♦ The Flush-Deck Destroyer Classes ♦

The United States Navy in World War II


Wickes-Class destroyers of the reserve fleet laid up at San Diego, circa 1925  (Naval Heritage & History Command)

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The following abbreviations are used in this article: AA (antiaircraft gun), DC (depth charge), DP (dual purpose surface/antiaircraft gun), HA (high-angle antiaircraft gun), HMS (His Majesty's Ship), TT (torpedo tubes), USS (United States Ship). Relevant USN hull type codes were DD (destroyer), DM (destroyer minelayer) DMS (destroyer minesweeper), ADP (fast transport) and AVP (light seaplane tender).

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The US Navy’s first true destroyers—seagoing flotilla craft whose main armament was the torpedo—were the five ships of the “Smith” class, which entered service around 1910. They represented a great advance over earlier classes, some of which though rated as destroyers were no more than lightly armed seagoing torpedo boats. The "Smiths" were much larger, with a uniform armament of 5 x 3in guns plus 3 x 18in TT (single mounts; exchanged for 3 x twin mounts in 1916.) The basic “Smith” design with detail improvements was used for the next two classes, totaling twenty-one ships. Then came the four ships of the “Cassin” class, the first of the so-called thousand-tonners. These ships were larger and faster than their immediate predecessors, with a heavier armament: 4 x 4in guns and 8 x 18in TT (2 x quadruple mounts). This progressive increase in destroyer size and firepower reflected the Navy’s growing concern with the creation of an integrated battle fleet. For that purpose destroyers had to be robust and seaworthy, with a longer range than hitherto. The “Cassin” class was repeated with detail improvements in the next two classes, totaling twelve ships. Thus by 1917 the Navy possessed a force of 44 reasonably modern destroyers.

USS Cassin (DD-43) with a sister ship at Queenstown, Ireland in 1918 (Naval Heritage & History Command)

The outbreak of World War I and the increasing likelihood that the United States would become involved in it led to congressional passage of the Navy Act of 1916: a massive three-year construction program intended to create “a Navy second to none.” In addition to new battleships, battle cruisers and cruisers, the Act provided for 50 new fleet destroyers. This was the genesis of the Navy’s enormous wartime destroyer construction program that ultimately produced 267 ships: the famous four-pipers of the 'Wickes" and "Clemson" classes—so called because of their four evenly spaced funnels.

The six ships of the "Caldwell" class served as prototypes for the mass-produced four-pipers. Though much the same size as their predecessors, they were fractionally faster and mounted a heavier torpedo armament: 12 x 21in TT ( 4 x triple mounts, two on each broadside). Otherwise, their armament was the same as the preceding "Sampson" class: 4 x 4in guns plus 2 x 1-pounder AA guns. Visually, they were distinguished from earlier classes by their flush deck (no forecastle break) and their more extensive bridgework.

To keep down weight, the “Caldwells” were designed with a flush deck, relatively shallow draft,  a cruiser stern, and a “drag” (keel sloping aft) to ensure that the propellers and rudder were sufficiently deep in the water. This made them wet forward and it was also found that they had an undesirably large turning circle. The mass-produced four-pipers therefore reverted to a level keel—which, however, didn't fully solve these problems. It was found that the major cause of the excessive turning circle was the ships' tapered cruiser stern, which dug into the water when the helm was put over. A larger rudder only partially corrected this defect.

The mass-produced four-pipers were several hundred tons larger than the “Caldwells,” this to accommodate more powerful machinery for a design speed of 35 knots, versus 30 knots for their predecessors. In service, practical sea speed was 32-33 knots. Otherwise, they were far from uniform in performance, having been constructed by several shipbuilders with variations in boilers and machinery. Endurance at cruising speed (15 knots) ranged from 2,400 to 4,500 nautical miles. Also the Yarrow boilers with which some were fitted turned out to be less than satisfactory in service.

USS Hatfield (DD-231) of the "Clemson" class as completed (Destroyer History Foundation)

Only a handful of the four-pipers were commissioned in time for service in World War One and many were relegated to reserve status immediately after completion. Some were scrapped under the terms of the London Naval Treaty (1930), which restricted total tonnage in most classes of warship. Others were disposed of because of the rapid deterioration of their Yarrow boilers. Even so, sufficient four-pipers remained to more than meet the needs of the peacetime fleet, and it was not until 1933 that Congress was willing to authorize new destroyers. By 1940, 93 four-pipers had been discarded with an additional twelve lost in accidents, and 169 remained in service or in reserve.

