Warship Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022: Lucky Herndon

Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 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. 2, 2022: Lucky Herndon

Historic Norfolk Navy Yard Film Collection, Serial #11-19, courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins, via Hampton Roads Naval Museum.

Here we see the brand spanking Gleaves-class destroyer USS Herndon (DD-638) entering the Elizabeth River at Norfolk Naval Shipyard some 80 years ago this week on the occasion of her launching.

Herndon’s launching program, via “Lucky Herndon.com.” Why was she so lucky? We’ll get to that.

The Gleaves class is an unsung group of some 62 destroyers who began construction pre-WWII and completed into the first stage of the war. With the huge building of the follow-on Fletcher– and Sumner-class destroyers, the Gleaves are often forgotten. What should never be forgotten is the sacrifice these ships made, with no less than 11 of the class lost during WWII.

Slight ships of just 2,395 tons, and 348-feet of steel hull, they were packed with a turbine-powered 50K shp plant that gave them a theoretical speed of over 37 knots and a 6,500-mile range at an economical 12 knot cruising speed for convoy or patrol work. Armed with as many as five 5″/38 DP mounts, up to 10 torpedo tubes, ASW gear, and AAW batteries, they were ready for almost anything and could float in as little as 13 feet of seawater, able to get inshore when needed.

Herndon was named for 19th-century sea-going hero and explorer, CDR William Lewis Herndon. Born in 1813 and admitted to Annapolis as a 15-year-old Mid, he was both cousin and brother-in-law to Matthew Fontaine Maury, the “Father of Modern Oceanography and Naval Meteorology,” and as such participated in a lot of the Navy’s charting work as a young officer. Hailed for his performance of the brig Iris during the war with Mexico, Herndon later led a two-year expedition to the Valley of the Amazon, traveling over 4,000 miles in the process and penning a 414-page report of the area, one of the first works detailing its biodiversity. Given leave while still on the navy’s rolls in 1855, he was the skipper of the ill-fated SS Central America, which went down in a heavy gale off Cape Hatteras 7 September 1857. A prominent chapter in maritime lore, Central America was one of the noted instances of “women and children” loaded into lifeboats as the men stood stoically by and went to the bottom. Herndon was last seen standing by his doomed ship’s wheelhouse as it went down.

He was honored posthumously with a monument at Annapolis, was the father-in-law of future President Chester A. Arthur, the towns of Herndon, Virginia, and Herndon, Pennsylvania, were named for him, and the Navy issued his name to two destroyers, No. 198 (which went on to become HMS Churchill after the bases-for-destroyers deal and was sunk by a U-boat in the White Sea in 1945) and the subject of our Warship Wednesday, the latter was sponsored at her 1942 launching by Miss Lucy Herndon Crockett, great-grandniece of the late CDR Herndon.

In this image, she is sitting on the destroyer ways at the yard, preparing for her launch on 5 Feb 1942. Next to her is the battleship Alabama (BB 60) on the main ways, she would be launched two weeks later.

Commissioned 20 December 1942, CDR (later RADM) Granville A. Moore (USNA 1927) in command, Herndon was ready to get in the war.

USS Herndon (DD-638) in March 1943. 80-G-45379

Husky

Post-shakedown, Herndon escorted a convoy from New York to Casablanca, returning to New York on 14 May 1943 escorting a tanker.

Sailing from Norfolk on 8 June, she reached Algiers on 24 June and prepared for a key role in the Sicilian campaign, Operation Husky. There, she covered the landings of Maj, Gen. Troy Middleton’s 45th (Thunderbird) Infantry Division, traded blows with shore batteries and was heavily involved in defending the cruiser USS Philadelphia (CL-41) from a series of air wild raids from German aircraft while off Palermo.

Sketches of air attacks USS Herndon 7.31.43 8.1.43, From her reports, now in the NARA. Note that these were all inside about 36 hours

Remarkably, neither our destroyer nor Philadelphia was seriously damaged in Husky. Luck example #1.

Overlord

Following her stint in the barrel off Sicily, Herndon was pulled back to the British Isles and spent nine months crisscrossing the Atlantic from New York to various British ports, shepherding troopships headed to Europe. The greyhound was no doubt a welcome sight for the GIs aboard those vessels.

Dispatched to “Bald-headed Row” off Omaha Beach, she was part of Fire Support Unit Four (Task Unit 125.8.4), consisting of the destroyers Hobson, Corry, Shubrick, and Fitch. Assigned to NGFS Station No. 4 for the landings, Herndon faced the guns just east of the Carentan Estuary and was with the first assault wave to enter the fray off Omaha on D-Day. Her targets included No. 42 (an infantry position with three pillboxes, one casemate, one anti-tank gun, two shelters, and two 150mm guns in open emplacements), a tough nut for the Dog landing area.

Opening fire at 0550 on June 6, 1944, some 40 minutes before H-hour, Herndon dumped 212 rounds of 5-inch in just 40 minutes. She followed this up with two further fire missions before 0735, firing 42 and 53 rounds respectively, silencing the German batteries.

