Tender USS Black Hawk and Squadron 29 destroyers Pillsbury, Pope, John D. Ford, Paul Jones, Peary and Parrott.
Dickey: A Family Saga

A Family Saga, a study by the late John L. Dickey, II, revised edition. Available from the Merriam Press.

In 1908, American builders began laying down keels for 52 “broken deckers”—26 “flivvers” and 26 1,000-tonners—at an average rate of six per year. In 1913, Congress settled into a pattern of authorizing new construction of one six-ship class per year. In 1914, although the Navy had received only 34 ships when World War I broke out in Europe, the pace of authorizations remained the same.

In 1916, there was a design change—to a new “flush-deck” hull with a continuous sheer strake. That summer, Congress passed the Naval Act of 1916, which authorized 50 more flush deckers as part of a build up intended to make the United States a major naval power. After the US joined World War I in April 1917, it increased this number to 273 to fight German U-boats.

There were three flush-deck classes: the Caldwell (6 ships) funded in 1916, and the nearly identical-looking Wickes (111 ships) and Clemson (156 ships) funded in 1917–18.

Eleven shipyards participated in the program, and while there were differences between builders and among individual ships, their standard displacement was 1,200 tons (±90) on an overall length of approximately 314 feet, a beam of approximately 31 feet and a mean draft of approximately 9 feet, 10 inches. With four boilers driving two 9-foot screws at 27,000 shp, they could make 33 knots. Their normal crew included 105 officers and enlisted men, and they were initially armed with four 4-inch deck guns, one 3-inch antiaircraft gun, twelve 21-inch diameter torpedo tubes and two stern-mounted depth charge tracks, plus 0.50 cal. machine guns and small arms.

Deliveries began slowly: Manley, the first flush decker, did not arrive until October 1917. By the time of the Armistice on 11 November 1918, only 41 had commissioned and only 27 had reached the war zone. Construction continued, however, until the program was complete in 1922. In July 1920, 14 were converted as light minelayers with their torpedo tubes removed.


In 1922, the Washington Naval Treaties freed the U.S. Navy to place more than half of the flush deckers in reserve. The remainder formed its entire active destroyer force for more than a decade from then until new construction began to arrive in 1934.

Meanwhile, flush deckers made their way to many regions around the world:

  • To the eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea, where they were confronted with widespread humanitarian calamities: the evacuation in 1920 of nearly 150,000 White Russian refugees from the Crimea to Constantinople; the escorting of grain ships during 18 months in 1921 and 22 in an effort to relieve the great Russian potato famine; and the evacuation of 200,000 ethnic Greeks and Armenians to Greece at the close of the Greco-Turkish war.
  • To Asia, where they supported American interests in China and in 1923 provided relief for an earthquake that decimated Tokyo, Japan.

On the evening of 8 September 1923, seven destroyers of DesRon 11—Delphy, S. P. Lee, Young, Woodbury, Nicholas, Fuller and Chauncey—were stranded on the California coast and lost in the US Navy’s worst-ever peacetime disaster.

USS Manley and USS Fairfax

Fairfax (left) exhibits the canoe-style “cruiser” stern of the mass-production Wickes- and Clemson-class ships; Manley (right) exhibits the cutaway-type stern characteristic of the Caldwell class, which had been carried over from the preceding “flivvers” and 1,000-tonners.

1929 brought an unexpected discovery that “ . . . the material condition of the destroyers in active service indicates that those having Yarrow boilers (60 in commission) have reached the end of their useful life and must be replaced . . . .” With no funds available other than for normal maintenance and only 103 destroyers plus the destroyer-minelayers (six with Yarrow boilers) in commission, the entire burden of a rapid swap fell on the crews of these 60 ships. They turned to without delay, found that the laid-up ships were in good condition and, between January and June 1930, recommissioned 60 replacement ships from mothballs.

Fifty-six ships with Yarrow boilers were broken up in 1930–31. Three were expended as targets and two others, Preston (DD 327) and Bruce (DD 329), were expended in tests to determine how much strain their hulls could take. Results of these tests were applied in designing the Farragut class of 1932, the Navy’s first destroyers with longitudinal framing.

