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, Jan. 5, 2022: 15-Star Floating Haberdashery
Here we see the Sims-class destroyer USS Morris (DD-417), some 80 years ago today, as the tin can sits at the Charleston Navy Yard in South Carolina, on 5 January 1942. According to DANFS, at the time “she was equipped with the first fire control radar to be installed on a destroyer.” She is being refitted before sailing for the Pacific, barely a month after the attack on Pearl Harbor, as witnessed by her Measure 12 (Modified) camouflage pattern. While Morris had already been highly active in the tense stand-off that was the Atlantic Neutrality Patrol, her pivot to the Pacific would be much more of a shooting war.
The Sims were handsome 1930s ships, a dozen 2,300-ton (fl), 348-foot greyhounds sandwiched between the smaller Benham-class and the slightly heavier Benson-class which used largely the same hull but a different engineering suite. Speaking of engineering, the Sims-class used a trio of Babcock & Wilcox boilers to push Westinghouse geared turbines at 50,000 shp, capable of making 37-knots, and were the last single-stack destroyers made for the Navy.
Designed around a dozen 21-inch torpedo tubes, they could also carry five 5″/38 DP MK 12 guns in a mix of enclosed and open MK 30 mounts– though in actuality they were completed with a smaller array of eight tubes and four main guns, augmented by increasingly heavy AAA and ASW suites. When you threw early radar sets into the mix– an advantage that opposing Axis destroyers could not boast– and you had a serious little surface combatant.
Built during the immediate lead-up to the U.S. entry into WWII, the 12 ships were ordered from seven yards to speed up completion, and half were commissioned in 1939, the other half in 1940.
Named in honor of Robert Morris, a member of the Pennsylvania Committee of Safety and Continental Congress who signed the Declaration of Independence, the Continental Navy had already bestowed Mr. Morris’s name to a pair of Revolutionary War vessels, then the follow-on U.S. Navy, doubling down as a salute to Commodore Charles Morris (who fought at Tripoli in 1805 and stormed the HMS Guerriere from the decks of the USS Constitution in 1812) gave it to two circa 1840s schooners, a Herreshoff-built early Coast Torpedo Boat (TB-14), and a Clemson-class destroyer (DD-271). This made “our” Morris the seventh such ship to carry the name.
The seventh Morris (DD‑417) was laid down at the navy yard, Norfolk, Va., 7 June 1938; launched 1 June 1939; sponsored by Mrs. Charles R. Nutter, great‑granddaughter of the late Commodore Charles Morris; and commissioned 5 March 1940.
Morris, flagship of DESRON 2, followed her shakedown with routine training schedules until the summer of 1941 when she joined the North Atlantic Patrol, keeping the sea lanes open and helping run convoys to U.S.-occupied Iceland, walking the razor-sharp line of neutrality. Keep in mind this was a sort of pseudo war, as the old four-piper destroyer USS Reuben James (DD-245) was sunk by a torpedo from German submarine U-552 near Iceland on Halloween 1941, six weeks before the United States had officially joined the war.
She and several of her sisters with DESRON 2, after they arrived in Hawaii, became part of battleship-and-cruiserman RADM Frank Jack Fletcher’s soon-to-be famed Task Force 17, centered around the carrier USS Yorktown (CV-5). As such, Morris guarded Yorktown as her planes struck at enemy shipping in Tulagi Harbor and in the Lousiade Archipelago.
By early May, Morris was part of the first major sea battle of the Pacific, the Battle of the Coral Sea, downing one attacking Japanese plane and sending another off trailing smoke in the first fleet-to-fleet combat in which the surface vessels involved never saw each other. Proving how deadly the enemy aircraft were, her class-leader and sister, USS Sims, was lost.
It was not the only loss at the Coral Sea, as the huge battlecruiser-turned-flattop USS Lexington (CV-2) was scuttled after a serious fire. Going to the carrier’s assistance, Morris went alongside the blazing and exploding Lexington to rescue some 500 survivors under extremely hazardous conditions, with the smaller ship suffering damage to her superstructure.
