Warship Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021: Savior of the Sea of Marmora
Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 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, Feb. 10, 2021: Savior of the Sea of Marmora
Here we see the Clemson-class “four-piper” destroyer USS Bainbridge (DD-246) with her flags flying at Boston Navy Yard in March 1930, possibly in a nod to the city’s often epic St. Patrick’s Day celebrations.
Let’s take a closer look at those flags, courtesy of Mr. Jones.
Bainbridge, when these great images were taken, was only nine years with the fleet– commissioned 100 years ago this week as a matter of fact– but she had already written a worthy page in maritime history and still had another 15 years of service ahead of her.
One of the massive fleets of Clemson-class flush decker destroyers, like most of her sisters, Bainbridge 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.
Living up to the legacy
The subject of our story today was the third warship named in honor of the Navy’s legendary Commodore William Bainbridge, who, fought in the Barbary Wars and, as commander of the frigate Constitution, destroyed the British 38-gun frigate HMS Java (ex-Renommée) in a three-hour-long single-ship broadside battle off Brazil on 29 December 1812.
The first USS Bainbridge was a 12-gun brigantine built at Boston Navy Yard in 1842 and named in honor of the old, and at that time recently passed Commodore. She would serve in the Civil War, capturing three Confederate blockade runners before being lost in 1863 during a severe storm off Cape Hatteras, taking all but one member of her crew to the bottom with her.
The second Bainbridge was the Navy’s first “Torpedo-boat Destroyer,” laid down in 1899. Of note, one of her skippers was a young LT Raymond A. Spruance. After service in the Great War, she was sold for conversion to a banana boat.
The Third Bainbridge
Our ship was laid down on 27 May 1919 at New York Shipbuilding Corporation shipyard, Camden, New Jersey, and commissioned at the Philadelphia Navy Yard on 9 February 1921, just missing out on WWI.
As noted by DANFS, “Going into service in a Navy suffering the effects of manpower shortages caused by postwar demobilization and magnified by the completion of the massive shipbuilding program begun during the war, Bainbridge spent her first 10 months of active duty almost becalmed in her assignment to the Atlantic Fleet’s Destroyer Squadrons.”
However, by 1922, her crew would finally be fleshed out and she would engage on a series of shakedown and training cruises along the east coast. Then, in response to the boiling unrest in Europe between Greece and Turkey– at the time engaged in open combat in Anatolia– Bainbridge sailed from Hampton Roads on 2 October 1922, for the Mediterranean Sea along with 11 other Squadron 14 destroyers to protect American interests and lend muscle to the High Commission overseeing the end of the old Ottoman Empire.
In the early 1920s, the Black Sea was an American lake, as the Russian, Bulgarian, Romanian and Ottoman fleets had largely ceased to exist while the British and French fleets, facing near bankruptcy and mutinous crews, respectively, were keen to send only a few vessels to Constantinople and Odesa and withdraw them as soon as possible. At its height, the U.S. fleet in Constantinople included over 26 warships including the battleships Arizona and Utah, a dozen destroyers, heavy and light cruisers, floating repair shops, and transport ships.
Besides American forces, those of the European Great Powers were highly visible in the Eastern Med and its related seas at the time. One of these was the old 5,500-ton French military transport/hospital ship Vinh-Long, packed with almost 500 soldiers, sailors, and their families– along with a cargo of munitions.
On 16 December while in the Eastern Sea of Marmora off San Stefano Point, Vinh-Long caught fire and burned furiously, fueled by years of old varnish and oil, not to mention shells, powder, and cartridges. With time of the essence, Bainbridge, who was nearby, raced in to help.
Securing to the flaming troopship’s sides under a rain of fiery debris, Bainbridge began transferring personnel side to side, while her boat crews worked the waves to rescue jumpers. Then, as the Frenchman’s forward magazine was beginning to catch, the destroyer’s skipper, LCDR Walter Atlee Edwards (USNA 1910), ordered the warship to gently ram the vessel to lessen the exposure should it go.
In the end, before pulling away from the blazing vessel, Bainbridge rescued 482 of the 495 people aboard Vinh-Long.
Badly overloaded, she would make for Constantinople and transfer the troopship’s survivors to the French Edgar Quinet class armored cruiser, Waldeck Rousseau.
The story flashed around the globe.
For his part in the rescue operations, Edwards, who had already earned a Navy Cross during the Great War, would receive a rare peacetime Medal of Honor, the French Legion of Honour, and the British Distinguished Service Order.
