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From The Emmons Saga
by Edward Baxter Billingsley

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                  

 

 

 

 

 

                     Emmons off Omaha Beach, Normandy June 1944 (art by Cmdr. Dwight Shepler,US Navy Artist)

 

USS EMMONS (DD457, DMS22) was commissioned December 5, 1941, at Boston Naval Shipyard. Her first commanding officer was Lt CDR Thomas Ragan,USN. She was the last naval fighting ship to be commissioned before the United States officially entered World War II and was sunk by Kamakazes off Okinawa, April 6, 1945, four months before the surrender of the war.

One of the famous Benson-Livermore class destroyers authorized by the Naval Expansion Act of 1938, she embodied the best in pre-WWII destroyer construction. As experiences of the war dictated, changes were made to adapt EMMONS and her sisters to changing conditions. In her personnal she was typical of America at war. At commissioning half of her officers and nearly all of her crew were career personnel from the regular navy. By the end all but one of her officers and 80 percent of the crew were reservists, volunteers for the duration.

EMMONS was built at the Bath Iron Works of Bath, Maine, known as the "Cradle of Ships" and famous for building destroyers in both world wars. The contract was let December 12, 1940, for $4,898,000. The keel was laid November 14, 1940, and she was launched August 23, 1941. Her sponsor was Frances Emmons Peacock, granddaughter of the distinguished nineteenth century naval officer, Rear Admiral George Foster Emmons, for whom the destroyer was named.

Admiral Emmons, a native of Clarendon, Vermont, entered the Navy as a midshipman in 1828. During his long career he served in a wide variety of ships throughout the world. As a LT. he had been with the Wilkes Exploring Expedition which discovered the Antarctic Continent and explored the South Seas. When Wilkes shifted his activities to charting the waters of the Northwest Pacific, LT. Emmons commanded a shore party to conduct inland surveys from the Columbia to the head waters of the Sacramento. He served with distinction in the Mexican and Civil Wars. In the latter he commanded several ships on blockade duty in the Gulf of Mexico and on the Mississippi. After being commissioned Captain, he served as fleet-captain under Admiral Dahlgren during the reduction of Fort Sumter. Toward the end of his career he was in charge of the Hydrographic Office. Commissioned Rear Admiral November 5, 1872, he retired August 23, 1873.

Almost from the beginning, EMMONS was earmarked for service in the Atlantic as were most of the Bensons. Her designed armament originally was five 5"/38DP guns, nine 21" torpedoes, six 50 caliber machine guns, and two depth charge tracks on the stern. However, British was experiences dictated changes. While she was still being built the "ultimate" armament was set at four 5"/38DP guns, five 21" torpedoes, two twin 40mm mounts, four 20mm machine guns, two depth charge racks, and one "Y" gun depth charge thrower amidships. By the time she was sonverted to a high speed minesweeper in 1944, this armament had been achieved but the 20mm had been increased to seven. Six side-throwing "K" guns had replaced the "Y" gun. The conversion to minesweeping cost her one 5"/38 gun, No. 4, and most of her anti-submarine capability.

She was equipped with a propulsion plant of two geared turbines and four boilers capable of generating 50,000 horsepower. She was designed for a maximum speed of 37.5 knots but exceeded this slightly on builders trials. She was one of the early destroyers to use high pressure, supersaturated steam.

Other vital statistics were: 1630 tons standard displacement--2200 full load; length 348'2", beam 36'1"; maximum draft 15'8". It was intended that she would be manned by a complement of 6 officers and 299 men, but under wartime conditions was consistently kept above these figures. The total number hovered around 250 throughout her life.

At one time or another EMMONS performed all the routine duties demanded of DDs--antisubmarine patrol, convoy escort, plane guard, picket duty, mail boat, ice patrol, liberty boat, ferry boat, gunfire support--name it, she did it. At one time in Argentia, when that outpost was still a mudflat being bulldozed into the resemblance of an operating base, EMMONs with other destroyers was pressed into service to ferry load after load of fuel oil from a fleet tanker to the Ranger and other heavy ships. The final ignomy was having to serve as a garbage scow for the "big boys".

EMMONS spent much of her time in training activities, not only for routine combat duty, but also for unusual assignments with special task organizations. Sometimes these were far from active combat zones but were vital importance to the overall war effort.

