Gallant Leadership and Courageous Conduct Under Fire – The Story of the USS Duncan DD 485 in 1942

In February 1942, the Navy was desperate for fighting ships.

From the attack at Pearl Harbor to the battles that stretched across the Pacific, years of neglect in building an adequate amount of combat vessels was being felt in every theater. Shipyards were being pushed to finish the ships that were authorized a year before and get them out to the fleet. So an announcement on February 19th about the launching of two destroyers at the Kearney NJ shipyard was probably welcome news to a country that was already getting tired of hearing about losses and defeats. The USS Duncan and USS Lansdowne and DD 485 and DD 486 were Livermore Class destroyers.

Interesting note about the class name:

The Gleaves-class destroyers were a class of 66 destroyers of the United States Navy built 1938–42, designed by Gibbs & Cox. The first ship of the class was USS Gleaves. They were the production destroyer of the US Navy when it entered World War II.

The Gleaves class were initially specified as part of a 24-ship Benson class authorized in fiscal years 1938–40; however, Bethlehem Shipbuilding requested that the six ships designed by them use less complex machinery. Initially, Gleaves and Niblack, although designed by Gibbs & Cox and built by Bath Iron Works, were to follow the Benson design.

This temporarily made Livermore the lead ship with more complex machinery, so the class was initially called the Livermore class, and this name persisted through World War II.

However, it soon proved possible for Gleaves and Niblack to be built to the Livermore design. Since Gleaves was completed before Livermore and had a lower hull number, the class is more correctly the Gleaves class. Eighteen of these were commissioned in 1940–41. The remaining 48 “repeat Gleaveses” were authorized in 1940–42. These plus the 24 “repeat Bensons” were also known at the time as the Bristol class, after USS Bristol. During World War II the Bensons were usually combined with the Livermores (more correctly the Gleaves class) as the Benson-Livermore class; this persisted in references until at least the 1960s. The classes are now called the Benson-Gleaves class. In some references both classes are combined and called the Benson class. The Benson- and Gleaves-class destroyers were the backbone of the pre-war Neutrality Patrols and brought the action to the enemy by participating in every major naval campaign of the war.

Duncan and Lansdowne Launched February 20, 1942

The two ships that were launched nearly side by side on the same day would have very different outcomes.

In fact, they only shared one common mission once they were finished and joined the Pacific war. This is their story:

In a brief but gallant career, USS Duncan (DD 485) carried on the fighting reputation of her namesake, Commander Silas Duncan. Before being sunk by crossfire from Japanese warships during the surface engagement off Cape Esperance on 11–12 October 1942, Duncan’s gunfire and torpedoes contributed to the destruction of an enemy cruiser.

Duncan II (DD-485)

(DD-485: dp. 1,620; l. 348’4″; b. 36’1″; dr. 11’10”; s. 35 k.; cpl. 208; a. 4 5″, 5 21″ tt.; cl. Benson)

Silas Duncan born in Rockaway, N.J., in 1788, was appointed midshipman 15 November 1809. While third lieutenant of Saratoga during the Battle of Lake Champlain, 11 September 1814, he was sent in a gig to order the gunboats to retire. He succeeded in delivering the orders despite concentrated enemy fire which severely wounded him and caused the loss of his right arm. For his gallant conduct he was thanked by Congress. From 1818 to 1824 Commander Duncan saw active service on board Independence, Hornet, Guerriere, Cyane, and Ferret. He died 14 September 1834 at White Sulphur Springs, W. Va.

The second Duncan (DD-485) was launched 20 February 1942 by Federal Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Co., Kearny, N.J.; sponsored by Mrs. Dorothy Clark Taylor, first cousin three times removed of Commander Silas Duncan.

USS Duncan (DD 485) was the second ship honoring Commander Duncan. The first Duncan (DD 46) was authorized by Congress on 4 March 1911 and launched on 5 April 1913. DD 46 remained with the Fleet until March 1935, when she was scrapped in accordance with the London treaty for the limitation and reduction of Naval Armaments.

On 16 April 1942, USS Duncan (DD 485) was placed in commission at the New York Navy Yard and Lieutenant Commander Edmund B. Taylor, USN, became the ship’s first and only Commanding Officer. (More about Taylor at the end of this post)

A destroyer of the Livermore Class (see introduction on class name confusion), USS Duncan (DD 485) was built by the Federal Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company at Kearny, New Jersey, where her keel was laid on 31 July I941. The sleek new destroyer was launched on 20 February 1942.

