USS Duncan (DDR - 874)

" Galloping Ghost of the Korean Coast ".

Second Destroyer named Duncan, DD-485
Early exploits in WWII, prior to her demise at Savo Island.

485 Crosses the Line - 25 August, 1942

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"True Magazine" cronicles final hours of USS Duncan

Petty Officer Jim Bilbro's gripping account of DD 485's last hours

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Portion of story text above is lost due to document aging!

Less than one month from her own demise
Duncan is witness to the sinking of carrier Wasp.

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With a terrible explosion, forward bomb magazine of the USS Wasp blows up!
Aft on hanger deck, gas tanks of planes are on fire!
From after part of flight deck men are abandoning ship,
while cruiser Juneau and destroyers Duncan and O'Brien standby for survivors.

It was just a little before 3 p.m. Sept. 15. The USS Wasp, accompanied by her task force, was proceeding in a westerly direction through the warm south pacific seas. On the forward flight deck she was gassing her planes. Suddenly a torpedo hit her on the starboard bow, starting a gasoline fire. Soon she was hit by another topedo. Just before 3:30 p.m. the fires now out of control, reached her forward bomb magazine.

There was a sudden blasting explosion; flames shot hundreds of feet into the air; boiling columns of black smoke rolled skyward. Gasoline and ammunition explosions flashed along the decks. The Wasp was doomed!

On another U.S. warship nearby was Artist, War Correspondent Tom Lea on a Life Magazine Assignment. In his painting, he has recreated faithfully the moment of the big explosion. Says he, "This painting has had a peculiar effect on me. I felt very depressed while painting it. The colors are poor inadequate symbols of the real tragedy, I do not know. It is so strange to put a howling inferno into the middle of a soft and beautiful sky and an untroubled tropic sea. Yet, that's how it was, and I have painted the truth as well as I could.

Boatswain's Mate 3rd Class Roy Boehm's
USS Duncan DD 485 experiences.

This Brooklyn-born Duncan (DD 485) sailor is a true hero of American naval service. A veteran of three 20th-century conflicts - World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, this extraordinary sailor weathered shot and shark, CIA intrigue, a secret infiltration of Cuba during the missile crisis, and fathered the Navy SEALS.
Not bad for someone with a bulldog mouth and Pekinese ass!

This section of the Duncan website honors this esteemed warrior. We are proud he is a Duncaneer!

The information provided in this section is reprinted with permission of Roy Boehm, former Boatswain's Mate 3rd Class during his time aboard USS Duncan DD 485. It includes excerpts from his book, First SEAL, Chapter Six, and Chapter's Seven through Eleven in their entirety.

Chapter Six (Excerpts)

I had drawn Christmas leave from 5 December to 17 December. President Roosevelt was about to deliver his famous “Day of Infamy” speech. The Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. The United States was at war. All military personnel on pass, liberty, or leave were ordered to report immediately back to their ships or stations.

I was elated to find myself reassigned to the destroyer USS Duncan, a newly commissioned Livermore-class man-of-war. She entered the wreckage of Pearl Harbor for last minute repairs and refitting before proceeding to the ocean war in the South Pacific. Qualified divers on all vessels entering Pearl Harbor were temporarily assigned to the base to assist in salvage of sunken ships.

I found myself peering down into the murky harbor water to the shadowy outline of where the battlewagon Arizona lay some 30 feet or so beneath the bay's surface. The oily-restless water lent the tomb a ghostly, otherworldly air. All corpses easy to reach had already been removed and sent stateside for burial. At barely 18 years old, I was about to be introduced to the human detritus of war.

I had never seen a dead person outside a casket, but macho was the order of the day. I figured that I could outmacho any hairy-legged swinging dick aboard the Duncan. I had already won a pending court-martial because of a raucous night of liberty in Panama on the cruise through to the Pacific. Women and booze marked the true man-of-warsman.

The ship's commander, Lt. Comdr. Edmond B. “Whitey” Taylor, who became and remained my mentor and “sea daddy” for most of my career in the Navy, had shaken his head. “Boehm, you seem to be a damned good sailor as long as we keep you at sea,” he said.

“It's women and booze, sir,” I apologized. “I can't resist 'em, sir.”

“Boehm, you're going to have to learn to keep quiet sometimes.”

