World War II more than any previous war provided examples of severe damage survived by naval vessels and demonstrations of the difficult art of the salvager. But unique in the annals of the war was the virtual destruction of the U. S. destroyers Cassin and Downes and their ultimate salvage and reconstruction.
Late in 1941, a number of Mahan-class destroyers were assigned to the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard for repairs and alterations including replacement of the tripods with lighter pole masts and the installation of heavier hull plating in the bows.
Thus it was that the dawn of Sunday, 7 December 1941 found Cassin and Downes side by side in Drydock No. 1 ahead of the battleship Pennsylvania. Propellers and tail shafts had beenpulled and the hulls were wide open forward where portions of old shell plating been removed. The guns were disassembled and under overhaul in various shops ashore, while most of the officers and crew were on leave in Honolulu. Out in the harbor, their sister-ship, Shaw, lay similarly immobilized high and dry on the blocks of the old Orleans floating drydock, YFD-2, with the little yard tug Sotoyomo keeping her company. The ships were essentially dead, all services being supplied from the yard, when the Japanese dive bombers struck without warning.
Despite their helpless condition, both ships returned fire with .50-caliber machine guns almost immediately, while gunners mates rushed to the repair shops for the breechblocks of the 5-inchers. Downes actually managed to get off two shots from her No. 3 gun, the first to test whether it was safe to fire while on the blocks in the drydock and the second in earnest, when at about 0850 Cassin was hit by a bomb which struck her afterdeckhouse, passed on through the ship, out the bottom, and exploded in the drydock between the two ships. As bomb fragments ruptured fuel tanks, fire broke out in the drydock. Another bomb hit between the ships forward, and a third struck Downes directly in the charthouse. These hits blew out watertight doors, punctured hulls, ruptured more fuel tanks, and started fires throughout the ships. Explosions commenced as flames reached ammunition, culminating in a most violent and spectacular blast from Downes’ starboard torpedo tube nest. By this time, the destroyers were past saving, as bomb fragments had damaged the yard fire main, rendering fire fighting impossible, and the commanding officers had ordered “Abandon ship” at about 0920 just in time to get the last of their crews off safely.
In the meantime, both the commanding officer of Pennsylvania and shipyard officers had begun preparations to flood the drydock. Until this could be done, the battleship, without water in her condensers, was helpless even to start her generators. Her skipper had summoned the senior destroyer commander to notify him of this decision, but by 0920 no one was much concerned with conditions on the two abandoned and burning destroyers except for those crewmen who were playing a few futile hose streams on the flames. By 1000, water was rising in the drydock. Downes, badly damaged below the waterline aft, flooded rapidly, the water serving to hold her on the keel blocks except for a slight lifting of the bow. Cassin, on the other hand, floated by the stern while the bow remained on the blocks. At this point a new danger arose. The rising water was bringing flaming oil closer and closer to the depth charges racked on Downes' fantail. To avoid a major explosion, which might have seriously damaged both Pennsylvania and the drydock, the flooding process had to be reversed. Thus, during the morning, the drydock was alternately flooded and pumped down, flooded and pumped again, until at some point Cassin lost stability and toppled off her blocks, crashing over against Downes. In the process, her hull, already damaged and fire-weakened, buckled completely amidships. Downes, too, suffered during this phase when her bow rose off the blocks just far enough to allow a timber float to jam itself under the ship, causing severe straining and wrinkling of the bow when the hull settled down again.
While all this was going on, Shaw was undergoing an ordeal of her own as part of a coincidental chain of circumstances which made her career closely parallel that of her twin, Cassin. Isolated in the floating drydock, she was even more helpless than her sisters in Drydock No. 1. Early in the Japanese attack, she was struck forward by three bombs which, hitting almost simultaneously, set the ship afire at once. Not more than 20 minutes later, around 0915, her forward magazines went up in a spectacular column of flame and debris which overshadowed the whole naval shipyard, blowing off the entire bow from the bridge forward and causing severe damage to the drydock as well. To minimize further destruction, the listing drydock was deliberately flooded down and sank to the bottom, carrying Shaw's bow and the hapless Sotoyomo with it. Oil from ruptured tanks flamed around the wrecked ship and only a strong wind from astern kept the after part from burning.