During the support, she was just 6,000 yards off the beach at Grandcamp le Bains, steaming at 5 knots, with splashes from shore batteries falling as close as 600 yards, although leaving the ship unharmed. Others were not so lucky and sister ship USS Corry (DD-463) was sunk within sight of Herndon, the tin can ripped apart by 8-inch shells in her engineering spaces amidships that left jagged foot-wide holes in the deck.

Her report from that day is stunning:

Tom Wolf, an NEA war correspondent who bunked with Cronkite during their time in Europe, was aboard Herndon for D-Day writing, “They call her ‘Lucky Herndon.’ This is the destroyer which led the Allied naval armada in the assault on Fortress Europe. Such were the risks that her sisterships were betting 10 to 1 against Herndon’s coming out whole.”

Wolf’s Lucky Herndon article, via Lucky Herndon.com.

Headed back to refill her magazines on D+1, Herndon returned to Omaha on 8 June, dodging German glider bombs while bomber-dropped mines were sown around her. The destroyer USS Meredith (DD-726), near her, struck one of these infernal devices and sunk the next day, her seams busted. Nonetheless, Herndon delivered a further 592 rounds of 5-inch at German targets ashore on 8 June alone, heading back to Plymouth the next day for more shells.

Assigned next to screen the battlewagons USS Texas and USS Nevada along the “Dixie Line,” German E-boat and U-boat attacks were a fear and, while part of that screen, sistership USS Nelson (DD-623), had her stern and No. 4 mount blown off by a torpedo on 13 June. Remaining part of the line through the 19th, Herndon had a brief pause until her next landings.

Dragoon & FDR

Herndon was part of the joint task group (TG 88.2) screening carriers on 15 August when the invasion of southern France, Operation Dragoon, was begun. Acting as plane guard for the British baby flattops HMS Hunter and HMS Stalker on D-Day, she did not have as eventful a time off the Riveria as she did off Palermo and Normandy. She remained in the Med as a convoy escort into October. Again, her luck held.

As detailed by DANFS:

Returning to the States 12 November, she conducted battle exercises in Casco Bay and escorted convoys along the Atlantic coast through February 1945. In that month. Herndon escorted President Roosevelt on the first leg of his historic voyage to Yalta.

Then came the End Game

On to the Pacific!

The veteran destroyer and her crew passed through the Panama Canal on 28 April 1945, just over a week away from VE-Day, and arrived at San Diego on 15 May where she once again clocked in as a carrier plane guard, this time in U.S. waters. Herndon sailed to Eniwetok on 12 July and, no doubt gratefully for her crew, spent the next month escorting convoys between relatively quiet Eniwetok, Guam, and Saipan.

VJ-Day found her as part of DESRON 16 assigned to Task Group 10.3 anchored at Buckner Bay, Okinawa where she was soon sent, acting as an escort to the cruiser USS Louisville (CA-28) to ride out a typhoon at sea.

By 7 September, with the seas calmed, Louisville and Herndon were dispatched to the port of Dairen (Dalian) in Manchuria’s Liaodong peninsula, to help supervise the evacuation of Allied POWs in the area. Arriving there on the morning of 11 September, then a week later headed across to the old treaty port of Tsingtao to accept the surrender of Japanese naval assets in the area, consisting of about a dozen escorts and merchantmen in various conditions.

At 1445 on 16 September IJN VADM Kaneko and the Japanese surrender party came aboard Herndon, followed a half-hour later by RADM Thomas Greenhow Williams “Tex” Settle (USNA 1918), an aviation pioneer of some renown, who had his flag aboard Louisville. By 1540, the unconditional surrender document was signed, ending the Japanese occupation of Tsingtao that had been a reality since the emperor’s troops captured it from the Germans in 1914.

Rear Admiral T.G.W. Settle, USN, left, looks on while Vice Admiral Kaneko, IJN, signs document of surrender turning over 12 Japanese ships to U.S. control: 6 DD and AM and 6 merchantmen. The ceremony took place on the forecastle of USS HERNDON (DD-638) at Tsingtao, China, on 16 September 1945. Description: Courtesy of Vice-Admiral T.G.W. Settle, USN ret., 1975 Catalog #: NH 82027

Transferring prize crews, Louisville and Herndon got underway on 22 September with the most intact of the surrendered ships, the Momi-class second-rate destroyers Kuri and Hasu, Subchasers No. 23 and 38, Minesweeper No. 21, and the freighter Shonan Maru, then escorted the little Japanese flotilla to Incheon (Jinsen), Korea, where they would be demilitarized.

Herndon would spend the remainder of 1945 patrolling the Korean and China coasts and assisting the repatriation of Japanese soldiers and the movement of Chinese Nationalist troops.

