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Allen M. Sumner

Class History

"Six-Gunned Heavyweights"

by Basil Hearde in America's Fighting Ships

President Franklin D. Roosevelt grinned approvingly and Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox agreed that she was indeed attractive. Admiral Ernest J. King, Navy CinC, nodded his satisfaction. The object arousing their mutual interest was not a morale-boosting Varga girl pin-up, so popular with wartime GIs, but rather the White House unveiling a handsome builder's model of the proposed new 2200-ton Allen M. Sumner-class destroyers.

President Roosevelt, a lifelong ship model enthusiast, had good reason to be pleased. The model the trio scanned with such obvious zeal was the largest destroyer ever considered for the US Navy: a fast six-gunned warship that promised to be the most seaworthy ever envisioned. The Sumner-class would mark the apogee of destroyer design; the ultimate generational evolution of a sleek type of warship that promised to play an ever greater role in the raging Pacific conflict.

Even as the first true " fleet destroyers" of the new Fletcher-class were shaping in shipyards in the summer of 1941, the Navy expressed the need for a still larger destroyer better able to execute the multipurpose role fast coming into focus in envisioned Pacific operations. While the new five-gun Fletchers held the assurance of speed, range and overall utility never realized in any of the prewar 1850 tonners, the General Board still liked the concept of a larger destroyer mounting six 5-inch/ 38 dual purpose guns. Though originally contemplated for the Fletchers, the weight of the dual mounts had proved impractical for their narrow-beamed 2100-ton hulls. Earlier, the six twin-mounted 5-inch guns of the prewar Porter/Somers-class had well demonstrated the advantages of this layout. However, the Porter's mounts lacked the high-angle elevations needed for antiaircraft defense the planners deemed so necessary for modern naval warfare.

The development of the new lighter weight Mk32 twin inch mount originally designed as secondary AA armament for battleships and cruisers, suggested that a modern electrically driven turret system was now at hand with which to create an effective six-gunned destroyer. In May 1941 discussions with the Bureau of Ships' engineers, the General Board outlined several ideas suitable for development. Principal among these was for concept development utilizing the basic hull form and machinery of the still building Fletcher-class so as to take advantage of as much construction standardization as possible.

In the often heated roundtable planning sessions that followed, a few representatives of the Bureau of Ships pointed out that the Fletcher's 37 foot hull was already too jammed with the latest necessary equipment They argued that it was foolhardy to attempt to stuff anything like another gun into a hull already about to burst its seams and strongly advocated embarking on an entirely new and larger hull design. This, in effect, would create a "super-destroyer"; a vessel almost as large as a light cruiser with space aplenty for the types of combined firepower suggested by the General Board. While the idea had more than reasonable merit this faction was soon overruled; being forced to face the reality that the time to evolve a suitable new design and its propulsion machinery was impossible in lieu of the country's already strained shipbuilding capacity. Confronted with the president's expansive 1940 mandate to build a 'Two Ocean Navy' there simply was neither the time nor the facilities to undertake yet another new shipbuilding program.

By October, with the impetus of ever-deepening worldwide tensions pushing the mission of the Fletcher class, seven design concepts had been outlined. Among these were various proposals using combinations of single and dual 5 inch mounts supported by mixed numbers of single, dual and quad 40mm Bofors for secondary antiaircraft (AA) weaponry. Each concept had its pros and cons, but studied opinions expressed by the esteemed Capt. George M. Schulyor of the Bureau of Finance emphasized that primary consideration should be given to the six-gun concept to take maximum advantage of the dual-purpose 5 inch 38's antiaircraft punch and surface firing flexibility.

An astute observer of trends already seen in European naval warfare, Schulyer argued that the destroyer's role was rapidly changing the point where less emphasis would be placed on torpedo attack and more on a destroyer's ability to fend itself from the growing threat, air attack. Indeed, his views were born out by British experience in the Mediterranean which indicated the need for more AA firepower and greater protection of gunners exposed in unshielded gun mounts.

