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The Beautiful, Iconic, Heroic, and Long Serving Fletcher Class Destroyers

The USS Fletcher DD-445

Friends. Of Padre Steve’s World,

After a full day at work and reading and reflecting on events related to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the abysmal response by President Trump and his cabinet to respond to it I needed a bit of a break. So like the warshipphile that I need to be when I think I need a break from writing about the current news , I am posting a significantly edited and illustrated post that I wrote almost a decade ago about one of the most amazing, storied, and beautiful ships ever produced, the Fletcher Class Destroyers. 


If ever a class of warships can define a ship type, the destroyers of the Fletcher Class were that. They were  the most numerous of all United States Navy destroyer classes the Navy commissioned. 175 of these ships were commissioned between June 1942 and February 1945.  There were two groupings of ships the 58 round or “high bridge” ships and the 117 square or “low bridged” ships.

The Fletcher Class was a sound design that would be modified for use in the later Allen M. Sumner and Gearing Class destroyers.  Eleven shipyards produced the ships. They were fast, heavily armed and tough. The ships of the class would serve in every theater of the war at sea during World War II, but they would find their greatest fame in the Pacific, where many of them and their gallant crews became synonymous with the courage and devotion of the United States Navy.

USS Stevens one of the 6 Fletchers equipped with an aircraft catapult

The ships were a major improvement on previous classes of destroyers and were equal or superior to the destroyers of our allies and our enemies in the war.  At 2050 tons displacement and 2900 tons full load the ships were significantly larger than preceding classes and were designed to mount a superior anti-surface and aircraft armament to compliment their main battery of five 5” 38 caliber dual purpose guns and ten 21” torpedo tubes. They were 376 feet long and flush decked, their flush decks gave them a visual grace and beauty lacked by United States Navy since the four pipers of the Wickes and Clemson classes of the First World War.

They were an exceptionally tough class of ships which was demonstrated often in the brutal surface battles in the South Pacific, Leyte Gulf and in the battles with Kamikazes off the Philippines, Iwo Jima, Okinawa and the Japanese mainland.  They were the first destroyers of the US Navy which were built with radar as part of their initial design.

But even more importantly, their design was adaptable to the needs of the Navy during the war and following it.

USS O’Bannon DD-450 in 196

Due to the increased threat of air attacks, their anti aircraft armament was increased throughout the war. Initially the ships as designed were equipped with  4 x 40mm Bofors in two twin-mounts and 6 to 13 x 20mm Oerlikon in single-mounts. By June of 1943 new ships of the class mounted 10 x 40mm Bofors in five twin-mounts 7 x 20mm Oerlikon in single-mounts. As the Kamikaze threat became dire ships returning to the United States for refit lost one of their torpedo tube mounts and had their AA armament increased to 14 x 40mm Bofors in three twin and two quad mounts and 12 x 20mm Oerlikon in six twin mounts.

USS Pringle DD-477 with Catapult and OSU2 Kingfisher embarked 

One of the more unusual experiments was to equip six ships with a catapult for a float plane. This eliminated some of their AA guns and one torpedo tube mounting. It was not successful and the mounts were removed before the end of the war.

USS Nicholas in action at Kula Gulf

The first ships of the class saw action in the Solomons during the Guadalcanal campaignFletcher and O’Bannon took part in the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal where O’Bannon was one of several destroyers that ganged up on the Japanese Battleship Hiei at ranges as low as 500 yards causing heavy damage to the Battleship which was sunk by naval aircraft the following day.  The O’Bannon would be awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for her actions around Guadalcanal which read:

O’Bannon

“For outstanding performance in combat against enemy Japanese forces in the South Pacific from October 7, 1942, to October 7, 1943. An aggressive veteran after a year of continuous and intensive operations in this area, the U.S.S. O’BANNON has taken a tremendous toll of vital Japanese warships, surface vessels and aircraft. Launching a close range attack on hostile combatant ships off Guadalcanal on the night of November 13, 1942, the O’BANNON scored three torpedo hits on a Japanese battleship, boldly engaged two other men o’ war with gunfire and retired safely in spite of damage sustained. During three days of incessant hostilities in July 1943, she gallantly stood down Kula Gulf to bombard enemy shore positions in coverage of our assault groups, later taking a valiant part in the rescue of survivors from the torpedoed U.S.S STRONG while under fierce coastal battery fire and aerial bombing attack and adding her fire power toward the destruction of a large Japanese naval force. In company with two destroyers, the O’BANNON boldly intercepted and repulsed nine hostile warships off Vella Lavella on October 7, 1943, destroying two enemy ships and damaging others. Although severely damaged, she stood by to take aboard and care for survivors of a friendly torpedoed destroyer and retired to base under her own power. The O’BANNON’s splendid acheivements and the gallant fighting spirit of her officers and men reflect great credit upon the United States Naval Service.