On 8 December, when Drydock No. 1 was pumped out, the two destroyers presented a hopeless sight. Cassin, lying half on her side, was bent and twisted from the racking she had suffered, her hull was buckled and her plates were wrinkled from the searing heat, and her bridge was crushed against her sister-ship. Downes, while still upright, was burned and blasted throughout, her hull was distorted, parts of her superstructure had melted away, and a huge hole was blown in her deck where the torpedoes had exploded.
Shaw, too, appeared to be a total wreck. Hence Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, in his report to the public on 15 December 1941, listed all three destroyers as lost. Even the capsized battleship Oklahoma was officially considered more salvable.
The destroyers Cassin (DD-372) and Downes (DD-375) were members of the Mahan-class, of which 16 had been authorized in the 1933 building program. These ships were essentially improved versions of the Farragut-class, the first new destroyer design built since the flush-deckers of World War I.
The Philadelphia and Norfolk Naval Shipyards both celebrated twin keel layings in 1934, when Cassin and Shaw were laid down at Philadelphia, Downes and Tucker at Norfolk. Cassin and Shaw were launched on the same day, 28 October 1935, while Downes went down the ways alone on 22 April 1936. These were years when war clouds were still far below the horizon, at least in the eyes of the American public. Fortunately Congress was awakening to the necessity of providing replacements for the aging and obsolescent flush-deck, four-pipers, and it was for this reason that the Mahans had been authorized. Even the Navy designers, however, though they planned these ships with war service ever in mind, could scarcely have suspected that the Mahans were to bear the brunt of four years of combat and that nine of the original 16 were destined to go down fighting. This would have given the group the unenviable distinction of suffering the heaviest casualty rate of any U. S. destroyer class in World War II, except for the extraordinary fact that three of the nine declared lost—Cassin, Downes, and Shaw—rose from their ashes to fight again.
At the time of their commissioning—Cassin on 21 August 1936 and Downes on 15 January the two ships were handsome examples of new destroyer construction. Three hundred forty-one feet long, with a beam of 35 feet and a full load draft of 13 feet, they carried their 1,500 tons in a fine-lined hull with a straight, slightly raking bow and a raised forecastle. Two 5-inch, 38-caliber guns in shielded mounts stood on the forecastle deck and forward superstructure. The bridge raised its bulk immediately forward of the break in the deck, aft of which were a tripod foremast and two raking funnels. Each stack carried the uptakes from two Babcock & Wilcox express-type boilers, which delivered superheated steam at 400 psi and 700 degrees Fahrenheit to the 49,000-horsepower General Electric turbines. These in turn, through reduction gears, drove the twin shafts to propel the ships at top speeds of 36.5 knots or better.
Between the stacks a centerline mount of quadruple torpedo tubes was installed, while just aft of the stacks two more “quads” were mounted, one on each side of the ship, giving the destroyers their main armament of 21-inch torpedoes. Aft of the stacks were also a small tripod mainmast and fire control platform, then a deckhouse on which were mounted two more 5-inch guns. On the fantail stood the fifth 5-inch gun. These three after guns were of the open-mount type. At the very stern were the conventional depth charge racks which gave the ships their main antisubmarine capability. The usual searchlights, machine guns, motor whaleboats, life floats, capstans, scuttles, lockers, and antennas took up the remaining topside space in typical destroyer fashion. Below decks were berthing and messing facilities, storerooms and working spaces to support a complement of 158, including the captain and seven other officers. All remaining space was given over to fuel, amounting to some 524 tons of black oil.
Shakedown cruises were followed by drills and target practice, alternating with liberty in far ports and visits to various naval shipyards for minor repairs, as the war clouds darkened in the international sky. Assigned to Squadron Three, Destroyers, Battle Force, U. S. Fleet, the ships served as an antisubmarine screen for the aging battleships based in the Pacific, and also performed the ubiquitous, miscellaneous chores for which a destroyer is expected to act as factotum.
