Voyage to War

By David C. Isby

Crew, Technology, Training

For more than a third of the Mayo’s 167 commissioning-day “plank owners,” none of whom were draftees, the destroyer was their first ship. The crew’s experienced sailors reflected high peacetime standards; the previous year, fewer than one volunteer in ten had been accepted into the Navy. The destroyer’s officers—six along with Emory, all Naval Academy graduates—watched flags, jacks, and pennants raised; the first watch set; and the first entries made in the logbook.

The Mayo embodied late-1930s high technology. “You will all undoubtedly be surprised by seeing many new and unfamiliar ‘gadgets’ on board,” Emory wrote in the ship’s commissioning booklet. She was the second of the 1,650-ton Benson class of 24 destroyers, and her new-design power plant’s separate engine and boiler rooms, capable of split-plant operation, generated a maximum of 51,139 shaft horsepower. Hard alloy steel hull plates—5/8-inch thick—resisted splinter damage. Five single-mount dual-purpose 5-inch/38-caliber guns, three enclosed and two open, and their Mk 37 fire-control system (with advanced Ford mechanical computers) and two quintuple 21-inch torpedo mounts suited the Mayo for fleet operations more than for escort duties.

“Present conditions have necessitated that the Navy Department curtail the normal period for fitting out newly commissioned ships,” Emory wrote in the booklet. Having completed shakedown cruises, trials, modifications, and training, the Mayo reported for duty with Destroyer Division (DesDiv) 13 of Destroyer Squadron (DesRon) 7, Emory noted in the ship’s log on 9 December.

Following frequent liberty and a festive Christmas dinner while moored off Newport, Rhode Island, the Mayo headed south. At the Charleston, South Carolina, Navy Yard, Ensign Victor Blandin reported on board on 21 February 1941. He found the Mayo “stranded in drydock, covered from top to bottom with yard workers. It seems the latest trials had revealed certain problems.”

Blandin was soon introduced to “my first—but not my last—experience with the make-believe of peacetime competitions.” Gunnery had long been considered the most important such contest. The Mayo’s short-range practice (SRP) on 16 March scored “Merit 23+—unsat[isfactory] but highest in the 13th Division,” Emory reported.

As for torpedo firing, on 5 April, Blandin, the acting torpedo officer, recalled: “The firing party on the bridge consisted of the CO, XO [executive officer], gun boss and chief engineer, all experienced. The acting torpedo officer took refuge in the flagbags [on the after edge of the bridge] rather than risk injury in the frantic tooing and froing of these shooters from one wing of the bridge to the other in search of the target ship.” Ignoring the Mayo’s advanced Mk 27 torpedo fire-control system, Emory aimed six Mk 15 torpedoes by “seaman’s eye.” He scored five simulated hits. The score (96+) was “number one in the squadron,” Emory wrote.

Neutrality Patrol

Events in April increased U.S. participation in the North Atlantic conflict. U-boats were attacking convoys bringing supplies to Britain. On 9 April, the United States assumed the defense of Greenland. The first shots in the U.S. Atlantic Fleet’s undeclared war against German submarines occurred the following day: The Mayo’s sister ship the Niblack (DD-424), scouting off Iceland, depth-charged a submerged U-boat that seemed about to attack. On the 11th, the United States’ Neutrality Zone, where belligerents were warned not to conduct hostile actions, was extended from 60 degrees west longitude, a line running just east of Nova Scotia, to 26 degrees west longitude, just east of Iceland.

The Mayo, part of the screen for the battleship Texas (BB-35), sailed on a three-week Neutrality Patrol on 5 May. They were ordered to report Axis ship and aircraft sightings to Washington. There, officials would forward the reports to the Royal Navy, then awaiting a breakout into the Atlantic by the German battleship Bismarck. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had personally promised British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to “immediately make public to you positions of aggressor ships or planes when located in our patrol area.”

Blandin recalled this Neutrality Patrol as “sort of an ad hoc affair, no formal oplans [operational plans] or orders, as far as I can remember, but it was a fine opportunity for practicing all manner of tactical evolutions night and day.” Detached on 20 May, the Mayo anchored at Charleston Navy Yard on 25 May, two days before the Bismarck was sunk.

There, Ensign Everette Howard Hunt, newly commissioned into the U.S. Naval Reserve, reported on board. Looking around, he saw “workmen swarm over the thin, low battered shapes of the escort destroyers—welding, riveting, aligning, renewing, testing, altering, repairing, scraping, painting, fueling.” Among equipment brought on board the Mayo was additional foul-weather gear, showing the crew that they would be heading north.