“It's a failing of mine, sir. I have a bulldog mouth.”

Don't let it override your Pekinese ass,” he scolded mildly.

Arizona lay majestically intact on the sand. She lay at an angle on her port side with a gaping hole down through the center of her decks. Clouds of feeding fish swarmed the ship, fading out of our path in gentle waves, like wind through a ripe wheat field. Debris of all sorts scabbed the ship – drifting lines, snags of canvas, netting, and tackle. It sloughed off the vessel like I imagined skin sloughed off waterlogged corpses.

Sucking air, my dive mate and I slipped into the ship's dark bowels through her terrible wound. Underwater torches illuminated watertight hatches, most of which hung ajar, and gangways where more wreckage floated eerily in the yellow-white liquid light. Shadows seemed to breathe and undulate.

I loosened a closed hatch by undogging the locks, braced my sneakered beet against the bulkhead, and pulled. I thrust my torch out ahead and cautiously led the way through into the compartment beyond. Our entry stirred the water and disturbed the haunted rest of several corpses. They moved about in a kind of weird slow-motion dance. Hair, skin, and minute particles of flesh misted into the water, attracting a feeding frenzy of tiny fish.

I flashed my light back and forth between the cadavers, as though covering myself against a surprise attack. A large crack in the bulkhead had admitted the sea's tiny scavengers. Light beams picked out black cavities where fish had sucked out eyeballs, gleamed on teeth exposed by lips having been gnawed away. Dead arms slowly beckoned, as though attempting to draw us with them into their watery graves. Silent anguished screams filled the compartment deafening me.

I back-swam. Striking my head on the edge of the steel hatch stunned me momentarily. I shot out of the macabre tomb like a squid, my partner directly behind me, which my stomach deposited it's contents into my mask. I no longer felt so damned macho, what with my poor young heart pounding like bombs exploding and the vomit in my mask choking and blinding me and burning my eyes and nose with stomach acid. I thought I was drowning in my own breakfast.

I shot for the surface, gagging and retching and panting to reach air. “That's a graveyard down there!” I gasped upon surfacing.

I hated the Japanese personally as I probed below the Arizona's decks. I never expected diving to be like this. I never expected the sea to contain such horrors. I never thought I would feel relieved to get out of the water. Lt. Cdr. Taylor canceled all shore leave and assembled ship's company on the Duncan's fantail. Something big was coming down. A huge weight lifted from my spirits.

“Men, the USS Duncan has received orders,” the skipper announced. “We shall leave port within the day. We have a job to do.” That was all he said. “God and Country” speeches came from those who sent cannon fodder to war, not from those who went to war themselves.

A lusty cheer erupted from the throats of 260 destroyer sailors. I silently vowed never again to dive into an American graveyard.

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Lt. Roy Boehm - photo by James Wang

Chapters Seven - Eleven
The Roy Boehm account of the sinking of
USS Duncan DD 485

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The Battle of Cape Esperance

The information below was obtained from the "History of U.S. Naval Operations in WWII, Volume 5, - "The Struggle for Guadalcanal; August 1942 - February 1943, by Samuel Eliot Morrison and from online sources.

1. Looking for a fight.

This campaign of attrition was indecisive and unsatisfactory to both competitors in the bid for Guadalcanal supremacy. The American Navy in the South Pacific, still smarting from the sting of Savo Island (1) and the loss of valuable carriers and destroyers, daily plaqued by the submarine denizens of "Torpedo Junction," (2) longed for active retaliation. The Marines, embittered by the nocturnal hammerings of the "Tokyo Express" and the apparent paucity of the supply and reinforcement effort, grew increasingly restive. On board Japanese ships and around their campfires there was an even stronger feeling of "On to victory!" since they disliked war in less than blitz tempo. At the very depth of this winter of discontent, came the battle off Cape Esperance -- which, if far short of glorious summer, gave the tired Americans a heartening victory and the proud Japanese a sound spanking.

(1) At the time, called Second Battle of Savo Island, but after the number of "Savos" had got up to five, each battle was officially assigned a distinctive name. The sources of this account are the Action Reports and War Diaries of American ships and commanders, and enemy reports procured by Lt. Cdr. Salomon in Tokyo.

