A Tin Can Sailors Destroyer History
USS ELLET DD-398
The Tin Can Sailor, October 1998
The second ship of the BENHAM class to be built at the Kearny yard of Federal Shipbuilding was named for an illustrious family of Army officers during the Civil War. The Ellett family commanded a squadron of nine river “rams” and two floating batteries under Army control in the actions along the Mississippi.
Almost twenty months elapsed between keel laying in December, 1936, and the launching of the new destroyer, but commissioning followed just seven months later. By the time ELLETT was formally accepted into the Navy, world conditions had changed. The nation needed a modern fleet of destroyers. ELLETT would prove very useful.
Following her commissioning on a cold February day in 1939 at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, DD-398 operated out of Boston on the Neutrality Patrol. The duty was exhausting and hazardous; the new destroyer protected shipping to the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, where the “war zone” began. From that point, the cargo vessels were “fair game” for prowling German submarines. The duty was cold and thankless, but ELLETT’s tireless efforts helped to maintain the peace on “our side” of the Atlantic while the nation prepared for war.
A welcomed respite from the Atlantic storms found ELLETT transferred to the west Gulf Patrol out of Galveston, Texas. While the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico were appreciated, the better duty was not to last. Like most of the “new construction”, ELLETT was assigned to the Battle Force, Pacific, based in San Diego in 1940.
DD-398 was operating as an element of Task Force 8 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December, 1941. TF 8, centered around USS ENTERPRISE (CV-6), was returning from Wake Island and would still be almost two hundred miles at sea when the first bombs exploded on the Pacific Fleet anchorage. ELLETT’s years of peace had ended.
As the battles shifted around the central and south Pacific, DD-398 followed the action. She screened ENTERPRISE as the big carrier herself provided an air umbrella for the B-25 Mitchell bombers launched from USS HORNET (CV-8) in the Doolittle raid against Japan. Less than a week later, ELLETT’s task force shifted to the south to reinforce naval units in the Battle of the Coral Sea. Thousands of miles to the north, the forces of Imperial Japan were being drawn into a trap and ELLETT’s carrier was needed once again. In June, she protected the flat top during the pivotal Battle of Midway.
DD-398 returned to Pearl Harbor to prepare for the largest invasion effort yet to be staged in the Pacific, the Marine landings on Guadalcanal. Destroyers were the workhorses of the actions that swept up the Solomon Island chain from Guadalcanal toward the Philippines. ELLETT was called upon for a variety of tasks.
Sometimes, her role involved rescue. After the Battle of Savo island, DD-398 rescued nearly five hundred men from the cruisers QUINCY (CA-39) and USS ASTORIA (CA-34). With USS SELFRIDGE (DD-357), she was then called upon to sink the abandoned Australian cruiser HMAS CANBERRA, wrecked in the same battle.
Japan attempted to reinforce her troops on Guadalcanal with nightly voyages down “The Slot”, the narrow body of water that led from Japanese bases in the north. ELLETT struck back. Occasionally, shore bombardment was the order of the day; while the evening called for more unusual actions. On more than one occasion, ELLETT carried units of Fiji Islander “raiders” to attack Japanese outposts. Intelligence suggested that survivors from the cruiser HELENA (CL-50) were hiding on Japanese-held islands. ELLETT, along with other destroyers and two attack transports snatched the remnants of HELENA’s crew from under the noses of Imperial forces.
On September 3, 1943, ELLETT had the chance to practice the tactics her crew had first learned years before on the Neutrality Patrol in the Atlantic. ELLETT finally had an opportunity to fight a submarine. Japanese Imperial submarines were ordered into the Solomons to disrupt American convoys. They failed. The submarines were detected almost immediately, and anti-submarine forces were ordered from Espiritu Santo to destroy the threat. Late in the evening, ELLETT’s radar encountered an unidentified vessel at a range of 13,000 yards. The Japanese fleet submarine 1-168 was cruising on the surface. The destroyer approached to within three miles, finally challenging with a blinker light, then blanketing the target with star shells. 1-168 submerged and began evasive maneuvers. For twenty-six minutes, the destroyer beat the waters over the sub. Sonar contact was lost and ELLETT’s crew believed the undersea raider had escaped. A different story greeted the destroyer men at daylight. A large oil slick and bits of debris marked the grave of 1-168. DD-398 was one of the few American destroyers to single-handedly sink an enemy submarine.
ELLETT returned to her duties of carrier screen and shore bombardment through the remainder of the war. Her mission took her through the Marianas and into the Bonins with the invasion of Iwo Jima in December, 1944-January, 1945. July found the veteran tin can conveying troops from her base in the Guam-Saipan area.
DD-398 was undergoing much needed repair and modernization at the Mare Island shipyard in California when the Japanese surrendered. Work on the valiant destroyer slowed to a halt and she was decommissioned on October 29, 1945. She was finally sold for scrapping on August 1, 1947.
USS ELLETT was awarded ten battle stars for her service in World War II.