Warship Wednesday, May 10, 2023: The Sleazy B
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, May 10, 2023: The Sleazy B
Above we see a view of the slipway at the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Co., some 105 years ago this week, of the Wickes-class four-piper USS Breese (Destroyer No. 122) just after she was launched on Saturday 11 May 1918. Completed too late for the war she was intended for; our humble little tin can would be very busy in the next one.
Breese was one of the iconic first flight of “Four Piper” destroyers that were designed in 1915-16 with input from no less an authority as Captain (later Admiral) W.S. Sims. Beamy ships with a flush deck and a quartet of boilers (with a smokestack for each) were coupled to a pair of Parsons geared turbines to provide 35.3 knots designed speed– which is still considered fast today, more than a century later.
The teeth of these 314-foot, 1,250-ton greyhounds were four 4-inch/50 cal MK 9 guns and a full dozen 21-inch torpedo tubes.
They reportedly had short legs and were very wet, which made long-range operations a problem, but they gave a good account of themselves. Originally a class of 50 was authorized in 1916, but once the U.S. entered WWI in April 1917, this was soon increased and increased again to some 111 ships built by 1920.
Meet USS Breese
Our warship is the only one named in honor of Kidder Randolph Breese.
Mr. Breese, a Philadelphian, was appointed a Navy midshipman at the age of 15 and saw wartime service on the sloop USS Saratoga off Mexico before his appointment to Annapolis. He later went on to join Commodore Perry’s Japan voyage and in the Paraguay Expedition in the antebellum period of the young republic. Civil War service included serving on the USS San Jacinto during the Trent affair, then with RADM David Dixon Porter for Vicksburg and Fort Fisher. Post-war assignments were varied and included inspecting the battle-damaged ironclad Huascar and command of the Torpedo Station at Newport, where he passed in 1881 at the rank of captain, aged a well-traveled 50.
Laid down on 10 November 1917 at Newport News, she was launched on 11 May 1918 with Mrs. Gilbert McIlvaine, the late Capt. Breese’s daughter, as sponsor, and commissioned on 23 October 1918, just three weeks before the Great War ended.
Notably, she was built side-by-side with her sister USS Gamble (DD-123) and the two were launched on the same day.
With the line still hot, just five minutes after she was launched, workmen began putting down the keel plates for sistership USS Bagley (DD-185) on the ways that Breese had just vacated while USS Clemson (DD-186) had her plates installed on Gamble’s freshly vacant berth.
Still, our brand new destroyer was able to get some wartime service in, effectively spending her shakedown on convoy escort duty with the Atlantic Fleet Cruiser Force.
Immediately after the war wound down, Breese along with Gamble and several of their sisters Destroyer Division 12, would deploy to Cuban waters for most of 1919.
Div 12, with Breese along with it, then set out for the Pacific Fleet, where they would be active out of San Diego for the next two years.
With the Navy flush with destroyers and few destroyermen billets to go around, Breese was decommissioned on 17 June 1922 after just short of four years of service and laid up.
Welcome to the Mine Forces
After nearly a decade on red lead row, Breese was taken out of mothballs and redesignated a fast destroyer minelayer (DM-18) on 5 January 1931. This saw her head to Mare Island for a general overhaul and conversion.
The Navy had previously converted 14 Wickes and Clemson class ships to this designation in 1920, with the simple swap out of having their torpedo tubes replaced with tracks that could carry approximately 80 1,400-pound Mark VI moored antenna mines (of which the Navy had 50,000 left over from the Great War) to drop over the side.
As noted by Destroyer History.org:
Among the lessons World War I offered the US Navy was the possibility that fast ships could be effective in laying minefields to disrupt enemy operations. The surplus of flush-deckers at the end of the war provided an opportunity to experiment.