(2) In the Pacific this term was used for that part of the Coral Sea between Espiritu Santo, and the Solomons, which was patrolled by enemy submarines.

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The night of October 11, 1942, found a U.S. task force commanded by Rear Admiral Norman Scott standing off the entrance to Ironbottom Sound. His mission was to screen the Sound from possible intrusion by any Japanese bombardment forces. As it happened, such a Japanese group, commanded by Rear Admiral Aritomo Goto, was approaching the entrance to the Sound at around midnight.

Scott's battle plan was simple. He knew that his force could not hope to match the night tactics of his adversaries. Instead, he would keep his ships in line-ahead formation, using the destroyers to illuminate targets, and his cruisers to neutralize the opponent with gunfire. His two light cruisers, Boise and Helena, each sported fifteen 6" guns, and could pump out prodigious quantities of shells. Unfortunately, Scott's choice of flagship, the heavy cruiser San Francisco, while nominally the more powerful vessel than either of his CLs, had an inferior radar suite.

Helena detected the approaching Japanese force on radar at 2325, but owing to Scott's distrust of the information he was receiving from San Francisco's set, he first executed a 180-degree turnabout, and then allowed the range to close to perilous proximity before opening fire. As a result, two of his destroyers fell out of formation, and found themselves between the Japanese and US main bodies when firing commenced.

The Japanese force was taken largely by surprise. However, the Japanese vessels quickly realized that Scott had crossed their 'T', and executed individual turns to port and starboard to clear the area. Little could GOto have done to extricate his ships. Scott's inadvertant crossing of the "T," enabled his guns to enfilade an enemy unable in that position to fight back. Goto's column movement unmasked his own gun batteries but permitted the Americans to concentrate on each ship in succession as it approached the knuckle of white water at the turning point. Nor did Scott's order to stop shooting save the enemy. Aoba and Furutaka were now burning from numerous hits and the enthusiastic American gunners were slow to comply with their Admiral's command, some never did. Scott repeated teh unpopular order several times and personally visited the bridge of San Francisco to insure compliance by his own flagship. Then by voice radio he asked Tobin the vital question, "How are you?" Tobin replied that he was alright and was taking his ships up ahead on the starboard side. Scott, still not satisfied, wanted to know if his crusiers had been shooting at Tobin's destroyers. The squadron commander replied, "I don't know who you were firing at." Still uncertain, Scott ordered Tobin's three ships to flash their battle recognition lights. Lights green over green over white in a vertical position flickered momentarily to starboard. Satisfied at last -- and four minutes had elapsed -- Scott at 2351 ordered Resume Firing!

During this four-minute partial lull in American Shooting, the surprised and uncertain Japanese returned a desultory and ineffective fire. Aoka with difficulty negotiated a 180 degree right turn. Furutaka, caught with several salvos at the turning point, staggered drunkenly in Aoka's wake, turrets and torpedo tubes immobilized by American shellfire. Captain Masao Sawa of Kinugasa unwittingly turned left in the wrong direction, thereby saving his ship. So did destroyer Hatsuyjki.

When Admiral Goto was mortally wounded, the command was devolved upon his senior staff officer, Captain Kirunoir Kijima. The effects of surprise were now wearing off. It would be only a few moments before the astonished Japanese would bear their fangs and strike.

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Duncan's Fate Plotted!

A hit in DUNCAN's fireroom was probably the first serious one received by any United States ship, and she collected plenty more; a second hit knocked out the gun director, but DUNCAN continued to shoot of local control and launched one torpedo at Furutaka. The torpedo officer, Lieutenant (jg) Robert L. Fowler (USNR). was mortally wounded, but Chief Torpedoman Boyd quickly aimed and fired another torpedo at the cruiser. Duncan sailors reported seeing Furutaka "crumble in the middle, then roll over and disappear." Unfortunately this was an illusion and the same salvo that felled Lieutenant Fowler knocked over the forward stack and started a fire in the No. 2 ammunition handling room. The skipper, acutely conscious of his situation, turned on battle recognition lights. It was too late. Another salvo, probably American, put lights and ship out of action.

Loss of DUNCAN

DUNCAN had but a few hours left of life's fitful fever. The details of her death struggle had no influence on the battle but are recounted here as an example of what destroyer sailors did and suffered that night, and on many other nights.

