapon of war the Navy realized that its pervious classes of destroyers were insufficient to meet the new threat. Likewise the lack of endurance of earlier destroyers kept them from vital scouting missions since the U.S. Navy unlike the Royal Navy or Imperial German Navy maintained few cruisers for such missions.
The Naval Appropriation Act of 1916 included the authorization of 50 Wickes Class destroyers to compliment 10 new battleships, 6 battlecruisers and 10 light cruisers with the goal of building a Navy second to none. The new destroyers were designed for high speed operations and intentionally designed for mass production setting a precedent for the following Clemson class as well as the destroyer classes built during the Second World War.
The Wickes Class had a designed speed of 35 knots in order to be able to operate with the new Omaha Class light cruisers and Lexington Class Battlecruisers in the role of scouting for the fleet. They were flush-decked which provided additional hull strength and their speed was due to the additional horsepower provided by their Parsons turbines which produced 24,610 hp. They were 314’ long and had a 30 foot beam. Displacing 1247 tons full load they were 100 tons larger than the previous Caldwell class ships. They were armed with four 4 inch 50 caliber guns, one 3” 23 caliber gun and twelve 21” torpedo tubes.
Although they were very fast they proved to be very “wet” ships forward and despite carrying an additional 100 tons of fuel they still lacked range. Due to the realization the U-Boat war required more escorts the order for Wickes Class ships was increased and 111 wear completed by 1919.
The Wickes Class was followed by the Clemson Class which was an expansion of the Wickes class being more tailored to anti-submarine warfare. They had a greater displacement due to additional fuel tanks and mounted the same armament had identical dimensions and were capable of 35 knots but had a larger rudder to give them a tighter turning radius. 156 ships of the class were completed.
In the inter-war years a number of each class were scrapped and 7 of the Clemson Class from DESRON 11 were lost in the Honda Point Disaster of September 8th 1943.
Many of the ships never saw combat in either war as numerous ships were scrapped due to the limitations of the London Naval Treaty. Of the 267 ships of the two classes only 165 were still in service in 1936. As new destroyers were added to the navy in the 1930s a number of ships from each class were converted to other uses. Some became High Speed Transports (APD) and carried 4 LCVP landing craft and a small number of troops, usually about a company sized element. Others were converted to High Speed Minelayers (DM) or High Speed Minesweepers (DMS). A few were converted to Light Seaplane Tenders (AVD). Those converted to other uses had their armament reduced with dual purpose 3” 50 caliber guns replacing the 4” guns and the removal of their torpedoes. Those which remained received 6 of the 3” guns to replace their original gun armament and lost half of their torpedo tubes. During the war all would have light additional anti-aircraft armament and radar installed.
In 1940 19 of the Clemson Class and 27 of the Wickes Class were transferred to the British Royal Navy under the Lend Lease program. Some of these would see later service in the Soviet Navy being transferred by the Royal Navy serving after the war with those ships being scrapped between 1950 and 1952.
The ships of these classes performed admirably during the Second World War despite their age. The USS Ward DD-139 fired the first shots of the war when it engaged and sank a Japanese midget sub outside of Pearl Harbor. The 13 ships of the Asiatic Fleet’s DESRON 29 took part in six engagements against far superior Japanese Navy units while operating in the Philippines and then in the Dutch East Indies as part of the ABDA Command including the Battle of Balikpapan where the John D Ford DD-228, Pope DD-225, Paul Jones DD-230 and Parrot DD-218 sank 4 Japanese transports. During that campaign 4 of these gallant ships were sunk in battle and a 5th the USS Stewart DD-224 was salvaged by the Japanese after being damaged and placed in a floating drydock at Surabaya following the Battle of Badung Strait. She was placed in service as a patrol ship by the Imperial Navy. She was discovered by U.S. Forces after the surrender and returned to the U.S. Navy.
Whether in the Atlantic or the Pacific the ships contributed to the Allied victory. The former USS Buchanan DD-131 which had been transferred to the Royal Navy where she was re-named the HMS Campbeltown and used in the Saint-Nazaire Raid. For the raid she was altered in appearance to look like a German Möwe class destroyer was rammed into the only drydock on the Atlantic capable of holding the Battleship Tirpitz. The mission was successful and the drydock was unusable by the Germans for the rest of the war.
During the war they served in every major campaign and when no longer fit for front line service were used in escort roles in rear areas as well as in a variety of training and support roles. By the end of the war the surviving ships of both classes were worn out and a number were decommissioned and some scrapped even before the end of hostilities. Those that survived the war were all decommissioned by 1946 and most scrapped between 1945 and 1948.
During Second World War 9 of the Wickes Class were sunk in battle, and 7 were sunk or destroyed in other ways. 5 were later sunk as targets and the remaining ships were all scrapped. A total of 20 of the Clemson Class were lost either in battle or to other causes including those lost and Honda Point.
The brave Sailors that manned these ships in peace and war become fewer in number every day as the Greatest Generation passes. It is a sad testimony that none of these ships were preserved as a memorial; however the Australians have a memorial at Darwin dedicated to the USS Peary DD-226 which was sunk with 80 of her crew during the Japanese raid on that city’s port on 19 February 1942. The memorial has one of her 4” guns pointed in the direction of the wreck of the Peary. A memorial to the USS Ward, her #3 4” gun which sank the Japanese midget sub is located on the Capitol Grounds in St. Paul Minnesota.