Destroyer Squadron 21
By Ernest A. Herr
As it was in 1943, picture taken from Nicholas showing O'Bannon, Chevelier and Taylor.
Stories of destroyer squadrons rarely make the news and the name of one usually means little to the general public. This occurs usually because the squadron designation or identification is used by naval commanders and after a short period of time the squadron is either dissolved, destroyed or its ships attached to other units. Not so for Destroyer Squadron 21, its name would endure long enough to make it into the history books.
Initially more widely known by the name Cactus Striking Force, it became one of the most celebrated naval forces in the Guadalcanal area, mainly because it endured. When the island of Guadalcanal was secured, it fought its way up the remaining islands in the Solomons until they too were in American hands. But, in the battle of Vella Lavella, the squadron took such heavy losses that it could go no further and Destroyer squadrons 22 and 23 finished off the last island and held until relief forces finally arrived.
Listed here to honor their memory, are all of the ships of that force with special respect for those ships lost early in the conflict with heavy casualties and therefore with few survivors to keep the memory of their memory alive.
The considerable amount of effort required to put this story together was expended by naval historian David McComb who surely qualifies as the most knowledgeable source of Destroyer Squadron 21 information. Since Dave hadn't yet made his presence in the world at the time the squadron was formed, he was unable to be present at the birth of the squadron. Those of us who were there know that at least he was there with us in spirit.
The record of Destroyer Squadron 21 in World War II — twelve of the most battle tested ships in United States naval history — reflected the entire conduct of the war in the Pacific from Guadalcanal in late 1942 through the Allied victory and repatriation of prisoners-of-war in 1945.
Ten destroyers—six built at Bath Iron Works, Bath, Maine and four from Shipbuilding and Drydock Co., Kearny, New Jersey—were commissioned at the rate of three per month beginning on June 4, 1942, the same day as the Battle of Midway. The first of 175 units of the 2100-ton Fletcher class—which proved to be one of the most successful all-around destroyer designs of World War II—they were all sent to Guadalcanal, where they went into combat on arrival.
In 1943, after the last-built among them was lost, the remaining ships — the first nine Fletchers commissioned — were formed into DesRon 21. Their ensuing records — and the records of the two replacement ships that joined the squadron later — reflected the varying fortunes of war:
Two were nicknamed “Lucky … ” while two others were lost before they acquired any nickname. Two of the six Bath-built ships (O’Bannon and Taylor) lost no men killed throughout the war; one (Nicholas) lost only two. The other three (DeHaven, Strong and Chevalier) were all sunk in 1943 with heavy loss of life. All four Federal - built ships (Fletcher, Radford, Jenkins and La Vallette) survived that year, but then sustained damage and took casualties in 1945. Two more ships (Hopewell and Ross) joined the squadron in 1944; both were damaged and lost men.
Four DesRon 21 ships (O’Bannon, Nicholas, Fletcher and Taylor) were among the nine destroyers navy-wide that earned 15 or more battle stars in World War II. All seven of the original squadron’s survivors earned ten or more stars (see chart at right) for an average of fourteen stars, a pace matched by the other ships when in service.
A great strength was the intensity and dedication of their crews. “Each old sailor cherishes his own private inner shrine that is filled with the memories of those great old guys he knew so long ago,” wrote Al Grimes of the Strong. “They did what was needed when it was needed, regardless of the hours and risk—and it was no big deal. Each of us knew many like this; they were everywhere.”
While three ships (Radford, Nicholas and O’Bannon) were awarded individual Presidential Unit Citations and one (Taylor) a Navy Unit Commendation, all their crews were deserving and all could take pride in their collective accomplishments.
They were the first heavyweights—the Nicholas, O’Bannon, Fletcher, Chevalier, Radford, Jenkins, Strong, La Vallette, Taylor, and DeHaven were the first ships of the big new Fletcher class to be launched, commissioned and sent off to war. Admired for their speed, advanced weapons systems and rakish design, the arrival of these first 2100 tonners in the “SoPac” was a big boost to the naval war effort. As a result, there developed an esprit de corps among the officers and men, both for their own ships and for their squadron.
The first three Fletchers—the Nicholas, O’Bannon and Fletcher—arrived at Guadalcanal as convoy escorts in the fall of 1942. Due to the desperate shortage of ships there, they were not organized into a division, but assigned individually to cope with the exigencies of the moment. Then as the others appeared, they were combined into the “Cactus Striking Force” (Cactus was the code name for Guadalcanal), which became DesRon 21, with the Nicholas as flagship.