The Bureau of Ships agreed with Schulyer and voiced the added ingredient that greater survivability should be a paramount consideration built into the design changes under consideration. Their views were buttressed by the kind of damage suffered by the Brits wherein the thinly clad hulls of destroyers were remarkably able to survive torpedo hits and mine damage if the ships were fully compartmented Likewise, the addition of splinter shields helped to decrease the number of casualties suffered by bomb and shell fragments that otherwise did only superficial damage. The question then became, was a destroyer more prone to suffer serious punishment above or below its waterline? Lacking any armor, was the threat greater from a torpedo, mine, shellfire, or aerial bomb? Opinions varied, but the evidence then at hand seemed to suggest that the control of flooding lay in complete compartmentalization, divided fire rooms and astute crew training in damage control. These then became the key factor to assure survival from any menace, above or below the sea.

With all of these parameters in mind, design work progressed on those proposals that favored widening the beam of the Fletcher-class II by a foot and a half to allow a vast increase in stability at a small sacrifice in speed. The advantages of placing four centerline guns in twin Mounts forward of the bridge was readily seen as a major consideration for destroyers intended to be better able to support a torpedo attack with most of its offensive weaponry blazing ahead as opposed to abeam of the assault. But now the problem was one of the guns' proximity to the fire control director and the potential damage to the director's delicate ranging mechanisms from muzzle blasts. To correct this the designers proposed moving both twin 5-inch mounts six-and-a-half feet forward on the forecastle and 01 level. Studies soon proved the feasibility of this alteration, plus the added advantage of now having a longer main deck superstructure to house the new concept of a centralized Combat Information Center (CIC) where all radar plots were to be coordinated.

Other critical factors were carefully weighed such as a long uninterrupted deckhouse for better crew protection from the elements, the advantages of split placement of the twin sets of 21-inch torpedo tubes, location of 40mm mounts just aft of the bridge for better forward AA defense and the bridge design itself. With damage control features now paramount provision was also made for the installation of up to 50 fire hoses and powerful portable pumps. Space was at a premium but despite this crew comfort was taken into account. One by one each challenge was met and evaluated, argued and decided upon until a satisfactory solution was found. As always, there were many compromises even though the ship envisioned was now unfettered by any international treaty, budget or political constraints. What mattered most in the frantic naval buildup of 1941 was evolving an all-welded vessel that could be expeditiously constructed despite the awesome demands placed on America's shipbuilding industry.

By April 1942, with the nation now fully swept into war, the final design proposal was sent to the Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox with Fleet Admiral King's full endorsement. These specifications outlined a new 2200-ton flush deck destroyer, dubbed the DD-692-class. The vessel was essentially a Fletcher-class hull 376' long with a beam widened from 39' 4" to 40' 10". Three boxy twin 5-inch/38 mounts - two forward - one aft, housed the main armament in fully enclosed gun shields along with ten 21" torpedoes mounted in two quintuple mounts. Twelve 40mm Bofors (2 quads + 2 twins) formed the secondary AA firepower plus ten 20mm Oerlikons for close defense. Four to six sets of "K" guns and stern depth charge racks rounded out the antisubmarine weaponry (ASW) along with the latest in search radar and sonar equipment.

Using the same 60,000 shp-geared steam turbines that powered the Fletchers, it was anticipated the Sumners could make 38 knots at flank speed. In giving his endorsement, Admiral King specified that the designers had put their best foot forward; that with the exigencies of war there would be no time to correct costly mistakes.

