Seventy-five years ago this week, the Japanese surprised the U.S. by attacking Pearl Harbor in the early hours of December 7th. One of the most iconic photographs from the from that day is of the U.S.S. Shaw, a ship named after an Irishman and early officer in the U.S. Navy. Following the attack, the Shaw, which was nearly destroyed, returned to battle and went on to become one of the most highly-decorated destroyers in the Pacific fleet.
The possibility of armed conflict between the United States and Japan had been lurking in the wings since Japan’s 1931 invasion of Manchuria. Over the next decade, Japan expanded its reach to China, bringing the two nations to war in 1937. With U.S. military intervention appearing imminent, the Japanese Empire made the decision to attack Pearl Harbor, the primary base for the U.S. Navy’s Pacific fleet. The December 7 attack, which took the lives of 2,403 military personnel and civilians, was intended to ensure a short, victorious engagement, preventing interference with the invasion of the Dutch Indies and Malaya, allowing for Japan to subsequently conquer all of Southeast Asia. Their goal in Hawaii was to destroy American fleet units. One such unit was Mahan-class destroyer U.S.S. Shaw (DD-373), named for County Laois-born John Shaw.
Shaw (1773 – 1823) was a captain in the fledgling years of the United States Navy (an institution many consider fathered by Co. Wexford native John Barry, made America’s first commissioned naval officer by President George Washington in 1797). At 17, Shaw emigrated from the town of Mountmellick to join the merchant marine in Philadelphia, where he became a lieutenant in 1798. First serving in the West Indies at the beginning of the Quasi-War with France, he was given command of the schooner U.S.S. Enterprise the following year.
Over the next 12 months, Shaw led the capture of seven armed French ships and rescued countless American merchantmen; his leadership saw the Enterprise become one of the most celebrated ships in the U.S. Navy. Promoted to captain in November of 1807, he used his role to help suppress the 1811 German Coast Uprising and command the New Orleans naval post during the War of 1812. Shaw eventually returned to Philadelphia, where upon his death he was interred in the Christ Church Burial Ground alongside Benjamin Franklin and other Founding Fathers.
The ship in question was not the first to bear this Irish captain’s name. In 1916 his service was honored with the first Shaw, a Samson-class DD-68 which had 90 feet of its bow destroyed during a 1918 collision. However, the vessel was repaired and continued service until its decommissioning in 1922. The story of its next-in-line shows us that history has a way of repeating itself.
DD-373 was plagued with malfunction since its construction began; launched from the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard on October 28, 1935, it took three more years for it to officially be deemed fit for action, and when the bombing commenced on December 7, 1941, 7:48am Hawaiian time, it was dry-docked in the Navy Yard at Pearl Harbor for additional repairs to her depth charge mechanisms.
During the attack, it was struck three times. Two bombs went through the forward machine gun platform, and another through the port wing of its bridge. The Shaw caught fire, and after efforts to fight the blaze proved fruitless, the official order to abandon ship was issued at 9:25am. Just after 9:30, its forward magazine exploded. Caught on camera by an unknown U.S. Navy photographer, the blast became among the most iconic images of the devastation of Pearl Harbor.
Even reduced to a smoking wreck, the Shaw was not destined for the scrapyard. Despite extensive fire-damage to the ship’s hull, it underwent temporary repairs in the weeks following the attack and on February 9, was steamed towards San Francisco to be returned to full working order. At the end of June, its destroyed bow was entirely replaced, and after a brief interval of training in the San Diego area, the Shaw returned to the waters of Pearl Harbor on August 31, 1942.
For two months, the Shaw escorted convoys on the west coast and Hawaii, and in October, and would encounter a ghost in the U.S.S. Enterprise (CV-6), the center-vessel of a westward-bound carrier force it joined, named for the very same Enterprise brought to renown by Captain James Shaw himself. CV-6 was as a ghost indeed, earning the nickname “The Grey Ghost” due to the three separate occasions during the Pacific War it was announced sunk in battle by Japanese forces. With 20 battle stars, the Enterprise would later become the most decorated ship of World War II.
While moving north of the Santa Cruz Islands to defend the island of Guadalcanal, the carrier group was attacked by enemy forces on October 26 and the Shaw succeeded in rescuing the entire crew of the torpedoed Porter. In January, it took extensive damage in New Caledonia and was returned to Pearl Harbor for rearmament. The Shaw returned to action the following December, rescuing survivors and escorting vessels back to Buna, New Guinea after an unsuccessful diversionary assault by Army troops against Umtingalu, New Britain.
The Shaw returned to Pearl Harbor for the last time on May 10, 1944, joining the Marshal Island-bound 5th Fleet but becoming waylaid to the assault on Saipan Island, where it spent three and a half weeks rotating between screening and “call fire” support duties of Marines onshore. Following convoy escort duties between the Philippines and New Guinea, the Shaw performed shore bombardment missions and night illumination at the invasion of Luzon in January 1945, and went on to aid in the assault of Palawan Island until March, when it took on offensive action in Visayas, setting two Japanese barges aflame off Bohol on April 2.
The Shaw was decommissioned on October 2, 1945, and the next year finally met the scrapyard it had stubbornly thwarted for a few weeks shy of a decade. Hardier than ever seemed possible, the ship was put to rest with a total of 11 WWII battle stars to its name. ♦