USS Laffey (DD-724)
Through World War 2, the Korean War and the Cold War, nothing - it seems - could sink the USS Laffey.
Authored By: JR Potts, AUS 173d AB | Last Edited:
The USS Laffey (DD-724), a United States Navy Allen M. Sumner-class destroyer, was named for seaman Bartlett Laffey who was assigned to a 12-pound howitzer gun crew on the stern wheel gunboat, the USS Marmora. During a Confederate attack in 1864, he was awarded the Medal of Honor (MOH) for staying by his gun under a sustained heavy attack (at this time, the only medal the Union had was the MOH). Soon after, the war department began creating the medal structure still in use even today, saving the MOH for actions "above and beyond". Laffey's award stands as a tribute to his actions occurring on March 5th, 1864, this at Yazoo City, Mississippi.
The USS Laffey had her keel laid down in Bath, Maine at the Bath Iron Works on June 28th, 1943 and, following completion, she was commissioned on February 8th, 1944. The class was often referred to simply the "Sumner-class", this class characterized by their twin 5-inch gun turrets (each guided by a Mark 37 fire control system), dual rudders, additional anti-aircraft weapons and many of the other advancements incorporated into the previous Fletcher-class such as its Mlk6 8,500 rpm gyro. Additional armament included 10 x 21-inch (530mm) torpedo tubes, 6 x depth charge projectors and 2 x depth charge tracks. Her displacement of 3,316 tons did not stop her from accomplishing cat-like turns due to her speed of 34 knots and the aforementioned dual rudder arrangement.
The ship received her crew and completed her trials over the next 20 days in Caribbean waters and returned to the Washington Naval Yard to receive her sailing orders. She was ordered to Norfolk to serve as a school ship and, in mid-May, a convoy was forming in New York harbor - Laffey called to proceed there for escort duty to England. The crossing was uneventful but gave Laffey's crew time to drill and get into a destroyer escort's anti-submarine warfare (ASW) role. After the escort to England, USS Laffey received new orders to make ready for the invasion of mainland Europe. Additional supplies and ammunition were loaded in all available spaces as extended shelling and ASW requirements were expected. On June 3rd, 1944 she steamed for the Normandy beaches escorting a flotilla of slow tugs, two Dutch gun boats and some large landing craft. At dawn on D-Day, the sixth of June, Laffey arrived with her charges off of Utah Beach, France, along with over 5,000 other ships of all types.
Between June 6th and 12th, Laffey was ordered to screen and bombard gun emplacements onshore. Laffey also was placed on ASW duty and pursued enemy submarines which had torpedoed the destroyer Nelson. She was assigned to the battleship USS Nevada and Bombardment Group 2 in shelling German strong points in France. She arrived in Belfast on July 1st, 1944 and sailed for home, arriving in Boston on July 9th. She remained in repair dock for a month and received new electronic equipment. On August 25th she arrived back in Norfolk. There she received supplies and some crew changes and within 24 hours, she departed for Pearl Harbor, Hawaii via the Panama Canal. On October 23rd, after training, she left for the Pacific Theater, arriving at Ulithi on November 5th. There, Laffey joined Task Force 38 in attacking Japanese shipping and airfields on the Philippines Islands.
Laffey returned to Ulithi on November 22nd and set a new course for Leyte Gulf with Destroyer Squadron 60. Operating with the 7th Fleet, the destroyer screened the battleships against enemy submarine and air attacks and covered the amphibious landings at Ormoc Bay. She was docked in San Pedro Bay, Leyte for a refit in early December and joined Close Support Group 77.3, departing for Mindoro in early December to help support additional landings. After the beachhead had been established, Laffey escorted empty landing craft back to Leyte, arriving at San Pedro Bay in mid December. In February, the ship supported TF 58 while the carriers conducted air strikes on Tokyo and air support of Marines fighting on Iwo Jima. In March of 1945, she was transferred to TF 54 at Ulithi and prepared her crew for training for the invasion of Okinawa.
On April 14th, 1945 Laffey was assigned to radar picket station duty some 30 miles (48 km) north of Okinawa, Japan. She was to repulse any air attacks against Task Force 54, it now conducting support missions for the Okinawa invasion force. During the first day on picket duty, Laffey joined other destroyers in repulsing Japanese air attacks. The result netted 13 enemy aircraft shot down. On April 16th, Laffey and her support ships - LCS 56 and LCS 151 - were ordered to a new picket station 50 miles off of Okinawa.