On 7 August 1942 the first group (DD-692 to 781) were ordered, with an additional batch following in June 1943. Working at feverish pace around he clock, shipyards began delivering the first units of what was now known as the Allen M. Sumner-class late in 1943. The first of these commissioned early in 1944 with all but a few of them alternately reconfigured into what was needed simply by removing their weighty torpedo tubes and adding deck storage rails and related mechanisms for up to 120 mines. At Admiral Nimitz' urging, King directed the conversion of 12 Sumner-class destroyers under construction into heavy DMs (Destroyer Mine-layers) with "all possible haste." In all respects, carrying the same armament as originally intended (except for torpedo tubes), Admiral King insisted the conversions would be fully capable of conducting "all other Fleet duties as regards a destroyer." Though they would carry DM rather than DD designations and the Robert H. Smith (DM-23) would be the sub-class leader, the new 2200-ton Light Minelayers would nevertheless be referred to as Sumner DMs. Enjoying equal priority with their destroyer sisters, these simple conversions joined the Fleet by late 1944, albeit without the glamour of being torpedo-toting hot shots of the "Tin Can Navy." Considerable publicity surrounded the Sumner's launchings and fitting out at seven shipyards ringing the country. Faced with material shortages, labor disputes and the inevitable delays caused by last minute design alterations, the Navy waited in anxious anticipation of finally receiving its "ultimate destroyer." But when all the press fanfare was finished (as much as wartime security would allow), initial reaction during sea trials by veteran line officers was something less than enthusiastic. Complaints soon were whispered that the long-awaited vessels had a tendency for their bows to dish or weave in heavy seas owing to the tremendous weight of the four 5-inch guns so far forward on the slim hull. Then, too, there were criticisms of excessive shaft vibrations and troubles with propeller cavitation. It was soon found that the shaft vee braces were weak and tended to easily crack under he stress of high propeller revolutions. There were also problems with the twin rudders, the first ever fixed to a destroyer hull. While the twin rudders allowed swift turns and greater maneuverability, they imposed high stresses on the shaft housings and struts that increased torsional loads on the hull itself. These problems were corrected by replacing the three-bladed props with four-bladed ones and strengthening the strut braces, themselves. But even these satisfactory changes failed to win the thumbs-up approval the designers and builders had hoped to achieve. The Sumner's teething problems were far from over. Even as the first units were being deployed to the Fleet, design deficiencies were being discovered that for a time threatened to call a serious delay to the entire building program. Cracked welds necessitated shipyard returns for additional doublers on several high-stress portions of the hull. These and other defects prompted Admiral King to caution his builders not to go ahead with production until the problems were fully remedied. King preferred a temporary delay in overall deliveries the first 20 to 25 vessels rather than a quick fix approach so that the fleet would ultimately get a vessel void of serious shortcomings. His rational would prove to be wise though it brought much criticism from shipyards anxious to clear space to lay new keels. Some of these headaches were easier to remedy than others. Even while building it was suggested the proposed bridge was too congested owing to the placement of the sonar compartment and that deck officers lacked the forward scanning visibility needed for proper conning and look-out. A full-scale bridge mock-up was built in Boston and various alterations were studied. The bridge itself was found to be too low and this was raised slightly and set back behind a deck walkway around the pilothouse that now allowed unrestricted forward visibility, similar to that finally evolved for the Fletcher-class. Swiftly sent on shakedown cruises crews soon complained about overcrowding, a typical wartime occurrence owing to the number of guns and gear added after the platform had been settled upon. Even more serious was the harsh reality that the design did not live up to expectations regarding speed and endurance. It was intended that the Sumners would make better than 36 knots, but with their 18-inch wider beams and additional operating displacement of over 150 tons, top speed proved to be only slightly in excess of 35 knots. Even worse, fuel consumption was higher than anticipated, thereby reducing the desired operating radius to something over 6,000 rather than 8,000 miles. This problem was partially due to the use of hypothetical fuel consumption formulas based on peacetime maneuvering data and not on the harsh reality of wartime demands. The problem first came to light in the Fletcher-class performance predictions, but fortunately for the new Sumner-class still being built, there was time to make the necessary corrections.

