Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 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, March 14, 2018: Always on the edge of history
Leslie Jones Collection, Boston Public Library,
Here we see the Porter-class destroyer USS Phelps (DD-360) dockside at Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston shortly before she was commissioned in early 1936, note her armament has not been fitted. Though with the fleet just a decade, Phelps always seemed to be just off the portside of some of the most important Naval vessels of WWII and always did everything that was asked of her, picking up twelve battle stars along the way.
The 8-ship Porter class had fine lines and looked more like a light cruiser with their high bridge and four twin turrets than a destroyer. Their displacement was fixed at 1850 tons, the treaty limit at the time, but with their 381-foot oal they were very rakish. Truly beautiful vessels from that enlighten era where warships could be both easy on the eyes and functional. With a 37-knot high speed, they could bring the pain with an eight-pack of 5″/38 (12.7 cm) Mark 12s in four twin Mk22 turrets, which Navweaps refers to as “unquestionably the finest Dual Purpose gun of World War II” in addition to surface target torpedo tubes, a smattering of AAA guns, and an array of depth charges for sub busting. Designed in the early 1930s, all eight ships in the class were completed by February 1937, half built at Bethlehem Steel’s Fore River yard and the other half by New York Shipbuilding.
Our hero, Phelps, was first of the Fore River vessels, laid down 2 January 1934. She is the only Navy ship thus far to tote the name of Rear Admiral Thomas Stowell Phelps, USN, a hero of the Civil War navy.
Rear Admiral Thomas Stowell Phelps, USN (1822-1901) Portrait is taken circa 1865-1870 when Phelps was a commander. Photo from: “Officers of the Army and Navy (regular) who served in the Civil War,” published by L.R. Hamersly and Co., Philadelphia, 1892, p. 315. NH 78327
Phelps joined the Navy in 1840 at age 18 and gave the service 44 years of his life, most notably serving as the skipper of the 11-gun Ossipee-class steam sloop USS Juniata during the Civil War, taking her in danger-close to the Confederate batteries at Fort Fisher and helping to capture that rebel bastion. Phelps was named a rear-admiral on the retired list and the old but still beautiful Juniata went on to circumnavigate the globe and was only decommissioned in 1889.
The 11-gun Ossipee-class sloop-of-war USS Juniata in 1889, Detroit Photo. Via LOC. Her class included the ill-fated USS Housatonic.
USS Phelps commissioned 26 February 1936 and, as soon as her shakedown was complete, escorted the beautiful new heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis (CA 35) with President Roosevelt aboard on his Good Neighbor Cruise to South America that included stops in the Caribbean and points south.
USS PHELPS (DD-360). Note her Mark 35 directors above the pilot house, she had another on the after deckhouse– yes, two GFCS on one destroyer, pretty big league for a pre-1939 tin can. Courtesy of The Mariners Museum, Newport News, Va. Ted Stone collection Catalog #: NH 66339
Assigned to the Pacific Fleet by 1941, Phelps was at Pearl Harbor on that fateful day, moored in a nest of destroyers alongside the old tender USS Dobbin (AD-3) in berth X-2 along with fellow destroyers Worden, Hull, Dewey, and Macdonough. Though in an overhaul status and on a cold iron watch, according to her report of that fateful morning her crew observed bombs being dropped from planes diving on Ford Island and on ships moored in vicinity of the target ship USS Utah at 0758 and, by 0802, her guns were loaded and had commenced firing “it having been necessary to reassemble portions of the breech mechanisms which had been removed for overhaul.”
Now that is readiness!
Phelps downed one confirmed Japanese aircraft and took shots at another couple that were probable. By 0926 she was “underway, with boiler power for 26 knots, and stood out to sea via the North Channel,” to take up patrol offshore. The lucky destroyer suffered no casualties.