Because of the acute need of destroyers in early 1942, Duncan was hurriedly outfitted for sea and by 30 April was ready for her shakedown exercises.

Throughout most of May and June, Duncan rushed through training, had post-shakedown availability, and on 24 June, got underway from Hampton Roads, Virginia as escort ship for a convoy bound for Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Duncan sailed from New York on 20 June 1942 for the South Pacific

 

Arriving on 28 June, the ship was released from convoy duty and two days later steamed independently for the Canal Zone, anchoring at Cristobal on 2 July.

Throughout July and early August, Duncan continued escorting various convoys between Guantánamo Bay and Cristobal. Aside from occasional submarine contacts, the long hours passed slowly. However, since the majority of Duncan’s crew were untrained, a rigorous training program was inaugurated, and drills, drills, and more drills prepared Duncan’s green crew for the days ahead.

By mid-April, Duncan bid “adieu” to convoy duty in the South Atlantic and transited the Panama Canal, anchoring in Balboa Harbor.

On 22 August, the destroyer, in company with USS South Dakota, Lansdowne and Lardner steamed into the Pacific bound for Espiritu Santo Island, via Tongatabu Island in the Friendly Island Group.

Duncan was in the screen of Wasp (CV-7) next day when the task force was attacked by two Japanese submarines. Wasp was torpedoed, and so severely damaged that she had to be sunk by United States ships. Duncan picked up survivors from the carrier, transferring 701 officers and men to other ships, and 18 wounded and 2 bodies to the base hospital at Espiritu Santo upon her arrival 16 September.

Note: The USS Lansdowne DD 486 was launched on the same day as her sister ship Duncan. Her story:

Arriving Nukuʻalofa Bay on 6 September, the destroyer Lansdowne joined Task Force 18 (TF 18), under Rear Admiral Leigh Noyes aboard the aircraft carrier Wasp. On 15 September 1942, Wasp was torpedoed and heavily damaged by gasoline fires. Lansdowne narrowly avoided one of the submarine Type 95 torpedoes that missed Wasp and later hit the battleship North Carolina. Lansdowne rescued 447 of Wasp’s crew when the burning carrier was abandoned. As the remainder of (TF 18) moved on, Admiral Noyes ordered Lansdowne to sink Wasp and stand by the carrier until she was sunk. Lansdowne’s Mark 15 torpedoes had the same unrecognized flaws reported for the Mark 14 torpedo. The first torpedo was fired at a range of 1,000 yards (910 m) and set to run 15 feet (4.6 m) under Wasp’s keel for maximum damage with the magnetic influence exploder. When no result was observed from an apparently perfect wake, a second torpedo was fired at keel depth from a range of 800 yards (730 m). Once again, an apparently perfect shot produced no results; and Lansdowne had only three more torpedoes. Lansdowne’s torpedomen disabled the magnetic influence exploders and set depth at 10 feet (3.0 m). All three torpedoes detonated, but Wasp remained afloat in the orange flames of a burning pool of gasoline and oil. Lansdowne nervously zig-zagged silhouetted in the fire’s glow until Wasp sank by the bow at 2100.

Meanwhile, the Duncan joined TFs 17 and 18 and with them departed the same day to cover transports carrying the 7th Marine Regiment to reinforce Guadalcanal.

Guadalcanal

At Espiritu Santo, Duncan joined the fleet at a crucial time in the Guadalcanal campaign. Following the surface engagement in the eastern Solomons in mid-August 1942, no major action took place for a period of about six weeks. During those six weeks, however, the supply lines had to be kept open to Guadalcanal. Japanese submarines and aircraft were active in the vicinity, and by 13 September, enemy ground forces had been reinforced. In addition, by the end of September, Japanese fleet units had been assembled to the northward, and the situation was serious. Reinforcements to the Marines was now becoming a necessity, even though made in the face of enemy naval and air superiority.

As a preliminary, carrier planes attacked enemy shipping in the northern Solomons and Duncan, acting as plane guard, took part in the strikes. By early October, a clash with enemy surface units appeared imminent, and U.S. naval forces were disposed in three groups. One was built around the carrier Hornet, to the westward of Guadalcanal, a second, to the eastward of Malaita Island included the new battleship Washington, and the third, (Task Group 64), composed of cruisers and destroyers under the command of the late Rear Admiral Norman Scott, was stationed south of Guadalcanal pending developments. Stationed in the anti-submarine screen of this force, Duncan kept a sharp lookout for the “Tokyo Express,” or ships bringing in reinforcements for the Japanese ground forces.