For the new Sumners these corrections would greatly alter their Fletcher-like appearance; the addition of a 14-foot-long midship plug would provide the necessary space for considerably more fuel and stores. So large a change called for an entirely new class designation for the lengthened Sumners. It would take months to alter the plans and modify the ship's innards, but the result was well worth the wait. The longer, otherwise unaltered vessels - now named the Gearing-class in honor of three generations of naval luminaries seemed to have rectified all of the Sumner's early defects. The first of that would be a total class of 105 Ships - USS Gearing (DD-710) was launched on 18 February 1945. Many these would not be completed before the war ended and only a handful of the Gearings would see any action in World War II. With the specter of the enlarged, roomier Gearings holding great but undelivered promise, it was up to their Sumner sisters to affirm their mettle. By then what was known to the Fleet as the "short hull Sumners" were already proving themselves to be superb warships in the hard test of wartime steaming and combat.

USS Meredith (DD-726) would be remembered as the first of her class to be lost in action. Launched in December 1943 and commissioned 14 March 1944, she was one of the few Sumners to serve in the Atlantic. Departing Boston for her first wartime cruise on 8 May, she took her place as a convoy escort bound for Plymouth, England. Joining in the assault on Utah Beach on D-Day she gave gunfire support to the landing force, scoring several direct hits on enemy batteries. The following morning while patrolling offshore waters as a screening vessel, she struck an enemy mine that killed seven of her crew and wounded 50 others. Towed to a safe anchorage in the Bay of Seine, she suffered a near miss on 9 June during a bombing raid that further damaged her already weakened beams. Suddenly splitting in two without warning, she sank at her mooring. Her gallant hulk would be raised from her wartime grave and in 1960. Meredith would enjoy the unenviable record as the destroyer with the shortest wartime career - only 30 days active service. The war would not end as quickly for here Pacific-bound sisters.

With most of their defects corrected, the Sumners quickly gained reputations for being exceptionally sea-worthy, tough warships by any measure. Although they would see little of the ship-to-ship warfare encountered in the early stages of the Pacific War by their smaller predecessors, they, nevertheless soon encountered more than their share of action in the Philippines campaign and other fierce battles that followed. With all six guns firing rapidly in repeated salvos their radar-directed ranging was extraordinary. Time and again they pinpointed difficult shoreside targets with unerring accuracy; destroying enemy fortifications, ammo and supply dumps with unabashed ease.

In an attack on Japanese shipping in Ormoc Bay, Leyte, in early December 1944 class leader Allen M. Sumner (DD-692), along with sisters Moale (DD-693) and Cooper (DD-695), would engage in one of their few surface battles against Japanese warships. In a swift running night battle the Japanese destroyers Kuwa was sunk and Take badly damaged along with several other smaller escorts. But the fight was not without American losses. Sumner sustained 13 wounded from a near miss and Cooper was struck by Japanese torpedoes, breaking in two and sinking with a loss of 191 of her crew of 360. Sumner would be hit again in Lingayen, suffering 14 killed and 29 wounded, but she would lick her wounds and sail on not only through the end of the Pacific War but also through the Korean and Vietnam conflicts as well. USS Allen M. Sumner would serve her nation well, remaining in service from 1944 to 1973 when she decommissioned as a noble class leader after steaming the world's oceans for almost 30 years.

As the planners so accurately predicted, the Sumner's dual-purpose 5-inch mounts would prove to be highly effective against aircraft especially when fitted with the remarkable VT proximity fuse that exploded when drawing close to any attacking aircraft. The merits of the VT-fused ammunition and the Sumner's highly effective array of antiaircraft weaponry would rise to the forefront in their gallant stand against the death-bound kamikazes encountered in the latter stages of the Philippines campaign and the Battle of Okinawa.

In this vicious 80-day Okinawa battle where life or death was measured in the amount of defensive firepower a warship could muster, the Sumners stood supreme. Able to defend themselves by throwing up a seething curtain of AA firepower, it was not uncommon for a single ship to down three, four or five diving planes in a matter of minutes in a single day. In was only when the kamikazes attacked in mass formations that the darting Sumners, virtually encapsulated in wreaths of smoke from the belching fury of their guns, found themselves totally overwhelmed. Facing such enormous odds, it was inevitable that some of the planes would penetrate the veil of AA fire and break through to crash into their hapless targets. The saga USS Laffey (DD-724) was typical of he kind of bitter fighting the Sumners encountered in this last great sea battle of World War II.

