Warship Wednesday May 20, 2015: The destroyer with the heart of a battleship

Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all of their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger

Warship Wednesday May 20, 2015 The destroyer with the heart of a battleship

The Destroyer That Took on a Battleship by Peter DeForest. Click to bigup.

The Destroyer That Took on a Battleship by Peter DeForest. Click to bigup.

Here we see the U.S. Navy Benson-class destroyer USS Laffey (DD-459) going mano-a-mano with IJN Hiei, a Kongo-class battleship that has a slight weight advantage over her.

With war on the horizon in the mid-1930s as tensions with Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan were on the rise, the U.S. Navy realized that the old WWI-era four-stack destroyers, while still serviceable, just weren’t modern enough for what was likely to come in the far-flung South Pacific and windswept North Atlantic. This resulted in a series of no less than 10 classes of modern fast destroyers designed and built from 1932-43, which would form the backbone of the fleet in the first half of WWII, amounting to an impressive 169 surface combatants.

Each successive class, like today’s multi-flight Burke-class Aegis destroyers, were really just improvements on the prior, with better engines, sensors, and armament suites experimented with, which resulted in increasingly larger but better tin cans.

These ships included:

  • 8 1350-ton, 341-foot Farragut-class
  • 8 180-ton, 381-foot Porter-class
  • 18 1725-ton, 341-foot Mahan-class
  • 4 2219-ton, 341-foot Gridley-class
  • 8 2325-ton, 341-foot Bagley-class
  • 5 2130-ton, 381-foot Somers-class
  • 10 2350-ton, 340 foot Benham-class
  • 12 2465-ton, 348-foot Sims-class,

And– the last fully prewar design– the 30 vessel 2515-ton 348 foot oal Benson-class (followed by the 66 near-sisters of the only slightly different but mechanically identical Gleaves-class).

Class leader USS Benson DD-421. Note the five 5-innch mounts

Class leader USS Benson DD-421. Note the five 5-innch mounts and masterfully mounted fire control system above the bridge

The Benson/Gleaves class destroyers, capable of an impressive 37.5-knots on their quadruple superheated boilers driving twin turbines, were the top of the line in Allied destroyer design when the U.S. entered the war. Ten 21-inch torpedo tubes, in twin 5-tube deck mountings, were capable of sinking a capital ship if they got close enough. A pair of depth charge racks over the stern could drop it like its hot on enemy subs. But it was their guns that told the story.

Mark 30 single mounts on Gleaves-class USS Arron Ward DD-483 in May 1942 Note 5" (12.7 cm) propellant canisters on the left and Mark 37 FCS with "FD" Radar U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph # 19-N-30722

Mark 30 single mounts on Gleaves-class USS Arron Ward DD-483 in May 1942 Note 5″ (12.7 cm) propellant canisters on the left and Mark 37 FCS with “FD” Radar U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph # 19-N-30722

Their five (later reduced to four) Mark 12 5″/38 caliber deck guns, in enclosed Mk 30 mounts were the finest Dual Purpose gun of World War II. Coupled with the Mk 37 FCS, they could hit a high-flying enemy aircraft at altitudes of up to 37,000 feet while their 53-pound shell was effective on surface targets and in naval gunfire support to some 17,000 yards and capable of penetrating up to 5-inches of armor plate at close range (more on this later). Further, they could be fired fast– at up to 22-rounds per minute per tube, which means that a Benson-class destroyer carrying the standard 320 rounds per mount could empty her magazines in just over 15 minutes of maximum sustained fire.

The hero of our story USS Laffey, was named after one Irish-born (County Galway) Bartlett Laffey who, as a 23-year-old seaman attached to the sternwheel gunboat USS Marmoa in 1864 along the Yazoo River, went ashore with a 12-pound howitzer to support a group of trapped force of the 11th Illinois Infantry, and 8th Louisiana Colored Infantry (yes, that’s the real regimental name). At great personal risk, Laffey remained at his gun and helped save the day, earning the MOH for his service. DD-459 would be the first ship named for this naval hero, but not the last.

The man...

The man…

USS Laffey was laid down at Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corporation, San Francisco 31 Jan 1941 and her hull never touched any water other than the Pacific. Commissioned 31 March 1942, just fifteen weeks after Pearl Harbor, she rushed through her shakedown and soon was off to war.