Less than a month later, with her superstructure patched up at Pearl Harbor, Morris was front and center for the Battle of Midway. There, Morris shot down her second confirmed Japanese plane but lost another sister, Hammann, with the latter sunk by a Japanese torpedo.
Again, Morris was sent in to save souls from a sinking carrier, with Yorktown sent to the bottom.
Again, she rescued over 500 Sailors.
This produced an almost identical image, a doppelganger scene fit for Dante.
Following a refit at Pearl, Morris was active again in early October, participating in the Buin-Faisi-Tonolai raid and an independent sweep through the Gilbert Islands where she took a large armed merchantman under fire then had to break the engagement after Japanese aircraft came on the scene. Two days later, she rejoined TF17 in time for another sea battle.
The Battle of Santa Cruz, on 25 October 1942, was an especially tough row to hoe for Morris. She was confirmed to have downed six Japanese aircraft during the engagement– at the time setting a record of 8 “kills” among U.S. Navy destroyers in the theater.
Sadly, she would come to the assistance of a third sinking American aircraft carrier, pulling alongside the blazing USS Hornet (CV 8), and “although ammunition aboard the damaged carrier was exploding fiercely and she was being subjected to vicious dive-bombing attacks by enemy planes,” Morris took aboard 550 of her complement before pulling away.
This was the third time the little escort would stand by to rescue hundreds of fellow Bluejackets from the turbulent, oil and debris-littered, waters. This led to her crew willingly passing on every stitch of clothing they weren’t wearing to the survivors. Such an expenditure of uniforms across two years of combat led her skipper to remark, “It seems safe to say that the turnover in wearing apparel was greater aboard Morris than any other ship then operating or thereafter to operate in the Pacific Ocean.”
From Morris’s War History, addressing the repeated call to duty to tend hundreds of carrier sailors and aircrew plucked from the water.
Her skipper, LCDR Randolph B. Boyer (USNA ’27), would receive the Navy Cross for the action.
She closed out the year off Guadalcanal and for eight weeks was engaged in escorting supply units to the Russell Islands. By May 1943, she was detached for the liberation of Attu and Kiska, in the Aleutian Islands, then was sent back to Mare Island for an extensive two-month overhaul that left her looking different.
A Fourth Carrier Tragedy
In November 1943, Morris joined an air support group consisting of a trio of Casablanca-class “jeep carriers,” USS Liscome Bay (CVE-56), USS Coral Sea (CVE-57), and USS Corregidor (CVE-59) in the Gilbert Islands offensive, during which, for a fourth time, our destroyer went to aid a sunk flattop.
On the early morning of 24 November 1943, Liscome Bay’s munitions were detonated by a torpedo from the Japanese submarine I-175 and sank in an extremely short amount of time— 20 minutes according to some reports– carrying 644 men including RADM Henry M. Mullinnix and Pearl Harbor Navy Cross earner Doris Miller to the bottom. Only 272 of Liscome Bay’s crew were pulled from the oily water, while the responding destroyers dodged further torpedo wakes from I-175.
Back to work
Kicking off 1944, on 30 January 1944 Morris led a column of warships in a shore bombardment mission against Wotje– and was bracketed by Japanese shore batteries for her efforts.
She then provided NGF support off Namur, reportedly wiping out a Japanese counterattack force from an adjacent island. Further 5-inch work was delivered in supporting the western New Guinea landings, the Biak Island operation, pounding enemy guns on Noemfoor Island and then at Cape Sansapor and operations against Halmahera and Morotai on the lead up to the liberation of the Philippines where, as part of 7th Fleet, she fought off kamikazes.
As part of the 5th Fleet for the push on Okinawa, she arrived off Kerama Retto with TG 51.11. on April Fool’s Day, 1945. Six days later she felt the divine wind.
