A Tin Can Sailors Destroyer History
USS MAHAN DD-364
The Tin Can Sailor, October 1997
The “Mighty MAHAN”, first vessel of a sixteen-ship class, was laid down at the United Dry Docks shipyard on Staten Island, New York, in the summer of 1934 and launched on October 15, 1935. She would be commissioned almost a year later.
The new destroyer was the second vessel to be named for Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, whose original analysis of the effects of sea power on world events in the seminal book, The Influence of Seapower on History earned him the title, “father of modern naval strategic thought.”
In an age when cruises were intended both as training exercises and a demonstration of might, toward friends and foes alike, MAHAN spent the first several months of her commission visiting ports in the Caribbean and South America interspersed with port calls along the East Coast of the United States. The pleasant duty was to soon end.
Naval planners became alarmed with the growing potency of the imperial Japanese Navy, so many newer destroyers were transferred to the Pacific Battle Force. DD-364 would arrive in San Diego by mid-August, 1937 and, with the exception of another Caribbean cruise, MAHAN would serve in the Pacific for the remainder of her career.
When the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor on Sunday, December 7, 1941, MAHAN, with several of her sisters, was patrolling with Task Force 12. Initially, the Japanese were expected to withdraw to the south. TF-12, heavily outnumbered, steamed for a confrontation, but they found empty ocean. Fortunately, the Imperial Japanese Navy was elsewhere.
The sea lanes between Hawaii and the West Coast were particularly vulnerable to concerted attack, so MAHAN spent the next two months protecting convoys, both to the critical Pacific base and to Canton Island, an important outpost that secured convoy routes to the South Pacific. Weeks of endless steaming had taken their toll, however, and DD-364 would need a yard visit before resuming her duties.
By the fall of 1942, the United States was involved in the first major offensive action of the Pacific War; the battles to protect Australia and New Zealand would mark the turning point for Imperial Japan. MAHAN was shifted to operations in the South Pacific. In company with USS LAMSON (DD-367), she fought off a major air attack and ripped apart a concentration of Japanese patrol boats, sinking two during the action.
Destroyer operations around Guadalcanal were as frantic as any in the war, and MAHAN found herself in the midst of them. She would effectively screen the USS ENTERPRISE (CV- 6) battle group in the battle of Santa Cruz, destroying four enemy aircraft foolish enough to approach the destroyer. While violently maneuvering to evade a submarine contact after a day under intensive air attack, the MAHAN collided with USS SOUTH DAKOTA (B-57). With her bow smashed back and a fire in her forward hold, DD-364 was in mortal danger. Effective damage control by both ships, as well as the support of USS VESTAL (AR-4) at Noumea, allowed the battleship to remain in the war zone. MAHAN was fitted with a temporary bow. A return to the Pearl Harbor facilities would prove necessary for a complete repair.
For the next two years, MAHAN seemed to be everywhere. Few enemy islands in the South Pacific were not the subject of her attention, either in support of landings, as a part of harassing raids, or in her role protecting convoys. Yet another yard visit, this time to San Francisco, was intended to prepare the veteran destroyer for the next major operation, landings in the Philippines.
Enemy air actions around the Philippines would be among the most violent encountered. For the first time, American forces battled concentrated kamikaze attacks supported by dozens of “traditional” assailants.
On December 7, 1944, MAHAN and USS SMITH (DD-378) were patrolling the critical channel between Leyte and Ponson Island to provide security for the landings at Ormoc Bay. Scores of enemy aircraft swept in from the north; a flight of heavy bombers, escorted by four fighters. U.S. Army fighters were able to help the embattled tin cans fight off most of the attackers, but eight aircraft were able to slip through. In spite of heavy and accurate anti-aircraft fire from MAHAN, the valiant destroyer was hit by three kamikazes. Burning aviation fuel and exploding bombs proved a mortal blow for DD-364. Heroic damage control efforts proved fruitless as fire ignited the forward magazine. A veritable pillar of flame and recurring explosions, the destroyer was abandoned shortly after 1000. One officer and five men had been killed and thirteen were seriously wounded or burned. LAMSON and USS WALKE (DD-723) were able to rescue the survivors before sending the hopelessly damaged destroyer to the bottom with “friendly” gunfire and a torpedo.