Preserving San Diego's Naval Heritage


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100 Year Anniversary
A Class of Ship
Like None Before It
- The “Destroyer”

The American Navy Greyhound

Fast, powerful with sleek lines led to a new class of ship being nicknamed "Tin cans" and the “Greyhounds of the sea.” Destroyers would play an important role in the world and San Diego’s naval heritage. Unlike other ships they had no direct predecessor. Ships-of- the-line became battleships while cruisers traced their heritage to the frigates of the time and aircraft carriers were built from colliers and battle cruisers, but there was nothing similar to the destroyer.

Destroyers were the answer to a new threat that had made a devastating debut in the Chilean Civil War of 1891 and the Sino-Japanese War of 1894. The threats were the quick and agile torpedo boats capable of rushing in close to larger ships, fire their torpedoes and rapidly exit the area.

Torpedo boats became great threats due to the Whitehead torpedo, a self-propelled torpedo that was an evolutionary step from the American Civil War where passive floating mines were used, then called torpedoes. Early torpedoes required the attacking ship to be in extremely close quarters with the enemy, posing considerable risk to the attacker. British Engineer Robert Whitehead developed the self-propelled torpedo making it and the torpedo boats a considerable threat. Nations responded to the threat by using this technology and building their own torpedo boats. By 1890 there were over 1,000 torpedo boats throughout the world and the US was about to launch their first.

Torpedo boats were considered a major threat and the navies of the world set out to defend against them. In 1884 Capitan de Navio Fernando Villaamil was appointed the second officer in the Ministry of the Spanish Navy and was tasked with the design of a new class of warship intended to fight the then new torpedo boats. Once he reached a conclusion, he chose the J & G Thomson shipyards in Clydebank, Scotland, to build the new vessel. On January 19, 1887, the DESTRUCTOR, the first torpedo boat destroyer, was turned over to the Spanish Navy, with great expectations from the European naval community. Twenty-four hours after leaving Falmouth England, the DESTRUCTOR reached the Spanish coast, making 18 knots through a stormy Bay of Biscay. The ships new design and functions were so different from any past man-of-war, many thought it couldn’t survive at sea. In one day the doubts about the vessel's seaworthiness were answered forever, and her designer and commander had every reason to feel proud.

Their success was immediate, other countries took notice and so did Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt. In an 1898 report from the Naval War Board, headed up by the assistant secretary, he commented that the Spanish torpedo-boat destroyers offered the only real menace to us and recommended immediate procurement. With the threat looming over the horizon and a conflict with the Spanish seeming eminent congress approved 16 new ships to be developed. The US Navy started to develop it’s own class, the Bainbridge class but it was 1902 before any were completed. Six destroyers were commissioned before the lead ship Bainbridge DD-1 was commissioned with three more commissioned in 1902. The last six were commissioned the following year. The destroyers bore the names of valiant Sailors like, Decatur, Perry, Truxton, Whipple, Dale, Chauncey, Bainbridge, Barry, Stewart, Hopkins, and Paul Jones just to name a few.

By World War I American destroyers were much improved over the Bainbridge class. Destroyers combined with their Sailor’s capabilities led to new missions -  becoming escorts, submarine hunters and then they were mounted with 3-inch anti-aircraft guns. In 250 battles with German submarines, the valiant Sailors and small ships laid the groundwork for modern antisubmarine warfare. They had guarded the trans-Atlantic crossing of two million men without the loss of a single life. By the end of the war the U.S. had the largest destroyer fleet in the world, but the Disarmament Treaty of 1922 caused more than 200 of these valiant ships to be decommissioned while 40 more were scrapped.

The US had been preparing for the disarmament treaty and in 1921 Commander H. N. Jenson, the commanding officer of USS Prairie, a destroyer tender, was ordered to San Diego and directed to prepare the site for receipt of World War I destroyers scheduled for decommissioning. With a stroke of a pen, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. signed General Order 78 and U.S. Destroyer Base San Diego was created February 23, 1922.

The U.S. Destroyer Base was home for active, reserve and mothballed destroyers and also served as a fleet repair facility. No new destroyers were built from 1921 through 1934 and in 1933 Captain Nimitz, then Commanding Officer of the Destroyer Base, almost submitted a recommendation to close the base.
US Navy Destroyer Base 1923
San Diego, California

US Navy Photo

With the rise of Adolph Hitler in Germany in the early 1930s, authorizations began for the rebuilding of the American destroyer forces. By the mid thirties Sailors and the destroyer had blended together so well that the ships missions were virtually blurred by the myriad of duties they performed.

Forty-five new destroyers were authorized for the last half of the decade. With a change in designations in the Fleet, the destroyers were established as Destroyer Squadron, Scouting Force, U.S. Fleet and from October 1, 1937, to July 3, 1940, units of this squadron were transferred continually to the Pacific Fleet.

By the early 1940’s newly commissioned destroyers could be seen sporting 5” dual-purpose guns capable of surface and anti-aircraft fire, 20mm and 40mm anti-aircraft guns, quintuple mounts of 21” torpedoes, depth charge projectors, displacing 2100 tons and capable of speeds in excess of 35 knots. Quick, sleek and accurate; the destroyer was the ship of choice. “The Little Beavers,” as DESRON 23 was known, and led by “31 Knot” Arleigh Burke in the South Pacific demonstrated that American Destroyers could fight with superior skill at night. Something that was the trademark of the Japanese till 1943.

On November 25, 1943 at 0141 “The Little Beavers” made contact with the enemy. In less than three hours “The Little Beavers” had sunk three Japanese destroyers, damaged a fourth and to use Captain Burke’s word, “one, regrettably, got a way.” The Japanese no longer would be comfortable at night for the remainder of the war.

Destroyers fought the submarines to a standstill on both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. As before, the destroyers performed so well at so many different task, they even became key players in amphibious assaults. They engaged submarines, airplanes and shore batteries with equal fervor. Their accurate gunfire support blasting pillboxes, rifle pits and tanks gained the heartfelt appreciation of the Marines and Soldiers fighting on the land.

As after WWI, the end of WWII saw the Navy mustering out Sailors and ships alike. It would be several years before that many men and ships would be needed again. And when they were, the destroyer and the destroyer men were there. In Korea they proved invaluable with the shallow draft of the destroyer, they were able to gain a close beach position and deliver superbly accurate gunfire support. Destroyers rendered invaluable aid at Inchon and for Fast Carrier Task Force 77’s air operations. They patrolled the Formosa Straights and the Mediterranean, wherever they were might find aggression.

Today's destroyers carry on their proud tradition and the U.S. Destroyer Base is now known as Naval Base San Diego and is the principle homeport for the U.S. Pacific Fleet. The base was once the retirement home for aged "tin can" destroyers. Now it is a U.S. Navy mega port, essentially providing the life-energy for our most modern amphibious ships, guided missile cruisers and destroyers bearing the names of valiant Sailors like John Paul Jones, Decatur, McCain, Kinkaid, Stethem, Oldendorf. O'brien, Cushing, Lassen and Howard, to name less than half of the Pacific Fleet “Greyhounds of the sea.”




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Last modified: June 26, 2003


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