The Role of Destroyers in the Pacific War

The Pacific War is best known for the dominance of the aircraft carrier, which manifestly eclipsed the battleship as the decisive weapon in naval combat in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Carriers are even more vulnerable in close combat, however, than battleships; consequently, the need for support vessels remained as strong as ever. Destroyers remained a vital component in the Imperial Japanese Navy and the US Navy alike, but these navies foresaw substantial differences in the role of the destroyer, resulting in equally clear differences in the construction and subsequent performance of their destroyers.

As a category, the destroyer found its place in the nineteenth century, after the development of torpedoes. While the effective use of submarines remained in the future, a similar threat was posed by the use of torpedo boats. Small and fast, these boats could close within an accurate firing distance of major warships and loose a crippling torpedo attack before the larger vessel could respond. Destroyers were built to deal with this threat. Smaller and faster than cruisers, destroyers could meet these torpedo boats before they came within striking distance of the larger vessels; once they had engaged these targets, the destroyer easily outgunned the torpedo boat. In this way, the destroyer became a crucial part of any fleet.

By the First World War, destroyers fulfilled a variety of tasks, including escort duties, reconnaissance, and attack roles against both large and small threats. Armament usually consisted of light guns and torpedoes; the former were adequate for use against other destroyers and lesser vessels, while the latter were the principal weapons for use against larger ships. The principal disadvantage of destroyers in this period was a fairly short range, due in part to their narrow and light construction. These destroyers were poorly suited to detached service on the open sea.

After the war, several nations experimented with the construction of larger and more powerful destroyers, and these are sometimes termed “super-destroyers.”  These were larger than conventional destroyers, giving them better performance at sea and permitting additional weaponry, but without sacrificing speed. Indeed, the larger size permitted larger engines, and the French examples of the type are credited with being the fastest fighting vessels of their period.

The Japanese took great interest in this development. Japanese doctrine emphasized the fighting attributes of each warship above all other considerations, and with this in mind, they created the most heavily-armed destroyers of any nation. The first class of this kind, the Fabuki class, was still too light a platform for this armament, but improvements were made to give the Japanese destroyers greater seaworthiness.

The most decisive improvement that the Japanese made, however, was another weapon: the Type 93 torpedo, often called the “Long Lance.” Propelled by oxygen instead of steam, the Long Lance was faster than the American Mark 15 torpedo, and its short range (21,900 yards) exceeded the Mark 15’s long range (15,000 yards). At 1,078 pounds, its warhead was also more than twice the size of the Mark 15. The tactical consequences of this invention were profound: if used properly, it gave the Japanese a substantial advantage in night combat. Given that the Japanese were always going to be outnumbered by their enemies, any qualitative advantage would be welcome. The IJN acquired the best optics available for their destroyers, permitting reasonably accurate target acquisition even at night; indeed, these optics were superior to the early forms of radar used by the Americans at the beginning of the Pacific War. With these tools available, the IJN ensured that destroyer crews were well-trained in the conduct of night operations.

In contrast, the Americans ended World War I with large numbers of destroyers, and consequently, there was no hurry to develop new and more powerful destroyers in any numbers. Interwar treaties concerning the total tonnage of fleets (and the categories of warship in which this tonnage might be dispersed) also slowed American development. It was always understood, however, that Japan was the likely enemy in a conflict to be waged in the Pacific, and American destroyer design proceeded with this in mind. There needed to be balance between the destroyer’s offensive and defensive capabilities, and between its gun armament and its torpedo capacity. The difficulties of rearming vessels far from friendly ports argued for a large torpedo capacity, while the prospects of air attack called for gun armaments that were capable of firing at ships or planes, as needed. The latter resulted in the creation of the 5in/38 Dual Purpose gun, mounted singly, with four or five per destroyer, depending upon class.

Treaty obligations kept new American destroyers small until the last years of the 1930’s, and it was not until 1940 that larger and more heavily armed destroyers could be built from the start. These destroyers, the Benson, Bristol and Fletcher classes, were fitted with five Dual Purpose guns and ten torpedoes carried in two quintuple tube mounts. Nearly one hundred destroyers were constructed in the first two classes; the Fletcher class, which did not begin delivery until after the war began, eventually encompassed 175 vessels. With many of the vintage destroyers given to Britain under the Destroyers-for-Bases deal, and with losses among the intermediate classes (which generally numbered no more than eight vessels per class) during the first half of the war, the Fletcher class came to dominate American destroyers during the second half.