The wreckage of the Battle Fleet at Pearl Harbor presented the United States with a superhuman task, and the salvage of three destroyer hulks, already written off as total losses, obviously rated the lowest priority. Under such circumstances, salvage operations were restricted to minimum repairs necessary to get the ships afloat and out of the badly needed drydocks. Shaw—at least what was left of her—was found to be in fairly good shape, for her after part still floated even though it was flooded as far aft as the bulkhead between the two fire rooms. Her truncated stern was hauled up on the marine railway and a stubby, slab-sided false bow was installed where the bridge used to be. On 9 January 1942, the floating drydock was raised, revealing the wreckage of Shaw’s old bow, now useful only as scrap metal. Not long thereafter the oddly foreshortened destroyer, still capable of steaming a respectable 25 knots, departed under her own power for Mare Island Naval Shipyard on the West Coast, the first of a long line of U. S. warships to be fitted with new bows in World War II.
Although the Pearl Harbor work force was limiting its efforts to clearing the berths and drydocks of wrecked ships and repairing only those which could be returned to duty within a reasonable time, the “corpses” of Cassin and Downes clung tenuously to life. Even to the casual observer the hulls were obviously almost useless. Cassin appeared to have some chance of survival—a detailed survey of her hull, plate by plate and frame by frame, indicated that about 60 per cent was intact or salvable. Downes, on the other hand, had been described as “a complete wreck, beyond repair as a service unit.” Fully 75 per cent of her structure was damaged past reclamation. The only hope of saving the ships arose from the unexpectedly good condition of their machinery. The remarkable truth was that practically all of the electrical equipment, machinery, and armament in Cassin was found to be salvable, while even in Downes 90 per cent of her machinery and one-third of her electric motors could be reclaimed. The only major loss had been No. 4 boiler, shattered by the torpedo explosion directly overhead. Parts of both ships were already back in the war, as several of their guns had been placed on other destroyers and in the Ewa shore battery. Although the ultimate disposition of the two ships remained undecided, progress in getting the hulks afloat continued. The ships were carried on the rolls as “in commission in ordinary” with skeleton crews, more than once items of machinery or equipment were diverted to immediate use in otherships heading for the front. Since the continued use of Drydock No. 1 was vital for repair of major Fleet units, salvage on the destroyers was further complicated by a number of dockings which had to be carried out on an emergency basis. Thus on 12–13 December, Pennsylvania was floated and the torpedoed Honolulu docked, and on 2–3 January the damaged Raleigh took the place of Honolulu. On each occasion the wreckage of Cassin and Downes was, of course, flooded and sloshed with harbor water except for what minor protection could be afforded vital machinery. But by 5 February, the hulls were sufficiently watertight to permit flooding the drydock, at which time Cassin was righted and redocked, whereupon Downes was floated out the next day. On 18 February, Cassin, too, was in shape to be undocked.
While these early phases of the repair work were in process, difficult decisions were being made. To some extent these decisions represented a struggle between the completely different points of view from which Pearl and Washington looked at the situation.
The Pearl Harbor-Pacific Fleet viewpoint might best be described as a clear-the-decks-for-action approach. It will be recalled that Cassin and Downes were probably the least significant of all the ships damaged at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. From the viewpoint of the naval shipyard, these wrecks were encumbrances which kept getting in the way of the yard’s primary mission, which was to provide repairs and services to the fighting Fleet. Admiral Nimitz, the new Commander in Chief Pacific Fleet, took a similar stand—no work should be undertaken at Pearl Harbor which would interfere with repairs and alterations to effective Fleet units.
To the Chief of Naval Operations and the Bureau of Ships, however, the problem of defending our sea lanes against the Axis submarine forces was the top headache of the day. Any ship which could contribute to the antisubmarine effort was worth her weight in gold, therefore, to these officers, Cassin and Downes were potential gold mines rather than scrap piles. In the course of the first thorough inspections, as soon as the undamaged condition of the machinery was discovered, the question of how best to utilize the available material was raised. A number of alternatives presented themselves:
Minimum salvage—strip hulls of equipment for use as war damage spares; scrap hulls.