The original 14 circa 1920 rated destroyer-minelayers were slowly replaced throughout the 1930s by a smaller group of eight converted flush-deckers taken from mothballs– USS Gamble (DM-15)(DD-123), USS Ramsey (DM-16)(DD-124), USS Montgomery (DM-17)(DD-121), USS Breese (DM-18)(DD-122), USS Tracy (DM-19)(DD-214), USS Preble (DM-20)(DD-345), USS Sicard (DM-21)(DD-346) and USS Pruitt (DM-22)(DD-347).
Curiously, these ships would retain their white DD-hull numbers but wear mine-force insignia on their bow, outwardly looking much more destroyer than minelayer.
In addition to these minelayers, a number of Wickes/Clemson class flush deckers were converted during the WWII era to other tasks including eighteen fast minesweepers (DMS), fourteen seaplane tenders (AVD), and six fast “Green Dragon” transports (APD) plus test ship Semmes (AG 24, ex-DD 189) at the Key West Sound School and damage control hulk Walker (DCH 1, ex-YW 57, ex-DD 163) which was reclaimed from commercial service as a dockside restaurant at San Diego.
All eight of the active destroyer-minelayers were formed into Mine Squadron 1 headed up by the old minelayer USS Oglala (CM 4), flagship of Rear Admiral William R. Furlong, commander of Minecraft for the Battle Force of the Pacific Fleet, and forward-based with “The Pineapple Fleet” at Pearl Harbor, where a new conflict would soon find them.
All MineRon1’s ships were swaying at their berths at Pearl’s Middle Loch on 7 December 1941 when the Japanese attack came in. The squadron was divided into two divisions, with MinDiv2 consisting of Gamble, Montgomery, Breese, and Ramsay.
The response by Breese, among others, was immediate. From her after-action report:
At 0755 two dive bombing planes approached Ford Island from the west at an altitude of 200 ft., in horizontal flight and bombed the sea plane hangar and adjacent gasoline tanks on the west end of Ford Island. The general alarm was sounded, and the anti-aircraft battery manned. This ship opened fire with 50 cal. machine guns at 0757, the first ship to open fire in the Middle Loch area.
In all, Breese got off 1,700 rounds .50 cal. AP/tracer and 45 rounds from her single 3″/23 cal. AAA gun which had been designed primarily to shoot down balloons. Her crew also broke out the light machine guns reserved for use by the landing force– three 30 cal. Lewis machine guns and three M1918 Browning Automatic Rifles. The ship claimed one “kill.”
Four planes were observed by this officer as they were shot down in the Middle Loch area. One of these was hit by a 3″ projectile from this ship, which blew the after part of the fuselage away the remainder of the plane crashed into the west bank of the channel in flames.
By 0917, with an unidentified submarine sighted in the middle of the channel northwest of Ford Island, Breese got underway towards where a periscope had been sighted. She spent the rest of the morning hunting down sound bearings and dropped 11 depth charges on what were thought to be contacts, and Breese may have had a hand in accounting for one of the five Japanese Type A kō-hyōteki midget subs lost in the attack.
Her casualties that day included two gunners suffering minor injuries while working the 3″/23 and minor splinter damage to the ship’s rigging. Likewise, all seven of her DM sisters came through the Japanese strike’s fury and were ready for service. However, Oglala capsized through a series of strange events but would be quickly raised and returned to service as an engine repair ship.
DANFS is almost criminally short on Breese’s subsequent wartime service, summing it up as :
Breese operated in the Central Pacific from 7 December 1941 until 10 October 1944. She then extended her sphere of duty westward to include various islands in the Marianas-Philippine area and continued to serve as a minelayer and patrol ship until 7 November 1945.
Her nine-page War History, in the National Archives, shed much more light on the service.
She would lay one of the first American offensive minefields of the Pacific War, in French Frigate Shoals, and spend much of 1942 on ASW patrol around Hawaii. This would include a sortie to Midway along with USS Allen and USS Fulton, where the three ships picked up 81 men and three officers from the lost carrier USS Yorktown.
