Remembering the Men of the Little Ships

Memorial Day is a solemn holiday in which Americans should pay homage to the individuals who sacrificed their lives to protect their fellow citizens. Clint Johnson’s book Tin Cans and Greyhounds: The Destroyers That Won Two World Wars is a reminder that those serving on ships put their life at risk daily. This interview with Johnson reflects on Americans serving who sacrificed their lives to save others.

Johnson emphasizes in his book how destroyers were nicknamed “tin cans” because they had thin metal hulls that were useful for quickly navigating the seas but not a great protection for the men serving on those ships. Their quick speeds gave them their second nickname, “greyhounds.”  

Survival on a destroyer was not guaranteed.  Johnson quoted Lieutenant Commander Robert Copeland as he calmly told his crew as their tiny, unarmored destroyer escort rushed toward giant, armored Japanese battleships at the Battle off Samar on October 25, 1944 that they were fighting “against overwhelming odds from which survival could not be expected.” (Unbelievably, the Navy's scratch force of destroyers and escort carriers chased off the entire Japanese battle fleet, though at great cost.) 

Compelling evidence is presented by Johnson regarding the two destroyers named the USS Jacob Jones. The first ship survived an attempt of a possible crewman to sink her by opening up the sea cocks. After eventually making it to France to act as an escort convey during World War I, she was sunk on December 6, 1917, by a German U-boat off the southern coast of England.  Johnson describes how it was hit by “a single torpedo from the U-53, one of Germany’s most successful submarines, some of DD-61’s crew was killed by the initial explosion. More were killed when sinking depth charges exploded underneath the survivors floating in the water. Sixty-six out of the ninety-nine crewmen died.”

The second USS Jacob Jones (DD-130), was given the Jacob Jones ship name while still being constructed in February 1918 in honor of the destroyer that had been lost just three months earlier. On Feb. 28, 1942, while cruising off Cape May, New Jersey she was hit by two torpedoes, fired by the U-578. Only 12 crewmen survived out of the 113 seamen and officers. What both these sinkings should emphasize is that the men lost are not numbers but fathers, husbands, and sons.

Medal of Honor winner Elmer Bigelow of the USS Fletcher is someone Johnson wants Americans to know about. “On February 14, 1945, off the Philippines, he sacrificed his life while saving others. Refusing to waste precious time required to don rescue-breathing apparatus, he plunged through the blinding smoke billowing out of the magazine hatch and dropped into the blazing compartment. Despite the acrid, burning powder smoke which seared his lungs with each agonizing breath, he worked rapidly and with instinctive sureness and succeeded in quickly extinguishing the fires and in cooling the cases and bulkheads, thereby preventing further damage to the stricken ship. He did this act of courage knowing that he would likely die.”

Regarding World War II, Johnson points out in his book that “the first American servicemen killed in World War II were 110 destroyer men lost six weeks before our nation officially entered the war. In Oct. 1941, the USS Kearny (DD-432) was torpedoed off Iceland with a loss of 10 sailors. On Oct. 31, USS Reuben James was torpedoed with a loss of 100 men.”

He also has an interesting premise that the Japanese targeted the wrong ships at Pearl Harbor. “Instead of bombing pre-World War I vintage battleships, the Japanese should have gone after the 55 destroyers based at Pearl.”

“The six battleships refloated at Pearl Harbor won only 32 battle stars for the rest of the war. The Pearl-based destroyers won 432 battle stars, meaning they were engaged in 432 battles. Of the 30 destroyers at Pearl during the attack, just two were destroyed. They would go on to earn 257 battle stars. Looking at the big picture, it is clear that American destroyers and destroyer escorts were the true workhorses for the U.S. Navy surface fleet during World War II.”

Johnson wants Americans to understand, “with a 5/8-inch-thick hull the destroyers had basically no armor. Compare that to a battleship that has 13 inches of armor.  The sea is unforgiving.  Sailors are always in danger to be sunk by the ocean or by the enemy. When ships sink Americans should think of the individuals lost, and not just the cited number.  We need to remember everything people enjoy now came about because of those who sacrificed their lives that includes the men who died on the destroyers.”

The author writes for American Thinker.  She has done book reviews, author interviews, and has written a number of national security, political, and foreign policy articles.

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