USS Laffey (DD-459) steams alongside another U.S. Navy ship, while at sea in the south Pacific on 4 September 1942. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval Historical Center. One of the few images of Laffey, as she was too busy killing Japanese admirals to have her picture taken.

USS Laffey (DD-459) steams alongside another U.S. Navy ship, while at sea in the south Pacific on 4 September 1942. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval Historical Center. One of the few images of Laffey, as she was too busy killing Japanese admirals to have her picture taken.

Just days after the image above was taken, she was rescuing the stricken crew from the USS Wasp (CV-8), her first brutal introduction to the war.

Less than a month later, at the Battle of Cape Esperance, she came face to face with the heavy cruiser IJN Aoba (9,000 tons), flagship of Japanese Cruiser Division 6 (CruDiv6) and part of the high speed nocturnal “Tokyo Express” reinforcing Guadalcanal. In that harrying night action Laffey got close enough to rake that much-larger ship successfully with her 5-inch guns, hammering her numerous times, and killing Admiral Aritomo Gotō. While Aoba did not sink, she suffered enough battle damage that she was sent back to Japan for five months of repairs.

The heavily damaged Japanese cruiser Aoba off Buin, Bougainville on October 13, 1942 after the Battle of Cape Esperance. Photographed from the Japanese cruiser Chokai.

The heavily damaged Japanese cruiser Aoba off Buin, Bougainville on October 13, 1942 after the Battle of Cape Esperance. Photographed from the Japanese cruiser Chokai.

On Nov. 11 Laffey helped cover the U.S. Army’s 182nd Infantry regiment’s landings on Guadalcanal and her guns helped splash a force of 32 Japanese planes sent to plaster the soldiers on the beach.

No rest for the weary, Laffey, just seven-months old, next found herself as part of Rear Adm. Daniel “Uncle Dan” Judson Callaghan’s Task Group 67.4 for what became known as the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal on Friday the 13th November 1942.

This force of five cruisers and eight destroyers moved to stop Vice Admiral Hiroaki Abe’s much stronger force of 2 battleships, 1 cruiser, and 11 destroyers from running in between Savo Island and Guadalcanal in “the Slot” through what is (now) known as Iron Bottom Sound. Abe was a skilled surface warfare expert, having spent 26 years afloat in cruisers and battleships, and he had size on his side. Further, the IJN was adept at night fighting, having severely licked the Navy in several sharp surface warfare engagements in the area during the graveyard shift.

With no moon and a dark sky, the U.S. fleet used radar to close to within point-blank range until the Japanese fired off starshells and lit up their spotlights and the 1 a.m. battle was on– with the two fleets intermingling their battle line like a barroom brawl.

Laffey and her fellow destroyers and cruisers hammered the Fubuki-class destroyer Akatsuki (who soon sank with a loss of 197 crew) and then found themselves face to face with the 37,000-ton Kongō-class battleship Hiei (Abe’s flagship) while fellow tin cans Sterett (DD-407) and O’Bannon (DD-450) joined the fray.

While it would seem an uneven match, the Laffey got so close to the battlewagon (10 feet according to some reports) that the Japanese behemoth could not depress her guns low enough to get a hit on the plucky destroyer less than a 10th her size. However, this did not stop Laffey from pounding the Jap leviathan with 5-inch shells while her .50 caliber gunners, in close enough to make a difference, peppered everything that moved.

Laffey‘s crew paid close attention to the bridge of the flagship and almost claimed another admiral– severely wounding Abe and killing his chief of staff, Captain Suzuki Masakane.

Friday Nov. 13th, 1942, "Hiei vs. Honey Badgers" Click to big up

Friday Nov. 13th, 1942, “Hiei vs. Honey Badgers” Click to big up

However, the destroyer soon found herself surrounded by Hiei, the battleship Kirishima, and two Japanese destroyers. With over 80,000 tons of the Emperor’s warships pounding away with ordnance that included 14-inch shells and Long Lance torpedoes, it was over fast. Her magazines exploded as she was being abandoned and she suffered 59 officers and men killed and 116 wounded, over half her crew.

As reported in the video and book “The Lost Fleet of Guadalcanal,” Laffey is today upright at a depth of nearly a half-mile off Guadalcanal and largely intact from the bow to amidships, but her after third has disappeared. Both forward 5-inch guns are trained out to port, and her amidships superstructure is holed by a 14-inch projectile from a Japanese battleship.