Attacked by 22 Japanese planes while on picket patrol, Laffeys seasoned gunners put up a withering wall of flak that soon sent plane after plane spinning into the sea. Attacking from every point of the compass at once, the planes pressed home their attack until six managed to strike the ship in rapid succession. despite sustaining damage that left Laffey's superstructure a fire-blackened maze of mangled wreckage, the lucky vessel survived to miraculously escape the death noose under its own power. Today, this heroic vessel is a memorial warship on permanent exhibit at Charleston's Patriots Point Museum alongside the Yorktown.

But other Sumner sisters were not so fortunate. Drexler (DD-741) also found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time. On Okinawa radar picket duty with sister-ship Lowry (DD-770) the pair were pounced on by six kamikazes. Their gunners sprang to action, each ship converging their fire on the planes diving out of the sun. One plane splashed in a ball of fire into the sea, the other tried to crash Lowry, missed, banked steeply and cartwheeled into Drexler's amidships. A fireball of spewing gasoline erupted as the ship shuddered from the impact losing all power. Despite the heavy damage Drexler kept firing, joining in downing three other planes in as many minutes. Seconds later another kamikaze dove straight into Drexlers forward superstructure setting off a tremendous explosion. Mortally wounded, her back broken, Drexler rolled on her starboard side and sank less than a minute after the second hit. Down with her went 158 of her valiant crewmen plus 52 others badly wounded, including her commanding officer. Drexlers few survivors would long remember the sunny 28th of May 1945.

Drexler was not the only Sumner to meet her end at Okinawa. The Wonnert L. Abele (DD-733) also caught the full fury of the "Divine Wind." On the morning of 12 April she found herself surrounded by 15 to 25 planes that attacked in three- and four-plane waves while the others orbited out of gun range. Quickly downing all three of the first wave. her guns swung to take on another trio of Zekes, opening fire at 4000 yards. The first two, hammered by numerous hits, disintegrated in the air. The third began to belch smoke but flew defiantly on spewing flame until it smashed into the after engine room, wiping out the entire engine room "black gang," exploding with such force that it broke the keel abaft under water, Abele was struck a minute later by a Baka bomb a piloted, rocket-powered, glider bomb carrying an explosive 2600-pound warhead. The ensuing blast broke the crippled ship in two and both halves rapidly sunk. As her survivors struggled amidst the debris, the remaining Japanese planes began to strafe them with machine guns. It was only the good shooting of nearby LSMRs 189 and 90 that downed the straffers, leaving less than half of the luckless destroyers crew to be rescued.

When the tragic box score of the kamikaze attacks was tallied the results were awesome. In all, from October to 22 June, 7830 Japanese Kamikazes had been destroyed at horrendous cost to the US Navy, which lost almost 800 planes. Thirty six ships were sunk and 288 badly damaged with a loss of 4907 Navy men killed or missing at sea. American Destroyers suffered the heaviest numerical losses with 13 being sunk and severely damaged.

Though the Sumner-class arrived late in the war they made there presence known , accounting for almost 15 percent of the planes downed between October 1944 and August 1945. When the Allied Fleet steamed into Tokyo Bay to accept Japan's surrender, more than a dozen Sumners were the victorious vanguard of warships that had proudly earned their battle honors. Despite their early problems they were staunch, dependable, fighting-ready ships when they underwent their baptism of fire. Of the 58 Allen M Sumners commissioned as destroyers (12 completed as Light Mine-layers) 48 would continue to serve the Navy, some well into the 1970s. At the completion of their service many of these were transferred to NATO/SEATO navies where a few still serve today. In their brief moment on center stage in World War II they wrote a noble glory that is unsurpassed in annals of war at sea.

(A sincere Thank You to Ron Babuka who transcribed this article)