She had been out of action since the beginning of the engagement. One shellburst killed everyone in the charthouse. Fragments from another slew men on both the bridge and the gun-director platform. The main radio, coding, radar plotting, gunnery plotting and interior communications rooms were demolished. Forward fireroom, damaged by a previous hit, was the goal of another shell. This additional havoc, added to fires already raging on the forecastle, turned the forward third of the ship into a white-hot caldron. The starboard wing of the bridge was isolated by fires forward and aft and to port and below, and the fires were closing in on it. Lieutenant Commander Taylor, after trying in vain to communicate with the afterpart of his ship, ordered bridge abandoned by the only possible route, over the side and into the water and the able bodied followed. From a life raft Taylor watched his ship steam away, uncontrolled and deadly.

There were still plenty of men aboard. Gunners had continued to shoot the after guns until targets disappeared out of sight and range. Ensign Frank A. Andrews had then left his gun for the after conning station and established communication with the engineer officer, Lieutenant Herbert R. Kabat, now senior officer on board. Andrews and Chief Torpedoman Boyd attempted to beach the ship on Savo Island, then gave up the idea when diminishing fires suggested that the ship might be saved.

The crew made a game fight and might have succeeded but for the spread of the conflagration below decks. Men were gradually driven from the forward engine room. The after fireroom wsa unable to obtain needed boiler-feed-water. Steam pressure dropped rapidly. Without steam, no power. Without power, no pumps. Lieutenant (jg) Wade Coley, (USNR.) and Chief Watertender A. H. Holt attempted to run a boiler on sea water pumped in bhy a gasoline hand-billy. It was no use. Cold water boiled into steam and backed up into the pump. the medical officer made his way through heavy smoke toward sick bay to get a few needed drugs and disappeared. One group of men in the flaming midships section, dropped over the side, watched the ship slow to a stop, then swam back to assist in the fire fighting.

Heroic efforts were not enough at a 0200, with flames swarming over the topsides and ammunition exploding, DUNCAN was abandoned. Life jackets, floats, empty powder cans, any and every buoyant material were pressed into service to keep the survivors floating. During the remaining hours of darkness the swimmers unhappily watched the explosions of their beloved ship.

At the time of the abandonment, USS McCalla was in the vicinity searching for the USS Boise. Lieutenant Commander Cooper made a wary approach on a burning wreck so shrouded with fire and smoke that she was hard to identify. At 0300 a boat was lowered with a party, under the executive officer, which boarded the ship and made a cursory examination. The "exec" thought she could be saved and for two more hours his men tried. McCalla in the meantime was looking for Boise and did not return until daybreak. She then fished the waters to the west of Savo Island, competing with sharks (3) for human lives. The sharks, lured by the bright aluminum power cans serving as lifebuoys, were slashing viciously at the helpless human bait. McCalla sailors drove off several of the brutes with rifle fire.

(3) The waters around Savo Island were infested with sharks because the natives for generations had been in the habit of setting their dead adrift.

The result of their rescue effort was most gratifying: 195 officers and men from DUNCAN recovered, as against 48 lost. (4)

(4) McCalla Report of Rescue of DUNCAN Survivors. The casulties of DUNCAN are only rough guesses by her skipper.

Salvage efforts by McCalla's men were not successful. Shortly before noon progressive flooding got DUNCAN down to main-deck level, the salvage party abandoned her and she sank, six miles north of Savo Island.

The net result of this battle of Cape Esperance was another flawed victory, this time for the Americans. Given their numerical advantage, the element of surprise, and their superior tactical position, they ought to have inflicted heavier casualties on the Japanese. Instead, they had sunk a cruiser and a destroyer, at the cost of destroyer sunk and a very valuable light cruiser badly damaged. More important, this half victory did nothing to dissuade the Americans from their linear, line-ahead tactics, which would have importance in later fights.

Seaman First Class killed in action aboard Duncan

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Radioman Joesept Manna was on duty at his battle station, the emergency radio outlet in the chart house, when it suffered a direct hit from a Japanese shell. All in the chart house were killed instantly.

Los Angeles Evening Herald and Express
cronicles action at Cape Esperance

November 13, 1942 Article lists no ships names for security reasons.

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