Stories from the Shipyard: USS Macdonough (DD-351) and USS Monaghan (DD-354) in Action on December 7, 1941

By Michael P. Manning, Chair, Friends of the Boston Harborwalk

Eighty years ago next week, the Japanese Imperial Navy Air Service launched a surprise and devastating attack on United States Pacific Fleet bases in Hawaii at Hickam Field and Pearl Harbor.  This unprovoked attack directly led to the entry of the United States into World War II.

Two US Navy warships, USS Macdonough and USS Monaghan, were based at Pearl Harbor that fateful morning.  The vessels were Farragut-class sister ships, constructed at Boston Navy Yard (Charlestown), and commissioned within a month of each other in the spring of 1935. 

These post-World War I destroyers had significantly greater fire power and steaming range than their predecessors (the Clemson-class).  Macdonough was the third of four vessels named for Captain (later Commodore) Thomas Macdonough who commanded American naval forces during the War of 1812.  During this conflict, the US Navy defeated the British Royal Navy at the Battle of Lake Champlain (on the New York – Vermont border).   Monaghan was the second vessel named for Ensign John R. Monaghan – a native of Washington state who was killed in action during the second Samoan Civil War of 1899.

Both destroyers were eventually reassigned to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.  Incredibly, on the morning of December 7th 1941, both Macdonough and Monaghan were in port during the Japanese attack on one of America’s largest naval facilities outside of the continental United States. 

Macdonough was berthed undergoing major repairs and all on-board power had been disabled.  At the time of the attack, the one officer on aboard had to issue orders through a megaphone.  Without power to operate the elevators, the crew was forced to carry ammunition from the magazine to the gun deck.  Similarly, the men had to manually aim, elevate, rotate, and fire the

5-inch deck guns.  Despite these limitations, Macdonough’s crew is credited with one Japanese naval aircraft “kill’ with a probable second aircraft downed. 

Concurrently, Monaghan was the “ready-duty” destroyer berthed just north of Ford Island – located in the center of Pearl Harbor.  Monaghan and sister ships Aylwin, Dale, and Farragut waited in this saltwater hideaway at a high state of readiness.

At 7:51 AM, Monaghan was ordered to make steam and join destroyer USS Ward on an anti-submarine patrol.  Just an hour before, Ward had sunk an unidentified submarine at Pearl Harbor’s entrance.  Four minutes later, the devastating Japanese air attack began with the first of two waves of bombers, torpedo bombers, and fighters.  The unrelenting assault lasted approximately 90 minutes.  At 8:27 AM, just 30 minutes after the strike began; Monaghan was notified of the presence of a Japanese mini-submarine in the harbor.

This was I-22tou – a Type-A Japanese mini-submarine with a two-man crew and armed with two torpedoes.  The submarine attacked the seaplane tender USS Curtiss with a torpedo but missed.  Immediately, and inexplicably, the intruder surfaced.  Curtiss, armed with a 5-inch deck gun, fired a shell which decapitated the submarine’s conning tower.  At this point, Monaghan’s captain rang up the engine room for flank speed and gave the order to ram.  I-22tou maneuvered to fire a torpedo at the approaching destroyer but the torpedo missed, passing within 150 feet of her starboard bow.  Immediately, Monaghan struck a glancing blow off the submarine and simultaneously dropped two depth charges that sent the enemy vessel to the harbor’s bottom.  The harbor was so shallow in this area that the detonation of the depth charges lifted the destroyer’s stern up and out of the water.

After Monaghan’s harrowing naval engagement and first enemy submarine “kill”, the destroyer steamed to Wake Island in an effort to relieve American forces there.  Unfortunately, the island was captured by Japanese forces before she and other warships arrived.  Monaghan and other vessels made their way back to Pearl Harbor.

Once power had been restored to Macdonough, she immediately steamed out of Pearl Harbor in search of the Japanese attack flotilla.  The pursuit, over the next three months, proved fruitless.  Undeterred, the ship scouted the ocean south of the Hawaiian Islands for possible enemy vessels before returning to Pearl Harbor. 

Over the next four years, both destroyers served in nearly every major Pacific naval campaign against Japanese armed forces.  The warships’ service spanned hundreds of thousands of square miles of ocean with such varied missions as convoy escort duty, anti-submarine patrols, radar picket duty, shore bombardment, landing craft escort duty, and many others.

In late December 1944, Monaghan needed to refuel and had reduced ballast to accommodate thousands of gallons of fuel.  But before she could refuel – typhoon “Cobra” struck with little or no warning.  Though fleet vessels took preemptive measures to ride out the storm, unimaginably, warships Spence, Hull, and Monaghan were all lost.

Of Monaghan’s crew of 100 officers and enlisted men, only six survived.  The sailors drifted in a lifeboat for three days fighting off thirst, oppressive heat, and menacing sharks.  Once rescued, the crew members reported that the destroyer had rolled numerous times to starboard before rolling over completely and capsizing.  Crew members below decks had no chance at all of es-cape.  More than likely, it was the ship’s inability to replace the weight of the ballast with fresh fuel that resulted in her demise.

Though her service life was less than ten years, Monaghan served valiantly in Pacific war cam-paign war until her tragic end – seven days before Christmas, 1944.  During the course of the war, she had received 12 battle stars for her service in the Pacific Theater of Operations.

Macdonough survived the war.  After the Japanese surrender, she returned to the United States arriving in San Diego on September 3rd, 1945.  After a short stay, she steamed to New York City’s Brooklyn Navy Yard.  At the end of October 1945, the destroyer was decommissioned.  Within six months, she was sold to a privately-owned shipyard and unceremoniously broken up for scrap metal thus ending an impressive World War II naval career.  From the war’s beginning at Pearl Harbor through August of 1945, Macdonough earned 13 battle stars for her service in the Pacific Theater of Operations.

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