Pearl Harbor Attack, 7 December 1941 View taken around 0926 hrs. in the morning of 7 December, from an automobile on the road in the Aiea area, looking about WSW with destroyer moorings closest to the camera. In the center of the photograph are USS Dobbin (AD-3), with destroyers Hull (DD-350), Dewey (DD-349), Worden (DD-352) and Macdonough (DD-351) alongside. The ship just to the left of that group is USS Phelps (DD-360), with got underway on two boilers around 0926 hrs. The group further to the right consists of USS Whitney (AD-4), with destroyers Conyngham (DD-371), Reid (DD-369), Tucker (DD-374), Case (DD-370) and Selfridge (DD-357) alongside. USS Solace (AH-5) is barely visible at the far left. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. Catalog #: 80-G-33045
Within days, she was with the fleet looking for some payback, escorting the big fleet carrier USS Lexington (CV-2) on roving raids across the increasingly Japanese-held Western Pacific. By May 1942, she was just 400 miles off the Northern coast of Australia and heavily engaged in the Battle of the Coral Sea. Tragically, Lexington was mortally wounded in the exchange with Vice Admiral Takeo Takagi.
USS Lexington (CV-2) under air attack on 8 May 1942, as photographed from a Japanese plane. Heavy black smoke from her stack and white smoke from her bow indicate that the view was taken just after those areas were hit by bombs. Destroyer in the lower left appears to be USS Phelps (DD-360). The original print was from the illustration files for Rear Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison’s History of U.S. Naval Operations in World War II. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 95579
Though the majority of Lady Lex’s crew survived and were taken off, with the carrier’s Commanding Officer, Captain Frederick C. Sherman, the last to leave, the mighty flattop needed a coup de grace, a task that fell to Phelps.
Our destroyer fired five torpedoes between 19:15 and 19:52, with at least two duds or missed fish being observed. Immediately after the last torpedo hit, Lexington, down by the bow but nearly on an even keel, finally sank.
Last week, Paul Allen’s RV Petrel discovered one of Phelps’ unexploded fish in the debris field for Lexington
A U.S. Mk 15 21″ surfaced launch torpedo near Lexington, one of Phelps’. RV Petrel
Following the Coral Sea, Phelps retired to Pearl in the company of the wounded carrier USS Yorktown and prepared for the next engagement.
(DD-360) At Pearl Harbor, circa late May 1942, following the Battle of Coral Sea and shortly before the Battle of Midway. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. Catalog #: 80-G-66124
Then came Midway, where Phelps was part of TF16, serving as escort and plane guard for USS Hornet (CV 8).
80-G-88908: Battle of Midway, June 1942. A close-up of USS Atlanta (CL 51) with USS Hornet (CV 8) and USS Phelps (DD 360), all of Task Force 16, in the background. The picture was made during the third day of the battle as Atlanta came up to aid the destroyer, which had broken down temporarily because of fuel shortage. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. (2016/09/27).
After Midway, Phelps left for the West Coast where she received an updated AAA suite that saw her marginally effective 1.1-inch and .50-caliber guns swapped out for many more 40mm and 20mm pieces along with the Mk 51 Fire Control System for the former. For her main guns, she swapped out the older Mk33 for a new Mk35 GFCS and added both an SC air search radar set and one SG surface search radar set.
USS Phelps (DD-360) Description: Plan view, forward, taken while she was at the Mare Island Navy Yard, California, 24 November 1942. Circles mark recent alterations to the ship. Photograph from the Bureau of Ships Collection in the U.S. National Archives. Catalog #: 19-N-38915
Plan view, aft, taken while she was at the Mare Island Navy Yard, California, 24 November 1942. Note submarine building ways and cranes in the background. Circles mark recent alterations to the ship. Photograph from the Bureau of Ships Collection in the U.S. National Archives. Catalog #: 19-N-38914
The rest of the war was extremely busy for Phelps, fighting the nightly raids by the Japanese and supporting the invasion of Guadalcanal, bombarding frozen Attu and Kiska in Alaskan waters, marshaling the troopships and closing just off the beach at Makin, Kwajalein, and Eniwetok; the hell of Saipan.
