Warship Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2022: Stuck in the Middle
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, Oct. 12, 2022: Stuck in the Middle
Above we see the camouflaged brand-new Gleaves (Bristol)-class destroyer, USS Duncan (DD-485), en route from her builder’s yard at Kearny, New Jersey, to be delivered to the Navy, on 15 April 1942. Note that her radar antenna has been edited out by a wartime censor. Commissioned the next day, her naval career would last but 179 tense days, and she would be forever retired into the shark-infested waters off Savo Island some 80 years ago today.
The Gleaves class is an unsung group of 66 destroyers and fast minesweepers who began construction pre-WWII and completed in 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 17 of the class lost during WWII or damaged to the point that they were written off as not worth repairing.
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, leaving them able to get inshore when needed. With 269 berths and only 24 apprentice strikers out of their planned 293-man crew having to rig hammocks, the class was modern for their era, part of the “New Navy.”
Our Duncan was named for 19th Century naval hero Silas Duncan, who lost his right arm at Lake Champlain while assigned to USS Saratoga in 1814 but would go on to later serve on the Independence, Hornet, Guerriere, Cyane, and Ferret, then command the sloop USS Lexington on overseas stations in the 1830s. His name was honored previously by the Navy in the circa 1912 Cassin-class destroyer USS Duncan (DD-46) which earned a reputation on U-boat patrols in the Great War.
Laid down at the Federal Shipbuilding & Drydock Company in the Garden State on 31 July 1941, the second USS Duncan was launched just seven months later. Federal built several Gleaves and later Fletcher-class destroyers in World War II, setting records for both: 137 days on the 1,630-ton Gleaves-class USS Thorn (DD-647) and 170 days from keel to commissioning on the Fletcher USS Dashiell (DD-659).
Commissioned 16 April 1942, just a week after the fall of Bataan in the Philippines, Duncan was placed under the command of LCDR Edmund B. Taylor (USNA 1925) a burly All-American who boxed, played football and lacrosse at Annapolis and had served almost all of his 17 years in a series of surface warfare assignments ranging from battleships to tin cans– interrupted in the early 1930s by a stint coaching ball and instructing gunnery back at the Academy.
Ducan raced through her shakedowns in the Caribbean while aiding in the escort of convoys between GTMO and Cristobal, then sailed for the South Pacific where the battle to take Guadalcanal was raging. She arrived at Espiritu Santo on 14 September and joined TF 17/18 to cover the transports carrying the 7th Marine Regiment to reinforce besieged Guadalcanal.
Duncan was next to the doomed aircraft carrier USS Wasp (CV-7) the next day when she was burning and listing Southeast of San Cristobal Island after being torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. The loss of Wasp was a hugely traumatic event to the Navy, having already seen Lexington and Yorktown sent to the bottom within the four months prior.
Duncan picked up survivors from the carrier, transferring 701 officers and men to other ships, and 18 wounded and two bodies to the base hospital at Espiritu Santo the following day.
Less than three weeks later, Duncan would be steaming as part of the cruiser-destroyer force of RADM Norman Scott’s Task Force 64 (TF Sugar) consisting of the heavy cruisers USS San Francisco and USS Salt Lake City, the light cruisers USS Boise and USS Helena, along with the destroyers Farenthold, Buchanan, Laffey, and McCalla. The job? Stop the nightly Japanese resupply efforts to their garrison fighting in the jungles of Guadalcanal– the Tokyo Express.
Sailing from Espiritu Santo and reaching the vicinity of Savo Island by 11 October, they were soon to contact the Express. At 1810, scout planes from the American cruisers spotted two enemy cruisers and six destroyers (actually the three heavy cruisers Furutaka, Aoba, and Kingusagasa, along with the destroyers Fubuki and Hatsuyuki, covering six destroyers and two seaplane tenders loaded with reinforcements and cargo).
By 2325, after creeping up on the Japanese force, Helena’s SG radar made contact at 27,000 yards out– heady stuff for the era. Just before midnight, Helena was requesting permission to fire, and, at 2346, both of Helena’s batteries opened on separate but unspecified targets while Salt Lake City joined in on a contact just 4,000 yards to her starboard. Soon after, the swirling scrap between the two surface action groups that went down as the Battle of Cape Esperance became disjointed and confusing– an understatement– with searchlights and gun flashes cracking across the night sky and torpedoes filling the water.
During the action, Duncan was one of the ships that may have plastered the cruiser Furutaka.
At 2235, Rear Admiral Goto’s three cruisers and two destroyers are picked up by Captain Gilbert C. Hoover’s USS HELENA’s radar. Scott reverses course to cross the Japanese “T”. Both fleets open fire. ComCruDiv 6, Rear Admiral Goto, thinking that he is under “friendly-fire”, orders a 180-degree turn that exposes each of his ships to the Americans’ broadsides.
Flagship AOBA is damaged heavily. Admiral Goto is mortally wounded on her bridge. After AOBA is crippled, Captain Araki turns FURUTAKA out of the line to engage Captain (later Vice Admiral) C. H. McMorris’ USS SALT LAKE CITY. LtCdr E. B. Taylor’s USS DUNCAN (DD-485) launches two torpedoes toward FURUTAKA that either miss or fail to detonate. She continues firing at the cruiser until she is put out of action by numerous shell hits. At 2354, FURUTAKA receives a torpedo hit to port side that floods her forward engine room.