DESRON 23

Fletcher’s composed DESON 23 the Little Beavers commanded by Commodore Arleigh “31 knot” Burke. The squadron covered the initial landings at Bougainville in November 1943 and fought in 22 separate engagements during the next four months. During this time the squadron was credited with destroying one Japanese cruiser, nine destroyers, one submarine, several smaller ships, and approximately 30 aircraft.

              Commodore Arleigh Burke and his Commanders of DESRON 23

Under Burke the squadron was composed of USS Foot (DD-511), USS Charles Ausburne (DD-570), USS Spence (DD-512), USS Claxton (DD-571), USS Dyson (DD-572), USS Converse (DD-509) and USS Thatcher (DD-514).  At the Battle of Cape St. George the squadron intercepted a Japanese force of 5 destroyers sinking 3.  At the Battle of Empress Augusta Bay the ships were in action as part of Task Force 39 based around Cruiser Division 12 comprised of the Cleveland Class Light Cruisers Montpelier, Cleveland, Columbia and Denver the took part in the sinking of the Japanese Light Cruiser Sendai and a destroyer.  For their efforts DESRON 23 would be awarded the Presidential Unit Citation which stated:

“For extrordinary heroism in action against enemy Japanese forces during the Solomon Islands Campaign, from November 1, 1943, to February 23, 1944. Boldly penetrating submarine-infested waters during a period when Japanese naval and air power was at its height, Destroyer Squadron TWENTY THREE operated in daring defiance of repeated attacks by hostile air groups, closing the enemy’s strongly fortified shores to carry out sustained bombardments against Japanese coastal defenses and render effective cover and fire support for the major invasion operations in this area. Commanded by forceful leaders and manned by aggressive, fearless crews the ships of Squadron TWENTY THREE coordinated as a superb fighting team; they countered the enemy’s fierce aerial bombing attacks and destroyed or routed his planes; they intercepted his surface task forces, sank or damaged his warships by torpedo fire and prevented interference with our transports. The brilliant and heroic record achieved by Destroyer Squadron TWENTY THREE is a distinctive tribute to the valiant fighting spirit of the individual units in this indomitable combat group and of each skilled and courageous ship’s company.”

USS Johnston DD-557

Fletcher Class destroyers served heroically with “Taffy-3” in the Battle of Samar at the Battle of Leyte Gulf.  Taffy-3 which was composed of 6 escort carriers, the Fletcher Class destroyers Hoel, Johnston and Heermann and 4 destroyer escorts was assigned the task of providing close air support for troops ashore and anti-submarine protection for transports.  On the morning of October 25th Admiral Halsey took Third Fleet north to engage a Japanese carrier force believing a Japanese surface force of battleships and cruisers to have withdrawn after being heavily hurt by submarine and air attacks.  The carrier force had few aircraft and was considered a decoy by the Japanese. This left the San Bernardino Strait unguarded and the Japanese surface force which by now was comprised of 4 battleships including the Yamato as well as 6 heavy and 2 light cruisers and 11 destroyers doubled back going through the strait during the early morning hours of the 25th.  Just before dawn a patrol aircraft spotted the Japanese force and at 0659 Yamato opened fire on the task group.

USS Hoel DD-533

The three Fletcher’s and the Destroyer escort Samuel B Roberts were launched into a suicidal counter-attack against the Japanese force. Led by Johnston under the command of Ernest E. Evans the little ships engaged their vastly superior foe as the escort carriers edged away as they launched and recovered their aircraft to keep a continuous air assault on the Japanese force.  Johnston scored numerous hits with her 5” guns on the Heavy Cruiser Kumano and when she reached torpedo range launched her 10 “fish” one of which blew off Kumano’s bow and another of which crippled Kumano’s sister Suzuya before she was hit in quick succession by a 14” shell from the Battleship Kongo which hit her engine room and three 6” shells from Yamato which struck her bridge.  Evans kept the crippled ship in the fight drawing fire away from other attacking destroyers and fending off a Japanese destroyer squadron that was trying to flank the carriers. Johnston continued to be hit and was abandon at 0945 sinking 25 minutes later with 186 of her crew.  Evans did not survive and was awarded the Medal of Honor.

