The fabulous Fletchers


Active in every major United States Navy surface action against the Japanese from late 1942 destroyers of the ‘Fletcher' Class were not only among the world's most successful warships but they surpassed many others in aesthetic appeal. With their slim, twin-funnel lines, five main gun turrets and that purposeful look of ships built for war, the 'Fletchers' were ultimately to serve for decades. They were also the first American destroyers to be freed from pre-World War II treaty restrictions on size and armament and, under a war emergency construction plan, all 175 'Fletchers' were commissioned in time to see action in the Pacific. This prolific output was ample confirmation of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto's premonition at the time of Pearl Harbour that an American 'sleeping tiger' would awaken and wreak havoc on the Japanese Empire.

The origins of the 'Fletcher' Class were established in 1939 when the General Board, the planning department answering to the Secretary of the Navy, began to study designs for a new destroyer to enter service in 1941. What emerged from these deliberations was officially viewed as something of a compromise: ideally not exceeding 1,600 tons, the new class would be armed with a maximum of four 5in guns, two quintuple torpedo tubes and twenty-eight depth charges. A two-funnel flush deck layout was chosen for its high integral hull strength, good sea-keeping properties and stability.

Although this basic hull configuration remained unchanged, the addition of military equipment meant an almost inevitable weight increase, to 1,800 tons, then 2,050 tons. Finally, due in part to reports from the European war zone which stressed the need for increased protection from blast fragments, each 'Fletcher' tipped the scales at 2,800 tons in 'trial load' condition but, fully loaded, a typical wartime 'Fletcher' could displace as much as 2,940 tons.

While the desired low weight and compact size envisaged by the Board was substantially exceeded ­ there being a feeling that earlier US destroyers were already too large ­ the increase3s had to be accepted. It was vital to distribute top weight evenly and a 'Fletcher' required a hull of at least 370 feet overall and a maximum beam of 39 feet. Topside weight had been and remained a consistent challenge in destroyer design.

As it later emerged, construction materials as well as fittings contributed to the higher weight: a shortage of aluminium alloy led to an increased use of steel which could add 54 tons to the total weight of an early 'Fletcher'.

Anti-aircraft protection for the new class was initially modest, consisting of up to four 0.5in machine guns, although the excellent dual purpose 5in/38 main guns were designed for high angle shooting at maximum elevation, imparting a useful AA capability. In the early 'Fletcher' design studies, twin rather than single gun mountings tended to be preferred until it was realised that with only four guns, the loss of one turret would reduce main battery fire by fifty per cent, which was quite unacceptable.

By January 1940 the final design had been more or less confirmed as: five 5in/38 guns in single mountings: powerplant delivering 60,000 shp from twin shaft geared turbines; two quintuple torpedo tubes; two depth charge tracks and four single side-throwing projectors (K-guns). Ballistic plating between ½ and ¾ inches thick protected the pilot house, gun director and machinery spaces.
Thus configured the new destroyer would ideally be capable of a top speed of up to 39 knots and have a range of 6,500 miles at 17 knots. On 27th January the Navy gave the official go-ahead based on the above proposal and by 12th February plans had been drawn for 'US destroyer No 445'. This did not end proposals for further equipment modifications but the early 'Fletchers' were to be built close enough to the January 1940 proposal. Orders for the first twenty-five hulls were signed between 28th June and 1st July 1940.
Developed at a time when European naval forces were engaged in a shooting war which would generate great changes in how destroyers were deployed, the 'Fletchers' emerged with a sound balance between guns and torpedoes. The latter weapon, an integral part of destroyers' offensive capability, was by 1941 no longer the exclusive province of fast naval attack ships ­ indeed the US Navy placed equal if not more reliance on guns rather than torpedoes as main armament for destroyers.

Burgeoning naval aircraft capability also meant that from the capital ship down, the structure of naval task forces had to change radically and it was clear that the modern destroyer now needed to undertake multiple tasks. These included: screening carriers from enemy air, submarine and surface attack, providing fire support for amphibious operations, using guns and torpedoes against a variety of seaborne targets, attacking submarines with depth charges and laying down effective counter fire on defended shorelines.
In the case of the 'Fletchers' and other US vessels designed to carry torpedoes, it was fortunate that equal importance was given to other weaponry, much of it standardised throughout the fleet. Such was the performance of the Whitehead Mk14/15 torpedo fitted with an unreliable influence exploder that although numerous destroyer skippers confidently placed their fish just where they should have crippled or sunk enemy transports or warships, confirmed sinkings were few.
It was not until 1943 that a full investigation revealed the fact that the largely untested influence exploders were at best, unreliable and at worst, useless. In general, destroyer and submarine torpedoes reverted to using contact exploders.