In a battle that lasted just 40-minutes, both sides had taken a brutal beating and although the U.S. fleet was ravaged, only two American ships were still capable of fighting, and Adm. Callaghan had been killed on the bridge of his flagship, Abe broke contact and fled. Besides Laffey, her Benson/Gleaves sisters USS Barton (DD-599) and USS Monssen (DD-436) also rested on Iron Bottom Sound when dawn came while badly damaged sister USS Aaron Ward (DD-483), who had stood toe to toe with Kirishima, was limping but still firing at the Japanese as they withdrew.

As for the damaged Hiei, she sank while under tow on the evening on 14 November after taking her final hits from Army B-17s and Navy Avengers. Partly due to an attempt to help screen Hiei, Kirishima was caught the next day by the modern fast battleships USS South Dakota (BB-57) and USS Washington (BB-56) who beat the ever-loving shit out of her until by 15 November she was parked on Iron Bottom Sound as well.

Japanese battleship Kirishima takes hit after hit from Washington (BB-56). Click to big up

Japanese battleship Kirishima takes hit after hit from Washington (BB-56). Click to big up

The events of 13-15 November sealed the turning point in the waters off Guadalcanal and ended the Tokoyo Express. Further, it bought time for the new Essex-class carriers and legions of follow-on surface warfare ships to join the fleet as the Japanese licked their wounds and regrouped.

Admiral Abe, returning to Japan injured from Laffey‘s shells and whipped in a humiliating defeat by what Yamamoto considered a smaller force, was cashiered and died a broken man after the War– so we can count that as a combat effective kill for the destroyer as well.

Laffey in the end earned the Presidential Unit Citation

“For outstanding performance during action against enemy Japanese forces in the Southwest Pacific area, 15 September to 13 November 1942. Braving hostile file to rescue survivors in submarine-infested waters, the LAFFEY, after fighting effectively in the Battle of Cape Esperance, successfully repelled an aerial torpedo attack, and although badly crippled and set afire, inflicted severe damage on Japanese naval units off Savo Island. Eventually succumbing to her wounds after the enemy had fled in defeat, she left behind her an illustrious example of heroic fighting spirit.” For the President, James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy.

She was soon to have her name recycled by an Allen M. Sumner-class destroyer, DD-724, who went on to make something of a name for herself as well in Naval history and is preserved at Patriots Point, Mount Pleasant, South Carolina.

USS Laffey, DD-724 as a museum ship today

USS Laffey, DD-724 as a museum ship today

The Benson and Gleaves classes gave extensively in WWII, with 16 lost during the war– five in the Guadalcanal campaign alone. After the war, they were mothballed with some reactivated for Korea. In the 50s a number were given to overseas allies to serve for another decade or so, but by the late 1970s, all of these hardy veterans were razorblades.

U.S.Navy Benson class Destroyers U.S.S Laffey  and U.S.S Woodworth. Dragon model box art.

U.S.Navy Benson class Destroyers U.S.S Laffey and U.S.S Woodworth. Dragon model box art. Click to big up

Still, Laffey has been remembered in maritime art and in at least two scale models from Dragon as well as through a veteran’s association that honors both ships of the same name as well as the Irish-American bluejacket who earned his MOH by blood and deed.
Specs:

(Note, this is a late WWII Benson class with 4, 5-inch guns, Lafffey was completed with 5) click to big up

(Note, this is a late WWII Benson class with 4, 5-inch guns, click to big up

Displacement: 1620 tons (2515 tons full load)
Length: 341 ft. (103.9 m) waterline, 348 ft. 2 in (106.12 m) overall
Beam: 36 ft. 1 in (11.00 m)
Draft: 11 ft. 9 in (3.58 m) (normal),17 ft. 9 in (5.41 m) (full load)
Propulsion: Four Babcock & Wilcox boilers, General Electric SR geared turbines; two shafts;
50000 shp (37 MW)
Speed: 37.5 knots (69.5 km/h)
33 knots (61.1 km/h) full load
Range: 6,000 nautical miles (11,000 km) at 15 kt, (11,000 km at 28 km/h)
Complement: 208 (276 war)
Armament:

4× 5 in (127 mm) DP guns, Mk 30 single mounts
6 × 0.50 in. (12.7 mm) guns, single mounts
10 × 21 in (53 cm) torpedo tubes,
2 × depth charge tracks
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