The DeHaven, Strong and Chevalier were lost in 1943 and the La Vallette and O’Bannon went home early for repairs, but the surviving ships returned to California for refit late that year. Later, even as the addition of the Hopewell and Ross brought squadron strength back up to nine ships, five were damaged in the Philippines and one off Borneo, which left only three to serve out the war before returning home.
The ten original ships arrived in the South Pacific to face an adversary with torpedoes and night fighting tactics so advanced that their flag officers—Callaghan, Wright, Briscoe, McInerney, Ryan and Ainsworth — did not at first appreciate the threat. The torpedo was a destroyer’s most potent weapon, but American torpedoes at the time were faulty — they tended to run too deep and their exploders fired prematurely if at all — while Japanese torpedoes not only worked reliably but packed a more explosive punch, ran much faster and farther, and even could be reloaded during battle. As for tactics, American destroyers were initially mixed in columns with cruisers, which prevented them from striking effectively or evading independently.
For crewmembers aboard in 1942 and ’43, before reinforcements arrived and before their own tactics and equipment could be refined by battle experience, it seemed only a matter of time until their own ship would be the one blown out of the water by a more numerous and better equipped enemy, like so many others they all had seen. Every destroyer screened convoys, bombarded shore targets and was shot at from land, sea and air. Privately, every man in his own individual way had to face standing out into “Ironbottom Sound” or probing up “the Slot,” where pure luck — more than gallantry or preparedness — would determine which ships would be sunk and which ones would survive. At times they did this nightly without sleep, with only the effectiveness of their radar and guns to save them from much more severe losses.
Eventually, the peril they faced at Guadalcanal and New Georgia translated to tactics that Moosebrugger, Merrill and Burke’s DesRon 23 — armed at last with torpedoes that worked—applied with devastating effect in the northern Solomon Islands. As the enemy found himself matched and then surpassed in effectiveness, cut off from resources, and eventually overwhelmed by force of numbers, he turned his tactics from stealth to suicide. In response, ships were refitted to counter the changing threat and sent back out to meet it.
The overall costs were great: DesRon 21 ships were torpedoed three times, mined four times, and hit four times by shore batteries, with a total of 372 crewmembers killed and many more wounded. But the benefits were also great: they sank or helped sink ten submarines and numerous surface ships, shot down many dozens of aircraft, and rescued more than 1,800 sailors and downed airmen. Meanwhile, the Navy assimilated their experiences into destroyer doctrine, culminating in deadly torpedo attacks by DesRons 24 and 54 at Surigao Strait that helped sink two battleships in less than an hour.
“The record of the Nicholas is in a sense the record of one entire phase of the Pacific war,” said Admiral Nimitz in 1944. Her unwritten record also reflected the spectrum of wartime experiences aboard a destroyer. There were horrifying moments: the torpedoes that passed below without hitting, the bombs that narrowly missed and the splinters that penetrated metal in the Solomons found sequels in the kamikaze that clipped only the radar and the typhoon that brought green water crashing over the bridge.
But there were also good times: the Esther Williams movies on the foredeck or the fantail, the monkey smuggled aboard that escaped up the mast, the baseball games and the “steak break” with the hospital ship nurses in Subic Bay, the ice cream that came over from the Yorktown in return for downed pilots.
For all the ships of DesRon 21, there was always the tropical heat, the boredom of day-to-day life far from home, the never-ending tasks such as chipping paint only to paint it over again, replenishment, gunnery drill, and spam. Perhaps only two aspects of these ships’ histories were dissimilar to those of other contemporary destroyers: that none of them was seriously damaged or sunk by a kamikaze, and that the three luckiest of them were given the place of honor in the vanguard of the ships entering Tokyo Bay to end the war. Even as that day approached, however, their crews were preoccupied with normal shipboard duties and thinking about going home, hardly noticing whether anyone was taking photographs or recording their ships’ names for posterity.
Admiral Halsey’s perspective was different. "The history of the Pacific war can never be written without telling the story of the USS O’Bannon,” he wrote. “Time after time the O’Bannon and her gallant little sisters were called upon to turn back the enemy. They never disappointed me … .”