Her shakedown cruise in early 1942 was as important for its diplmatic impact as for the solid training accomplished. In late January, 1942, she with sister ship Hambleton, started on an unusual shakedown cruise which included visits to four South American countries: Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. The cruise came hortly after the Rio de Janeiro Conference of American States which had met to decide on common action to be taken against the Axis. The conference had failed to achieve unanimity with Argentina and Chile refusing to go along with a clean break in relations with the Axis powers. Three of the countries: Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru were solidly behind the US but at the time of the cruise, negotiations were going on with the last two for military cooperation, including bases. Negotiations with Ecuador for use of the Galapagos Islands as outer defense of the Panama Canal were especially crucial. Chile had indicated that she feared that the war was already lost to the allies and expressed doubt that the US could successfully defend her long coast line. What better way to encourage friends and convince doubters than to send two of the latest and best destroyers to show off the US Capabilities.

Following diplomatic shakedown to South America and a brief stint as part of the A/S forces under the Easter Sea Frontier, EMMONS settled down as a working unit of DesRon 10. Most of the ime was spent operating out of Casco Bay and Argentia or with the British Home Fleet out of Scapa Flow with high powered task groups.

The tedium of routine was broken from time to time. EMMONS took part in every major landing in the Eastern Atlantic Area except Sicily and Italy. She also participated in several special missions which were of major importance to the war effort but which received little public notice because they went so smoothly. One such was in the spring of 1942, when EMMONS was part of Task Force 36 built around Ranger. On the 10th of May, in the Gulf of Guinea, Ranger launched 68 army planes to proceed to Accra, thence overland to bolster the sagging British defenses at Tobruk.

EMMONS' first known exposure to enemy attack other than submarines occurred in August of 1942 while operating with the British Home Fleet out of Scapa Flow. In July, Convoy PQ-17, crossing the Barents Sea headed for Russia, had been virtually wiped out by German submarines and aircraft based in Northern Norway. In August, Tuscaloosa, EMMONS, Rodman, and three British destroyers were ordered to make a high speed run across the Barents Sea to Murmansk. The mission was threefold:: to deliver critical supplies to British air squadrons near Murmansk, bring out survivors from PQ-17, and to reassure the Russians continued support. EMMONS and Rodman each took on about 20 tons of canned goods, utilizing every available space, even around the boilers. Each carton was neatly stencilled with the slogan "Britain Delivers the Goods".

Twice on the mission the task group was spotted and shadowed by German reconnaissance planes. One, an ungainly Blohm and Voss, circled the formation for several hours sending out homing signals. A combined submarine-aircraft attack was expected any minute. Unbeknownst at the time, the battleship Tirpitz, pocket battleship Scheer, and cruisers Hipper and Koln were based at Narvik amd Altenfiord, poised to strike the next convoy. However, Hitler held his heavy ships on a short leash, and the atrocious weather prevented concentrations for submarine and air attacks. Thus, as anxious as the situation was, nothing happened except that on the homeward bound trip the three British DDs were detached and, acting under superb intelligence from the Admiralty in London, attacked and sank the German mine layer Ulm enroute to lay mines in the ice-free passages off Nova Zemlya.

On October, 1942, LT CDR Harold Heming, USN, the former XO, relieved CDR Ragan as commanding officer.

In October-November, 1942, during Operation Torch, EMMONS, again with Rodman, was assigned to the AIr Support Unit of the Southern Attack Unit off Safi as escort and plane guard for USS Santee. Safi was captured with ease and all went well offshore with the exception of several submarine contacts which failed to develop into viable targets.

The next assignment was with other destroyers of Squadron 10 as part of the support force for high speed transports carrying troops to Fedala and Casablanca. The troops having been disembarked, Task Force 36 returned to the US where the destroyers took up the routine of training with Task Force 22 out of Casco Bay and Argentia with an unusually strong group of heavy ships. At that time the British were especially concerned that the German fleet led by Tirpitz might break out into the North Atlantic convoy lanes. The US had agreed to keep a strong force at Casco Bay to operate under the command of C-in-C British Home Fleet if this should happen.

On May 12, 1943, Task Force 61 consisting of South Dakota, Alabama, and DesDic 19, including EMMONS, was activated and departed Argentia for duty with the British Home Fleet at Scapa Flow, arriving there May 19. Task Force 61 was dissolved and became Task Group 92.4 while operating with the British.

After two weeks of intensive training with the British, several major operations were undertaken as part of their Battle Fleet. The first involved covering another relief operation to Russia under much the same conditions as had faced the EMMONS group previously. This time EMMONS remained with the battle group northwest of Iceland and had only to launch emergency attacks against submarine contacts while the main body cleared the area. The operation was successful and the fleet returned to Scapa after a week at Hvalfiord.