USS Heermann DD-532 in action at Samar

Hoel under the command of Commander Leon S. Kintberger took on the Battleship Kongo and a column of cruisers lead by the Heavy Cruiser HaguroHoel’s torpedo attack on Kongo forced that ship to turn away and torpedo hits were claimed on the Haguro, although that ship remained in action and the Japanese denied any torpedo damage from the attack. The Japanese concentrated on Hoel, sinking her at 0855 taking all but 86 of her crew to a watery grave.

Heermann under Commander Amos Hathaway threw herself into the fight engaging Japanese battleships and cruisers. Heermann engaged Heavy Cruiser  Chikuma  with her guns while mounting a torpedo attack on Haguro. She then attacked the Japanese battleships directly engaging Haruna and forcing Yamato to head away from the action for 10 minutes as she was bracketed by two of Heermann’s torpedoes running on a parallel course.  She engaged the other battleships at such close range that they could not hit her and broke off to intercept a column of cruisers.  Once again she engaged Chikuma in a bloody duel with both ships taking heavy damage. Crippled by a series of 8” shell hits from the heavy cruisers Heermann was down heavily at the bow, so much so that her anchors dragged the water. Carrier aircraft joined the battle and Chikuma withdrew from the fight and sank during her withdraw. Heermann then engaged Heavy Cruiser Tone before that ship, also damaged by air attack withdrew from the fight.  Though she was heavily damaged the Heermann was the only destroyer to survive the action.  Despite their terrible losses the ships and aircraft of Taffy-3 sank 3 heavy cruisers and a destroyer and heavily damaged 3 battleships and 3 heavy cruisers.

Just a bit wet, USS Halsey Powell unrep with USS Wisconsin

For their heroic actions which kept the Japanese from getting to the vulnerable transports Taffy-3 including the valiant Fletcher class destroyers Johnston, Hoel, Heerman and Destroyer Escort Samuel B Roberts was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation which read:

“For extraordinary heroism in action against powerful units of the Japanese Fleet during the Battle off Samar, Philippines, October 25, 1944. Silhouetted against the dawn as the Central Japanese Force steamed through San Bernardino Strait towards Leyte Gulf, Task Unit 77.4.3 was suddenly taken under attack by hostile cruisers on its port hand, destroyers on the starboard and battleships from the rear. Quickly laying down a heavy smoke screen, the gallant ships of the Task Unit waged battle fiercely against the superior speed and fire power of the advancing enemy, swiftly launching and rearming aircraft and violently zigzagging in protection of vessels stricken by hostile armor-piercing shells, anti-personnel projectiles and suicide bombers. With one carrier of the group sunk, others badly damaged and squadron aircraft courageously coordinating in the attacks by making dry runs over the enemy Fleet as the Japanese relentlessly closed in for the kill, two of the Unit’s valiant destroyers and one destroyer escort charged the battleships point-blank and, expending their last torpedoes in desperate defense of the entire group, went down under the enemy’s heavy shells as a climax to two and one half hours of sustained and furious combat. The courageous determination and the superb teamwork of the officers and men who fought the embarked planes and who manned the ships of Task Unit 77.4.3 were instrumental in effecting the retirement of a hostile force threatening our Leyte invasion operations and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”

USS Isherwood (DD-520) underway in heavy weather as she comes alongside the heavy cruiser USS Tuscaloosa (CA-37) in August 1943. National Archives and Records Administration. Photo # 80-G-79429. [Navsource]

During the war 19 of the class were lost and 6 damaged so badly that they were not repaired. 44 of the ships were awarded 10 battle stars or more while 19 were awarded Naval Unit Commendations and 16 Presidential Unit Citations.  Following the war all were decommissioned and placed in reserve. Many were re-commissioned during the Korean War and served through Vietnam.

