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THE  FLETCHERS  SURVIVE!

by Rear Admiral William H. Langenbert USNR (Ret.)

[Copied from Shipmate magazine, April 1992, page 21 & 22]

Lewis Hancock DD-675 Hazelwood DD-531
The authors's first ship: Lewis Hancock (DD-675) (1951) Hazelwood (DD-531) after Kamikaze hit. Colahan (DD-658) assists (1945)
Probably the one ship type active in World War II which most affected the outcome of that conflict in the Pacific was the Essex class aircraft carrier, heart of the fast carrier task forces. Subsequent to the battle of Midway Island, carriers replaced battleships as the capital ships of the U.S. Fleet, and naval air power predominated during the balance of the war in the Pacific. But at least one other type ship also played a powerful role for the U.S. Navy in World War II. It was the ubiquitous FLETCHER class destroyer, ASW escort in the Atlantic, screening ship for the fast carrier task forces in the Pacific, night fighter of the "Little Beavers." and vulnerable radar picket off Okinawa. Surely if there ever were an archetypical "tin can," the FLETCHERS personify that title. Long and lean, powerful and fast, they performed a variety of roles not only in World War II, but during later combat service off the coasts of Korea and Vietnam. For those former FLETCHER class sailors, there  is good news. The FLETCHERS survive!  Three of them have been restored and preserved in American maritime museums, where they can be visited today.

In contemporary times of astronomical ship building costs, limited production runs, and lengthy building times, it seems almost incredible that 175 FLETCHER class destroyers were completed in the two plus year period from June 1942 to September 1944. By any standard, that was an impressive display of warship mass production. Design for the class was not finalized until January 1940, but by the end of that year more than 100 ships had been ordered. To build such a large quantity of destroyers in what was still a peacetime economy, new ship building facilities had to be created. In addition to the Navy Yards at Boston, Charleston, and Puget Sound, eight civilian shipyards on the Atlantic, 

Gulf, and Pacific Coasts took part in the intensive building program. 

Design characteristics of the original FLETCHERS were: overall length 376 feet 6 inches, beam 39 feet 8 inches, and displacement 2700 tons. The ships were steam turbine powered, with twin propellers and a single center line rudder. Shaft horsepower of 60.000 generated a top speed of 35 knots, with a maximum cruising range of 4800 nautical miles at 15 knots. Armament of the original World War II design consisted of five 5-inch 38 caliber dual purpose guns in single mounts, plus ten 21-inch torpedo tubes. Anti- aircraft weapons varied depending on their availability, place of ship construction, and date of commissioning. 

Several interesting but little known variants were included among the 175 FLETCHERS.. For example, six ships were initially fitted with a catapult and accommodation for a single King fisher gunfire spotter aircraft. 

Jenkins (DD-447) in wartime colors (1942 One of three FRAM conversions: Jenkins (DD-447) (1962)
Jenkins DD-447 Jenkins DD-447

 

Many years later three other FLETCHERS completed the Fleet Rehabilitation and Modernization (FRAM) program, which added a hanger and two DASH helicopters aft of the second stack. As in common among active warships, most FLETCHERS became loaded with additional electronics equipment and armament throughout their lives, which added weight and increased displacement. The resulted in the only sever criticism leveled at the class, the indisputable fact that in heavy weather they were very wet. A lesser criticism was their relative lack of maneuverability in confined waters, a weakness caused by the single center line rudder. 

These two shortcomings of the FLETCHERS however, were overcome by their many advantages over precious destroyer classes. They had great survivability due to compartmentation and the ability to steam with a split plant. The FLETCHERS introduced high pressure steam to destroyers which resulted in greater speeds and longer endurance. Their flush decks resulted in a strong hull with less weight than that of a high forecastle destroyer, and the ships had a stability reserve which permitted the previously mentioned weight additions, some of them high above the main deck. Overall, performance of the FLETCHERS in World War II was admirable, and there is no question that they earned their reputation as the best know and most reliable destroyers in the Pacific. At the end of World War II, however the FLETCHERS were no longer new ships. The larger, newer, and more maneuverable 

Sumner and Gearing Classes became the primary active fleet destroyers. Their added armament and greater internal space for new "black box" equipment made them more desirable for retention in a shrunken U.S. Navy, and they tended to eclipse the surviving FLETCHERS after 1945.

Constrained by severe budget reductions after World War II, the U.S. Navy laid up many ships from its then vast fleet, and by the end of 1946 the entire Fletcher class except for a few training ships had been mothballed and placed in reserve. But the onset of the Korean War in 1950 necessitated reactivation of many Fletchers. They were generally given a relative minor refit, which updated electronics and installation of forward twin fixed hedgehogs. Some FLETCHERS had a more drastic conversion to ASW destroyer configuration (DDE). At the end of the Korean War in 1953, most FLETCHERS remained in service either as all gun destroyers or DDEs. Many FLETCHERS served throughout the 1960s, either as active or Naval Reserve ships, but an increasing number were sold to other nations or scrapped. Only a few Naval Reserve ships survived into the 1970s, and they too were stricken from the navy list before 1980.

The largest numbers of destroyers built before the FLETCHERS were the 273 ships of the Clemson class, the flush-deck four-pipers first commissioned during 1917-1922.  Of that class, perhaps the U.S. Navy's most ubiquitous and colorful ships, not a single survivor remains afloat today. Fortunately, the FLETCHERS have not suffered the same fate.

 Perhaps due to this total loss of four-pipers, in the mid-1970s the U.S. Navy set aside three unspecified FLETCHERS for use as possible memorials. Availability of the ships were conditioned on the creation of private groups to raise funds and create adequate memorials, provide mooring spaces, and properly display the vessels. First to be thus preserved was the Sullivan (DD-537) which is now on display at the Naval and Servicemen's park in Buffalo, New York.Second to be saved from the breakers was Cassin Young (DD-793) which is moored at the Constitution Museum at Charlestown Naval Yard in Boston. Last of the three FLETCHERS to be preserved was Kidd (DD-661) which rests on a unique berth in the Mississippi River at the Louisiana Naval War Memorial in Baton Rouge.

For those readers like the author, who consider the FLETCHERS to be the epitome of the "tin can" Navy, a visit to any of the foregoing three museums is almost sure to bring back waves of nostalgia. In the meantime, some photographs may be enough to recall some fond memories of a truly significant class of destroyers.

Kidd DD-661 Kidd DD-661
Decrepid Kidd (DD-661) awaits rehabilitation (1982) The Fletchers Survive! Kidd (DD-661) currently restored (1990)
 

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