Being available in such large numbers, the four-pipers were considered suitable for conversion to other roles. In 1939 USS Manley (DD-274) of the "Caldwell" class became the prototype fast transport (APD-1). Her TT were removed and replaced by cranes and davits to handle four small landing craft, and her superstructure was enlarged to accommodate 140 troops. Ultimately 32 four-pipers were so converted. They proved extremely useful in the Pacific during World War Two and saw arduous service. Wartime APD armament was 3 x 3in/50 dual-purpose guns, 2 x 40mm Bofors AA guns (twin), 4 or 5 x 20mm AA, 2 x DC racks and 2 x DC throwers.

USS Crosby (ADP-17; formerly DD-164) of the Wickes Class after conversion to a fast transport in 1943 (Naval Heritage & History Command)

Other four-pipers were converted into light minelayers (DM; 8 units), high-speed minesweepers (DMS; 18 units) or light seaplane tenders (AVP; 14 units). For all these conversions the torpedo tubes were removed and the original 4in guns were replaced by a variable number of 3in/50 DP guns, backed up by 40mm and 20mm light AA. As with the APD conversions, DC racks and throwers were fitted, one boiler was removed and one or two funnels were suppressed.

Just prior to America’s entry in World War II the Navy decided to refit another 37 four-pipers as antisubmarine escorts. They retained their destroyer designation but like the other converted ships they gave up a boiler and one funnel to increase fuel stowage, reducing speed to 24–25 knots. The planned armament was 6 x 3in/50 DP, six x 20mm AA, 2 x DC racks and 6 x DC throwers, the latter replacing two of the four triple TT. The last ten conversions, however, retained their original 4in guns.

In 1940 fifty of the surviving four-pipers (20 "Clemsons," 27 "Wickes," 3 "Caldwells") were transferred to Britain’s Royal Navy (RN) in exchange for 99-year leases on naval and air bases in British Atlantic and Caribbean colonies. Some were never commissioned in the RN, being cannibalized to keep others operational. Those commissioned received names of towns and cities common to both the US and the UK and were known as the “Town” class. Most were refitted with a British-style bridge and conn; typical armament was 1 x 4in forward, 1 x 12-pounder HA aft, 4 x 20mm AA, 3 x 21in TT (1 x triple mount), 2 x DC racks and a Hedgehog antisubmarine mortar. They were not particular popular with the RN, being considered  cramped and hard to maneuver, but they filled the gap at a time when British-built antisubmarine escorts were in short supply. A number of the British four-pipers were re-transferred to the Red Navy in 1944 to cover Soviet claims for a share of the surrendered Italian fleet; they were returned when equivalent Italian ships were delivered.

HMS Roxborough (I07), the former USS Foote (DD-169) after conversion to an escort destroyer in 1940 (Imperial War Museum)

The most famous of the British four-pipers was HMS Campbeltown (I42), formerly USS Buchanan (DD-131) of the "Wickes" class, which served as the centerpiece of Operation Chariot (28 March 1942). This was a joint attack by the Royal Navy and the Combined Operations organization, whose objective was to destroy St. Nazaire's  Normandie dry dock on the Atlantic coast of occupied France, thus preventing the German Navy from basing any large ships in the area. Campbeltown was stripped of most of her fittings, her appearance was altered to resemble a German torpedo boat and her bow was packed with 4.5 tons of high explosive. The idea was to ram the ship into the dry dock under cover of a commando raid, with the explosives timed to detonate after the raiding force was withdrawn. The operation was a success, though the cost was high, and the Normandie dry dock was put out of operation for the rest of the war.

A German photo showing HMS Campbeltown after ramming Normandie dry dock, before the explosives aboard detonated (Bundesarchiv)

Though they were old by 1941 and far less capable than the latest USN destroyers, the four-pipers gave good and sometimes valiant service in a multiplicity of roles. One, USS Reuben James (DD-245), was the US Navy’s first World War II casualty. She was torpedoed by the German U-552 near Iceland on 23 October 1941 while serving on escort duty. Of her crew of 143, only 44 enlisted sailors survived. 