First Atlantic Convoys

In a 27 May radio speech, President Roosevelt declared an “Unlimited National Emergency,” announced the extension of U.S. patrolling in the Atlantic, and hinted at further moves to prevent an enemy—Germany—from threatening U.S. security. Exactly one month later, the Mayo entered Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, where a U.S. naval base was being built at Argentia. Four days later, the destroyer joined the inner screen of Task Force (TF) 19, the first major U.S. force to enter an enemy war zone. It was escorting transports carrying the 1st Marine Brigade to occupy Iceland, strategically located along the North Atlantic convoy routes. Without opposition, TF 19 arrived at Reykjavik on 7 July.

In the long-lighted evening, the Mayo steamed up “the Hvalfjordr, a relatively narrow fjord, entered from Reykjavik Bay. After a 20-mile winding passage it opens up into a magnificent deep water anchorage surrounded by towering mountains, a natural weather maker that can generate windstorms,” Blandin wrote. The anchorage’s cold winds soon led to its nickname, “Valley Forge.” After the Marines landed, relieving British forces that had arrived in May 1940, the Mayo set out on her return voyage, arriving at Newport on 21 July.

On 4 August, the Mayo and Gleaves (DD-423) set out to escort the Prairie (AD-15) to Casco Bay, Maine, but after two changes in orders, they arrived in Placentia Bay on 7 August. The Mayo put back to sea the next day, Emory later wrote, to contact “an unidentified BB [battleship],” returning to Argentia after midnight and anchoring near the cruiser Augusta (CA-31) with, the Mayo’s crew learned, President Roosevelt on board. The next morning, cool and misty in Placentia Bay, the British battleship “HMS Prince of Wales plus two DDs stood in at 0900 with British prime minister on board. Fueled from Salinas [AO-19]. Sound patrol [off Fox Island outside the harbor] in afternoon. An eventful day,” Emory penned.

As was the next. After “divine services on HMS Prince of Wales, witnessed from Mayo, underway for Iceland 1230,” the lieutenant commander wrote. On board the Mayo was Captain James L. “Reggie” Kauffman, commander, DesRon 7. The crew of the Mayo would later find out their destroyer had helped guard the conference during which Roosevelt and Churchill would draft the Atlantic Charter, which outlined goals for the postwar world and later served as a framework for the United Nations.

The Mayo and Plunkett (DD-431) sailed from Placentia Bay into heavy fog. Their mission—to evaluate fleet readiness for convoy escort duty by rendezvousing with and then escorting an Icelandic freighter to Reykjavik—was “assigned by higher authority as a training mission, so hush-hush that we didn’t know the name of the vessel and apparently, its Master didn’t know about the rendezvous,” Blandin wrote. “Twelve hours after the appointed time, we were ordered to find him, regardless of time and effort.”

Under radio silence, the Mayo and Plunkett, neither equipped with radar, spent three days “caroming up and down the assigned track.” After refueling at Iceland, the destroyers went back to sea and found their quarry, the Lagerfoss, on 19 August, six hours out of Reykjavik. Blandin learned that the freighter’s master “wanted no part of this convoy nonsense and had made his own way, as usual.” The Mayo and Plunkett sailed for Boston on 23 August, escorting the Icelandic freighter Selfross. The little convoy encountered a powerful gale during which two depth charges washed off the Mayo’s stern rails and detonated. The destroyer’s storm-damage report required two typed pages.

On 4 September, the Mayo entered Charlestown Navy Yard for storm-damage repair. Alterations to the destroyer included extending the bridge wings and moving the main electrical transformer from the weather deck, where waves had shorted it out, leaving the galley without power and all on board eating cold food. Inconspicuous two-foot-tall hull numbers replaced the much larger peacetime versions.

Emory, one of many personnel transferred from the Mayo, became XO of the cruiser Atlanta (CL-51). Blandin was sorry to lose “a fine skipper, a true ‘officer and gentleman’ and a superb ship handler.” Emory’s replacement, Lieutenant Commander Irving Duke, had been gunnery officer of the Helena (CL-50). “His experience in destroyers was limited but he was a gung-ho naval officer and had a short fuse,” Blandin wrote. “I was to experience his wrath on a few occasions, some that could put a dent in an officer’s career.”

The same day the Mayo arrived at the navy yard, 4 September, the destroyer Greer (DD-145) was attacked by U-652 and replied with depth charges. President Roosevelt reacted on 11 September, announcing that German or Italian vessels entering waters protected by the U.S. Navy “do so at their own risk.”

