U.S. Navy - The Destroyers

The Destoyers

Greyhounds of the Sea

Two major events shaped the beginnings of the destroyer. The first was the advent of the torpedo boat. These swift, small craft were able to dash in close to larger ships, loose their torpedoes, and dash away. They proved their abilities with devastating effectiveness in the Chilean Civil War of 1894 and in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894. By the mid-1890s, many of the world's navies recognized the need for a counter weapon, and so the torpedo boat destroyer, later just "destroyer," was born.

The U.S. Navy first faced a destroyer in the Spanish-American War. Spanish Admiral Pascual Cervera sent two destroyers against a squadron of U.S. Navy ships at Santiago Harbor on July 3, 1898. 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 Bainbridge (DD 1)The first U.S. destroyer was USS Bainbridge (DD 1), launched on August 27, 1901, and placed in full commission on December 23, 1903. During World War I, Bainbridge served on patrol and convoy duty in the Atlantic. Bainbridge was the lead ship in her class of 16 ships. She had an overall length of 250 feet and displaced 420 tons. She had a crew of four officers and 69 enlisted personnel and was armed with two 3-inch guns, five 6-pounders, and two 18-inch torpedo tubes.

The opening of hostilities in World War I found the Navy strengthened with a new type destroyer design, much improved over Bainbridge's. In the early months of the war, the United States was neutral, although American lives were being lost as a result of German submarine warfare against British merchantmen. The U.S. protested when the German submarines began sinking American shipping bound for England. The protests, the sinkings, and the loss of lives continued until April 6, 1917, when the United States declared war on Germany.

Admiral William S. Sims, USN, persuaded the British to try the convoy system of shipping goods again. The British had tried the system before but, because they seemed to have little defense against the U-boat, decided that it wasn't worth the price. Now, with British supplies running dangerously low and American destroyers helping to combat the submarine menace, the convoy system was reinstated.

With American destroyers escorting convoys, the German's submarine toll was reduced: from 900,000 tons in April 1917 to one-third of that by November.

The first German submarine sunk by the U.S. Navy in World War I was the U-58. It was the only U-boat kill of the war by American destroyers. On November 17, 1917, destroyers USS Fanning (DD 37) and USS Nicholson (DD 52) were escorting an Atlantic convoy near the Hebrides. Suddenly, Fanning's lookouts sighted a periscope moving through the sea. Fanning swung about, raced toward the sub at top speed, and began attacking with depth charges. The U-boat partially surfaced. Then, Nicholson joined the fray, making a depth-charge pass of her own.

The explosions jammed the sub's diving gear and the U-boat plunged towards the bottom. At about 300 feet. the sub blew ballast and shot toward the surface. Fanning and Nicholson were waiting when the U-boat broke the surface and the destroyers began shelling. This was enough for the Germans who quickly surrendered. But, the U-boat's skipper ordered the seacocks opened, and as the destroyers were picking the surrendering Germans off the sub, it eased below the surface never to come up again. Only forty survivors were taken prisoner.

American destroyers in World War I made some lasting contributions to U.S. seapower. In their 250 battles with German submarines, the gallant little ships laid the groundwork for modern antisubmarine warfare. They had guarded the trans-Atlantic crossing of two million men without the loss of a single life or transport ship. And, by mounting 3-inch anti-aircraft guns, they had foreseen the day when ships would do battle with enemies in the sky.

By the end of the "war to end all wars," the U.S. had the largest destroyer fleet in the world, but, the Disarmament Treaty of 1922 caused more than 200 of these valiant ships to be decommissioned while 40 more were scrapped. Not one new destroyer was launched between 1921 and 1934.

What destroyers there were constituted the Destroyer Force, Atlantic Fleet. The Force was redesignated as Destroyer Squadron, Atlantic, on October 1, 1921; later to be redesignated again as Destroyer Squadron, Scouting Fleet, U.S. Fleet (December 8, 1922).

With the rise of Adolph Hitler in Germany in the early 1930s, authorizations began for the rebuilding of the American destroyer forces. Forty-five new DDs were authorized for the last half of the decade.

With the change in designations in the Fleet, the destroyers were established as Destroyer Squadron, Scouting Force, U.S. Fleet. From October 1, 1937, to July 3, 1940, units of this squadron were transferred continually to the Pacific Fleet. The outbreak of war in Europe reversed this trend.

On July 3, 1940, there were again enough destroyers in the Atlantic to establish a type command. This tycom was known as Destroyers, Atlantic Squadron, U.S. Fleet. When in November 1940, the Atlantic Squadron became the Patrol Force; the destroyer command was renamed Destroyers, Patrol Force, U.S. Fleet. On February 3, 1941, with the reorganization of the Navy and the dissolution of the Patrol Force; the U.S. Atlantic Fleet formed and Destroyers, Atlantic Fleet came into being.