On 5 December 1945 she was tasked to become a “Magic Carpet” vessel, picking up returning Veterans from Shanghai, Eniwetok, Okinawa, and Pearl Harbor, and arriving at San Diego two days after Christmas. Arriving at New York on 15 January 1946, she was decommissioned on 8 May and entered the Atlantic Reserve Fleet, first at Philadelphia, then at Orange, Texas.

She never was hit even though she fought in the Med, Atlantic, and Pacific, including supporting all three large amphibious landings in Europe.

Epilogue

Herndon received three battle stars for World War II service. Stricken from the Navy List in June 1971, she was expended in a naval weapons test off Florida on 24 May 1973. The remainder of her class suffered similar fates, and none are preserved as museums.

Her five-page War History and diaries are digitized in the National Archives. Likewise, there are at least two different veterans and family community groups.

Before her sinking, parts of the ship including her wheel, the rudder indicator, and the ship’s bell, were removed and loaned in the 1980s to the Herndon (Virginia) Historical Society by the U.S. Navy.

They are currently on display in the town’s Depot Museum and additional donated artifacts include flags, photographs, shell casings, muster rolls, and an anchor log. Also, note the display of CDR Herndon. 

The Herndon High School Band attended the 75th anniversary of the D-Day events in Normandy, France, in 2019, and each member carried a photograph of one of the veterans who served aboard the Herndon as they march in France. The band carried the ensign that flew aboard the ship off Omaha Beach.

Historical Documentary of the first ship to approach the beaches of Normandy on D-Day and the trip of the Herndon High School Marching Band to honor it on the 75th anniversary, in 2019:

Speaking of D-Day, her skipper during Husky and Overlord, CDR Granville Alexander Moore, earned a silver star for that latter operation, retired from the Navy as a rear admiral in 1957 while Chief of Staff at the Navy War College. Teaching at the Admiral Farragut Academy in St. Pete for 13 years, he died there in 1983.

Meanwhile, the 21-foot tall Herndon Oblisk at Annapolis, dedicated to our destroyer’s namesake, remains the focus of the annual “plebes-no-more” ceremony, where first-year cadets race to climb the top and place a dixie cup on its pinnacle.

“Plebes,” or freshmen, from the U.S. Naval Academy’s Class of 2010 celebrate after conquering the annual Herndon Climb. This event symbolizes the successful completion of the midshipmen’s freshman year. The plebes must use teamwork, strategy, and communication to climb to the top of the 21-foot obelisk and replace the traditional “plebe” cover with a midshipman’s cover. Midshipman 4th Class Jamie Schrock, from Detroit, reached the top in 1:32:42. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Christopher Lussier

Specs:

(As-built)
Displacement: 1,630 tons
Length: 348 ft 3 in
Beam: 36 ft 1 in
Draft: 13 ft 2 in
Propulsion: four boilers; two Allis Chalmers Turbines, 50,000 shp, two propellers
Speed: 37.4 knots
Range: 6,500 nautical miles at 12 kt
Complement: 208 designed. Wartime: 16 officers, 260 enlisted
Armament:
4 × 5 in/38 cal guns (1 deleted in 1945)
4 x 40mm Bofors in two twin mounts.
7 x 20mm Oerlikon in single mounts.
Torpedo Tubes: 5 x 21-inch in one quintuple mount (deleted in 1945)
ASW: 2 racks for 600-lb. charges; 6 “K”-gun projectors for 300-lb. charges, three Mousetrap devices.


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2 comments

  • Great article! Always love to see the Gleaves-class destroyers of DesRon 10 (DesDiv’s 19 and 20) mentioned – granpa served aboard USS Forrest DD-461 the entire war. One suggested correction: USS’s Fitch, Corry, and Hobson were assigned to Force “U” to operate off of Utah Beach as part of Task Unit 125.8.3 (The Corry was sunk shortly after the invasion commenced and Fitch and Hobson assisted in rescuing survivors). https://www.uss-corry-dd463.com/d-day_u-boat_photos/d-day_photos.htm
    V/r JS US Army (Ret)

  • Chris, I’m a daily reader of your most excellent LSOZI and can’t get enough of your naval and weapons history coverage!

    The piece on USS Herndon (DD638) hit close to home, as my late father served from 1942-46 aboard USS Gherardi (DD637/DMS30), also a Gleaves-class ship. Gherardi was on the gun line at Utah Beach and, like Herndon, also provided fire support at Cherbourg/invasion of southern France. On return to the U.S., she was converted into a high-speed minesweeper (DMS) for the Pacific. She survived the kamikazes at Okinawa (very undergunned for AA, with only two 40-mm twin mounts and missing the aft 5″-38 which was replaced by the big mine-retrieval winch on the fantail).

    Gherardi swept Tokyo Bay ahead of the surrender fleet and was the closest ship to USS Missouri on the day of the surrender ceremony, as some period photos show. Rather sadly, Gherardi was sunk in 1973 by the heavy cruiser USS Newport News, in a SinkEx exercise off the coast of Puerto Rico. It took a lot of 8” and 5″ rounds to sink her…tough ships indeed.

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