Destroyer FUBUKI is sunk and HATSUYUKI damaged. Captain E. J. Moran’s USS BOISE, USS SALT LAKE CITY and USS FARENHOLT (DD-491) are damaged.
About 90 shells hit FURUTAKA, jamming her No. 3 turret in train and starting several fires. Several shells penetrate the engine rooms. The Type 93 “Long Lance” torpedoes ignite as well. The fires draw more gunfire.
12 October 1942:
Around 0040 FURUTAKA goes dead in the water. After the battle flag is lowered, the order is given to abandon ship. At 0228 (local), FURUTAKA sinks stern first 22 miles NW of Savo Island, at 09-02N, 159-33 E. Thirty-three crewmen are killed and 225 counted as MIA. Captain Araki and 517 survivors are rescued by HATSUYUKI and by DesDiv 11’s MURAKUMO and SHIRAYUKI (of Admiral Joshima’s Reinforcement Group).
Duncan’s report, filed after the fact, details how at one point she was in the crossfire between the two battlelines, bracketed by cruisers at effectively point-blank distances on both sides of her beam:
In the end, wrecked by several large-bore shell hits at close range (thought to be from cruisers under both flags), the charred hulk of Duncan was abandoned and sunk just short of Savo Island just before noon on 12 October. McCalla, one of her sisters, managed to search for and save 195 men from the oil-soaked waters once dawn broke– with rifle parties on deck having to fire at sharks seen circling men in the water.
Some 48 of Duncan’s crew were lost with the ship and remain on duty. Due to the shell hits on her wheelhouse and chart room, of her 13 officers aboard during the battle, all but four were killed or seriously wounded. Of her enlisted, at least 35 of those rescued by McCalla, about one in five, were listed as wounded.
Duncan received just one battle star (Second Savo) for her brief, though eventful, World War II service.
Taylor, Duncan’s sole skipper, earned the Navy Cross for his actions during the Battle of Cape Esperance. His citation read:
For extraordinary heroism during action against enemy Japanese naval forces off Savo Island on October 11, 1942. Although his ship had sustained heavy damage under hostile bombardment, Lieutenant Commander Taylor, by skillful maneuvering, successfully launched torpedoes which contributed to the destruction of a Japanese cruiser. Maintaining the guns of the Duncan in effective fire throughout the battle, he, when the vessel was finally put out of action, persistently employed to the fullest extent all possible measures to extinguish raging fires and control severe damage.
Taylor would soon be given a second destroyer, the newly commissioned Fletcher-class tin can USS Bennett (DD-473), and the rank of captain. Taking Bennett into harm’s way, he soon earned a bronze star operating in the Bismarck Archipelago on a night raid to engage Japanese shore batteries and ammo dumps near Rabaul. He then went on to command DESDIV 90 and DESRON 45, adding a silver star to his salad bar in the Philippines. This consummate surface warrior would end the war as an aide to Forrestal. Post-war, he commanded the heavy cruiser USS Salem (CA-139), was commander of the ASW Force during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and retired in 1966 as a vice admiral.
His son, Capt. Edmund Battelle “Ted” Taylor Jr., was aboard a helicopter that developed engine trouble and crashed as it attempted to land on the cruiser USS Providence off Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin in May 1972 and is listed as missing in action. Vice Admiral Edmund Battelle Taylor passed the next year, aged 69, in Virginia Beach.
As for her sisters, the surviving Gleaves were slowly placed in mothballs or given away as military aid to overseas allies in the 1950s, with the last in active U.S. service, USS Fitch (DD-462/DMS-25), decommissioned in 1956. Most of those sent to the reserve was later scrapped or sunk as targets in the 1970s. Of those sent overseas, the last to be disposed of was ex-USS Lardner (DD-487), who finished her second life as the Turkish Navy’s Gemlik in 1982. No Gleaves-class destroyers are preserved.
The Navy, as it did often in the darkest days of WWII, quickly re-issued the name of the heroically lost destroyer. The third (and final) warship named in honor of Master Commandant Silas Duncan, a new Gearing-class destroyer, USS Duncan (DD-874), was commissioned on 25 February 1945. She was launched by the same distant cousin that launched “our” Duncan, would see brief service in WWII prior to D-Day, earning seven battle stars off Korea, picking up a FRAM II conversion, and standing guard on Yankee Station in Vietnam before she was retired in 1971.
This latter Duncan maintains a veteran’s association that honors the memory of both destroyers.
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
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.
If you liked this column, please consider joining the International Naval Research Organization (INRO), Publishers of Warship International
They are possibly one of the best sources of naval study, images, and fellowship you can find. http://www.warship.org/membership.htm
The International Naval Research Organization is a non-profit corporation dedicated to the encouragement of the study of naval vessels and their histories, principally in the era of iron and steel warships (about 1860 to date). Its purpose is to provide information and a means of contact for those interested in warships.
With more than 50 years of scholarship, Warship International, the written tome of the INRO has published hundreds of articles, most of which are unique in their sweep and subject.
PRINT still has its place. If you LOVE warships, you should belong.
I am a member, so should you be!