Warship Wednesday, July 22, 2020: A Hard 73 Days
Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, July 22, 2020: A Hard 73 Days
Here we see the Clemson-class “four-piper” destroyer USS Peary (DD-226) sometime during the early 1920s. This humble flush-decker was completed too late for one World War but made up for it in her brief 10-week career in a second.
One of the massive fleets of Clemson-class flush decker destroyers, like most of her sisters, Peary came too late to help lick the Kaiser. An expansion of the almost identical Wickes-class destroyers with a third more fuel capacity to enable them to escort a convoy across the Atlantic without refueling, the Clemsons were sorely needed to combat the pressing German submarine threat of the Great War. At 1,200-tons and with a top speed of 35 knots, they were brisk vessels ready for the task.
The subject of our story today was the first warship named after RADM Robert Edwin Peary, famed for his Arctic explorations in which he went down in the history books as being in the first successful dash to the North Pole.
Peary died in February 1920, and his crossing of the bar gave natural inspiration to the naming of a new destroyer in his honor. USS Peary (DD-226) was constructed at William Cramp and Sons, Philadelphia, and launched 6 April 1920– two months after the famed explorer’s passing– sponsored by his daughter, Mrs. Edward Stafford. The new tin can was commissioned on 22 October 1920.
After shakedown, Peary passed through the ditch and kept going, assigned to the Asiatic Fleet for the rest of her service. With her shallow draft, she spent most of that period providing the muscle to the exotic “Sand Pebbles” Yangtze Patrol Force.
This sometimes-tense peacetime service, which saw lots of bumping up against increasingly cold Japanese forces in the region during the latter’s undeclared war with China, turned very hot after 7 December 1941.
Less than 48 hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Peary was caught in Cavite Naval Yard in the Philippines during a Japanese high-altitude bomber strike on the yard.
As noted by her damage report of the incident her foremast caught a 250-pound bomb dropped from about 25,000 feet. The bomb detonated on impact with the mast and rained the vessel’s decks with a deadly storm of shrapnel which in turn started a fire that was quickly extinguished.
The effect was to destroy her gun director, torpedo director, degaussing girdle, sound gear, radio receivers, bridge overheads, charts, sextants, and navigational equipment– so possibly the most devastating 250-pound bomb in naval history!
The ship’s skipper and Engineer Officer were severely injured and sent ashore for hospitalization. Her XO was dead. Just two days later, her torpedo officer, the most senior afloat, was steaming her around the harbor without defenses to avoid another Japanese attack.
On 14 December, LCDR John Michael Bermingham (USNA 1929), the former XO of the Peary’s sister ship, USS Stewart (DD-224), who had completed his tour on 1 December and was in Manila waiting for transportation home., became Peary’s new skipper. The plan– displace and live to fight another day.
Escape and Regroup
As the Japanese poured into the Philippines, the Asiatic Fleet increasingly was pressured out of the islands. Ordered to proceed to Australia for repair, Peary’s masts were removed and the ship camouflaged with green paint and palm fronds in an effort to avoid Japanese bombardiers on the way. LT. William J. Catlett, Jr. a Mississippian and the ship’s First Lieutenant, held on to her original commissioning pennant.
In such a manner, the damaged Peary managed to survive very close air attacks on both the 26th and 27th of December. In both incidents, she reportedly only avoided enemy bombs and torpedoes which passed as close as 10 yards.
By New Year’s 1942, she was safe in Darwin. Well, reasonably safe anyway.
Patched up, she soon joined in an ill-fated effort by way of Tjilatjap and Koepang in the Dutch East Indies to resupply Australian forces on Timor in early February. The force consisted of the Northampton-class “medium” cruiser USS Houston (CA-30) and the two Australian sloops, HMAS Warrego and HMAS Swan.
Houston and Peary sailed back towards Tjilatjap on 18 February, but Peary soon broke off her escort to chase a suspected submarine, and burned up so much oil in doing so that she was diverted back to Darwin instead of continuing with Houston back to Java.
The hard-working tin can arrived in Australia late that evening, with her crew no doubt eager to have a quiet morning the next day after being at sea since the 10th.
The Attack on Darwin
Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, who had also led the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor, was in the air over Darwin 73 days after.
As noted by the Australian War Memorial:
Early on the morning of 19 February, 188 aircraft were sighted by observers on Bathurst and Melville islands to Darwin’s north. The attack on Darwin began when Zero fighters began strafing an auxiliary minesweeper, HMAS Gunbar, as it passed through the boom protecting the entrance to Darwin harbor. Soon, ships in the harbor and buildings and installations ashore came under attack. For 40 minutes the aircraft bombed and machine-gunned the harbor and town. They shot down nine of the 10 United States Army Air Force P-40E Warhawks over the town and sank eight of the 47 ships in the harbor, including the motor vessel Neptuna. Its cargo included 200 depth charges which exploded as the ship lay beside the Darwin wharf. Another victim was the US Navy destroyer USS Peary which sunk with great loss of life.
LCDR Bermingham, aboard Peary at the time, managed to slip anchor and get his ship underway. The four-piper tried to build up steam and maneuver in the restricted water of the harbor while her crew filled the air with as much lead as they could, but Peary was hit with at least five bombs. Incredibly, her stern may have been blown off very early in the action, as recently it was discovered that her props and shafts are several kilometers from where she rests today on the seafloor.