With initial construction underway, fifty-six repeat 'Fletchers' were budgeted for in the FY1942 budget and 119 were eventually ordered during the year. More shipyards were brought into the 'Fletcher' building programme to join Bath Iron Works, Bethlehem Steel, Charleston, Consolidated and Boston Navy Yard, all of which shared the first orders. Bath and Federal built the first eleven hulls before Charleston entered the picture with Pringle (DD-477) and eleven yards eventually participated in the programme. 'Fletchers' began building rapidly, so much so that the named vessel of the class was included in the second hatch of ships ordered rather than the first, as was usual.

In the event, Nicholas
(DD-449) and O'Bannon (DD-450) were the first 'Fletchers' laid down, on 3rd March 1941. Nicholas was both the first to be launched (on 19th February 1942) and commissioned, on 4th June 1942. By year's end, thirty-one 'Fletchers' had been commissioned to join the Pacific Fleet.
Admirable construction record enabled the Navyto deploy enough destroyers to replace those lost during earlier engagements in the Pacific, particularly off the Solomon Islands where US cruisers and older destroyers had since August borne the brunt of Japanese attempts to consolidate their foothold on Guadalcanal. New ships were urgently needed.
The early 'Fletchers' featured a tall 'rounded' bridge and 'open' wings, an approach influenced by British practice. It was soon realised that this design had limitations, not the least of which was that with a 'closed' wheelhouse officers momentarily lost sight of other vessels and aircraft changing position rapidly from left to right. A revised bridge, lower and squarer in profile, projecting forward with an open platform running round in front of the wheelhouse, was fitted as standard on later 'Fletchers', almost certainly from Brownson (DD-518), giving a total of fifty-seven 'Fletchers' built with round bridges and 118 with the square type.
That most 'Fletchers' differed one from another in detail is known well enough, although it might be interesting to add that a variation on the 'round' or 'square' bridge configuration was linked by some vessels having the larger open bridge platform running completely around in front of the original bridge. Nicholas, one of the earlier ships, was so configured post-war and this may have been a modification carried out under a peacetime rather than wartime refit.
Among the myriad changes made to the armament of the 'Fletchers' was early replacement of the quadruple 1.1in machine gun mounted on a raised superstructure aft of the No 4 turret. This weapon had proven unreliable in service and gave way to the excellent 20mm Oerlikon cannon, a gun that was to liberally cover 'Fletchers' and all other US destroyers by 1945.
A vital part of the massive US preparations for full war production was the development of shipboard radar, weathering an initial disadvantage in the early Pacific night engagements much favoured by the Japanese, the US fleet procured SC air/sea search sets almost as fast as industry produced them. The 'Fletchers' were among the first destroyers to get this vital detection aid plus a combat information centre (CIC) to gather, interpret and act upon data from radar.
Such was the urgency to get 'Fletchers' to the war zone that some of the early hulls did not feature a CIC, this being retrofitted during the course of service. The plethora of antennae, supporting masts and aerials progressively festooned all ships of the 'Fletcher' Class and while the foremast became the location of most of the primary detection aids, the late-war fit of electronic counter-measures equipment necessitated a short main mast, which early vessels did not have.