Perhaps, as he looked out from his flagship Missouri on the day Japan agreed to surrender, he was thinking ahead to the morning two weeks later when he would enter Tokyo Bay. Close aboard (see photo): the Nicholas, O’Bannon and Taylor, three DesRon 21 veterans remaining at sea; the ships he had chosen to escort him there.
USS NICHOLAS, DD 449 (flagship) DAMAGED IN ACTION — Built at Bath Iron Works, Bath, Maine and first commissioned June 4, 1942, the first unit of the Fletcher class. Chosen by Admiral Halsey along with the O’Bannon and Taylor to escort his flagship Missouri into Tokyo Bay for the surrender of Japan. Surface engagements included Kula Gulf and Kolombangara. Shore bombardments included Solomon Islands, Philippines and Borneo. Sank submarines I-11 and I-37. In the air attack at Guadalcanal that sank the DeHaven, sustained steering gear and shrapnel damage with two crewmembers killed. With Radford, was awarded Presidential Unit Citation for rescue of cruiser Helena survivors at Kula Gulf. Earned 16 stars during World War II (later 5 for Korea and 9 for Vietnam for a total of 30 — the highest known career total for any American warship). WWII crew’s nickname: the “Nick.” Radio call letters NCGA.
DAMAGED IN ACTION
USS O’BANNON, DD 450 — Built alongside the Nicholas at Bath and first commissioned June 26, 1942, the second unit of the class. During the Battle of Guadalcanal, became one of the few destroyers in history to survive a one-on-one duel with a battleship. Other surface engagements included Kula Gulf, Kolombangara, and Vella Lavella, where she rammed the stricken Chevalier, damaging her bow, then rescued crewmembers. Returned to the States for repairs. With the Nicholas and Taylor, escorted the Missouri into Tokyo Bay in August, 1945. Sank submarine RO-34 and helped sink RO-115. No crewmembers were lost throughout the war. Awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for her yearlong action in the Solomons and earned 17 battle stars, highest total for any destroyer during World War II (later 3 for Korea). WWII crew’s nickname: “Lucky Mike”; later “Potato Barge.” Radio call letters NUJC.
DAMAGED IN ACTION
USS FLETCHER, DD 445 — Built at Federal Shipyard and Drydock, Kearney, New Jersey and first commissioned June 30, 1942, the third unit of the class. Last in line and the only undamaged American ship at the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. Led van destroyers at the Battle of Tassafaronga and afterward rescued survivors of the cruiser Northampton. With aircraft, sank submarine RO-102. Hit by shore batteries while escorting minesweepers off Corregidor, with 6 crewmembers killed. Returned to the west coast for overhaul, and was exercising there when the war ended. Earned 15 battle stars during World War II (later 5 for Korea). World War II crew’s nickname: “Lucky 13.” Radio call letters NEBG.
LOST IN ACTION
USS CHEVALIER, DD 451 — Built at Bath and commissioned July 20, 1942, the fourth unit of the class. Initially assigned to convoy duty in the Atlantic, then screened reinforcements for the “Operation Torch” landings in North Africa. Arrived in the Pacific in late January, 1943, where she participated in many operations in the New Georgia campaign. Intentionally rammed the Strong off Munda to take off crewmembers before that ship sank. Was torpedoed by Japanese destroyer Yugumo and then rammed by the O’Bannon during the Battle of Vella Lavella, losing 54 crewmembers. The O’Bannon rescued the remaining crewmembers; then the La Vallette intentionally sank her to prevent capture. Earned 3 battle stars before she was lost. World War II crew’s nickname: the “Chevy.” Other ships’ nickname: “Fighting French Cruiser.”
DAMAGED IN ACTION
USS RADFORD, DD 446 — Built alongside the Fletcher at Kearny and first commissioned July 22, 1942, the fifth unit of the class. Initially assigned to antisubmarine patrols in the Atlantic, then fought her way through the Solomons campaign, including Kula Gulf and Kolombangara, without casualties. First ship in the navy to shoot down a plane at night without ever having seen it, using full radar control. Sank submarines RO-101 and I-19. In 1945, hit a mine while trying to take the La Vallette in tow after she was mined off Manila Bay, with 3 men killed. Returned to the west coast for repairs and was still there when the war ended. With the Nicholas, awarded Presidential Unit Citation for rescue of cruiser Helena survivors at Kula Gulf. Earned 12 battle stars during World War II (later 5 for Korea, 5 for Vietnam). Radio call letters NCFX.