On 22 June under orders of C-in-C Home Fleet, EMMONS was ordered to proceed to Invergordon to embark a party of officials including Admiral Stark, Commander US Naval Forces in Europe, and the First Lord of the Admiralty, A Alexander. The First Lord was very complimentary of the EMMONS and her crew. Admiral Stark was equally enthusiastic.

On the 4th of July, 1943, CDR Heming was relieved as CO by LT CDR E.B. Billingsley, USN, his former Executive Officer.

In July, two elaborate operations were conducted. One, "Operation Camera", was a war game off the coast of Iceland to test defenses against an attempt by Tirpitz and the German Fleet to force a passage of the Denmark Straits as the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen had in 1941.

The other, "Operation Governor", was designed to lure Tirpitz and the other German heavies out to battle by simulating a weak raid on the Southern Norway Coast with the Battle Fleet just over the horizon. The ruse was unsuccessful, but it did attract the attention of German planes out of Bergan who made a half-hearted pass at the Battle Fleet. The planes either withdrew or were downed by British fighters from HMS Illustrious. The EMMONS sustained one hit when the heel of a shell bearing the stamp of USS Alabama landed on the forecastle.

In early August Task Group 92.4 was ordered back to the US and dissolved. After a short overhaul at Boston Navy Yard, EMMONS, Rodman, and Ellyson, resumed training and escort duties with Task Force 22 at Argentia. Much of the work at Argentia was with the new battleship Iowa. Toward the end of October the Iowa left the area for points unknown.

The next time Iowa was seen was November 17 at a rendezvous point south of the Azores. She was headed east at flank speed escorted by three destroyers. On board was President Roosevelt and his principal advisors, although the destroyers did not know this at the time. The President was bound for the Teheran and Cairo conferences. On signal from ComDesRon 10, EMMONS slipped into her assigned screen position and became part of Task Force 27.5 responsible for the safety of the Preseident. At Gibraltor the screen was relieved by three British destroyers which escorted Iowa to Oran where the President disembarked.

After the President disembarked the Iowa reversed her track and, picking up the American destroyers at Gibraltar, headed for Bahia, Brazil, to await his return by air. However, the plans changed. After a one night stand in Bahia the Task Force made a second crossing of the Atlantic within two week-destination Freetown, British West Africa. From there the ships proceeded to Dakar where the President boarded the Iowa on December 9, 1943, for return voyage to the US. Two days out on the return voyage the three destroyers of DesRon 10 were relieved and headed for Bermuda and Boston.

By the spring of 1944 the submarine situation in the Med as well as the North Atlantic had been brought under manageable proportions, but a few German subs armed with the new acoustic torpedoes were still raising hell in the Western Mediterranean. In May, EMMONS went to the Med with DesDiv 19 as part of a special anti-submarine force. No doubt this was also part of the build up of forces within commuting distance of England and the forthcoming assault on Hitler's Europe. On arrival in the Med there followed the usual in and out training exercises. This time communications with land based anti-submarine planes was featured. May 14, a German sub sank two merchantmen off Cape Tenes. Task Unit 80.6.1 consisting of DesDiv 19 plus Gleaves, Nields, and H.P. Jones, under command of Captain Converse was quickly assembled to track down the U-boat. For three nights and two days U-616 was kept down by combined action of the destroyers and aircraft. When he would attaempt to come up under cover of darkness, the aircraft would pick him up with radar and coach the DDs in. In desperation, he surfaced early the third day surrounded by eight DDs and scuttled. (webmaster note::U616 was actually sunk by a combined depth charge attack) The following day DesDiv 19 left the Med for England and "Operation Overlord", the invasion of France.

Upon arrival in England every available minute was spent in feverish preparations for the invasion, not th eleast onerous of which was the assimilation of ream upon ream of operation orders and plans. The task was complicated when EMMONS was suddenly ordered to replace Endicott in Gunfire Support Group for Omaha Beach.

A false start was made on June 4, but the assault was carried out as planned on June 6. D-day saw EMMONS and Doyle providing close support for the 31st Mine Sweeper Flotilla. The sweeping of approach channels and fire support areas for Omaha was completed without incident and the minesweepers withdrew to sea leaving the two destroyers some 3000 yards off Port en Bessin to wait start of shore bombardment scheduled to begin at 0550(H-40). The Germans fired first.