Due to delays in fitting out, the first 'Fletchers' did not deploy to the Solomons until the late autumn of 1942. Nicholas arrived in the New Hebrides in October and was immediately used in operations to counter the Japanese 'Tokyo Express' supply runs. It was the dual task of the US warships to protect their own transports carrying ammunition, food, fuel and numerous other items to help sustain the Marine garrison on Guadalcanal and to intercept enemy transports and warships. The latter, doubling as transports, frequently used the coverof darkness to shell the battered defenders in an attempt to render Henderson Field, the main airfield in the Solomons, untenable for Allied aircraft.
The first major action involving 'FIetchers' was the night engagement known as the Battle of Guadalcanal. Fletcher, O'Bannon and Nicholas, pitted against the battleship Hiei and other enemy units, emerged unscathed from this gun and torpedo dual. The Japanese lost the Hiei and a destroyer and, more importantly, had failed in their mission of delivering the (coup de grace) the island defenders.
By the turn of the year it became clear to the Japanese that the high wastage in ships, men and equipment in the Salomons had been to no avail and with the exception of a garrison on Bougainville, it was decided to abandon the area, Evacuation was achieved remarkably efficiently and in secret and there was some irony in the loss of the first 'Fletcher' DeHaven, on the night of 1st/2nd February 1943. Mistakenly believing that the American ships were intending to disrupt their evacuation, the Japanese dive bombed DeHaven and sank her. She was the last of fifteen US destroyers to become victims of the bloody Solomons campaign.

