The Ships of Pearl Harbor: USS Downes

June 04, 2018

Unlike many United States Navy ships that served during World War II, USS Downes (DD-375) had a relatively short life. Launched on April 22, 1936, the Mahan-class destroyer—named for US Naval officer John Downes—was commissioned on January 15, 1937. Once commissioned, she sailed for San Diego from her shipyard in Norfolk and participated in multiple exercises along the American west coast and in the Caribbean.

In April 1940, USS Downes joined the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, which became her home port. A year later, she was cruising to the Samoan and Fiji islands with a stop in Australia before returning to visit the United States west coast. After sailing the Pacific again, Downes found herself in drydock at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked on December 7, 1941.

USS Downes and Pearl Harbor

USS Downes (DD-375) at lower left, with USS Cassin (DD-372) capsized against her. USS Pennsylvania (BB-38) is directly aft.

USS Downes (DD-375) at lower left, with USS Cassin (DD-372) capsized against her. USS Pennsylvania (BB-38) is directly aft.

On the morning of December 7, 1941, Downes was in dry dock along with the battleship USS Pennsylvania (BB-38) and destroyer USS Cassin (DD-372). Though neither Downes nor Cassin were high on the list of Japanese attack priorities, Pennsylvania was among the battleships that the aerial fleet aimed to destroy. As the attack began, it was clear that the dry dock was a trap for the three vessels, especially when an incendiary bomb struck between the two destroyers.

Fires raged between Cassin and Downes, made worse by a nearby fuel tank that had ruptured and started leaking oil. Japanese fighters strafed the dry dock, pelting the three warships with machine gun fire. As bullets rained from above, the crew of Downes sprang into action, some fighting the fires that threatened the overtake the ship and others manning the destroyer's guns.

With Japan’s planes repelled from attacking the dry dock, crews and dock workers were able to fully address the fires. Unfortunately, by then it was too late. An attempt to drown the growing fire was thwarted when the burning oil rose with the water level, spreading the fire even more. Eventually, it was large enough to reach the ammo and torpedo warheads aboard the trapped destroyers. The explosions were devastating, forcing both crews to abandon their ships.

Nearly six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, USS Downes was decommissioned. Her hull was deemed damaged beyond repair, but some of her machinery and equipment that weren’t damaged during the attack were salvaged and shipped to Mare Island Navy Yard, where a new ship incorporating parts from the original Downes was built and given her name and hull number.

The Return of USS Downes

USS Downes (DD-375), December 1943

USS Downes (DD-375), December 1943

Though she was almost destroyed during the Pearl Harbor attack, the reborn USS Downes returned to service when she was recommissioned on November 15, 1943. From Mare Island, she sailed on March 8, 1944 to join convoys on their way to Pearl Harbor and Majuro. She served as escort, ensuring Japanese vessels wouldn’t endanger the progress of the transport. When the US moved to blockade Wotje Atoll, a Japanese stronghold, Downes was there, providing additional support.

On May 6, 1944, she arrived at Eniwetok where she took over as the harbor entrance control ship. An otherwise quiet patrol was interrupted when her crew rescued a pilot in the Eniwetok’s lagoon and four additional crew members off Ponape in the Caroline Islands.

Between Eniwetok and Saipan, Downes ran as escort to convoys to support the Marianas Islands operation. Immediately after, she patrolled the coast of Tinian during that invasion, providing fire support for the Allied troops that landed.

Despite a rough start to the war, where her entire bulk was lost at Pearl Harbor, USS Downes successfully assisted the Allied efforts in the Pacific. She took part in searches for Japanese vessels, supported the landings at Leyte, and served at Iwo Jima as escort and air-sea rescue. At the close of the war, she returned to the US mainland with men from Iwo Jima on board.

On December 17, 1945, USS Downes was decommissioned for the last time and, on November 18, 1947, she was sold for scrap. For her efforts at Pearl Harbor and during World War II, Downes was awarded four battle stars along with the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal and World War II Victory Medal.

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