|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
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
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
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.
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.”