Partial restoration—refit hulls as escorts, fast transports, patrol vessels, or destroyers of limited capability.
Complete rebuilding—return to service as fully operational destroyers, either by major repairs or by installing the machinery in new hulls.
In addition to the mere urgency of obtaining ASW vessels, other factors added weight to the balance. One was the fact that of all the material needed to build new destroyers, most critical and hard to obtain were main propulsion plants. In the effort to break the bottleneck, DE’s and frigates were designed around every conceivable type of power plant—diesel electric, diesel direct drive, even reciprocating steam engines—but there was no substitute for the steam turbine in destroyers. Thus it was clear that the Cassin and Downes machinery plants were the very parts of those ships which the Japanese should have been most anxious to destroy. Having served only five years, these plants still had some 75 per cent of their useful life ahead of them. To use power plants of this caliber in minor-type craft would have been a waste of valuable potential especially since major hull work would obviously have to be done to any ship in which they might be installed.
The Bureau of Ships soon emerged as champion of the cause of complete rebuilding, in opposition to the advocates of “strip and scrap.” Lieutenant Commander R. K. James of the maintenance division (now Rear Admiral and Chief of the Bureau of Ships) was a particularly strong proponent of this view. In March 1942, he noted: “The fate of the Cassin and Downes at Pearl Harbor hangs by a very thin thread.” And a few days later: “The Downes story is a very grim one but the bright spot is the generally satisfactory condition of essential machinery and auxiliaries.” He recommended towing the ships back to the West Coast and building new hulls, using portions of the old ones where possible, particularly the stern sections, for “this would justify using the old name and number. The morale effect would be considerable.” At that stage of the war, anything which would give morale a boost was worth seeking out. Before long the Cassin-Downes question was bouncing like a shuttlecock between Washington and Pearl Harbor. A short chronology of these messages gives an illuminating round-by-round account of the painful processes of decision.
10 December 1941, Pearl to BuShips— “Downes is a complete wreck, beyond repair as a service unit . . . Cassin may probably be salvaged as a ship.”
23 December, BuShips to Pearl and Mare Island—“Start immediate construction of a new bow for Shaw . . . believe that it will be feasible and practicable to undertake complete salvage and repair work on Cassin.”
1 January 1942, CinCPac to Pearl—“Work on Cassin only sufficiently to restore seaworthiness and strength for the trip to the West Coast, on the basis of reconditioning her for limited service such as a patrol or escort vessel.”
15 January, BuShips to Pearl—“Intend to recondition both Cassin and Downes.''
3 March, Pearl to BuShips—“Recommend Downes be stricken and hulk sold for scrap.”
5 March, CNO to BuShips—“The CNO desires that the Cassin and Downes should be placed in condition to return to the mainland under their own power.”
14 March, CinCPac to BuShips—“No work should be undertaken at Pearl Harbor which will interfere with repairs and alterations to effective fleet units.”
15 March, Pearl Harbor to BuShips— “Recommend Cassin be towed to mainland, Downes stripped and scrapped.”
26 March—CinCPac reiterates recommendation that any extensive drydock work be deferred.
4 April, BuShips to Pearl—“These two ships should be returned to full service as destroyers.” Orders given to prepare hulls for return under their own power.
5 April—BuShips orders Pearl to hold work in abeyance pending decision on feasibility of stripping the ships of all usable material for shipment to Mare Island.
5 May, BuShips to CNO—“Recommend new hulls be built at Mare Island. The Bureau considers that sufficient of the original Cassin and Downes material can be worked into the reconstructed hulls to thoroughly justify the retention of the original names for the new ships.”
9 May—CNO approves all Bureau recommendations.
14 May—BuShips orders Pearl Harbor and Mare Island to proceed.
Thus five months after their “destruction” by the Japanese, Cassin and Downes were officially recognized as being alive and worthy of rehabilitation.