The “shoot on sight” announcement followed a major operational change. On 1 September, Atlantic Fleet Commander-in-Chief Admiral Ernest King had issued orders to start escorting convoys sailing between Argentia and Iceland. “The atmosphere aboard Mayo underwent a sea-change that was not only reflected in general attitudes but took on a sense of urgency, in terms of material readiness to fight the ship,” Blandin wrote.

Convoys HX 152 and ON 26

Within weeks the Mayo was hurrying north, toward the war, carrying Captain William “Sol” Phillips, CO of DesRon 53. On the afternoon of 30 September, off Newfoundland, she joined the 60-ship convoy HX 152, bound for Liverpool. Phillips commanded its escort—the Mayo and four U.S. 1918-vintage small “four-piper” destroyers.

Soon, a Navy PBY Catalina flying boat patrolling from Argentia reported a U-boat on the surface, five miles away from the convoy. The Mayo searched for the submarine without success. The U.S. Navy was receiving sanitized British Ultra-based signals intelligence, often enabling convoys to avoid U-boats, but weather was another matter.

On 1 October, Phillips received orders for the convoy to alter course to a new midocean meeting point (MOMP), where Royal Navy warships would take over escort responsibilities. En route, HX 152 steamed into the teeth of a weeklong storm. Heavily laden merchant ships fell out of formation. One freighter, exposing her position by displaying a string of lights, was told by bullhorn to turn them off immediately or the Mayo would extinguish them by gunfire.

Phillips then received new orders to revert to the original MOMP. This required the convoy to make a 120-degree turn. Dodging between the rolling, blacked-out merchantmen, the Mayo closed to within 300 yards of the convoy commodore’s ship to relay the order by shrouded blinker light.

With winds at force 6 (22–27 knots) and rising and visibility dropping to 2,000 yards, the convoy’s attempt to make six successive 20-degree turns scattered many ships. Others left their stations in the convoy to turn into the wind, which rose to force 10 (up to 55 knots). Amid high tumbling waves, the Mayo’s lookouts could see only three ships. Then, nothing was visible but the mountainous waves; one carried away 25 feet of the destroyer’s bulwark, another rolled her 55 degrees to port.

The storm-battered four-pipers, low on fuel, turned for Iceland. The Mayo, alone, tried for a day to re-form the convoy, and then on 8 October was ordered to Iceland. Meanwhile, the convoy was ordered to disperse. U-boats, unable to take advantage of this potential windfall, damaged only one straggling merchant ship. The Mayo and HX 152 made it safely into Reykjavik.

Southwest of Iceland early on 17 October, the Mayo’s sister ship the Kearny (DD-432) was torpedoed amidships after she had depth-charged U-boats throughout the previous night. With her forward fire room flooded, the Kearny reached Iceland using power from her after boilers. The Benson class’ split-plant operation had paid off.

The day after the attack, the Mayo—with only her most urgent storm damage repaired—and other destroyers left Iceland to escort the 33-ship Canada-bound ON 26. While evasive routing largely kept the convoy away from U-boats, the Mayo detected a contact on 26 October. She dropped depth charges, but no submarine attacked. After escorting the convoy to its dispersal point off Canada, the Mayo entered Boston Harbor on 31 October.

Convoys HX 160 and ON 41

That day the four-piper Reuben James (DD-245) was torpedoed and became the first U.S. warship sunk in the Navy’s undeclared war. Only 45 of the 160 officers and men on board survived. Convoy SC 52, out of Sydney, Nova Scotia, lost four ships on 3 November and turned back to port. On 17 November, the Mayo, with Captain Phillips still on board, headed east to help escort the 61-ship convoy HX 160.

Two days later, the Leary (DD-158), one of the other four destroyers escorting the convoy, made the first-ever hostile radar contact by a U.S. warship. After losing the radar signal, the Leary picked up a sonar contact and attacked, without success. Weather conditions worsened the next night. Despite a force 7 to 9 gale, HX 160 maintained both its course and formation. At the MOMP—315 nautical miles from Londonderry, Northern Ireland—Royal Navy escorts took over the convoy.

The Mayo arrived at Iceland after 13 days at sea, urgently needing to have weather damage repaired. But soon, on 29 November, the ship, along with other destroyers, set out to join convoy ON 41, 23 ships bound for Canada. Leaving port, the weather was “vicious,” Phillips reported. The escorts pushed east through heavy seas to the MOMP. The convoy was two days late for the rendezvous, forcing the U.S. escort to search for it farther to the east.