Another four-piper, USS Ward (DD-139), fired the first shot of the war with Japan. At about 0400 on the morning of 7 December 1941, while on patrol off the entrance to Pearl Harbor, Ward received word of a periscope sighting from the minesweeper USS Condor. The destroyer immediately commenced a search. At 0637 lookouts sighted the periscope of a submarine that appeared to be tailing a cargo ship inbound to Pearl Harbor. Ward opened fire with her 4in guns, scoring at least one hit, then ran in and dropped depth charges, sinking what proved to be a Japanese midget submarine. Ward was subsequently converted into a fast transport, being recommissioned in February 1943 as ADP-16 and sent back to the Pacific. On 7 December 1944, while patrolling off the Leyte (Philippines) invasion area, she was attacked by several Japanese Kamikaze aircraft, one of which struck her. The resulting fire could not be controlled and after her crew was taken off, USS Ward was sunk by gunfire from the destroyer USS O'Brien—whose captain, Commander William W. Outerbridge, had been the captain of the Ward on 7 December 1941.

At the beginning of the war many four-pipers were still serving as fleet destroyers. For example, thirteen were with Destroyer Squadron (DESRON) 29 in the Asiatic Fleet, based at Manila Bay, the Philippines. DESRON 29 had four destroyer divisions (DESDIV), each with four destroyers, plus a squadron flagship. Shortly after hostilities began, the commander of the Asiatic Fleet ordered a retreat to the Malay Barrier, and in that area DESRON 29 fought several actions. On 20 January USS Edsall (DESDIV 57) sank the Japanese submarine I-124 while on escort duty near Darwin, Australia. DESDIV 59’s four destroyers (John D. Ford, Parrott, Paul Jones and Pope) scored a neat success on 23 January, conducting a textbook night torpedo attack against a Japanese invasion force off Balikpapan. Four transports and a patrol vessel were sunk; in return only Ford was slightly damaged. But the Battle of the Java Sea and subsequent actions proved to be the Asiatic Fleet’s swan song. Of the four-pipers, four were sunk and one, Stewart, was damaged then captured by the Japanese while in drydock. After being repaired and rearmed, she was commissioned in the Imperial Japanese Navy as No. 102. She survived the war and was returned to the USN after Japan’s surrender, ultimately being expended as a target. The eight survivors of DESRON 29 returned to the US for conversion to escort destroyers, afterwards serving in the Atlantic.

With the end of the war the four-pipers passed into history. Most were decommissioned and scrapped in 1945-47; none survive today. Manned largely by Reserve crews from 1942 onward they had served the Navy well in many roles, vital if not usually heroic. But the most famous four-piper of all was one that never existed in reality: USS Caine (DMS-22), Lieutenant Commander Philip Francis Queeg commanding. The Caine was the principal setting for Herman Wouk’s great novel of the US Navy in World War II, The Caine Mutiny. Wouk, a Navy veteran of the war, had served aboard USS Zane (DMS-14) and USS Southhard (DMS-10). Like the fictional Caine both were four-pipers converted into destroyer-minesweepers. Lest we forget...

USS Zane (DMS-14), one of the two four-pipers that served as models for the fictional USS Caine (Naval Heritage & History Command)

The officers of the USS Caine (DMS-22), from the 1954 Columbia Productions film of Herman Wouk's novel. From left to right: Fred MacMurray as Lieutenant Keefer, Humphrey Bogart as Captain Queeg, Robert Francis as Ensign Keith and Van Johnson as Lieutenant Maryk.

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"Clemson" Class Destroyer Characteristics

(As Designed)

Displacement: 1,215 tons (normal); 1,308 tons (full load)

Length: 314 feet, 4.5 inches

Beam: 30 feet, 11.5 inches

Propulsion: 4 × boilers, 2 x geared steam turbines (27,600 horsepower) 2 x shafts

Speed: 35 knots maximum, practical sea speed 32 knots

Endurance: 4,500 nautical miles at 15 knots

Crew: 8 x officer, 8 x chief petty officer, 106 x enlisted

Armament: 4 x 4-inch/50-caliber guns, 2 x 1-pounder AA guns, 12 x 21-inch TT (four triple mounts)


Two ships were completed with four twin 4in instead of four single 4in gun mounts, and five with 5in instead of 4in guns. The 1-pounder AA guns were soon replaced by a 3-inch/23-caliber AA gun. Ships completed in time for World War I received a Y-gun (DC thrower), mounted between the bridge and the forward 4in gun, and DC racks aft. In some ships the after 4in gun was removed and replaced by the smaller 3in AA gun to compensate for the added weight of the DC racks, and to provide additional storage space for DCs

Organizational Diagram

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