Then came some real excitement, detailed via some excerpts from her War History:
Breese (DM-18) underway on 11 December 1943. Note by this point in the war she had three stacks rather than four. NH 107270
Her 7 May offensive mine efforts are detailed by Destroyer History.org:
On 7 May, Radford led Gamble, Preble and Breese in an offensive operation to the New Georgia Group. Approaching Kolombangara from the south through Ferguson Passage, the three laid 250 mines in 17 minutes across narrow Blackett Strait, a well-known route of the Tokyo Express to Vila. The following night, three unsuspecting destroyers of veteran Japanese Destroyer Division 15—which had conducted more Tokyo Express operations to Guadalcanal than any other division—ran into it from the east at 18 knots enroute home from their advance base at nearby Vila plantation. Kuroshio sank immediately; class leader Kagero and division flagship Oyashio were disabled. Despite rescue barges sent out from Vila, they remained exposed to attacks by American aircraft, which found and bombed them the following day. Both eventually sank.
Then came a very busy string of island-hopping campaigns.
Among the eight flush-deck destroyer minelayers, the class earned 44 Pacific battle stars. Breese accounted for 10 of these by herself, including:
- 7 Dec 41 Pearl Harbor–Midway
- 12 May 43 – 13 May 43 Consolidation of Southern Solomons
- 29 Jun 43 – 25 Aug 43 New Georgia-Rendova-Vanunu occupation
- 1 Nov 43 – 8 Nov 43 Occupation and defense of Cape Torokina
- 12 Oct 44 – 20 Oct 44 Leyte landings
- 4 Jan 45 – 18 Jan 45 Lingayen Gulf landing
- 16 Feb 45 – 7 Mar 45 Assault and occupation of Iwo Jima
- 25 Mar 45 – 30 Jun 45 Assault and occupation of Okinawa Gunto
- 5 Jul 45 – 31 Jul 45 3d Fleet operations against Japan
In August and September 1945 Breese swept mines in the East China Sea “Klondike” areas and Van Dieman Straits in the Kyushu-Korean area.
Then, she headed home for good.
She transited the Panama Canal and put into New York on 13 December 1945. She was decommissioned on 15 January 1946 and sold on 16 May 1946.
Breese’s war diaries, plans, and war history are preserved in the National Archives.
Meanwhile, the Hampton Roads Naval Museum’s gallery contains her ship’s bell.
Breese’s Pearl Harbor skipper, LCDR Herald Franklin Stout (USNA 1926) would go on to earn two Navy Crosses in the Solomon Islands with the “Little Beavers” of DESRON 23 ( Squadron) as skipper of the new Fletcher-class tin can USS Claxton (DD-571). He retired in 1956 as a rear admiral and passed away in 1987, aged 83. The Pascagoula-built destroyer USS Stout (DDG-55) is named after him and has been in service since 1994.
Of the eight flush-deck destroyer minelayers, two were lost during the war, including Breese’s twin, USS Gamble, who was so severely damaged off Iwo Jima while screening the old battleship Nevada that she was towed to the Marianas and scuttled off Guam. The other loss was Navy Unit Commendation recipient USS Montgomery (DM-17)(DD-121), who fouled a drifting mine in Palau in late 1944 and was decommissioned shortly after limping back home.
Besides Gamble and Montgomery, at least 11 other Wickes class destroyers were lost during World War II in U.S. service. The remainder were scrapped between 1945 and 1947.
Today no Wickes-class tin cans survive. The last one afloat, USS Maddox (DD–168), was scrapped in late 1952 after serving in the US, then RN, then Canadian, then Soviet navies.
However, one of the class, USS Walker (DD-163), has been given new life in the excellent alternate history series Destroyermen written by Taylor Anderson.
There has never been another USS Breese.
Ships are more than steel
And heart of burning coal,
For those who sail upon
That some ships have a
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