A Tin Can Sailors Destroyer History
USS GEORGE K. MACKENZIE DD-836
The Tin Can Sailor, January 1990
Ironically enough, USS GEORGE K. MACKENZIE, a ship whose function, among others, was to hunt submarines, was named after a submariner.
George K. MacKenzie was born in Brooklyn, New York on May 30, 1910, attending local schools until his admission to the Naval Academy. Upon graduation with the class of 1931, MacKenzie was assigned to the “silent service” after serving in USS RALEIGH (CL-7) and representing the United States on the Navy’s Olympic track team.
Following training at the Submarine School in New London, Connecticut, which included instruction in deep diving and submarine rescue techniques, MacKenzie served aboard USS BONITA (SS-165) and USS PLUNGER (SS-179). As commanding officer of USS FALCON, MacKenzie was instrumental raising the ill-fated USS SQUALUS (SS-192), which sank during a practice dive in the summer of 1939.
A highly qualified submarine commander, MacKenzie achieved command status early in World War, II. He was given command of USS TRITON
(SS-201), a TAMBOR class fleet submarine. On March 15, 1943, TRITON reported chasing two convoys between the Shortland Basin and Rabaul. Another sub operating in the area, USS TRIGGER (SS-237), reported hearing Japanese destroyers depth charging a sub in the distance. TRITON was never heard from again. MacKenzie was awarded the Navy Cross “for extraordinary heroism and courageous devotion to duty as commanding officer of the USS TRITON . . .”
USS GEORGE K. MACKENZIE (DD-836) was launched by Bath Iron Works, Bath, Maine on May 13, 1945, and placed in commission two months later. Lieutenant Commander MacKenzie’s daughter, Donna, sponsored the ship.
DD-836 was a GEARING class destroyer, one of a proposed class of 105 state-of-the-art super destroyers; improvements over the fourteen foot shorter ALLEN SUMNER’s that they succeeded. Although all were not completed, GEARING class “cans” were to form the mainstay of U.S. destroyer forces well into the 1970’s.
As launched, USS GEORGE K. MACKENZIE was 391’0″ long, with a beam of 40’10″ and a draft of 23’. Her designed displacement was 3,160 tons, but her standard displacement at commissioning, 2,450 tons, was more representative of her “true” weight; heavier than some World War I cruisers. Her offensive fire-power included 6 – 5″ 38 cal. “naval rifles” in three twin mounts. Anti-aircraft protection was provided by sixteen 40mm, three in “quad” mounts and two in twins, along with ten twin 20mm weapons. She still carried 5 – 21″ torpedo tubes in a single mount, amidships, between her twin stacks. Six “K” guns and two depth charge “racks” composed her anti-submarine capability.
By the time the MAC had completed her shakedown cruise off Cuba, World War II was over, so, like most of her sisters, she settled into a series of training tours, interleaved with “showing the flag.” MAC participated in Navy Day celebrations in October Force, where she conducted training cruises until 1948. In January of that year, DD-836 left on a “goodwill tour” to South America, spending most of her time at Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Returning to Norfolk, MAC resumed her career as an educator and Cold War diplomat. Frequent, relatively short, cruises out of Norfolk throughout the early spring were replaced by a Midshipman cruise in June to Portugal, Italy, North Africa, and Cuba. By October, she was back in the Mediterranean, this time supporting the United Nations Palestine Patrol and screening allied forces engaged in occupying Trieste. The MAC returned to the United States in time for Christmas, this time to be celebrated in Newport, RI. DD-836’s crew became familiar with Fall River, MA, as a “liberty port” during this period; moored at a buoy within sight of Newport’s Naval War College, most of the crew seemed to enjoy the change of scene that the Spindle City afforded.
Following an overhaul in Boston, when hedgehog projectors were added to the 01 level slightly forward of the bridge, DD-836 continued her service as a training vessel on the East Coast, with a second Med cruise in the winter of 1950.
North Korean forces surged across the border into the south in the spring of 1950, plunging the United States in a “police action” which became typical of the post-war world. By July 1, 1950, the MAC had been transferred to Pearl Harbor to prepare for service in Korean waters.
Destroyers have always been multi-purpose ships, and the GEORGE K. MACKENZIE proved true to that tradition in Korea. In her first tour, DD-836’s duties alternated between fire missions and screening and plane guard duties for the fast attack carriers of her task group. After a short repair period in San Diego, she returned to action.