The Landing Craft Support ships were designed to supply firepower during amphibious landings. They were called the "Mighty Midgets" and were small craft crewed by 71 officers and men. The ship was fitted with heavy armament; a single 3-inch gun forward, twin 40mm bow guns plus two 40mm deck guns - one forward and one aft - and four 20mm cannons - two port and two starboard. Additionally, there were four .50 cal heavy machine guns and ten MK7 rocket launchers. After supporting the landings the LCS ships, not having radar, moved off shore to support destroyers on picket duty.
The new tactic ad become a radar "screen" of destroyers forming a circle around the invasion force to act as an early warning system against enemy aircraft, submarines and surface ships. On this day, Laffey and her support craft were manning radar picket station # 1, the closest to the Japanese mainland. The last four destroyers that were assigned to this station were attacked by Kamikaze aircraft. At 7:45AM her radar picked up a single aircraft six miles out from the port quarter. Laffey's 5-inch, radar-directed guns opened fire. At three miles out, the Japanese "Val" aircraft dropped its bomb and turned tail back to Japan.
Soon after, at 8:39am, fifty Japanese planes appeared on radar. The flight included "Val" and "Judy" dive bombers as well as "Kate" torpedo planes. These were older Japanese military aircraft now relegated to suicide attacks and packed with high-explosives. The first attack began with four Vals; two attacked bow-on so Captain Beckman ordered a hard left, 30-degrees to allow the Laffey to fire a broadside at the oncoming aircraft. First the 5-inch opened up followed by the 40mm cannon. In turn, the 20mm lit up and the action concluded with a single .50 caliber firing. Both Vals were shot down but the other two enemy aircraft managed an attack from the stern - however, both attackers were "splashed" without the ship being hit. A Judy attacked from starboard but was similarly shot down - in all, total enemy aircraft downed in this single action was already numbering five. From port, another Judy attacked and strafed the ship but was eventually shot down very close to the Laffey.
The Kamikaze school taught their pilots to use one of two tested methods of attack. The first was the high-angle attack starting at 20,000 feet, dropping to 5,000 feet in a vertical dive directly onto the target. The low-angle attack started at 40 feet to evade radar. When the pilot was close to a target vessel, he would pull sharply up to 1,500 feet and swoop in for a vertical dive onto the ship.
At 8:43am, a Val aircraft attacked the stern and the Laffey's anti-aircraft array ruptured the attackers gas tank and, as the Val cut across the stern, the fiery gas spilt onto the ship decks. In the ninth Kamikaze attacked from port, the airplane utilized a low attack but did not climb as expected. Keeping low, the target was under the reach of the 5-inch gun, allowing the Kate a clear path into the Laffey - the aircraft crashed into a 20mm gun mount amidships and killed the 3-man crew. The smoke from the resulting attack was heavy over the stern and a Val, using the smoke as a screen, attacked the aft quarter. The plane crashed into the ship, exploding and sending fuel and bomb fragments below deck. The support ship LCS 51, who was close by firing on the aircraft, witnessed burning men on Laffey's deck jump overboard. At 8:56 am the aft 5-inch gun mount 53 took a direct hit, killing 6 of the 14 men in the mount. A Val flew over the Laffey and took aim at LCS 51 steaming off of Laffey's port quarter. In response, LCS 51 took aim and shot the enemy plane down but the falling engine hit the ship, damaging her and injuring some crew members.
Laffey's aft section remained burning, forcing the captain to reduce speed in an effort to prevent the fanning of the flames and encourage its spreading. A Val seized the opportunity and began a bomb run, dropping a 500lb high-explosive (HE) bomb that hit squarely on the aft section and jammed the rudders 27 degrees to port. Out of the blue, four FM 2 Grumman Wildcats from VC94 squadron, assigned to the carrier USS Shamrock Bay, were vectored in to help save the Laffey. The 40 Japanese aircraft remaining were still attacking the destroyer while the Wildcats engaged at will. Two Japanese aircraft got by the Wildcat defense and both hit the Laffey. The Wildcats shot down six Kamikazes and, when low on fuel, had to break off and return to their carrier. By this time, five Kamikazes had hit the Laffey along with three hits from dropped bombs - however, like a seemingly beaten prize fighter finding a renewed fighting spirit from within, she still lay afloat and firing on the enemy.