Thirteen minutes before the time to open fire a shore battery located east of Port en Bessin opened fire, straddling EMMONS with approximately ten 3" or 4" shells. The fire was promptly returned and the shelling stopped, at least for awhile. EMMONS claims to have opened the first counterbattery fire at Omaha. The preliminary bombardment was executed as scheduled but because of strong currents most of the landing waves missed their beaches. For several hourse the landing at Omaha hung in the balance. EMMONS and othe fire support destroyers at Omaha closed the beach and blasted any identifiable enemy targets from one to three thousand yards offshore.

Because her Shore Fire Control Party was either killed, wounded, or captured, EMMONS had to confine her fire to targets of opportunity. From time to time she had to locate and silence batteries firing on her. Although there were several near misses throughout the day she sustained no damage. On one occasion a small formation of German naval troops was observed marching down the central street of Port en Bessin. Her 40mm battery broke up the formation and the sailors dived into surrounding houses. During the afternoon counterbattery fire was continued. For a brief time Baldwin's fire control party was turned over to her and the one target assigned was reported destroyed.

At another time the Commander Fire Support Group announced that the steeple of the church at Coleville sur Mer was suspected of being a German observation post and ordered any destroyer in position to take it under fire. Since the church was clearly visible and within range, EMMONS volunteered. After 66 rounds, the steeple was demolished.

Once the beaches were cleared and the fighting had moved inland the gunfire support DDs took up the more routine duties, screen, picket line, A/S patrol, cross channel escort. The night of D+2 EMMONS was assigned to screen the anchored Arkansas. Early in the evening the Germans has made several feeble aerial passes at the beach. None came near EMMONS, but shortly after midnight a cry for help, in English, was reported by one of the bow lookouts. A whale boat was put over and brought back to the ship, not an American as expected, but a mortally wounded German pilot. In spite of heroic efforts to save his life, he expired on the wardroom table. Nearly a year later, off Okinawa, the EMMONS was hit and sunk by five kamakazes. Survivors report seeing the body of one of the Japanese pilots, still strapped in his seat wedged in the after companionway. Thus, pilots from two enemy nations in two oceans found their end on board.

The next confrontation with a visible enemy occurred nineteen days later when EMMONS, with Task Group 129, a mixed group of British and American ships, crossed the channel from Portland to soften up the defenses of Cherbourg as the Army closed in from the land side. The bombardment was successful. EMMONS took out the target assigned to her and shifted fire to another observed to be firing on the formation. The German batteries found the range of the heavy ships and scored several hits. When the destroyers were ordered to "make smoke" it was done with a vengeance. However, the shore batteries then shifted their fire to EMMONS and she had to duck back under her own smoke screen. The same day, the mission completed, Task Force 129 returned to Portland. Cherbourg surrendered the following day.

The only other eyeball to eyeball confrontation with the enemy in European waters was at the invasion of Southern France, August 15, 1944. Once more EMMONS, with an area of responsibilty off the Gulf of St. Tropez, was assigned to the gunfire support group. On paper the job looked more dangerous than had Normandy--severely restricted maneuvering space in the face of heavy shore batteries. In actuality the landing was virtually unopposed. No shots were fired at EMMONS although some of the destroyers further east around Marseilles had a rougher time. Unlike Normandy, the SFCP assigned to EMMONS walked ashore and rapidly disappeared inland. A few hours after the landing they called for fire on a enemy target. Following a few minor adjustments the spotting officer announced "target destroyed". Swim call was held off Tropez on D+1.

With the war in Europe all but over, EMMONS faced a new role in a new theater. Destroyer Squadron ten and other destroyers of the Benson class were converted to high speed minesweepers and became Mine Sweeper Squadron 20, destination, the Western Pacific. The conversion of EMMONS was done at Boston in November and December 1944, and was completed by December 22. DD457 had become DMS22.

During conversion, in November, LT CDR Billingsley was relieved by his XO, LT CDR Eugene Foss, USNR, as commanding Officer of EMMONS.

The destroyer minesweepers of MinRon 20 were allowed a brief period of training as soon as their conversion was completed then sent singly and in pairs to the Pacific. In early February 1945, they assembled in Pearl Harbor where, for the first time, the Squadron Commander was able to conduct training exercises as a unit.

After a month's intensive training the squadron was temporarily broken up to escort the flood of ships concentrating in the Western Pacific for the Okinawa campaign. EMMONS served as screen for convoys to Eniwetok and Ulithi and from Ultihi to Okinawa where she joined the rest of the squadron. Sweeping operations for the Okinawa assault began around Kerama Retto on March 24th.

At Okinawa, mine sweeping was the easiest task for EMMONS and the other fast minesweepers. As destroyer-minesweepers they had relinguished none of the screening, patrol, and picket duties expected of destroyers. A frequent assignment was to provide screening and fire support for the smaller mine sweepers.

