IMAGES OF WAR – UNITED STATES NAVY DESTROYERS

Reviewed by: REAR ADMIRAL R. G. MELLY

This is the latest book, by Michael Green, in the ‘Images of War’ series of publications.  A prolific author, he has written many acclaimed books on an impressively varied range of primarily United States military systems.  In this instance, he has turned his attention to outlining the United States Navy’s development of its destroyers, from the first order for 16 vessels in 1898, to the most recent ill-fated foray into the futuristic Zumwalt programme.

The book is logically broken down into five sections covering: early development; interwar destroyers; Second World War destroyers; Cold War destroyers; and a very brief section on post-Cold War destroyers.

Initially devised as torpedo-boat destroyers, this ship designation quickly established itself as a workhorse of the fleet. Early classes of destroyer were small in size, with each subsequent order introducing advances in engineering practice, as well as increased displacement (albeit the latter aspect was constrained by treaty provisions).  By the end of WWI, the armament had evolved to include guns, torpedoes and depth charges.  The massive industrial effort did not stop with the end of the fighting, and between 1918 and 1922, 156 Clemson-class destroyers were delivered (the so-called ‘four stackers’). Many of these ships went straight into reserve, 50 of which were subsequently transferred to the Royal Navy during WWII.

It was not until 1932 that the USN faced up to its destroyer obsolescence, leading to a further massive ship-building effort.  With the outbreak of war, and no longer constrained by treaty provisions, no fewer than 175 Fletcher-class vessels were delivered between June 1942 and February 1945, along with a further 58 improved variants (the Sumner-class), followed by 98 larger vessels of the Gearing-class (of which just four were delivered by the end of WWII).  All of these vessels were of a greater displacement than their predecessors, allowing extended endurance and greatly improved air defence arrangements.

With the cessation of the fighting, the USN’s budgets were severely cut.  There followed a period of catch-up, with a bewildering number of ship modifications and new weapon and sensor fits, as the USN sought to adapt to the ever-evolving threat from a new potential enemy, the USSR.  It was not until the Spruance-class arrived on the scene, in the early 1970s, that more capable ships joined the fleet, now powered by gas turbines, but topping 8,000 tons of displacement.  This soon led to the current staple of the fleet, the Arleigh Burke-class; this ship is well-armed, with the latest batch, or ‘flight’, boasting a 5-inch gun, a 96-cell Vertical Launch System, point defence arrangements, torpedoes and up to two helicopters.  At 9,600 tons, she has come a long way from the USN’s first destroyer, the USS Bainbridge, laid down in 1899, weighing just 410 tons! The final chapter considers the ill-fated Zumwalt-class; horrendously expensive, and weighing in at 16,000 tons, the primary weapon system was cancelled, and the three ships of the class can, at best, now be considered solely as trials platforms.

The book is well-written, albeit some of the explanations are relatively simplistic – and of course the spelling is American! Nevertheless, there are some surprising insights, such as the tactics used by Japanese suicide pilots and the evolution of the ‘Combat Information Center’. The descriptions of the individual weapon and sensor systems are more authoritative, usefully illustrated with diagrams and photographs.  However, whilst the author admits that the book is not a comprehensive history of USN destroyers, it is the evocative images of ships from bygone eras, some with action damage, and of their crews which lift the book from simply being a broad overview of the subject.