USS Nicholas after her FRAM I Modernization

                USS Radford in her final Configuration and Cruise in 1969

Some of these ships were modernized with newer ASW weapons and re-designated Escort Destroyers (DDE) while others had their air search radar modernized and were re-classified as Radar Picket Destroyers or (DDR). The last Fletcher in US Service decommissioned in 1971.  52 were sold or transferred under military assistance programs to other navies in the 1950s.  The ships served well and the last one in active service, the Mexican Navy Destroyer Cuitlahuac the former USS John C Rodgers DD-874 was decommissioned in 2001.

Ex USS Twinning in Republic of China Navy Service, note weapon modifcations

Zerstörer Z-1 Rommel

USS Kidd as Museum and Memorial

 The Mexican Navy Destroyer Cuitlahuac, the former John Rodgers at Fleet Week San Francisco, CA 1994

  The Greek Destroyer Velos, now a museum ship, the former USS Charette at Athens 

The Republic of China Destroyer Chaing Yang ex USS Mullany 

Four are currently open as memorial ships the USS Cassin Young DD-793 at Chalrestown Naval Yard in Boston, the USS The Sullivans DD-537 at Buffalo NY, and USS Kidd DD-661 at Baton Rouge LA can be seen in the United States. The Cassin Young is berthed at the old Charlestown Naval Yard in Boston across the pier from the Frigate USS Constitution.  I had the opportunity to tour her in late 2002. The former the Greek destroyer Velos the ex-USS Charette DD-581 is located in Athens.  The  Former John Rodgers was been purchased from Mexico by a group in the United States. However, they were unable to obtain the money to needed to return the ship the the United States for repair and restoration, and she was sold for scrap in 2010-2011.

The Fletcher Class really symbolizes more than any class of destroyer the classic look of what a destroyer should be. Their clean lines and classic design are iconic not just in this country but in the 15 other countries that they would serve in during the following years.  Their amazing record and service in World War Two and in the following years in both the US Navy and the navies of our Allies is one that will probably never be surpassed.

I have visited the Cassin Young in Boston; it is well worth the time to see. I hope that I might see The Sullivans and Kidd in the coming years.

The Zerstörer Z-4 ex USS Dyson in heavy seas

I salute the ships of the class and the officers and sailors that served on them in peace and war.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under historic preservation, History, Military, national security, Navy Ships, US Navy, World War II at Sea

A Navy Brat Grows Up…Sort of

NJROTC USS Gray 1978Edison NJROTC on USS Gray FF-1054

I grew up in a Navy family. I was born in a Navy hospital, and my brother was baptized in a Navy Chapel. I went to 6 elementary schools in three states in 6 years. As a result I learned to adapt to change, make friends and at an early age, move on when we moved to our next duty station. I have to admit I rather enjoyed the life.  I think that Navy Brats and other military brats either love it or hate it.  I haven’t seen a lot of in-between reactions; those that love it seem to keep coming back for more.  That was me.

We grew up in the anti-military maelstrom of the 1960s and 1970s. A Sunday school teacher told me that my dad was a baby killer when he was in Vietnam.  It was a Roman Catholic Navy Chaplain that helped me keep some faith in God, and it is to him I owe my vocation as a priest and chaplain.

constitution-poster-lgThis Recruiting Poster was My Favorite

When Dad retired from the Navy I was not happy because I wasn’t ready for the adventure to end. I liked the new places, people and travel. Dad was really good about making sure that we got to experience something unique everywhere we went, from Corregidor in the Philippines, the outdoor life of the Puget Sound, Major League Baseball in California, and Hockey. Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm were regular attractions in Southern California. From Dad, presents from the Far East including a 10 speed bike and a pachinko machine for me.  When we visited dad at work in the squadrons or ships that he served on I was in awe.  The summer of 2008 I made a trip to Charleston South Carolina and went aboard the USS Yorktown (CV-10, CVS-11), a sister ship of dad’s last ship the USS Hancock (CV-19, CVA-19).  The trip came a few months after my return from Iraq and as I went aboard my mind was taken back to visits to the Hancock and the wonder I had waling up the brow and through the hangar deck as 11 to 14 year old.  After Yorktown I went to the USS Laffey a Allen M Sumner class destroyer.  On the Laffey there was a display of a DASH helicopter.  The DASH program was way ahead of its time; it was a drone anti-submarine helicopter that could be flown off of smaller ships with small flight decks such as the modernized WWII era destroyers.  My dad worked a number of years in that program.  It was a primitive rotary wing UAV.  It is amazing how memories come back when you see, touch and smell old ships.