Nonetheless, by all accounts, the doomed ship kept fighting.
The description from DANFS tells the tale as:
At about 10:45 a.m. on 19 February Peary was attacked by single-motored Japanese dive bombers and suffered 80 men killed and 13 wounded. The first bomb exploded on the fantail, the second, an incendiary, on the galley deckhouse; the third did not explode; the fourth hit forward and set off the forward ammunition magazines; the fifth, another incendiary, exploded in the after engine room. A .30 caliber machine gun on the after-deck house and a .50 caliber machine gun on the galley deck house fired until the last enemy plane flew away. Peary sank stern first at about 1:00 p.m.
A .30-06 Lewis gun, recovered from the wreckage and now in the collection of the NHHC, may very well have been the above-mentioned machine gun.
In a two-page war diary held in the collection of the National Archives, Peary’s crew’s actions were described by doctors on the nearby Australian hospital ship Manuda as being heroic, speaking of “gun crews who remained at the stations firing their anti-aircraft guns until the water came up around them, and then swam away as the ship went down. No men abandoned ship until the ship sank completely under them.”
Of the more than 60 Japanese air raids on Darwin in 1942-43, the 19 February strike went down in history as the most deadly, credited as the largest single attack ever mounted by a foreign power on Australia.
A third of the dead were American.
Kaname Harada, a Zero pilot who saw the attack on Peary, later said, “It was a dive-bomb attack from 5000m and the plume of smoke went up 200m in the air. When the smoke was gone, there was nothing left.” Harada would be shot down over Guadalcanal and died in 2016, aged 99. The four Japanese carriers that participated in the attack on Darwin whose planes sent Peary to the bottom– Akagi, Kaga, Hiryū, and Sōryū— were later “scratched” at Midway.
Bermingham and at least 80 of Peary’s crew went down with the ship, reportedly leaving just 54, mostly injured survivors, struggling in her oil slick. The late skipper’s family was posthumously presented his Navy Cross and an Evarts-class destroyer escort was named in his honor the next year.
Speaking of legacies, Peary’s name was soon installed on a new Edsall-class destroyer escort (DE-132) with LT. Catlett providing the old destroyer’s pennant and the departed explorer’s widow breaking the bottle. After an active career, DE-132 was scrapped in 1966.
In 1972, a Knox-class destroyer escort/fast frigate, DE-1073/FF-1073, became the third USS Richard E. Peary and served two decades with the Pacific fleets then another quarter-century with the navy of Taiwan, only being expended in a submarine exercise last week.
In 2008, an MSC-crewed 40,000-ton Lewis and Clark-class dry cargo ship, USNS Robert E. Peary (T-AKE-5), received the name fit for a destroyer.
As for her sisters, seven Clemsons were lost at the disaster at Honda Point in 1923, and 18 (including six used by the British) were lost in WWII including one, USS Stewart (DD-224), which was famously raised by the Japanese and used in their Navy only to be recaptured by the USN and given a watery grave after the war.
Those Clemsons not sold off in the 1930s or otherwise sent to Davy Jones were scrapped wholesale in the months immediately after WWII. Sister USS Hatfield (DD-231) decommissioned 13 December 1946 and was sold for scrap 9 May 1947 to NASSCO, the last of her kind in the Navy.
The final Clemson afloat, USS Aulick (DD-258), joined the Royal Navy as HMS Burnham (H82) in 1940 as part of the “Destroyers for Bases” deal. Laid up in 1944, she was allocated for scrapping on 3 December 1948.
None are preserved and only the scattered wrecks in the Western Pacific, Honda Point, the Med and Atlantic endure.
For more information on the Clemsons and their like, read CDR John Alden’s book, “Flush Decks and Four Pipes” and/or check out the Destroyer History Foundation’s section on Flushdeckers.
Resting in just 87 feet of water on a silty seabed, Peary was extensively salvaged– ironically by a Japanese firm– in 1959 and 1960. Today, however, the remains are protected by Australia’s Heritage Conservation Act which brings heavy fines ($50,000) and threats of jail time to souvenir-seeking skin divers.
In Darwin, an extensive memorial in the city’s Bicentennial Park– centered around one of the Peary’s 4-inch guns pointing towards the site where she remains as a war grave– was erected in 1992. The event was attended by an honor guard provided from FF-1073.
Further, in 2012 on the 70th anniversary of her loss, a plaque was lowered to the seabed over her hull.
The Peary memorial is frequented by both U.S. and Australian forces.
1,215 tons (normal)
1,308 tons (full load)
Length: 314 ft. 4.5 in
Beam: 30 ft. 11.5 in
Draft: 9 ft. 4 in
4 × boilers, 300 psi (2,100 kPa) saturated steam
2 geared steam turbines
27,600 hp (20,600 kW)
Speed: 35.5 knots
Range: 4,900 nmi (9,100 km) @ 15 knots
Crew: (USN as commissioned)
8 chief petty officers
4- 4″/51 cal guns
1 x 3″/23 cal AAA
12 × 21-inch torpedo tubes (4 × 3) (533 mm)
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