This U.S. Navy Escort Group Changed the Course of World War II in the Pacific
Fortunately for the Allies, a small group of destroyer escorts (DEs), purpose-built to attack submarines, was then awaiting orders at Purvis Bay off Florida Island in the lower Solomons. The group, designated Escort Division 39, consisted of USS England (DE-635), USS George (DE-697), and USS Raby (DE-698), all newly commissioned Buckley-class vessels on their first war cruise. Kept busy thus far with routine convoy escort duties, few sailors aboard these three DEs had yet seen combat.
A series of events would rapidly transform them into seasoned veterans. On May 18, a communiqué from Third Fleet arrived directing Escort Division 39 to intercept a “Japanese sub believed heading to supply beleaguered forces at Buin.” After posting its estimated location, the electrifying message concluded: “He is believed to be approaching this point from the north and should arrive in that area by about 1400 [hours] 20 May. Good hunting.”
Each of the three DEs in Escort Division 39 measured 306 feet in length with a beam of 36 feet. Fully combat loaded, a Buckley-class destroyer escort displaced 1,740 tons. Two General Electric turbo-electric engines drove the vessel to a top speed of 24 knots, while maximum cruising range exceeded 5,000 miles. A ship’s company typically included 15 officers and 198 enlisted men.
A suite of electronic sensors assisted the crew in its mission of locating enemy targets. SL search radar helped find surface vessels, while SA “bedspring” radar identified possible aerial threats. But the DE’s primary detection system was QSL-1 sonar, which sent a pulse of high-intensity sound called a “ping” into the water. Echoes reflected off such solid objects as a submarine returned to the ship, where trained sound operators could then determine the contact’s range and bearing.
The destroyer escort also packed a lethal punch. Apart from 20mm Oerlikon and quad-mounted 1.1-inch antiaircraft cannons, each Buckley-class DE came equipped with three Mk 22 3-inch/50-caliber deck guns—two forward and one aft. Three 21-inch torpedoes in a triple tube launcher mounted atop the superstructure deck were intended for surface vessels, while a battery of depth charge projectors on the ship’s fantail could devastate plunging submarines with a string of “ashcans” each containing up to 600 pounds of high-explosive filler.
Just entering service in the Pacific that spring was a new and deadly weapon, the Mk 10 “Hedgehog” forward-firing spigot mortar. The DEs of Escort Division 39 all carried this British-designed projector, which fired a salvo of two dozen 24-pound contact-fused charges intended to fall in a circular pattern up to 270 yards ahead of the ship. Hedgehog rounds could be aimed to fall slightly right or left of center line and would only explode if they struck a submarine. By 1944, Japanese submarine captains had learned how to evade blindly dropped depth charges; Hedgehog-equipped destroyer escorts could now track a target on sonar throughout their attack and thus greatly increase the chance of a precision kill.
Sub hunting was a complicated, intricate task that required every officer, NCO, and bluejacket—from soundmen to Hedgehog gunners to the engine room gang—to work together as a team. Even the newest hands in Escort Division 39 knew their only chance to defeat the foe was through relentless training, and aboard one of those DEs training had become an obsession.
Since its commissioning in December 1943, the USS England, named for Ensign John Charles England, killed at Pearl Harbor, had earned the reputation of being a “taut ship.” Her crewmen devoted themselves to achieving excellence in equipment maintenance, ship handling and, above all, proficiency with the vessel’s weapons systems. They knew theirs was a kill-or-be-killed profession; coming in second against a Japanese submarine meant violent death on the lonely ocean.
Leading the England’s company to excellence was an unlikely taskmaster. Lieutenant John A. Williamson, a 26-year-old from Birmingham, Alabama, served as the ship’s executive officer (XO). Taking a reserve officer’s commission in 1940, Williamson soon found himself aboard the destroyer USS Livermore in the North Atlantic. Although the United States was then technically not at war, fully armed American warships on the “Neutrality Patrol” regularly shepherded convoys to and from Great Britain during the height of the U-boat peril. During his nine months of escort work, Williamson often witnessed firsthand the horrific toll that German subs were taking on Allied merchantmen.
Lieutenant Williamson next served as an instructor at the Subchaser School in Miami, where he helped train the Navy’s next generation of sonar operators. He then skippered a wooden-hulled patrol craft along the East Coast before receiving orders to join England for duty in Pacific waters. As XO, Williamson brought to his new ship a remarkable combination of battle experience, technical knowledge, and passion for excellence.
The England’s captain, Lt. Cmdr. Walton B. Pendleton, was a middle-aged career Navy officer who practiced an unusual hands-off style of command. Recognizing his executive officer’s leadership talents, Pendleton wisely gave few orders while allowing Williamson the freedom to prepare England for wartime service. The combination worked; months of incessant drills had made her crew supremely confident, even cocky. Lieutenant Williamson and the few other veterans on board knew, however, that combat would prove to be the ultimate test for this little warship and her spirited crew.