On the afternoon of 11 October, enemy forces were reported in the “Slot” between Choiseul Island and the New Georgia Group, headed for Guadalcanal. Admiral Scott immediately steamed northward with his force, which rounded the northwest tip of the island, about two hours before midnight.

At 2308, unidentified objects appeared on Duncan’s radar scope. Following a left turn by the force the contacts now came in clear, bearing on the starboard bow at a distance of 8,000 yards.

Within the next few minutes, an enemy ship was sighted off Duncan’s starboard bow and the entire battle line opened fire. At least two shells crashed into the vessel, now identified as a Japanese cruiser, and she appeared to be almost dead in the water. Taken by surprise, the enemy did not return the fire for nearly ten minutes, during which time the cruisers poured a murderous fire into the enemy force.

Duncan, at this stage while maneuvering to clear Helena’s line of fire, sighted a second large enemy warship off the starboard beam, which had not been brought under fire by US cruisers. In order to fire torpedoes, Duncan placed herself between the enemy ship, now identified as the heavy cruiser Aoba or a Japanese cruiser of a similar class, and her own battle line. In doing so she received a number of hits but fired one torpedo before a shell wrecked the torpedo director and wounded the torpedo officer. A second torpedo was fired by local control. Both torpedoes hit the target as two explosions were observed on the port side of the enemy cruiser, and following the second torpedo hit, the target was also hit by shells from the cruisers. Almost immediately, the Japanese cruiser crumbled in the middle, then rolled over and disappeared.

Duncan’s position, sitting in a crossfire between the opposing cruisers, now became desperate. In addition to the earlier hits in her number one fireroom and near the torpedo director, a shell exploded in the handling room of the number one gun, causing fires which rapidly got beyond control. Soon after the second torpedo was fired, another series of hits added to the devastation. One shell bursting in the chart house killed all the personnel, wrecked the chart house and blocked the passage from below. A second landed near the bridge, killing the machine gun battery officer and four men, one of whom was standing alongside the commanding officer. Another shell burst near the main radio, and another entered the plotting room, wrecking the communications throughout the ship.

Gradually the damaged destroyer, with the bridge enveloped in flame and steam, and steering control lost, cleared the line of fire and circled back from the battle area. As the flames around the bridge increased in intensity, the men gathered on the bridge level were ordered to jump into the water, the only avenue of escape. The commanding officer ordered the bridge, isolated by fire, abandoned by the only route possible, over the side, and the wounded were lowered into life rafts.

Meanwhile, the remaining crew members aboard the after part of the ship, and headed by Lt. Herbert Kabat, Engineering Officer, tried unsuccessfully to subdue the fires and to beach Duncan on Savo Island. Loss of steam pressure and explosions of ammunition frustrated these efforts, and finally the order to abandon ship was passed to all hands. About 0200 the last man left the ship.

Because of darkness, the survivors were forced to remain in the water during the early morning hours, but at daybreak the destroyer USS McCalla (DD 488), and planes dispatched from Guadalcanal, appeared on the scene to commence rescue operations.

The recovery of so many survivors was remarkable.

When the crew members, trapped in the bow and on the bridge, were forced by fire to drop into the water, Duncan still had considerable forward speed. And by the time the wounded were lowered into the water and the remaining survivors had jumped, individuals were scattered over a wide area. The majority were picked up in scattered groups of two or three and many were all alone.

Simultaneous with rescue operations, a salvage party from McCalla, headed by Ensign George B. Weems, USN, boarded the fire-gutted hulk and, in spite of strenuous efforts to save her, Duncan sank a few hours later, joining the host of ships lost in the fierce battles in “Iron Bottom Bay.”

McCalla (DD-488) rescued 195 men from the shark-infested waters and made an attempt to salvage Duncan but she sank on 12 October 1942, about 6 miles north of Savo Island.

The Commanding Officer of the Duncan, Commander Edmund B. Taylor, USN, was awarded a Navy Cross with the following citation:

“For extraordinary heroism as Commanding Officer of the USS Duncan during action against enemy Japanese naval forces off Savo Island on October 11, 1942. Although his ship had sustained heavy damage under hostile bombardment, Lieutenant Commander Taylor, by skillful maneuvering, successfully launched torpedoes which contributed to the destruction of a Japanese cruiser. Maintaining the guns of the Duncan in effective fire throughout the battle, he, when the vessel was finally put out of action, persistently employed to the fullest extent all possible measures to extinguish raging fires and control severe damage. His gallant leadership and courageous conduct under fire were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”

Duncan received one battle star for World War II service.

