A Tin Can Sailors Destroyer History
USS BENHAM DD-397
The Tin Can Sailor, October 1998
The first ship of the “improved” BAGLEY class was authorized in the 1936 fiscal year, and the contract was awarded to the new facilities of Federal Shipbuilding in Kearney, New Jersey. USS BENHAM was the second destroyer to be named for Rear Admiral Andrew Ellicot Kennedy Benhan, whose career of almost fifty years spanned the pre- and post-Civil War periods.
DD-397 was the first of three BENHAM-class destroyers to be laid down at the New Jersey yard and, typical of the destroyers in the pre-World War II era, her construction was slow and methodical. Nearly twenty months passed before the new destroyer was ready for launching, and another ten months elapsed while her crew and the yard brought her up to commissioning standards.
BENHAM was initially assigned to operations in the Atlantic and the Caribbean, where the new warship had an opportunity to “work up” with the latest units becoming available to the American fleet. Her transfer to the Pacific in 1940 followed standard operating procedure as well; the Pacific battle force represented the concentrated might of the U.S. Navy. With numerous fleet exercises to her credit and a superbly trained crew, BENHAM was ready for war.
DD-397 was assigned to the screen of USS ENTERPRISE (CV-6) in December 1941. In the last hours of peace in the Pacific, BENHAM, steaming as a part of Task Force Eight, was battling rough seas west of Oahu. The force, centered around the carrier, three heavy cruisers and nine destroyers, was returning from Wake Island after delivering aircraft to the Marines on the island outpost. TF 8 had been scheduled to enter Pearl Harbor early on Sunday morning, December 7, but adverse sea conditions made refueling the destroyers a slow process. The delay kept the valuable task force at sea while dozens of ships were caught by the Japanese attack that began the war.
Weeks later, USS SARATOGA (CV-3) was torpedoed southwest of Hawaii by the Japanese submarine I-16. BENHAM’s role as convoy escort was briefly interrupted while the destroyer successfully chaperoned the wounded carrier to the repair yard at Pearl Harbor. In the frantic days that followed the Japanese attack, BENHAM continued to screen the vital carriers protecting the Hawaiian Islands from the Japanese invasion everyone expected momentarily. The nation needed a victory, however, and BENHAM task force would provide it.
Two carrier task groups were organized for a special mission. The Army Air Corps, in the form of Lieutenant Colonel James Harold Doolittle, had convinced General Henry “Hap” Arnold that an air strike, using Army bombers flown from Navy carriers, had a chance to bomb Japan. The ordeal facing the destroyers assigned to cover the two carriers involved screening the flat tops to within five hundred miles of the Japanese home islands. BENHAM, along with her division mates of Destroyer Division 6, covered USS ENTERPRISE (CV-6), two heavy cruisers, and an oiler. The group ordered to provide cover for the Army bombers aboard HORNET (CV-8) was designated Task Force 16.1. TF 16.2, centered around HORNET, carried sixteen B-25 “Mitchell” medium bombers. Still one hundred miles from the launch point, the force encountered a picket line of fishing trawlers. The screen took care of them, but the message went to Imperial headquarters that carriers had been sighted. The Japanese leadership concluded that American carrier aircraft could not hit targets on the Home Islands from that far out. There appeared to be time for a successful launch.
At 08l5, on April 18, 1942, the first bomber of the “Doolittle Raid” left the deck of HORNET. Within hours, the raiders were dropping their loads on targets in and around Tokyo. For the first time, the people of Japan learned of their vulnerability. BENHAM and her screen succeeded in returning the carriers to Pearl Harbor without a scratch.
The tide was beginning to turn and BENHAM would find herself in the midst of the pivotal actions that changed the course of the war. BENHAM screened her carriers at the battle of Midway, helping to rescue more than 700 survivors from the crews of the USS HAMMANN (DD-412), lost trying to protect her carrier, as well as a portion of the crew of the wounded carrier, USS YORKTOWN (CV-5).
As the war action shifted to the South, BENHAM followed. Throughout the summer and fall, the veteran destroyer screened the Marine landings at Guadalcanal, then protected the convoys bringing supplies to the embattled island. The chores were far from uneventful. In one episode, BENHAM was protecting a transport carrying Japanese prisoners back from Guadalcanal. Just after entering Cook Strait, between the north and south islands of New Zealand, the bridge lookout spotted a huge wave, reportedly striking the destroyer well over the lookout’s head. The roll, exceeding 48 degrees, suggested that BENHAM might be more stable than her critics feared.
BENHAM’s luck ran out in the contested waters of Ironbottom Sound, just north of Guadalcanal. The almost nightly attacks by Japanese naval forces on the beachhead had been blocked, but the result was often in doubt. Finally, Rear Admiral Willis A. Lee could deploy a force capable of checkmating the Japanese bombardment group Allied intelligence reported steaming from the enemy bases far to the north.
Destroyers lead the way into the waters off Savo Island on the evening of November 14-15, 1942, and, one by one, they took the brunt of the fire from the Japanese battleships, cruisers, and destroyers. BENHAM, second in line behind USS WALKE (DD-416) and trailed by two other destroyers and two battleships, opened on the Japanese destroyer screen. Unfortunately, Japanese 24- inch “Long Lance” torpedoes were already in the water.
The blast caused by the Japanese torpedo threw gun crews off their feet and tore away fifteen feet of BENHAM’s bow. Immediately out of action, the destroyer was able to limp to the southwest, damage control parties struggling to keep her afloat. USS GWIN (DD-433) came along side and assisted with the efforts to save DD-397, but the creaks and groans coming from the hull of the stricken destroyer signaled that the efforts were doomed to failure.
A loud crack heralded the end of the valiant tin can. Her back broken, BENHAM split in half, but only after allowing her crew to successfully abandon the doomed vessel. Gunfire from GWIN sank DD-397’s remains somewhere west of Guadalcanal on November 15, 1942.
USS BENHAM was awarded five battle stars for her service during World War II.