Once again, the MAC took up her duties as a combination “big gun-good Samaritan.” On the “bomb line”, off Wonsan, the MAC fired 3,533 five inch projectiles in slightly less than a month; as Cliff Boyd, ex-chief of CIC points out, “an average of roughly one every ten minutes” as a part in the longest naval bombardment in American military history. Yet, the same crew of the MAC also contributed six hundred pounds of clothing to North Korean orphans. Nineteen United Nations pilots also owed their lives to the skill of the “mighty MAC’S” crew.
The USS GEORGE K. MACKENZIE was responsible for successfully directing helicopters in the rescue of ten pilots, while vectoring seven other airmen to emergency fields. One pilot was picked up by USS GREGORY (DD-802) after being directed by the MAC, and Lieutenant Joseph Pendergast of the carrier USS ESSEX (CV-9) was fished out by DD-836 herself. The end of the Korean War did not mark the close of operations for DD-836. The MAC completed nine tours of duty in the Far East between 1953 and 1959. Cruises included training voyages and a stint with the Taiwan patrol.
By 1960, the MAC, then home-ported in Yokusuka, Japan, took up a role in Southeast Asian “power politics”, serving as a screen for a carrier task force “showing the flag” in the waters near Laos. That time, pressure worked, and in 1963, DD-836 was rotated home for a Type 1 FRAM rebuilding as a part of the largest reconstruction program ever undertaken by the Navy.
The vast fleet of FLETCHER, ALLEN SUMNER, and GEARING class destroyers built during World War II were in dire need of repair and modernization. Fiscal restraints made the construction of an entire new fleet impractical, however, so selected hulls were extensively modified.
The MAC’s “upper works” were stripped at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and rebuilt along different lines using lighter weight materials. One five inch turret and all secondary anti-aircraft armament disappeared; the “traditional” torpedo tubes amidships were replaced by ASROC, an anti-submarine rocket-launched torpedo; and two triple “high tech” torpedo tubes were added to the 01 level, forward of the remodeled bridge. Gone were the “K” guns, hedgehog batteries, and “roller racks” of “ash cans” which destroyers had carried since the First World War. A large hanger and raised platform dominated the waist of the ship, providing facilities for the MAC’s DASH helicopter.
DASH was to be the answer to the threat presented by the newer, faster, and quieter Soviet submarines. The small, remotely-controlled helicopter could carry two torpedoes or a nuclear depth charge well beyond the range of MAC’s more “conventional” weapons, extending a screen of safety for many miles around the vulnerable carriers of a 1960’s task group. Unfortunately, DASH proved to be unreliable. Within three years of extensive fleet deployment, more than half of the DASH’s were out of operation. The MAC’s hanger and landing deck were neither sizable enough nor strongly built enough, to service manned helos, so DD-836 suddenly had a fine movie theater. By the time the GEORGE K. MACKENZIE and her crew became adept at handling the new technology, the “Mighty MAC” was scheduled for another war.
For the next several years, DD-836 alternated between Japanese waters and a new “bomb line,” screening carriers and adding her firepower to another fight, this time in Vietnam. Once again, GEORGE K. MACKENZIE’s five-inch weapons supported Army and Marine actions along the Southeast Asian coast. She was also instrumental in rescuing downed fliers and helping to fight an extensive flight deck fire on USS FORRESTAL (CVA-59). Escorting the FORRESTAL back to Subic Bay for repairs was one of her last duties in the Far East.
Like most of her kind, DD-836 was relegated to the Naval Reserve Training fleet after the Vietnam War. Many GEARINGS served on with foreign navies, going to Turkey, Pakistan, Portugal, and other American “friends.” FRAMing had been a success; their useful service had been extended to nearly forty years, truly a remarkable longevity. For the GEORGE K. MACKENZIE, however service was not to be. After extensive inspection, Bureau of Ships decided the MAC was “worn out ” On October 1, 1976, the “mighty MAC” was stricken from the active service list and ended her life as a target for the missiles, bombs, and guns of the US fleet.
USS GEORGE K. MACKENZIE gallantly served her country CONTINUOUSLY for more than thirty-one years, a tribute to the ship and to her dedicated crew.