The decision as to whether the old hulls should be repaired or new ones built to take the old machinery was a technical one which the Bureau of Ships had to thrash out for itself. To repair the damaged sections sufficiently for the ships to return to the mainland would take a major bite out of Pearl Harbor’s work capacity. Both ships had been so badly twisted that complete realignment of the stern sections would be necessary before the shafts could be turned over. Even to render the hulls strong enough for towing to the States would require major structural repairs, for the backs of both ships had been broken. Further, the danger of Japanese submarine attack on the helpless tows was grave, and the Fleet could not spare vessels to protect them. To attempt to tow meant to risk complete loss of the precious power plants. As was further pointed out by the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard, much of the machinery had already been removed to expedite preservation and could be shipped back more easily than it could be reinstalled. For all these reasons, the decision to build new hulls was a natural and practical one to reach.
Another interesting twist came up at about this time. When Cassin was originally under construction in Philadelphia and Downes in Norfolk, two other Mahan-class destroyers had been built at Mare Island. Although all these ships were built to the same contract plans, the fact that each yard had to shape the hulls to its own offsets made it inevitable that minor differences would result between ships built in different yards. In order to expedite reconstruction, already complicated by the problems involved in resuscitating 6-year-old plans from dead storage, for a class of ship which had been superseded several times over by improved designs and which bore little resemblance to the latest Fletcher-class ships, Mare Island was directed to build the new hulls to the offsets originally used for its own Preston and Smith. Thus Cassin and Downes would not even be rebuilt to their own original plans!
In other ways as well, these ships were destined to differ forever from all other destroyers. It was, of course, directed that all approved alterations for the Mahan-class be included in the rebuilt destroyers. In addition, the Bureau of Ordnance recommended changes in armament which ultimately resulted in the ships’ carrying four 5-inch, 38-caliber guns, two 40-mm twin mounts, and six 20-mm guns, as well as two sets of quadruple torpedo tubes mounted on the centerline. Mare Island also incorporated a number of up-to-date arrangements including a combat information center, new radars, retractable sound gear, more powerful turbo-generators, improved berthing facilities, and a bridge which resembled that on the latest type of destroyer.
As soon as building ways could be cleared by launching the hulls of two lend-lease destroyer escorts, the keel for a new Downes was laid on 13 October and for Cassin on 20 November 1942. Because the old Downes was farther along in the stripping process at Pearl Harbor, it was agreed that her machinery would be shipped first. The ships used to haul the parts back to the West Coast, if assembled in one group, would have made a good-sized convoy. Downes shipments left Pearl Harbor starting 5 June in USS Jupiter, followed by SS Admiral Nulton, Arthur Middleton, Alcoa Pennant, William Ellery, Antigua, A. M. Baxter, John Morton, and Joseph McKenna. Several of these made two trips, as did USS Boreas. The venerable transport USS Henderson, so familiar to Navy families throughout the Twenties and Thirties, also lent a hand. On 15 September, it was announced that the final shipment was on the way, but on 19 November a few overlooked crates were hastily loaded aboard SS John Morton to complete the job.
Cassin was brought back in similar sections, the first of which was included by error in SS Alcoa Pennant on 20 June along with Downes material. This shipment was followed by loads in SS Antigua, Joseph McKenna, President Tyler, A. M. Baxter, and USS Henderson, with SS Absaroka bringing up the rear on 17 December 1942. Included in the shipments were 37-ton stern sections of both destroyers, on which the names Cassin and Downes were carefully preserved. All in all, some 564 crates weighing around 1,000 tons were shipped back. Thus, over a year after their ordeal by fire and explosion, Cassin and Downes were finally back home, as “basket cases” perhaps, but with fine, new hulls already in the making, ready for the ship doctors of Mare Island to start their work of nautical plastic surgery.