The arrival of the more powerful Farragut and other “goldplater” classes beginning in 1934, plus the 1930 London Naval Treaty—which defined maximum standard displacement for destroyers and also restricted total “completed tonnage . . . which is not to be exceeded on 31 December 1936”—prompted the scrapping of 35 more flush-deckers in 1935–37. Also in 1936, Smith Thompson was scuttled off Subic Bay, Philippine Islands after Whipple rammed her, reducing the total to 170.


World War II broke out in Europe in September 1939. Very quickly, a dire shortage of escort vessels to combat the U-boat blitz became apparent—a gap the flush deckers could help fill. In September 1940, in response to British Prime Minister Churchill’s urgent request, 50 were transferred to the Royal and Canadian navies. This left the US Navy with 120 flush deckers in commission as of 17 October 1941—still more than half of its destroyer force at that time. Of these, 72 were designated as destroyers (DD)—DesRons 27, 30 and 31’s twenty-seven ships (which had been modernized with 6 x 3-inch guns for escort duty in the Atlantic), DesRon 29’s thirteen ships attached to the Asiatic Fleet, and 32 others assigned to naval districts and other duties. Forty-eight other flush deckers had been converted and redesignated by that time.

Flush-deckers were prominent in the early events of US involvement in the war:

  • In March 1941, the same month Germany proclaimed that Iceland and surrounding waters were within the war zone, DesRons 30 and 31, with the modern destroyers of DesRon 7, were the first US Navy destroyer squadrons assigned to protect convoys into those waters.
  • First short-of-war action, the “Greer Incident,” followed on 4 September.
  • First loss was Reuben James, sunk by a U-boat on 31 October.
  • First shots of the Pacific War were fired by Ward off Pearl Harbor, 7 December 1941.
  • DesRon 29 formed the front line in the retreat from the Philippines and Java Sea campaign of early 1942.


The wave of new destroyer and destroyer escort construction during the war signaled the coming of the end of front-line service for unmodified flush-deckers. Both the US and Royal Navies, however, continued to modify and even re-modify them in a profusion of configurations. Most prominent among these were:
  • Thirty-two high-speed transports (APDs)—equipped with four landing craft and accommodations for 120 Marines, these shallow draft “Green Dragons” were at the forefront in the Pacific Islands campaigns.
  • Eighteen destroyer-minesweepers (DMS), nine converted before the war and nine in 1940–1942.
  • Fourteen seaplane tenders (AVP, later AVD), rebuilt in 1938–1940, losing two boilers in favor of aviation fuel storage.
  • Eight destroyer-minelayers (DM).
  • Eleven escorts with improved radar and anti-submarine armament (depth charges, K guns, Y guns, roller racks and even hedgehogs). In many cases, two of the four torpedo tube mounts were landed to compensate for added weight.

With or without alterations, few flush-deckers remaining in the US Navy still had four stacks when their service ended, as one or two of their four boilers normally were removed to increase range or provide additional accommodation, yielding two- or three-stack ships.


In action during World War II, the flush deckers were a poor match for modern enemy ships and aircraft but proved invaluable when converted as described above. They operated in nearly every campaign and while one in four was lost, one in four was also decorated. Thus, in proportion to their numbers, they became both the most sacrificed and the most honored destroyers in United States naval history.


Retirement began even before World War II ended and continued until January 1947 when the last flush-decker, Hatfield, was stricken from the navy list.

Some Royal Navy ships lasted longer, including nine loaned to Russia which operated with their own powerplants as late as 1952.

A few also continued in commercial service. The last of these was apparently the former Putnam, one of the four Yarrow-boilered ships stricken in 1930 and not broken up but sold and converted as diesel-powered banana carriers. As Teapa, she went to the Alaska Defense Command as a training ship during the war, then returned to the banana trade until 1950. She was sold to a breaker in 1955.

“With the passing of Teapa,” wrote Commander John D. Alden in his excellent 1965 book Flush Decks & Four Pipes, “the saga of the flush deckers apparently came to an end, but perhaps even now one survives as a barge or hulk in some backwater. But deep in their hearts, old destroyermen know that somewhere in the wide reaches of the oceans, one of their number still carries on, and when the truth becomes known, she will be seen in full fighting regalia escorting the Flying Dutchman into port when he completes his endless seafaring rounds on Judgment Day.”

References: Alden, Friedman, Roscoe, Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, Naval History & Heritage Command; R. Shenk, America’s Black Sea Fleet: The U.S. Navy Amidst War and Revolution, 1919-1923, Naval Institute Press, 2012.