Aboard the USS Cassin Young

A profile

For many a visitor of the Boston National Historical Park, the unmissable attraction at the Charlestown Navy Yard is the 19th-century USS Constitution. With its cornucopia of cannon replicas and maple and oak wooden hull, it is little wonder the three-masted frigate exudes a certain antique charm. Yet anchored mere yards away of “Old Ironsides” is the lesser known but no less spectacular USS Cassin Young (DD 793). Boasting all manner of modern weaponry, Cassin Young is a World War II steel fletcher-class destroyer that saw action in the battles of Leyte Gulf and Okinawa. As it happens, Constitution and Cassin Young share a history of mission and duty for like Constitution, its older frigate cousin, Cassin Young was also a multipurpose ship, at times the eyes and messenger of the fleet, at others a moderate firepower force capable of swift defensive or offensive action.

Destroyers were conceived to counter the small but deadly 19th-century torpedo boat, an automotive torpedo mounted on a compact turbo vessel. At first intended to repel or wreck torpedo boats before they could harm the fleet’s slow and heavy main ships, destroyers however grew in size and carried more torpedoes themselves at the turn of the 20th century. The new destroyers took over from torpedo boats and soon took on the more offensive role of attack ships — the ultimate protectors of the battle line. As the U.S. Navy fought no fleet battles in World War I and there was no battle line to protect, destroyers were tasked with escorting merchant convoys en route to England. Their newfound escort duty was a reversion to their older role of torpedo boat destroyers as their rival German U-boats were in effect torpedo submarines.

By the early 1930s, destroyer construction resumed after the 1922 Naval Disarmament Treaty ten year hiatus. Naval planners had anticipated Japan would likely be the next enemy, and so to make the journey through the Pacific ships had to be able to carry vast quantities of fuel, food and ammunition and stay at sea for extended periods. Drawing upon past experience, the Navy designed the new destroyers with three goals in mind: to maximize defensive capabilities, stability and speed. The improvements of the next decade would thus center around several key elements such as the number of torpedo tubes and smokestacks. The most significant improvement however would be the introduction of the 5-inch dual purpose gun, in lieu of the WWI 4-inch gun, for greater range and surface and air fire capability.

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, fletcher-class destroyers, the ships that would become the WWII staple of the American fleet, were in the making. Fletchers would be multipurpose ships par excellence: they would ward off air, surface and subsurface attacks, lend fire support to landing troops, deliver mail, rescue shot down pilots, and act as radar-picket stations. Their design was the fruit of many compromises involving size, number of weapons, speed, hull size, and room for crew. Weighing 2050 tons, with two smokestacks, five 5-inch mounted guns, 10 torpedo tubes, 20 and 40 mm anti-aircraft guns, and depth charges, the Cassin Young is a first-class example of Fletchers.

If there is a type of ship that could be credited with winning the war, it would be the destroyer. We did shore bombardment, we did anti-aircraft, we did surface craft, submarines, we did it all. We were the expendable type — Cassin Young chief gunners mate George Clotfelder.

As is customary in the Navy, destroyers are named after illustrious leaders and notable heroes, and the Cassin Young was no exception. The ship was named after Captain Cassin Young whose heroic actions were rewarded by a Medal of Honor. In 1941, Young was the commanding officer of the repair ship USS Vestal (AR 4). During the attack on Pearl Harbor, while Young was manning his ship’s antiaircraft gun against incoming Japanese planes, USS Arizona (BB 39), the battleship Vestal was moored to, took a hit and its forward magazine exploded. Young was blown overboard by the blast. Despite the shock and heavy bombing, and while both ships were afire, he swam back and beached the Vestal, thus saving the ship. “For distinguished conduct in action” and “outstanding heroism and utter disregard of his own safety, above and beyond the call of duty,” Young was awarded the Medal of Honor and later promoted to captain. Captain Young commanded the heavy cruiser USS San Francisco (CA 38) until his death in the Battle of Guadalcanal on Nov. 13, 1942. For his actions during the Guadalcanal campaign, he was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross.

