Fletcher-Class Destroyers: A History – When one thinks of the various classes of surface warships that served in the United States Navy during the Second World War, chances are one’s thoughts wander to the proverbial big boys on the block – vessels such as the Yorktown-class aircraft carriers, Iowa-class battleships, and North Carolina-class battleships.
But we should not forget the smaller fish that skimmed the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
Combat vessels without the big guns or planeloads of the aforementioned classes still made a vital contribution to ultimate victory over the Axis powers. One would have to include the “tin cans,” i.e. the destroyers, and a shining example of a U.S. Navy destroyer was the Fletcher class.
The Fletchers’ Foundations
Designed in 1939, the Fletcher-class destroyers were named for Rear Adm. Frank Friday Fletcher (1855 – 1928). Fletcher received the Medal of Honor for the 1914 Battle of Veracruz and was in turn the uncle of Adm. Frank Jack Fletcher, hero of the Battle of Midway and also a Medal of Honor recipient. One hundred seventy-five of these ships were built between 1941 and 1945 – more than any other destroyer class.
The lead ship of the class was the USS Fletcher (DD-445). Her keel was laid on Oct. 2, 1941, she was launched on May 3, 1942, a launch sponsored by Mrs. F. F. Fletcher, widow of Rear Adm. Fletcher. The vessel was commissioned on June 30, 1942, with Lt. Cmdr. W.M. Cole as her first skipper.
The Fletchers had a standard displacement of 2,050 tons and a fully laden displacement of 2,500 tons, with a hull length of 376.5 feet, a beam width of 39.5 feet, and a draft of 17.5 feet. Four oil-fired boilers, two geared steam turbines, and two screws powered the vessel across the seas at 60,000 shaft horsepower (45,000 kilowatts) with a maximum speed of 36.5 knots, and a range of 5,500 nautical miles at 15 knots.
Armament started off with five dual-purpose 5-inch/38-caliber main guns in single-barrel Mk 30 turrets, two fore and three aft. Antiaircraft guns were initially on the sparse side, but were eventually upgraded to ten 40mm Bofors and seven 20mm Oerlikon guns. The crew complement was 329 commissioned officers and enlisted seamen.
Fearsome Fighting Fletchers
The Destroyer History Foundation quotes Lt. Cmdr. Fred Edwards of the Bureau of Ships as saying, “I always felt it was the Fletcher class that won the war . . .
they were the heart and soul of the small-ship Navy.” From there, Edwards quotes Norman Friedman, author of the 1982 book U.S. Destroyers, An Illustrated Design History, with this high praise for the ship class: “The most successful of all American destroyers: fast, roomy, capable of absorbing enormous punishment, and yet fighting on.”
Forty-four of the ships earned 10 or more service stars, 19 were awarded the Navy Unit Commendation, and 16 received the Presidential Unit Citation. Collectively, they sank 29 Imperial Japanese Navy submarines.
In exchange, 19 Fletchers were lost at sea and six damaged beyond repair. Arguably, the two most famous of the lost Fletchers were the USS Hoel (DD-533) and USS Johnston (DD-557). They were sunk during the Battle off Samar phase of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, boldly facing off against a much more powerful fleet of Japanese battleships.
The skipper of the Johnston, Cmdr. Ernest E. Evans, was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in that engagement. He immortalized himself by telling his crew, “This is going to be a fighting ship. I intend to go in harm’s way, and anyone who doesn’t want to go along had better get off right now.”
Fletcher-class: Where Are They Now?
Some of the Fletchers went on to serve in the Korean War and even the Vietnam War. Thirty-two of them were transferred to foreign navies, namely those of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Columbia, Germany, Greece, Italy, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Peru, Spain, Taiwan, and Turkey.
The U.S. Navy retired the last of its Fletchers in 1971. Amazingly, the Mexican navy (Armada de México) kept one in service until 2001 – the ARM Cuitláhuac. Out of the 175 total ships of the class, four of the Fletchers survive today as museum ships: USS The Sullivans (DD-537) in Buffalo, New York; USS Kidd (DD-661) in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; USS Cassin Young (DD-793) in Charlestown, Massachusetts; and the Hellenic Navy’s Velos in Thessaloniki, Greece.
Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force Security Forces officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS).
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