When the war broke out in Europe on September 3, 1939, the United States again, as it had in World War I, tried to remain neutral. Once again, it was the German submarine threat that strained that neutrality.

USS Greer (DD 145)On the morning of September 4, 1941, destroyer USS Greer (DD 145) was en route from Newfoundland to Iceland when she picked up sonar contact with a German sub. 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."

The destroyer USS Kearny (DD 432) USS Kearny (DD 432)was commissioned on Friday, September 13, 1940. Thirteen months later, Kearny, in company of destroyers Plunkett (DD 429) , Livermore (DD 431), and Decatur (DD 341), was dispatched on an emergency mission 350 miles south of Reyjavik, Iceland. A Canadian convoy was being attacked by German submarines. In the late afternoon of October 16, 1941, the four U.S. destroyers took up station as a screen around the Canadian merchantmen. The wolfpack which was followed by a salvo of torpedoes had temporarily withdrawn, shortly before midnight a merchantman suddenly went up in a ball of flame. The Germans had returned. Kearny and the other DDs rushed to the attack, but the U-boats broke off the engagement.

Minutes passed. Suddenly, two more merchant ships were ripped apart by German torpedoes, and the fight was on again. Near 2 a.m., Kearny had to cut her speed to avoid ramming a Canadian corvette. In the glow of the burning merchant ships, Kearny became a virtual sitting duck and one German submarine skipper took advantage of the situation, firing three torpedoes at the destroyer. Two missed, but the third tore a jagged hole in Kearny's starboard side, thus making her the first U.S. destroyer damaged in World War II. Kearny, which by the extent of the damage should have gone down, managed to limp into Iceland for repairs and continued fighting throughout the war.

Two weeks later, on October 31, 1941, a little more than a month before the United States entered the Second World War, USS Reuben James (DD 245) USS Reuben James (DD 245)was escorting a convoy about 600 miles west of Ireland. With 44 merchantmen in the convoy, Reuben James, along with the destroyers Tarbell (DD 142), Benson (DD 421), Hilary P. Jones (DD 427) and Niblack (DD 424), was holding an average speed just under nine knots. It was 5:39 a.m. and Reuben James was 2,000 yards off the convoy's port flank. Without warning, a torpedo struck Reuben James, tearing her in two.

The bow section sank immediately and the stern went up in a tremendous explosion. Within minutes, there was nothing left of Reuben James. Only 45 of the 160 man crew survived, and Reuben James became the first destroyer casualty of World War II.

The war in the Atlantic saw the destroyer perform many varied tasks from hunting and destroying German submarines to rescuing downed airmen. These "greyhounds of the sea" were also on hand for the landings in North Africa, Sicily and Europe, using their guns to knock out shore batteries, to keep the skies clear of enemy aircraft, and to guard Allied landing craft.

The biggest operation destroyers participated in was Operation Overlord, the invasion of Europe on June 6, 1944. 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.

Ships of the Destroyer Force, Atlantic Fleet, also participated in the Korean War, the Cuban Crisis of October 1962, the Vietnam conflict and any time these "greyhounds of the sea" were needed.

The Destroyer Force, Atlantic Fleet, continued from World War II to April 1, 1962, when it was combined with the Cruiser Force, Atlantic Fleet, forming the Cruiser-Destroyer Force, U.S. Atlantic Fleet, headquartered in Newport, R.I.

With the Navy-wide realignment of forces, the Cruiser-Destroyer Force, Atlantic, shifted its headquarters to Norfolk, VA., on July 1, 1973, and was disestablished on December 31, 1974, to combine with the Amphibious Force, Atlantic and the Service Force, Atlantic, to form the Naval Surface Force, Atlantic Fleet on January 1, 1975.

One of the newest destroyers is USS Arleigh Burke (DDG 51). USS Arleigh Burke (DDG 51) Named for the Navy's most famous destroyer squadron combat commander and three-time Chief of Naval Operations, Arleigh Burke is the most powerful surface combatant ever put to sea. Technological advances have improved the capability of this class of destroyer. Designed for survivability, DDG 51 incorporates all-steel construction and numerous damage control features.

DD 21 is the Navy's newest land-attack destroyer program. The DD 21 design concept will support joint-service requirements in littoral regions. Armed with an array of land-attack weapons, DD 21 will provide sustained, offensive, distributed, and precise firepower at long ranges in support of forces ashore. This program also includes the use and development of the electric drive systems.

Last Update: 23 June 2009