Cassin Young was commissioned on Dec. 31, 1943. After training at Pearl Harbor, she was assigned to the Central Pacific and first saw combat in the Caroline Islands, in April 1944. In June, she chaperoned an amphibious assault on the Mariana islands of Saipan, Titian and Guam, and on D-Day, June 6, rescued four shot down aviators. She continued to provide critical support services till the end of July, escorting transports, providing night illumination and fire support, and carrying mail. But the tide turned for Cassin Young soon after Guam was secured, and in August 1944, she was assigned to Task Group 38.3 where she would be at the heart of the Pacific offensive until the end of the war.

On Oct. 6, 1944 Cassin Young sailed with Task Force 38, a task force of four groups including TG 38.3, for the assault on Leyte Gulf in the Philippine Sea. A month earlier, the Combined Chiefs of Staff of the United States and Great Britain had decided to accelerate the schedule and set the new date of the Leyte landings for October 20. Between October 10 and 13, the task force came under repeated enemy attacks, and on October 14, Task Group 38.3 was attacked by 10 to 15 torpedo bombers. Cassin Young repelled several planes that day and five of its men suffered light injuries when a bomber crashed into the light cruiser USS Reno (CL 96).

Four days after the Leyte landings, on the morning of October 24, radar indicated inbound enemy aircraft. While most airplanes were kept at bay, a lone enemy bomber struck the carrier USS Princeton (CVL 23). In a six-hour rescue effort, five ships including the Cassin Young battled the carrier’s fires and cared for the wounded. But a persistent fire near Princeton’s torpedo storage area claimed the carrier that afternoon and in the process killed 600 of USS Birmingham’s fire-fighting sailors. Shortly after, Cassin Young rescued over 120 men from the burning Princeton before the carrier was sunk on the orders of Admiral William F. Halsey.

In preparation of the assault on Okinawa due to begin on April 1, 1945, Cassin Young was reassigned to Task Force 54, the fleet’s gunfire and covering force, in March. She spent the first two days of April escorting and providing fire support to the landing assault craft and on April 3 took up radar-picket ship duties. Such ships provided critical early warning and bore the brunt of the hundreds of Japanese kamikaze strikes that would follow. On April 12, and while she was on duty at Radar Picket Station 1, Cassin Young came under massive fire when the Japanese launched the second wave of Operation Kikusui (“floating chrysanthemums”). She successfully shot down six planes before one hit her foremast, killing one sailor and wounding 59 others. Two months later, she was back on picket duty in Okinawa.

In the early morning hours of July 30, a low-flying airplane crashed into her starboard side, killed 22 and wounded 45 of her men. The crew managed to restore engine power while battling the flames, and the ship was en route to safety within 20 minutes.

There was pandemonium on the deck, because they were trying to get people out of the fire room and secure the ship so that there wouldn’t be any further extension of the damage … different areas of the ship were badly hit — Cassin Young Quartermaster James Marrs

After what was perhaps her most severe test in the battle of Okinawa, Cassin Young returned to California for repairs before she was decommissioned and placed in reserve in May 1946. For her service on the Okinawa radar picket line, she was awarded the Navy Unit Commendation. With the outbreak of the Korean War in the early fifties, Cassin Young was recommissioned for a second tour of duty and served with both the Mediterranean and Atlantic fleets. She carried out patrols and routine duties in the Atlantic, Caribbean and Korean waters from the mid-fifties till April 1960, when she was decommissioned and placed in reserve for the last time. In addition to her Navy Unit Commendation, she received two Presidential Unit Citations, eight medals, and seven battle stars.

Today an overhauled Cassin Young serves not as an active Navy ship but as a memorial ship at the Charlestown Navy Yard. When I paid her a visit on a cold, drizzling morning this past November, I was eager to see how the unprivileged but brave crew of the lower deck lived. But the vagaries of life were such that on that day I could only visit the main deck, house to more comfortable quarters. The shower in the captain’s cabin for instance is a tiny 28x28 inches that affords little movement and would surely not accommodate someone of my size. I dread what the lower deck quarters would look like; I dread how the single-bed sick bay would cope with a dysentery epidemic.

Who were these men? I kept hoping that in some scruffy corner, somewhere on the ship, lay a hidden photo, or perhaps a forgotten letter, that would unlock that mystery. But an aloof Cassin Young gave nothing away. I entered the officers wardroom one last time and gazed emptily on the bookshelf. It took a minute to realize that, on that inconsequential shelf, stashed among the dusty books was Albert Camus’ The Rebel. And I left knowing that on that ship a brave soul one day shared my fascination for Camus.

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