As detailed in RADM Samuel J. Cox’s H-044-2: “Floating Chrysanthemums”—The Naval Battle of Okinawa:
Destroyer escort Witter was operating with destroyer Gregory (DD-802) on anti-submarine patrol duty off southern Okinawa when they were attacked by two Japanese aircraft at 1612. Gregory shot one down and Witter gunners hit the other, but the burning plane kept coming and hit Witter at the waterline, with the plane’s bomb exploding in the forward fire room, and killing six crewmen and wounding six. Damage control parties got the flooding under control and Witter was steaming on her own power toward Kerama Retto at ten knots, accompanied by Gregory, destroyer Morris (DD-417), Richard P. Leary (DD-664), and the tug Arikara (ATF-98).
Morris detached from the group, but then came under attack by a single Kate torpedo bomber. Although Morris gunners hit the Kate repeatedly, it kept coming and crashed on the port side between 5-inch gun mounts Number 1 and 2, igniting stubborn fires that took two and a half hours to put out. Richard P. Leary arrived to assist and escorted Morris to Kerama Retto. Morris suffered 13 killed and 45 wounded.
From her War History on the strike:
On 22 May, some three weeks after VJ Day she started out across the Pacific and on 18 June entered the Hunters Point Drydock, San Francisco. “Declared neither seaworthy nor habitable, she was decommissioned 9 November; struck from the Naval Register 28 November; stripped and sold to Franklin Shipwrecking 2 August 1947 and then resold to the National Metal & Steel Corp., Terminal Island, Calif., 17 July 1949.”
Morris received 15 battle stars for her action in World War II while pulling almost 2,000 Sailors from sinking ships or the ocean waves. While this battle star figure is outstanding, and one of the highest in the fleet, she was surpassed by her sister Russell (16 stars), a testament to the wringer this class was put through.
The ships were stripped of useful equipment as well as ceremonial items such as bells, nameplates, and commemorative plaques. At Bikini, without crews or ordnance but with a sampling of goats and chickens aboard, the fleet touched the sun.
CDR Harry Bean Jarrett, Morris’s first c/o and the man who was in charge of the destroyer for both the Coral Sea and Midway (along with the corresponding rescues from the doomed aircraft carriers Yorktown and Lexington), ended the war in charge of nine Fletchers in the famed DESRON 53, who aggressively covered the landings across the Marshall and Marianans Islands. He retired in 1954 as a Vice Admiral and commander of Commander Carrier Division Four, and passed in 1974, aged 75. He is buried at the USNA’s Cemetery, and the Perry-class frigate USS Jarrett (FFG-33) was named in his honor.
Sadly, her skipper for the Hornet rescue, Capt. Randolph Boyer, was lost post-war on August 16, 1947, when the converted B-17 he was aboard along with Ambassador George C. Atcheson, crashed while en route from Hawaii to Japan.
The Commissioning Pennant that Morris had fluttering in the breeze above Tack Force 17 at the Battle of the Coral Sea and at Midway, where Morris attended to the broken carriers Lexington and Yorktown in tandem, is preserved in the NHHC collection.
She has a Memorial Wall plaque at the National Museum of the Pacific War, in Fredericksburg, Texas.
A small group of Vets and families associated with the destroyer noted in May 2021 that, “Les Wawner has passed away at 100. To our knowledge, he was the last of our USS Morris DD-417 sailors.”
She is also remembered in maritime art.
Unfortunately, the Navy has not (*seriously) reissued the name, so the 7th Morris is, as of 2022 at least, the last on the Naval List to carry it. Certainly, it would be befitting for an as-yet-to-be-named Burke.
*A 173-foot PC-461-class submarine chaser, USS PC-1179, was renamed as the eighth USS Morris in 1956 while she was in mothballs at Astoria, and never served in commission with the name, scrapped just five years later.
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