The rate of 'Fletcher' launchings steadily increased and the first five months of 1943 saw forty new ships commissioned with nine more following in June. One of these latter was Capps (DD-550), among the few 'Fletchers' to serve, albeit briefly, in the Atlantic. She arrived at Scapa Flow to exercise with the Home Fleet before joining a mixed force to screen the carrier Ranker's attack on Bodo in Norway on 4th October. Escort duty followed until Capps was detached on 22nd November and sailed for Boston for subsequent service in the Pacific. Post-war she flew the Spanish flag as the Lepanto.
Action for US destroyermen in 1943 included support for the re-occupation by the US of Attu in the Aleutians and the landings on Munda, New Georgia, beginning in June, and operations off Kolombangara. On 5th July the enemy demonstrated his expertise in ship handling and torpedo engineering when three destroyers dashed into Kula Gulf and surprised US ships bombarding New Georgia. A single 'long lance' tore into Strong (DD-467) and despite a heroic rescue by the crew of Chevalier, the destroyer went down.
Interspersed with routine patrols, escort work and rescue of downed aviators, 'Fletcher' crews became adept at hunting IJN (Imperial Japanese Navy) submarines. The first sub kill for the class was credited to the busy Fletcher which sank the crippled Ro-102 on 11th February.
Although the first actions in the South Pacific for 'Fletchers' were of the more conventional ship versus ship variety, the very real threat of enemy air attack led to a general increase in destroyer firepower. 'Fletcher' armament was initially modified under new Bureau of Ordnance Characteristics promulgated in May 1942. These included provision for an extra Bofors on the fantail, additional Oerlikons, particularly in forward positions, as well as doubling the number of guns mounted in waist positions.
Accommodation of some AA weapons was dictated by design; in early 'Fletchers', the round bridge allowed an Oerlikon mount on the roof of the pilot house and one in front of it, whereas neither mounting was possible in square bridge ships, due to the detrimental effects of blast. Space was also limited.
Closed bridge 'Fletchers' ultimately mounted eleven Oerlikons compared to ten in later ships, at least up to April 1943 when the number of close range weapons was again increased. AA defence was further boosted in June to round out at five twin Bofors and seven Oerlikons. Not all 'Fletchers' complied strictly with this latter configuration, which recommended deletion of all guns from the fantail position, for example.
Late in 1943 Captain Arleigh Burke's Destroyer Squadron 23 helped maintain the US blockade of the waters surrounding the Solomons. Burke's famous signal to Admiral Halsey as he made a high speed dash to join battle at Cape St George on 24th November became part of US naval lore. Informing Halsey that he was making 31 knots, the C-in-C replied: "Thirty-one knot Burke get athwart the Buka-Bougainville line. If enemy contacted you know what to do."
The nickname stuck and Burke's unit, composed of two four-ship devisions: Charles Ausburne Dyson, Claxton and Stanly (DesDiv 45) with Foote, Converse, Spence and Thatcher (DesDiv 46), ambushed five IJN destroyers and sank three. The 'Little Beavers', as the squadron became known, went on to fight in twenty-two separate actions in the space of four months, during which one cruiser, nine destroyers and a submarine were accounted for. All the DesRon 23 destroyers survived the war except Spence which sank in the devastating typhoon which struck the 3rd Fleet on 18th December 1944.
In June 1944, the assault on the Marianas, primarily to provide B-29 bomber bases, saw destroyers undertaking their traditional and multi-faceted support role. Amphibious operations now relied heavily on naval air strikes to reduce the defences in concert with naval gunfire; in addition an anti-submarine screen was provided by fleet destroyers and destroyer escorts and the 'Fletchers' shouldered the new and increasingly important role of radar picket to detect incoming hostile air raids and vector friendly interceptors.
Although countering the air threat grew increasingly important, the time-honoured gun dual was far from relegated to history. Japanese naval strategy had always included a decisive fleet engagement with the Americans and to offset earlier defeats and steadily rising attrition, the US landings in the Philippines in October 1944 appeared to offer a last chance for the imperial Navy to show it was still a force to be reckoned with.
Leyte Gulf, the IJN prepared a three-pronged attack plan designed to destroy US invasion transports and warships. A decoy force successfully drew off the bulk of Admiral Halsey's battleships and heavy cruisers to create a dangerous void in Surigao Strait. And off Samar on 25th October three 'Fletchers', Johnston, Hoel and Heerman, displayed outstanding fighting ability when they were suddenly tasked with protecting six escort carriers.
All carriers scrambled their aircraft but the only US warships in the path of Admiral Takeo Kurita's battleships, cruisers and destroyers were the 'Fletchers' and four destroyer escorts. They were to put up such a fight that the enemy eventually withdrew, having sunk only one carrier. The Japanese skippers were convinced that they faced a force of ships larger than destroyers.
Finding the range tor their main batteries, the enemy cruisers took a grim toll. Johnston, engaged in a David and Goliath gun duel with cruisers, was pounded to pieces. Along with Hoel and one DE, 'GQ Johnnie' (Johnston's nickname stemmed from the fact that she seemed to be constantly at General Quarters (GQ) during her service), sank only after the battle was over. Her skipper, Earnest E. Evans received the Medal of Honour and his ship shared the Presidential Unit Citation awarded to all units of Task Unit 77.4.3. Kurita's force ultimately suffered heavy losses ­ one battleship and five heavy cruisers.
It was fitting that 'Fletchers' also fought the last destroyer versus destroyer action of the Pacific War when on 7th January 1945 Charles Ausburne and Braine, in company with two other destroyers, picked up IJN Hinoki. The 'Matsu' class escort destroyer, swamped by shellfire from all four US ships, slowed and sank inside thirty minutes of her opening torpedo salvo which achieved nothing.Finding the range tor their main batteries, the enemy cruisers took a grim toll. Johnston, engaged in a David and Goliath gun duel with cruisers, was pounded to pieces. Along with Hoel and one DE, 'GQ Johnnie' (Johnston's nickname stemmed from the fact that she seemed to be constantly at General Quarters (GQ) during her service), sank only after the battle was over. Her skipper, Earnest In conventional terms, each unit of the 'Fletcher' class was more than able to give a good account of itself, whatever the target. It was when the Japanese resorted to the notorious kamikaze tactic that the destroyer loss rate began to spiral, almost as though the bad old days of 1942 had returned. When they began in earnest off Leyte, the kamikazes exacted a fearful toll in lives and ships.
Finding the range tor their main batteries, the enemy cruisers took a grim toll. Johnston, engaged in a David and Goliath gun duel with cruisers, was pounded to pieces. Along with Hoel and one DE, 'GQ Johnnie' (Johnston's nickname stemmed from the fact that she seemed to be constantly at General Quarters (GQ) during her service), sank only after the battle was over. Her skipper, Earnest Finding the range tor their main batteries, the enemy cruisers took a grim toll. Johnston, engaged in a David and Goliath gun duel with cruisers, was pounded to pieces. Along with Hoel and one DE, 'GQ Johnnie' (Johnston's nickname stemmed from the fact that she seemed to be constantly at General Quarters (GQ) during her service), sank only after the battle was over. Her skipper, Earnest Even on those occasions when they tried repeatedly but unsuccessfully to sink individual destroyers, mainly those engaged on the dangerous task of radar picket, the enemy pilots invariably caused casualties amongst American sailors. In total, kamikazes were to sink eleven 'Fletchers' and damage a further dozen or so ­ over half the figure of nineteen 'Fletchers' sunk during the war to all causes.
The urgent need to beat the kamikazes saw a number of 'Fletchers' landing their forward set of torpedo tubes to make way for more guns, single weapons being generally replaced by twins. It was realised that single Oerlikons, even with updated Mk14 computing sights, were unlikely to deter a determined kamikaze, let alone shoot it down. Two quad Bofors with Mk35 radar ranging in place of the torpedo tubes was considered more than a fair trade!
Sterling war service by 'Fletcher' officers and men was recognized by Presidential Citation and Navy Unit Commendation. The former was awarded to seven 'Fletchers' ­ Bennion, Cowell, Evans, Nicholas, O'Bannon, Radford and Wadsworth, while eighteen ships were presented with the NUC. It would have been surprising if Arleigh Burke's squadron had not been singled out for special mention and DesRon 23 duly received a PUC for its work in the Salomons from 1st November 1943 to 23rd February 1944.
With the war over, US Navy fleet destroyers were modified to undertake a widening ASW role, mainly to meet the perceived threat posed by a strong Soviet Navy. Extensive refits known collectively as FRAM ­ Force Reconstruction And Modernisation ­ were applied far more extensively to the newer 'Sumners' and 'Gearings', although neither class was as numerous as many American admirals would have liked.
Three 'Fletchers' received a FRAM update and one (Hazelwood) was fitted with an afterdeck hangar and landing pad to test the DASH (Drone Anti-Submarine Helicopter) drone helicopter project (an aviation connection which had at wartime precedents with the conversion of three 'Fletchers' to experimentally carry floatplanes). Most were converted into escorts with the emphasis on ASW capability. (