Soon, twelve F4U Corsair fighters of a combat air patrol appeared overhead and attacked the remaining 30 Japanese planes. One of the F4's followed an "Oscar" in on his suicide run and saw the Japanese plane hit the yard arm, knocking the plane into the water. The Corsair was close behind and hit the ship's radar antenna, damaging the plane and forcing the pilot to bail out in the water. An F4U shot down the 22nd, and final, attacking Japanese plane. After 80 minutes of combat, Laffey had been struck by no fewer than six kamikazes and four bombs, losing 32 of her crew with another 71 wounded. Many on board felt the ship should have been abandoned but amazingly she was saved with the captain defiantly stating "I'll never abandon ship as long as a gun can fire."
The Laffey crew put out the fires and buried her dead. She was then taken under tow to Okinawa for temporary repairs. Upon completion of these repairs, the destroyer sailed for the west coast of the United States via Saipan, Eniwetok and finally Hawaii, eventually arriving at Tacoma, Washington on May 24th, 1945. There, she entered dry-dock at the Todd Shipyard Corporation. Repairs were completed in September to which she then set sail for San Diego but, while en route, collided with PC-815 in a thick fog. After further repairs, she officially sailed for Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Laffey then operated in Hawaiian waters until May 21st, 1946 (the war had completed in September of 1945). She was assigned to participate in "Operation Crossroads", the atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll, to collect scientific data of the resulting explosion. For her participation in the blast, Laffey was required to undergo radioactive decontamination by sandblasting and painting of all underwater surfaces and partial replacement of salt-water piping and evaporators. Upon decontamination, she sailed for the American west coast via Pearl Harbor, arriving San Diego in late August 1946. On June 30, 1947 she was decommissioned and entered the Pacific Reserve Fleet.
Laffey was re-commissioned in late January of 1951 and, in mid-January of 1952, she sailed for the Korean Peninsula to partake in actions of the Korean War. She arrived in the theater in March. The ship operated with TF 77, screening the American aircraft carriers USS Antietam and USS Valley Forge. Laffey also was used to shell Communist shore strong points on many occasions. With her commitment in Korea over, she sailed for the American east coast and operated in the Caribbean as part of a hunter-killer group until February 1954. She toured Korea again in June of that year and returned to Norfolk in August of 1954. In October of 1956, Laffey then left Norfolk for Mediterranean waters during the Suez Crisis (October 29th - November 7th) involving Israel, the United Kingdom and France against Egypt, Palestinian forces and support through the Soviet Union. Once there, she joined with the 6th Fleet on patrol near the Israeli-Egyptian border.
Upon returning to Norfolk in February of 1957, the vessel patrolled along the Atlantic Coast. On September 3rd of 1958, she was then called to conduct NATO operations off the coast of Scotland. From there, she rejoined the 6th Fleet in Mediterranean waters until coming back home to Norfolk in December of that year. The following June, she cruised the Caribbean and was deployed, once again, to the Mediterranean in August of 1959. In December, she made port calls to Massana, Eritrea, and Ras Tanura, Saudi Arabia. The destroyer operated in the Persian Gulf until late January 1960 only then returning stateside to Norfolk in February. Laffey then operated out of Norfolk and, in October, visited Antwerp, Belgium. She returned to Norfolk in October and then was called back to the Mediterranean in January of 1961.
From October of 1963 to June of 1964, Laffey operated along the eastern seaboard as an ASW ship. In June of 1964, with the Cold War against the Soviet Union in full swing, she was deployed to the Mediterranean region on a surveillance mission, observing Soviet naval forces training in Mediterranean waters. Laffey continued to make yearly Mediterranean cruises with the 6th Fleet and sailed in many operational and training exercises across the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea. On March 29th, 1975 USS Laffey was decommissioned yet again.
USS Laffey DD-724 received five battle stars for her service in World War 2 as well as a US Presidential Unit Citation. For her Korean War actions, Laffey received a further two battle stars plus the Korean Presidential Unit Citation as well as the Meritorious Unit Commendation.
Unlike many historic American World War 2 vessels that were unceremoniously sold for scrap, the Laffey was preserved as a memorial warship to be berthed at Patriots Point in Charleston, South Carolina. In 1986, DD-724 was formally listed as a National Historic Landmark to provide the vessel the due protection. As a result of a leaking hull, Laffey was towed into dry dock for repair at a cost of $9.2 million. In April of 2010, Clemson University reached a lease agreement with the Patriots Point organization to moor the USS Laffey adjacent to Clemson's property at the former US Navy base in North Charleston Harbor. Currently she cannot be toured and the long term plans are to move her back to Patriots Point sometime in the future.