DAMAGED IN ACTION
USS JENKINS, DD 447 — Built at Kearney and first commissioned July 31, 1942, the sixth unit of the class. Screened the bombardment force during the “Operation Torch” landings in North Africa, then ordered to the Pacific. Participated in the New Georgia campaign including the Battles of Kula Gulf and Kolombangara. With other ships, sank submarine RO-115. In 1944, hit by a shore battery off Luzon but was repaired in three weeks. In 1945, hit a mine off Borneo with 1 man killed and had to return to the west coast for repairs, which were not yet completed when the war ended. Earned 14 battle stars during World War II (later 1 for Korea). Radio call letters NEKY.
LOST IN ACTION
USS STRONG, DD 467 — Built alongside the Chevalier at Bath and commissioned August 7, 1942, the seventh unit of the class. Arrived in the Solomons in February 1943 and participated in the New Georgia campaign. Torpedoed by Japanese destroyer at a range of more than 12,000 yards, one of the longest torpedo shots of the war, while shelling the Japanese airfield at Munda. The Chevalier intentionally rammed the Strong’s bow and took off 241 men in seven minutes before she broke in half and sank while O’Bannon answered fire from shore batteries. Forty-six crewmembers were killed. Earned 2 battle stars before she was lost.
DAMAGED IN ACTION
USS La VALLETTE, DD 448 — Built alongside the Jenkins at Kearney and first commissioned August 12, 1942, the eighth unit of the class. Torpedoed in her first action of the war off Rennell Island, northwest of Guadalcanal, with 22 crewmembers killed during an air attack that also sank the heavy cruiser Chicago. Returned to the States and was completely repaired and returned in time for action at Vella Lavella, after which she scuttled the abandoned Chevalier. Struck a mine while screening minesweeping operations off Manila Bay, with 6 crewmembers killed. Returned to the States and was there when the war ended. Earned 10 battle stars during World War II. Radio call letters NIDL.
DAMAGED IN ACTION
USS TAYLOR, DD 468 — Built at Bath. First commissioned August 28, 1942, the same day as the Saufley, the ninth and tenth units of the class. Initially assigned to escort convoys in the Atlantic. Arrived in the Solomon Islands in January, 1943 and participated in many bombardments and engagements. Engaged at Kolombangara and took off crewmembers of the Selfridge after the Battle of Vella Lavella. Sank submarines I-25, I-5 and sustained her only damage of the war in ramming a midget sub. Lost no crewmembers during World War II. With the Nicholas and O’Bannon, escorted the Missouri into Tokyo Bay. Awarded a Navy Unit Commendation for the Solomon Islands campaign. Earned 15 battle stars during World War II (later 2 for Korea and 6 for Vietnam). World War II crew’s nickname: the “Terrible T.” Radio call letters NEXA.
LOST IN ACTION
USS DeHAVEN, DD 469 — Built at Bath and commissioned September 21, 1942, the twelfth unit of the class. Sunk south of Savo Island by Japanese aircraft with the loss of 167 crewmembers, ending the shortest operational career of any destroyer in World War II, while returning with the Nicholas and landing craft from a landing on the west side of Guadalcanal. Earned one battle star.
DAMAGED IN ACTION
USS HOPEWELL, DD 681 — Built at Bethlehem, San Pedro, California and first commissioned September 30, 1943, the same day as the Hailey, Remey and The Sullivans, the 112th–115th units of the class. Arrived in the Solomons in March 1944 as a replacement ship. Supported landings in New Guinea, then served in the Philippines campaign. Hit four times at Corregidor by 6-inch shore batteries, with a loss of 17 crewmembers. Was repaired on the west coast and returned to the western Pacific as the war ended. Earned 9 battle stars during World War II (later 4 for Korea). Radio call letters NJUI.
DAMAGED IN ACTION
USS ROSS, DD 563 — Built at Seattle-Tacoma, Washington and first commissioned February 21, 1944, the 154th unit of the class. Arrived off Saipan in June 1944, then participated in the invasion of the Philippines. In October 1944 at Leyte, after only five months in the war zone, she struck two mines in quick succession losing 23 crewmembers killed, but survived in an extraordinary demonstration of durability and damage control. Was repaired on the west coast, then returned to the western Pacific as the war ended. Earned 5 battle stars during World War II. Radio call letters NWDZ.
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Top picture from Naval Historical Center - Photographic Section