Tuesday, July 29, 2008

USS Buckley (DE-51)

Figure 1: Undated wartime photograph of the USS Buckley (DE-51). Courtesy National Archives, #BUSHIPS44457. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2: The launch of the destroyer escort USS Buckley at the Bethlehem-Hingham yard near Boston. This was one of the first long-hulled DE's, and the start of a most impressive building program at this yard. US Navy photo, from the book "Allied Escort Ships of World War II: A Complete Survey,” by Peter Elliott. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 3: Undated wartime photograph of the USS Buckley underway. US Navy photo #19-N-44456, NARA II, College Park MD. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 4: USS Buckley in May 1943. Courtesy Robert Hurst. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 5: USS Buckley in dry dock at the Boston Navy Yard, Boston, Massachusetts, May-June 1944, her bow bent from ramming U-66. Photo courtesy of Captain Jerry Mason, USN (retired). Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 6: May-June 1944, Boston, Massachusetts, Lieutenant Commander Brent Able, USNR, receives the Navy Cross for action as Commanding Officer of USS Buckley from Captain George L. Menocal at the Boston Navy Yard where Buckley is undergoing repairs. Photo courtesy Captain Jerry Mason, USN (retired). Click on photograph for larger image.

The 1,400-ton USS Buckley (DE-51) was the first in a class of 154 destroyer escorts. The ship was named after John Daniel Buckley, an Aviation Ordnanceman killed while defending the Naval Air Station at Kaneohe Bay during the attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. Buckley was approximately 306 feet long and 36 feet wide, and had a top speed of 24 knots and a crew of 186 officers and men. For a ship her size, Buckley was heavily armed with three 3-inch/50 caliber dual purpose guns, one 1.1-inch/75 quad barrel machine cannon, six 20-mm cannon, three 21-inch torpedo tubes, two depth charge racks, eight K-guns, and one Hedgehog launcher. The ship was built at the Bethlehem-Hingham Shipyard, Hingham, Massachusetts, and was commissioned on 30 April 1943.

From July 1943 to early April 1944, Buckley steamed along the East Coast of the United States and was used as a training ship for this new class of destroyer escort. But on 22 April 1944, Buckley (along with three other destroyer escorts) was assigned to the Hunter/Killer Task Group TG.21.11 that was centered on the escort carrier USS Block Island (CVE-21). While steaming west of the Cape Verde Islands on the morning of 6 May 1944, aircraft from Block Island spotted a surfaced German U-boat not far from Buckley. The aircraft guided Buckley toward the U-boat (which turned out to be U-66) and, at 4,000 yards, the two ships began firing at each other. U-66 shot a torpedo (which missed) at the oncoming destroyer escort and opened up with her deck guns. Buckley fired every gun she had at the submarine. At a range of 2,100 yards, one of Buckley’s 3-inch guns scored a hit just forward of the U-boat’s conning tower. Buckley turned sharply to avoid another torpedo that was fired from U-66, but then headed straight for the submarine, pounding the U-boat with her 20-mm guns. As the destroyer escort approached U-66, Lieutenant Commander Brent Able, Buckley’s skipper, gave a command rarely heard in modern warfare, “Stand by to ram!” Buckley turned hard right and crashed into the U-boat. For a while the two ships were locked together and what ensued was one of the strangest naval battles during World War II. In a throwback to the Age of Sail, German crewmen jumped on board the destroyer escort and were beaten back by US sailors armed with pistols, rifles, and empty 3-inch shell cases. One American sailor even threw a coffee mug at one of the attacking German crewmen! This unusual hand-to-hand combat lasted for about two minutes and then Buckley managed to free itself by backing away from the submarine. U-66 then tried to ram the destroyer escort, but a quick-thinking torpedoman from Buckley threw a hand grenade down the open conning tower hatch as the submarine drew alongside the American warship. The grenade exploded deep inside the U-boat, causing a massive fire to erupt within the ship. After the explosion, U-66 began drifting away from Buckley with flames shooting up from its open hatches. At 0436 on 6 May, U-66 sank beneath the waves, a little over an hour after the battle began. After the battle, Buckley picked up 36 officers and men who had managed to jump off the sinking German submarine.

Buckley steamed to New York and then on to the Boston Navy Yard for repairs. She then escorted two convoys to North Africa from 14 July 1944 to 7 November 1944. After that she was assigned to anti-submarine and escort duties along America’s East Coast until June 1945. While on one of these escort missions, Buckley managed to sink yet another German submarine (U-879) with the assistance of the USS Reuben James (DE-153) on 19 April 1945.

From June to July 1945, Buckley escorted one more convoy to Algeria before being sent back to the United States for conversion into a radar picket ship. In October 1945, she participated in the Navy Day ceremonies at Jacksonville, Florida, and then was decommissioned on 3 July 1946. Buckley was stricken from the Naval Vessel Register in June 1968 and was sold for scrapping in July 1969. Buckley received the Navy Unit Commendation for sinking U-66 and was awarded three battle stars for her service in World War II.

The primary duty of destroyer escorts during World War II was to sink enemy submarines and many of them, like Buckley, did that job very well. Eventually destroyer escorts would take on a number of other duties as well, but when attached to Hunter/Killer groups with an escort carrier (such as Block Island), they proved to be deadly adversaries to German U-boats. Destroyer escorts made a substantial contribution in winning the Battle of the Atlantic and their efforts should not be forgotten.