On April 6, 1945, EMMONS and Rodman joined to provide protection for Sweep Unit 11 then engaged in clearance sweeps between Ie Shima and the northwest tip of Okinawa. The 6th was the date Japan, in desperation, opened the most massive suicide attacks of the entire war on ships off Okinawa. Altogether om 6-7 April, some 355 suicide missions were launched against the fleet, most of them on the 6th. EMMONS and Rodman absorbed a good percentage of their sting.

Throughout the day there were air raid alerts but no enemy bothered the mine sweeping group until the middle of the afternoon. Around 1515 two bogies were reported closing in on Rodman to the west of EMMONS. One was seen to crash into the Rodman's forecastle setting her ablaze. EMMONS opened fire on the second as it crashed into the sea in a suicide dive.

EMMONS closed Rodman at high speed to help put out the fire, but when the latter reported that the fire could be brought under control without outside assistance, she began to circle to provide antiaircraft protection from the growing number of bogies in the area, now numbered at betwenn 5--75. In the meantime friendly fighters from aircraft carriers arrived and began to engage the kamakazes regardless of the fire directed at the latter from the two destroyers. They are credited with shooting down 50 of the enemy planes.

Nonetheless, the flaming Rodman and the circling EMMONS presented attractive targets for the suicide planes which continued to attempt to crash them. They simply disregarded the Marine Corsairs and Navy Hellcats. For awhile it appeared the combination of the fire from the destroyers and the friendly fighters would keep the kamakazes from reaching the ships. EMMONS alone spashed six of the enemy before she received her first hit. Four more crashed into the water missing her. They were identified as Tonys, Vals, and Zekes.

Sheer numbers and fanatical frenzy finally succeeded. At 1732 the first of five suiciders crashed EMMONS' fantail. In rapid succession four others, in a well coordinated attack, hit the nerve centers of the ship. The second of th efive hit the pilot house to starboard; the third the port side of CIC; the fourth the starboard side of Number 3 gun; the fifth crashed the hull near the waterline at frame 30, to starboard.

On the second hit Captain Foss was blown off the bridge. He was picked out of the water later blinded and severely burned. The XO, LT Temple Lynds, Jr, USNR, was missing. When he learned of this, LT John Griffin, USNR, the gunnery officer, assumed command and countermanded the order to abandon ship which had been circulated from a unknown source. He assessed the damage. At that time the hull aft was entirely missing and the rudder was blown off. The port main shaft was out of operation. The entire bridge structure was destroyed and fire raged in all spaces forward to gun No. 1. Little or nothing remained in that area from the main deck to the bridge overhead. Small fires were reappearing aft as quickly as they were put out. Firefighting was made more difficult by exploding 20 mm ammunition boxes and the fact that many fire hoses were burned or shredded by shrapnel and strafing. Flooding was in progress forward and aft and a ten degree starboard list was developing. The stern was beginning to settle.

On the plus side, the engineering spaces were still intact. Water was available in the firemains although pressure could not be brought over 60 pounds forward. Even so, the fire in the superstructure was contained long enough to put over the whaleboat which began to pick up wounded in the water and deliver them to the nearby minesweepers. The more seriously wounded still on the ship were kept aboard and taken care of as well as possible. The less seriously wounded were placed on rafts over the side to wait for rescue vessels.

The survivors of the damage control parties and others still on their feet fought to put out the fires and control the flooding. For a time it appeared that the ship might be saved. PGM 11 came alongside to render assistance. WHile wounded were being transferred a heavy explosion occurred in the handling room of Gun 2. Following this the order to abandon ship was given.

The casualties were heavy. Among eighteen officers, seven were killed or missing in action, six were wounded. Of the 254 members of the crew, fifty were killed or missing in action and sixty-five were wounded.

The crippled EMMONS refused to give up. The burning hulk drifted all night toward Ie Shima still help by the enemy. Early next morning, Saturday, April 7, 1945, ComMinRon 20 in the Ellyson surveyed the situation and, after considering the alternatives, ordered that she be sunk. This was done by 5" gunfire from Ellyson. A sad ending for a noble ship manned, loved, and fought by a noble crew for three years, four months and two days--5 December 1941-7 April 1945.

The USS EMMONS received 5 battle stars and the Naval Unit Commendation.

 

This article was authored by Edward Baxter Billingsley, one of the four commanding officers of the EMMONS. He entered the USN in 1928 as a midshipman and retired in 1959 with the rank of Rear Admiral.

 

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