Tactically, the US Navy intended for destroyers to operate offensively or defensively as necessary, where the Japanese expected an offensive mindset at all times. Offensively, destroyers would act in reconnaissance in force before an engagement, and then during the engagement, they would try to disable the most powerful vessels in the enemy fleet with their torpedo capability; in the latter instance, they essentially were to serve as a larger and stronger version of the torpedo boat that the first destroyers were built to defeat. Defensively, they were to screen the movements of their fleets in much the same way that cavalry was meant to screen the movements of an army before World War I. By steaming ahead of the fleet and engaging any enemy reconnaissance elements, they prevented the enemy fleet from discerning too much about the American fleet’s movements. And while these American destroyers were not the purpose-built escort vessels that the Destroyer Escorts would become, they were still meant to protect the fleet from enemy submarines and to participate in the defense against air attacks.

While American destroyers, especially the later Destroyer Escorts, served in the Atlantic in a strategic capacity by defending the convoys, neither the Japanese nor Americans gave much thought to the prospect of using destroyers in this way in the Pacific; there, destroyers were strictly a tactical weapon in the fleet’s arsenal. American commanders employed them in the balanced manner outlined above, while Japanese commanders consistently used them to attack the American fleet, whenever possible doing so by night, when their tactical advantages were greatest. American destroyers were outfitted with radar in 1941, and yet the early versions of radar did not outweigh Japanese advantages in night fighting.

The high point of destroyer action in the Pacific War took place during the Solomon Islands campaign. This campaign encompassed fourteen distinct naval battles, and ten of these gave a substantial role to the destroyers. The Japanese attempted to make as much use of night fighting as possible, and in the early battles, the American destroyers performed poorly. American losses were higher than Japanese, 25 vessels against 18, but strategically, the Americans prevailed on Guadalcanal, while Japanese losses could be replaced soon.

Both sides modified their tactics after the Solomon Islands campaign. In the Japanese case, high losses provoked a decline in the role of the destroyer in Japanese action. The Japanese destroyers were reduced to a defensive escort role, and even here their performance was inadequate, as the loss of two carriers to submarine activity during the Battle of the Philippine Sea attests. Meanwhile, the US Navy had learned that using cruisers to fight destroyers, as it had tried whenever possible during the Solomon Islands campaign, tended to result in excessively high losses; with strong recommendations from Admirals King and Nimitz, the American destroyers saw an enhanced role in the fighting, and in the future, the Americans would counter Japanese destroyers with American destroyers instead of cruisers.

The American destroyers saw their finest hour during the campaign for the Philippines. While they did not intentionally go into action on their own, they served in the vanguard at Suriago Strait, while at Samar a group of destroyers and destroyer escorts faced a Japanese counterattack with limited air support. Even in the latter case, with the loss of three vessels, the American destroyers gave a good accounting for themselves.

The Japanese had gone to war with substantial technological and training advantages over the Americans with regard to destroyers, while the one technological advantage the Americans had, radar, had not yet matured into a major contributor to the effort. The US Navy, however, had planned its destroyer force with a more balanced view of the roles that their destroyers would fulfill. Once radar had matured and the American torpedo faults were resolved, this balanced view proved more fruitful; moreover, lessons learned in the Solomon Islands campaign helped the American destroyers to contribute to the American effort more fully, while the Japanese concluded that they could no longer afford to use their destroyers in the aggressive manner for which they had been built in the first place. Relegated to a defensive role, the Japanese destroyers became irrelevant.



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Keegan, John, ed.  World War II: A Visual Encyclopedia.  Collins & Brown, 2000

Stille, Mark.  USN Destroyer vs. IJN Destroyer: The Pacific 1943.  Osprey, 2012

Wheal, Elizabeth-Anne et al.  A Dictionary of the Second World War.  Bedrick, 1990


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