His MOH citation:
For heroism in rescuing 482 men, women and children from the French military transport Vinh-Long, destroyed by fire in the Sea of Marmora, Turkey, on 16 December 1922. Lt. Comdr. Edwards, commanding the U.S.S. Bainbridge, placed his vessel alongside the bow of the transport and, in spite of several violent explosions which occurred on the burning vessel, maintained his ship in that position until all who were alive were taken on board. Of a total of 495 on board, 482 were rescued by his coolness, judgment and professional skill, which were combined with a degree of heroism that must reflect new glory on the U.S. Navy.
Remaining in Turkish waters until after the Lausanne Conference wrapped, Bainbridge returned home from her epic first deployment in June 1923, a month before the Lausanne Treaty was finally signed. She would spend the next two decades heavily involved in a series of exercises, fleet problems, training cycles, protecting American interests “during Latin American political turmoil” as noted by DANFS, and supporting the Marines during the various Banana Wars in Central America. In this myriad of taskings, she ranged not only across the Caribbean and South Atlantic but into the Pacific as far north as Alaska.
Then, to free up crew for new and more modern destroyers, on 20 November 1937, Bainbridge was placed out of commission at San Diego and entered mothballs after a very hard 16-year career.
The Balloon Goes Up
Pulled out of retirement and obsolete by even 1930s standards, Bainbridge recommissioned 26 September 1939– some three weeks after Hitler’s legions marched into Poland. By early 1940, she was part of Roosevelt’s tense Neutrality Patrol in the Atlantic with an eye peeled for U-boats. This included joining in the American occupation of Iceland, escorting USS Mississippi (BB-41) and USS Wasp (CV-7) as part of TF16, and plying the hazardous waters between that Danish possession and New England.
Once the U.S. entered the war officially, Bainbridge served with TF 4, running coastwise convoys during the German Drumbeat U-boat offensive, a mission that kept her busy for the next 15 months.
Then, on 1 March 1943, she stood out TF 37 bound for North Africa on her first wartime Atlantic crossing. This led to a spell with a task group built around the escort carrier USS Santee (CVE-29) with sub-busting VC-29 aboard, during which they fought no less than seven German U-boats in a two-week period in July, splashing three (U-43, U-160, and U-509). Bainbridge’s 40-page handwritten War Diary for July 1943 makes interesting reading.
In this work, she had been extensively updated with radar, advanced listening gear, Hedgehog ASW devices, and the like.
She would remain with Santee’s group until the year-end of 1943, escorting four cross-Atlantic convoys. She would also be part of the screen for the fast battleship USS Iowa (BB-61), carrying President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the Allied conferences at Cairo and Teheran.
By 1944, she had returned to her role in coastal escort, roving as far south as Galveston and Gulfport, and would go on to serve as close escort/plane guard for new capital ships that were constructed on the East Coast during their shakedown cruises to the relatively safe grounds of the Caribbean before they, in turn, shipped out for the Pacific. This included work with the battleship USS Wisconsin (BB-64), the “heavy cruiser that’s not a battlecruiser” USS Alaska (CB-1), and the Essex-class fleet carriers USS Hancock (CV-19) and USS Bon Homme Richard (CV-31).
Finally, in mid-1945, with the Navy having literally hundreds of modern new Fletcher, Gearing, and Sumner-class destroyers, it increasingly made less and less sense to waste trained crews and resources on elderly greyhounds like Bainbridge. Therefore, on 21 July 1945, she was decommissioned at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. Stricken before the war ended, she was scrapped by the Northern Metal Co. in November 1947.
Bainbridge earned one battle star during World War II.
The rest of the class
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 was decommissioned on 13 December 1946 and was sold for scrap on 9 May 1947 to NASSCO, the last of her kind in the U.S. 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.
Bainbridge lives on
Few elements of the third Bainbridge remain today other than her logs and diaries which are in the National Archives.
LCDR Edwards, MOH, her skipper in the Vinh-Long rescue passed at age 41 and is buried in Section 4 of Arlington National Cemetery. His widow sponsored later USS Edwards (DD-619) when that destroyer was launched on August 28, 1942. The ship would earn an impressive 14 battle stars in WWII.
Bainbridge’s name was reissued to the lead ship of a new class of guided-missile frigate/destroyer leaders, commissioned on 6 October 1962. Later deemed a cruiser, this vessel would earn eight battle stars for her Vietnam service and remain in the fleet for 34 years.
The fifth Bainbridge commissioned 12 November 2005 is, true to form, a destroyer, currently assigned to DESRON 28 in Surface Force Atlantic.
In a case of history repeating, on 13 June 2019 the modern USS Bainbridge received a distress call from the merchant vessel Kokuka Courageous in the Gulf of Oman while operating with the 5th Fleet. The Japanese tanker had suffered a major engineering casualty (likely due to Iranian intervention) and needed aid. Bainbridge responded to the call, rescuing the entire 21-member crew, and providing assistance as needed.
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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