America's sudden entry into World War II in December 1941 caught the Navy's anti-submarine forces unprepared. Although the need for a mass-produced anti-submarine warship had been recognized well before the war, construction priorities were given to larger warships and smaller landing craft. Thus, the United States Navy began the war with ships that were more or less inadequate to the technological demands of World War II combat.
The anti-submarine warships available to the United States Navy at the time of Pearl Harbor included primarily World War I-era destroyers of the WICKES and CLEMSON classes and wooden hulled submarine chasers. These warships, despite their obsolescence, would contribute significantly to the Battle of the Atlantic. They held the line long enough for newer, more technologically advanced warships to join the fleet, most notably the destroyer escort. The CLEMSON and WICKES class destroyers, known collectively as "four pipers" for their distinctive smokestacks, were some of the fastest warships in the world at the time. The four pipers were the standard American fleet destroyer during World War I, with most being commissioned near the end of that war. The 314 foot long vessels could reach speeds in excess of thirty-five knots on twin screws. The four pipers carried four 4"/50 guns and a variety of smaller weapons. They also carried torpedoes and depth charges.
Although the four pipers were fast, they suffered from several design flaws that limited their capabilities as anti-submarine vessels in World War II. The most glaring of these deficiencies was a poor turning radius and a limited amount of depth charge storage. The four pipers could easily outrace a surfaced German submarine, but they could not keep up with their nimble adversary's tight turns. The American destroyers' lack of maneuverability made it especially difficult for them to deliver effective depth charge attacks. Exacerbating this shortcoming was the four pipers' limited depth charge armament. The four pipers were slender vessels, measuring only thirty-one feet at the beam. The ship's width decreased severely at the fantail, which ended in a pointed stern. This design severely limited space for depth charge projectors and magazine space to carry reloads.
Despite these shortcomings, the four pipers helped to bridge an important gap in the Allied navies' anti-submarine fleets. The United States gave fifty of these aging vessels to the British in exchange for the use of British naval facilities in the Caribbean. The British manned destroyers, known as the TOWN class, participated in some of the deadliest convoy battles in the first years of the war. They bought the time needed for the development and construction of newer, more advanced vessels, especially the destroyer escort. 1
The other types of anti-submarine vessels immediately available to the Navy at the time of America's entry into World War II also dated back to the First World War. These were wooden hulled sub chasers used primarily for coastal and harbor patrol. Although most of the World War I sub chasers had been scrapped long before Pearl Harbor, a similar design was quickly put into construction by the Navy once the United States entered the war in 1941. The 110 feet long ships could be built quickly, and their use in coastal waters freed larger destroyers for oceanic escort and patrol assignments. The Navy also built larger, steel hulled 173 foot sub chasers, which proved to be quite valuable during World War II. These ships mounted 3"/50 guns and a variety of anti-aircraft and anti-submarine weapons. They saw action all along the East Coast, in the Mediterranean, and throughout the Pacific Theater. Much like the four pipers, the wooden and steel sub chasers were a vital component of the Allied victory in the Atlantic. Their use in coastal waters allowed the newly constructed destroyer escorts to concentrate in the Atlantic, where their large numbers overpowered German submarines. 2
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|1 See Friedman, Norman. U.S. Destroyers: An Illustrated Design History, Annapolis: United States Naval Institute Press, 1982, chapter 3.
2 Elliot, Peter, Allied Escort Ships of World War II: A Complete Survey, Annapolis: United States Naval Institute Press, 1977, 419-49.