Author: Larry Thornberry
Tin Can Titans: The Heroic Men and Ships of World War II’s Most Decorated Navy Destroyer Squadron
By John Wukovits
(Da Capo Press, 320 pages, $ 28)
In Tin Can Titans, naval historian and prolific author John Wukovits has given us an inspiring story of courage, duty, sacrifice, and devotion to country in the most trying and dangerous of circumstances. It’s an epic story about decisive actions in a large Pacific war. But it’s mostly a story about American sailors at war. Some of them professionals, who made the Navy their careers before and after World War II. But most of them civilians who donned uniforms for the duration when their country needed them, and who went back, those who survived, to their civilian lives when the shooting stopped.
The dozen Fletcher Class destroyers of Desron 21 (Destroyer Squadron 21) were small when compared to the Japanese cruisers and even battleships that they often went up against in surface engagements in the South Pacific. But in battle they came up big, usually giving more than they got, and proving themselves indispensable, especially in 1942 and early 1943 when America was opposing a rampant Japanese navy and army in the Pacific on a shoestring. This was before America’s industrial and military might turned out the flood of ships and planes and trained men to finally and decisively put an end to Japanese depredations in the Pacific.
Admiral William “Bull” Halsey, who orchestrated so much of America’s Pacific victory, so appreciated the contributions of these valiant warships, which consistently punched above their weight, that he chose three of their number, O’Bannon, Nicholas, and Taylor, to lead the American armada into Tokyo Bay for the surrender ceremony that ended World War II in September of 1945.
The first three tin cans (so-called because of their thin hulls, designed for speed and maneuverability), O’Bannon, Fletcher, and Nicholas, of what would eventually become Desron 21, arrived in the South Pacific in the summer of 1942 in time to support the Guadalcanal campaign that began in August. From that time through the end of the war, Desron 21was instrumental in every major U.S. offensive in the Pacific except Palau and the Marianas. They fought in the campaigns for Guadalcanal, the northern Solomon Islands, the Gilberts, the Marshalls, New Guinea, the Philippines, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. They were prepared to fight in the invasion of Japan before two bombs in August made that dreaded mother-of-all-murderous-clashes unnecessary.
During these intense three years, the ships and men of Desron 21 escorted transports supplying and reinforcing American forces on shore and screened cruisers and aircraft carriers against submarine and air attack. They hunted submarines and were hunted by them. They fired tens of thousands of five-inch rounds in support of amphibious invasions and marine and army units engaging the enemy on land, and took plenty of return fire from shore batteries for their trouble. They laid mines. They battled Japanese bombers and later kamikazes, and in a few instances were bloodied by them. They rescued downed American airmen and sailors off of sinking American ships. And they engaged in surface battles with Japanese ships.
Along the way, the deadly dozen won 118 battle stars (awarded for meritorious action in a sea battle), 17 by O’Bannon alone (only one ship, the Enterprise, won more). The squadron was credited with sinking 10 Japanese submarines and several surface ships. They shot down scores of Japanese aircraft, including kamikazes. They rescued more than 1,800 sailors and downed airmen. They saved or aided an uncountable number of marines and soldiers on shore with fire support.
But these accomplishments came at a high cost, Three of Desron 21’s destroyers were sunk — De Haven, Strong, and Chevalier. Five sustained serious damage. Almost 400 of the squadron’s sailors were killed in action, a larger number wounded. Only the O’Bannon escaped with only minor damage and not a single casualty.
Behind all the numbers and map references above stand several thousand American sailors. And it’s the stories of these men, and of the lives they led in the South Pacific, that make up the heart of Tin Can Titans, ranging from top titan Halsey down to 17-year-old Seaman Robert Whisler, the youngest member of O’Bannon’s skilled and lucky crew. Some of these will be hard to forget. There’s Commander Donald J. MacDonald, skipper of the O’Bannon, the very picture of what a fighting ship’s commander should be (readers will also encounter those not quite up to this description). There’s Lieutenant Dow “Doc” Ransom Jr., who patched the wounded with care, competence, and humor. There’s the yeoman who loved his stateside bride so much he always said goodnight to her, out loud, when it was bedtime back home, even when there were other sailors around to tease him about it. The stories of these men and others are pieced together with the help of Navy records, letters, diaries, and interviews with survivors. They’ll stay with you.
And these men had more to contend with than the reasonable fear of a Japanese torpedo, shell, bomb, or mine. The relentless pace of the engagements, especially in the early days, meant that crews were at general quarters much of the time. This and the normal ship’s functions that have to go on 24-7 meant that crews found little time for sleep. When they did find time, the tropical heat and humidity of the South Pacific made sleep difficult. Sleeping compartments rarely dropped below 100 degrees, and the humidity was so thick it caused water to condense on overhead pipes and drip. “We were never dry,” a survivor lamented.
As a former destroyer sailor — thankfully, 20+ years later and in much less perilous circumstances than Desron 21 endured — I’m happy to see destroyers and destroyermen get credit for their vital contributions. So much of the Pacific theater was an air war, and we can’t give enough credit to the carriers and their sailors and pilots who took it to the enemy. But destroyers were workhorses in the Pacific, and elsewhere. It’s right that their story is told too, as it is so well in Tin Can Titans. These are ships and Americans that should not be forgotten.