USS Phelps (DD-360) underway at sea, 27 May 1944. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. Note, her # 3 5″ mount has been deleted, the superfiring aft installation. Catalog #: 80-G-276951
In August 1944, Phelps was reassigned to the Atlantic, her place taken in the warm waters of the Pacific by newer destroyer types with more massive AAA suites. It was figured that the fast Porter could be more useful in the ETO.
USS Phelps (DD-360) Off the Charleston Navy Yard, South Carolina, about November 1944. She is painted in camouflage Measure 32, Design 3d. Note that her eight 5-inch twins have been swapped out for five 5″/38 Mark 12 guns in a combination of Mark 38 twin mounts and a single Mark 30 mount superfiring aft. Her GFCS also has been upgraded to a Mk37. Photograph from the Bureau of Ships Collection in the U.S. National Archives. Catalog #: 19-N-73963
She spent the rest of the war on convoy duty and serving in the Mediterranean, arriving back on the West Coast post VE-Day on 10 June and was soon laid up.
USS Phelps (DD-360) moored at Casco Bay, Maine, 9 August 1945. USS McCall (DD-400) and a frigate (PF) are moored with her. Note she now has Measure 21. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. Catalog #: 80-G-332952
Decommissioned 6 November 1945, Phelps was struck from the list 28 January 1947, sold 10 August 1947 to George Nutman Inc., Brooklyn, and subsequently scrapped– just 11 years after her completion.
Of her sisters, only class leader, Porter, was lost, torpedoed in the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands in 1942. The other six Porters managed to complete the war in one piece and, save for USS Winslow, were paid off by 1946. As for Winslow, she endured for a while longer as an experimental unit and only went to the breakers in 1959.
Besides Phelps’ torpedoes on the bottom of the Coral Sea, she is remembered in maritime art.
Tom Freeman (American, born 1952) U.S.S. Arizona passes Diamond Head on November 28, 1941. U.S.S. Phelps (DD-360) is the escort
USS Phelps (DD-360) in her final form. Off the New York Navy Yard, 8 August 1945 in Measure 21. Photograph from the Bureau of Ships Collection in the U.S. National Archives. Catalog #: 19-N-87408
Displacement: 1,850 tons, 2,663 fl
Length: 381 ft (116 m)
Beam: 36 ft 2 in (11.02 m)
Draft: 10 ft 5 in (3.18 m)
Propulsion: 4 Babcock & Wilcox boilers. Geared Bethlehem Turbines,2 screws, 50,000 shp (37,285 kW);
Speed: 37 knots (65 km/h)
Range: 6,500 nmi. at 12 knots (12,000 km at 22 km/h) on 635 tons fuel oil
Complement: 194 (designed) later swelled to 276 with new systems, AAA suite
Sensors: SC search radar, QC sonar
Armor: Splinter protection (STS) for bridge, guns, and machinery
1 x Mk33 Gun Fire Control System
8 × 5″(127mm)/38cal SP (4×2), though only three turrets (6 guns) fitted
8 × 1.1″(28mm) AA (2×4),
2 × .50 Cal water-cooled AA (2×1),
8 x 21″(533mm) torpedo tubes two Mark 14 quadruple mounts (2×4) with 16 torpedoes carried
2 Depth Charge stern racks, 600lb charges
1 × Mk37 Gun Fire Control System,
5 × 5″(127mm)/38cal DP (2×2,1×1),
1 × Mk51 Gun Director,
4 × Bofors 40mm AA (1×4),
8 × Oerlikon 20mm AA (8×1),
8 x 21″(533mm) torpedo tubes two Mark 14 quadruple mounts (2×4) with 8 torpedos carried, later removed by 1945
2 Depth Charge stern racks, 600lb charges
4 300lb K-Gun Depth Charge throwers, 2 stdb, 2 port
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