hancockUSS Hancock CVA-19, my dad’s last ship

They were good times. We took trips across country by train to visit family in the days before Amtrak, riding every major route from the West Coast to Chicago, the Great Northern-Burlington Northern “Empire Builder,” the Western Pacific “Zephyr” Southern Pacific “Daylight”, Santa Fe “Super Chief” and “El Capitan.” As we were coming home from the Philippines on a Military Transport ship, the USS John C Breckenridge, we were allowed to explore the ship and for the first time I got a sense of the sea.  Something about that voyage caused me to love the sea and ships. Growing up we were allowed to take risks, we had the chance to succeed, but also to learn about life by occasionally failing.  When dad was deployed mom took on the burden of caring for us.  That was difficult for her, but she did well.  The Navy wife and mother actually is a harder job than the deployed sailor.

NAS ChapelChapel at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station where My Brother was Baptized

There is something about being a Navy “brat.” I have been blessed to see our best friends’ boys, Jack and Alex grow up. We’ve known them since they were 4 and 8, respectively and now they are 17 and 13, or something like that. They have great senses of humor and are great to be around. Like me, the life of being a Navy brat is all they know. My first memories of being a Navy brat begin with living in the Philippines. Their dad’s first Navy assignment was in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Jack may remember life before the Navy, but Alex is too young to remember anything but the Navy.

Deception Pass BridgeDecption Pass Bridge

My life has remained closely tied to the military. After dad retired I did three years of Navy Junior ROTC in High School getting to travel up and down the West Coast and to Hawaii aboard 6 different ships for about 70 days at sea. My parents hoped beyond hope that I would settle down, but I was not deterred. I joined the Army National Guard just prior to entering the UCLA Army ROTC program. I didn’t do the Navy because my fiancée, now my wife Judy, said that she would not marry me if I joined the Navy. Her oldest sister’s husband was on a ship during Viet Nam and was never home. Judy witnessed the pain and hardship her sister went through, and then a couple of decades later, her other sister married navy men while she herself was in the Navy.

Our Old House 186 Queets StOur Old House in Oak Harbor 37 years later

So I spent 17 and a half years in the active Army, National Guard and Reserves before finally getting the chance to come in the Navy in February 1999, as I turned in my gold Army Major’s oak leaf for the twin bars of a Navy Lieutenant. Judy wasn’t happy at first, because she had been looking forward to me retiring from the Army Reserve so we would no longer have so many separations. Judy was also less than thrilled because remembering her words about the Navy when we were dating, I didn’t consult her. I just signed on the dotted line. It took her a while to come to terms with this decision. I’ve also learned not to make major decisions without consulting her.  Oh well…It has all been good, she is the love of my life, and somehow she has survived 26 years of marriage with me.  Since I can be a bit of a pain in the ass this has been no easy feat for her.

My brother Jeff was born in 1966 too late for so of the adventurous tours, but not too late to see dad deployed or away from home a pretty good amount of his life.  I’m pretty sure that Jeff was pretty happy that dad retired.  As a little kid from the time he could remember anything dad was gone close to half of his life.  At the same time with dad away I grew to be pretty independent.  So when dad came back I was doing my own thing and my brother was growing into the time when he and dad would become close as I moved away.  Strange how that happens… he needed a place to be home and he has found it in the town that my dad retired from the Navy back in 1974.  I needed to explore and haven’t stopped exploring.  In a sense I love what I do so much that I am like a little kid about it.

FWU Crete 2002Underway on USS HUE CITY: The Navy Brat all Grown up but not

I now serve at Portsmouth Naval Medical Center. Often in the ICU I have patients who are about my parents’ age facing major health crises and sometimes end of life issues. Their kids are often my contemporaries. We have shared a similar life and cultural experience as Navy “Brats” of our era. It is interesting to compare what we have been through, the places we have been, what we have seen and done and how life was a Navy brat.  There is a kinship that I have with these families that transcends the here and now, something almost mystical that binds Navy families together. I have no idea when this grand adventure will end, but one thing is for sure, and for this I will always be grateful, to be a Navy Brat.

Peace, Steve+

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