A more conventional war than the envisaged hunt for Soviet submarines broke out in Korea in 1950. Although 'Fletchers' were to play a relatively small part in the patrol and shore bombardment task that occupied US destroyers throughout most of the conflict, re-activation did give the surviving 'Fletchers' a new lease of life. In response to a new emergency, mothballed 'Fletchers' were used to bring reserve units up to strength. When the Korean War ended in 1953, the 'Fletcher' Class remained part of the active navy inventory until the 1970s, although precious few were left by then following mass disposal in the late 1960s.
Some 'Fletchers' met an ignominious but useful end as targets to test new weapons while others were sold to overseas governments, many of which had had to rebuild naval forces virtually from scratch. 'Fletchers' eventually helped revitalise the defence forces of fourteen countries, among them Japan, Italy and Germany.
Currently three 'Fletchers' are preserved as monuments in the US: the most authentic as regards original wartime configuration is the USS Kidd at Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The Cassin Young resides at Boston, Mass and The Sullivans, renamed (from Putnam) in honour of the five brothers killed in action aboard the cruiser Juneau, is berthed at Buffalo, New York.

Ships monthly, September 1994 



 Fletcher Destroyer

Sailing on into the age of missiles and atomic submarines, the 'Fletchers' retained much of their original configuration, despite updates. In this October 1966 view USS Fletcher exhibits her two remaining 0.5in/38 turrets which share deck space with an Mk108 ASW rocket launcher, a twin 3in AA gun on the platform aft and hedgehog launchers below the bridge. Note the antennae for an extensive radar and ECM suite and the massive tripod mainmast, a distinctive Feature of post-war ships.


 Fletcher USS Evans

USS Evans, in the disruptive Measure 32 camouflage of black, ocean and haze grey introduced in 1943, shows the multiple gun tubs and the high position of the main battery director of the early round bridge 'Fletchers'. (Photos courtesy US Navy / National Archives)


 Fletcher USS Charles J. Badger

An aerial view of a square bridge 'Fletcher', in this case USS Charles J. Badger. The less cluttered arrangement of the lower bridge profile is shown to advantage. (Photo courtesy of US Naval / National Archives)


 USS Pringle  

One of the most drastic wartime changes to 'Fletcher' configuration was the installation of a catapult to take a Vought OS2U Kingfisher Floatplane. Six hulls were allocated aircraft but only three, including USS Pringle seen here, actually carried them for an experimental period. (Photo courtesy of US Naval / National Archives)


fabulouus fletchers 


USS Cassin Young, preserved at Boston under the jurisdiction of the US National Park Service, still moves out of port - just. Tugs annually bring the destroyer out into Boston Harbour, reverse her and take her back to the pier. These October 'sea trials', as they are known, are designed to subject the ship to uniform weathering.
(Photo c
ourtesy National Park Service

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