USS Duncan (DD-874) was launched 27 October 1944 by Consolidated Steel Corp., Orange, Tex.; sponsored by Mrs. D. C. Thayer; and commissioned 25 February 1945, Commander P. D. Williams in command. She was reclassified DDR-874 on 18 March 1949. She would go on to serve in Korea and Vietnam.

Source: Office of Naval Records and Ships’ Histories Section, Navy Department.

And what happened to Commander Taylor?

Taylor was rescued along with many of his crew and went on to a distinguished career.

Taylor received a new command, of the destroyer USS Bennett, which was commissioned on 9 February 1943, with the rank of captain from 20 May 1943. Bennett sailed to the South Pacific, where she supported the landings at Cape Torokina in November 1944 and on Green Islands in February 1944, and bombarded the Japanese base at Kavieng on New Ireland on 18 February 1944 and at Rabaul on New Britain 29 February.

He was awarded the Bronze Star. His citation read:

For meritorious service in action against the enemy…operating in the Bismarck Archipelago area on the night of February 24–25, 1944. Commander Taylor led his ships deep into enemy held waters in a harassing night raid and bombardment of Japanese installations in the vicinity of Rabaul. Despite known enemy shore batteries and possible mine fields, he directed the attack at close range, which resulted in severe damage to supply areas and ammunition dumps. Due to his excellent seamanship and skillful execution of the attack, no damage was inflicted on any of his ships.

Taylor commanded Destroyer Division 90 from August 1943 to May 1944, participating in the Empress Augusta Bay, and Destroyer Squadron 45 from May 1944 to November 1944.

He was awarded the Silver Star for the Battle of the Philippine Sea. In December 1944, he became the naval aide to the Secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal.

Post-war

After the war, Taylor returned to Annapolis again as its head of the Department of Physical Training and Director of Athletics in My 1946. In July 1948, he became Assistant Chief of Staff for Operations on the staff of the Commander in Chief, Pacific. From January 1950 to January 1951 he commanded the heavy cruiser USS Salem. After service in the Bureau of Naval Personnel at the Navy Department from February to December 1951, he became assistant to the Under Secretary of the Navy. Promoted to Rear Admiral on 1 September 1952, he commanded Destroyer Flotilla 2 in the Atlantic, and then, from February 1954 until September 1955, the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. He was Chief of Information at the Navy Department from September 1955 to December 1957 and then Commander Destroyer Force, US Atlantic Fleet from January 1958 to December 1959. He was promoted to vice admiral in 30 December 1959, and commanded Antisubmarine Defense Force, Atlantic Fleet from January 1960 until November 1963, which included during the Cuban Missile Crisis. His final posting before retirement on 1 May 1966 was as commandant of the Fifth Naval District in Norfolk, Virginia.

Death

Taylor died in a Virginia Beach, Virginia, hospital on 30 April 1973 as a result of a heart attack. A memorial service was held at the Chapel-in-the-Woods at the Naval Air Station, Norfolk, and he was buried in the Woodlawn Memorial Gardens. He was survived by his wife, daughter Faye, and three brothers. His son, Navy Captain Edmund B. Taylor Jr., was killed in a helicopter accident in Vietnam on 8 May 1972.

Vice Admiral Edmund Battelle Taylor (4 April 1904 – 30 April 1973) Navy Cross, Distinguished Service Medal, Silver Star Medal, Legion of Merit, Bronze Star Medal, Purple Heart

The Duncan and Lansdowne were fighting ships that played a key role in the reversal of the Japanese conquests.

While each played different roles and had different endings, both will forever represent the fighting spirit of a nation in times of crisis. The men who sailed them in our darkest hours will forever be heroes in the history of naval warfare.

Mister Mac

2 thoughts on “Gallant Leadership and Courageous Conduct Under Fire – The Story of the USS Duncan DD 485 in 1942

  1. THELEANSUBMARINER: BRAVO ZULU…more than precisely Let us Keep W.W.II/1941-1945….1939-1945…NAVY HISTORY, Alive!!! Great Blog-Posting….Yours Aye-Brian CANUCK Murza…Killick Vison, W.W.II Naval Researcher-Published Author, Niagara Falls, Ontario, COWARDICE CANADA/1993 TO 2022!!!

    1. Thank you very much. The 80th anniversary of many of these events seems like a good time to remind people of what courage looks like. I will definitely check out your work.
      Mac

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