On 3 December, two Royal Navy escorts approached, burning navigation lights. It took a challenge from the Mayo—and nine star shells—before the lights were turned off. Two days later, the Mayo made a depth-charge attack on a suspected submarine contact. A position report from the Mayo, received in Washington, was annotated that ON 41 was “still on a dangerous course.” Following a message incorporating Admiralty intelligence, the convoy, now making only three knots, was ordered to turn to the southwest.

Early on 8 December, on board the Mayo, Ensign Hunt decoded the ALNAV (All Navy) broadcast message telling of the Pearl Harbor attack. He recalled, “The word electrified the ship, of course, and because I didn’t know the extent of the damage, I felt relieved that the Pacific Fleet was now in combat as we had been for many months.” Blandin agreed: “We needed no alert, for our war had started six months earlier. The immediate reaction in the wardroom was shock and dismay that the Pacific Fleet would allow such an attack to be successful.”

At 1215 Greenwich time, 9 December 1941, general quarters sounded on board the destroyer, sending the crew running to their battle stations. Nineteen minutes later, searching astern of the convoy, the Mayo made a sound contact. Lieutenant Commander Duke gave the order for depth charges, a seven-charge pattern. Five 600-pound Mark 7 ashcans rolled off the Mayo’s two stern racks and two 300-pound Mark 6s were launched from the Y-gun on the fantail, one to each broadside. “The roar of the exploding depth charges swept over the ship,” Hunt wrote.

Failing to reacquire contact, the Mayo hurried after the convoy. She was needed because the escorting four-pipers, having burned fuel searching for the convoy, turned for Iceland on 10 December. Convoy ON 42, following ON 41, joined up, but the ships were barely able to make five knots in heavy seas. News of Germany’s 11 December declaration of war on the United States changed nothing. At dusk on 15 December, the convoys dispersed in Canadian waters.

“Needless to say, it was a somber homecoming when we reached Boston” on 18 December, Blandin recalled. The Mayo was now a combat veteran, her “gadgets” no longer unfamiliar. Effective leaders enabled the transition. Of the two COs and two escort commanders who served on board her in 1941, all would become admirals. Most plank owners eventually scattered through the Navy, many receiving commissions. The Mayo’s accelerated shakedown and escalating combat operations exemplified what the Navy went through during the Atlantic Fleet’s six-month undeclared war in 1941.

 



Sources:

Patrick Abbazia, Mr. Roosevelt’s Navy. The Private War of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet 1939–42 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1975).

CAPT Victor A. Blandin USN (Ret.), “The Luck of the Draw,” ms., n.d. [1990], U.S. Naval Academy Class of 1941 Collection (#644), Joyner Library, East Carolina University.

Bureau of Ships correspondence, RG 19; Reports and Memoranda to CNO, RG 313; Ship logs, USS Mayo, USS Texas, RG 24; Ship Movements Division, Action Reports, Convoy Routing Files, RG 38: National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD.

Commander in Chief U.S. Atlantic Fleet, Administrative History, 1946, U.S. Navy Operational Archives, Naval History and Heritage Command, Washington, DC.

C. D. Emory, “Log During My Day,” ms., author’s collection, copy of document held in family collection.

Norman Friedman, U.S. Destroyers, An Illustrated Design History (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1982).

Martin Gilbert, ed., The Churchill War Papers, vol. 3, The Ever-Widening War (New York: W.W. Norton, 2001).

[Everette] Howard Hunt Jr., East of Farewell (New York: A.A. Knopf, 1942).

Bradley F. Smith, The Ultra-Magic Deals: Most Secret Special Relationship (Novato CA: Presidio, 1993).

USS Mayo, Commissioning Day program booklet, n.d., mimeo., author’s collection, copy of document held in family collection.

USS Mayo, cruise book, privately printed, 1946, www.fold3.com/image/301667839 .

USS Mayo Association Facebook post, 7 December 2014, facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=888955251123095&id=202573146427979.

 

Mr. Isby is a Washington-based attorney and national security consultant. His books include The Decisive Duel: Spitfire vs. 109 (Little, Brown, 2012) and The Luftwaffe and the War at Sea 1935–1945 (Greenhill, 2006). He wrote the introduction to a volume in the Naval Institute Press’ edition of Samuel Morison’s History of United States Naval Operations in World War II.
 

 
 

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