The rest of the story is anticlimax. Like all new construction, these ships were plagued by material delays and shortages made particularly acute by the necessity of replacing parts of 1934 vintage and by diversions of material to repair other ships with higher priorities. To anyone familiar with the headaches of outfitting a new ship, sympathy for the reconstructors of Cassin and Downes will come naturally. There was the usual struggle between planners in Washington wanting to incorporate endless new alterations into the hulls and shipbuilders who resisted anything which might delay completion of their work. Delays there were, but by 20 May 1943, Downes was ready for launching. Cassin followed on 21 June. The protocol experts must have been a trifle embarrassed by the lack of a precedent to cover the launching of a ship’s second hull. In both cases there was a minimum of fanfare—no band, no sponsor, no ceremony, and only a brief mention in the local press—like a quiet ceremony with discreetly minimized publicity for a bride being led to the altar for the second time.
It would be pleasant to report that Downes and Cassin went forth to win the war single-handed. Unfortunately for such dreams of heroism, the great surface fleet actions had been fought and won while these ships were still in the hands of the shipyards. Sister ships Hiker, Cushing, Perkins, and Preston had faced their “moment of truth” and gone to the bottom. The carrier was now queen of the Fleet, destroyers were still the all-purpose war horses they had always been. Much hard fighting remained to be done, and Cassin and Downes did their share. Cassin finished out the war with a practically uninterrupted tour of combat service. Periods of ocean escort and air sea rescue duty alternated with fire support missions against the Marianas, Marcus Island, and Iwo Jima. She served for a spell with the mighty Third Fleet off Leyte, and as a radar picket and fighter director ship on the flight lanes between Guam and Iwo. On 7 August 1945, her routine was enlivened by the very unusual assignment of intercepting and boarding a Japanese hospital ship suspected of carrying contraband from Marcus Island. Found innocent by Cassin’s inspectors of any violation of international convention, the ship was permitted to continue on her errand of mercy. By the war’s end, Cassin had earned six battle stars and Navy Occupation Service Ribbon in addition to her star for Pearl Harbor.
Poor Downes was never quite able to come up to her former standards despite the best efforts of an unusually hard working crew. Her main propulsion machinery had apparently suffered hidden derangements and to was undoubtedly overworked in attempting to keep up with the rest of the Fleet. Even though she had to spend some three months in the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard, she was available to participate in a number of patrol and lifeguard missions, bombardments of Tinian and Marcus Islands, radar picket duty off the Marianas, and a fast run withthe carriers of Task Force 38 covering the Leyte landings. She also took time out for a few licks at a Japanese submarine which was later polished off by patrol planes. Downes earned four battle stars and the Occupation Service Medal for her wartime services.
In the rapidly changing spectrum of the war with Japan, the kamikaze threat by 1945 had taken precedence over all others, and Cassin and Downes were scheduled for drastic changes in armament to meet the new challenge. In common with most other destroyers, torpedo tubes were to have been removed and the antiaircraft battery heavily reinforced. The war’s end came before the kamikazes got their chance to subject the weary ships to another ordeal by fire, but two more of their class—Reid and Mahan—had joined the roll of the dead off Leyte in December 1944. With the precipitate demobilization of the U. S. armed forces in 1945, Cassin and Downes, in company, departed from the Western Pacific on 19 September for the last long voyage home to early retirement. Decommissioned in December of that year, they were laid up in the James River pending disposal. The end of the road was reached in November 1947, when the two ships were included in a lot of four destroyers sold for scrap to the firm of Hugo Neu of New York.
The careers of Cassin and Downes spanned a period in naval history of little more than ten years, yet this decade witnessed more profound changes in naval warfare than any similar, previous period. When laid down, they were essentially World War I designs. They saw the flowering of the battleship to its peak of perfection and the start of its decline, the rise to supremacy of the aircraft carrier and the first flights of the guided missile, the heyday of the propeller-driven airplane and the pioneer jets, the plunges of the kamikazes, and the bursting of the ominous, mushroom cloud of the first atomic bomb. They were born in a relatively simple age but ended their days crammed with electronic gadgets. They wore out and became obsolescent at what should have been their prime of life. Their achievements, though solid, were unspectacular; their punishment was extraordinary even for the most destructive war history has seen; but their rise from ashes to fight again may be forever without parallel in the annals of the U. S. Navy.