Tuesday, October 7, 2008

USS Pillsbury (DD-227)

Figure 1: USS Pillsbury (DD-227) from a Christmas card for the Asiatic Fleet, dated 1937. Courtesy David Wright. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2: USS Pillsbury (DD-227) circa the 1930's. Courtesy Marc Piché. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 3: USS Black Hawk (AD-9) panoramic photograph of the ship moored at Chefoo, China, during the 1930s with other ships from the US Asiatic Fleet. Destroyers alongside, from Destroyer Division 14, are (from left to right): USS Bulmer (DD-222); USS Pillsbury (DD-227); USS Pope (DD-225); USS John D. Ford (DD-228); USS Edsall (DD-219); and USS Peary (DD-226). Courtesy of Walter R. Woodward, 1979. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 4: USS Pillsbury (DD-227) circa 1927, location unknown. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 5: A memorial to CMM Richard Lang and the men of the USS Pillsbury (DD-227) located at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, CA. Courtesy Colleen Collier. Click on photograph for larger image.

Named after John E. Pillsbury, a US Admiral who was a world-renowned geographer, USS Pillsbury (DD-227) was a 1,190-ton Clemson class destroyer that was built by William Cramp and Sons at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and was commissioned on 15 December 1920. She was approximately 314 feet long and 30 feet wide and had a top speed of 35 knots and a crew of 116 officers and men. Pillsbury was armed with four 4-inch guns, one 3-inch gun, twelve 21-inch torpedo tubes and depth charges.

Pillsbury spent most of her career in China and the Philippines as part of the US Asiatic Fleet. On 27 November 1941, with the Japanese threatening American bases in the Philippines, Admiral Thomas C. Hart, Commander of the US Asiatic Fleet, ordered Pillsbury and a number of other warships to steam to Borneo. After hostilities began on 7 December 1941, Pillsbury (along with Dutch and Australian naval vessels) operated out of Balikpapan, Borneo, on reconnaissance sorties and on anti-submarine patrols. As the Japanese advanced throughout the Pacific, these ships were moved once again to Surabaya, Java. From there, units of the US Asiatic Fleet searched for the advancing Japanese Navy.

Although several American destroyers from the Asiatic Fleet scored a significant victory against the Japanese at Balikpapan on 24 January 1942, that was one of the very few bright spots for the US Navy at that time. Pillsbury took part in the Battle of Badung Strait off the coast of Bali on 19-20 February 1942. A combined force of British, Dutch and American warships (with a total of three cruisers and seven destroyers) attacked four Japanese destroyers that were escorting 2 transports. The action occurred late at night and the Allied ships should have decimated the Japanese task force. However, the Japanese sunk a Dutch destroyer and severely damaged a Dutch cruiser. The Allied warships damaged three of the Japanese destroyers (one of them severely), but did not sink any of them. The battle lasted for several hours and eventually both sides left the area. But, in the end, the Japanese destroyers fought off a much larger Allied task force, did not lose any ships, and successfully protected the two transports they were escorting. The Allies had bitter lessons to learn from this battle: they had to improve communications between Allied warships, learn how to fight together as a team, and they had to perfect their night-fighting capabilities. These were problems that would haunt the US Navy throughout the early part of the war, especially during the early naval battles off Guadalcanal.

After the battle, Pillsbury and the destroyer USS Parrott (DD-218) were sent to Tjilatjap, Java, for some badly needed repairs to their engines. But Java was about to fall to the oncoming Japanese and many American warships were ordered to retreat to Australia so that they could live to fight another day. Unfortunately, many of them did not make it. On the night of 2 March 1942, one of those retreating American warships was Pillsbury. She ran straight into a large force of Japanese warships that was patrolling south of Java. Two Japanese cruisers pummeled the lonely American destroyer with numerous hits, sinking Pillsbury within a matter of minutes. The ship went down approximately 200 miles east of Christmas Island. The Japanese quickly left the area to search for additional prey and did not bother to look for survivors. Pillsbury’s crew was never heard from again.

The fall of Java, along with the destruction of most of the US Asiatic Fleet, was one of the darkest chapters in the history of the US Navy. Many American, British, and Dutch warships were sacrificed to buy precious time for the Allies. The US Navy needed that time to regroup and to rebuild its fleet, especially after the disaster at Pearl Harbor. But it was ships like Pillsbury that bought the Allies this precious time and their sacrifice should never be forgotten.