The day Admiral David Farragut said, “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” and took his steam sloop Hartford through the narrows between forts Gaines and Morgan into Mobile Bay, a young man named John McFarland was at the wheel. Lurking beyond the narrows, the big, new Confederate iron-clad Tennessee was defeated by being rammed by each of Farragut’s ships in turn. Admiral Farragut did not forget the man who had guided his flagship through the storm of shot and shell. Quartermaster McFarland was given a recommendation for the intestinal fortitude he had displayed that day, when, protected by nothing more than a canvas dodger and his own good luck, he had remained at the wheel of the flagship.

The US Navy also remembered John McFarland, for, when destroyer 237 was built, it was he whose name the sleek new four-stacker bore. Built by the New York Ship Building Corporation at Camden, New Jersey, USS McFarland was launched on 30 March 1920. Miss Louisa Hughes, daughter of the Commandant of the Philadelphia Navy Yard, served as sponsor.

USS McFarland was one of the 156 destroyers of the 1,190-ton class of 1917–18. Most of these destroyers were still on the building ways when the Armistice of 1918 brought World War I to a close.

Commissioned in 30 September 1920, McFarland joined the Pacfic Fleet and went into the Philippines and the China Station where she remained for the next five years. Returning to the USA in the summer of 1925, she was one of 30 destroyers of both the Atlantic and Pacific Fleets assembled at New York in July of that year to receive thousands of interested visitors. The destroyers of McFarland’s type remained the last word in destroyer construction until the 1930s.

By the time World War II broke out, destroyer design had been radically changed and the old four-piper flushdeckers, the ones that remained, were rapidly being converted into minesweepers, fast transports or other auxiliary craft. Fourteen of them were made over in 1939–1940 into seaplane tenders. Among them was USS McFarland.

Her masts were cut down, her stacks shortened, her twelve triple-banked torpedo tubes were removed and even a few of her 4-inch guns taken off, to make room for the gas tanks, the big crane, the repair shop, and the other paraphernalia necessary to make her what she was destined to be: a mobile, floating seaplane base, able to service and maintain the patrol bombers on their long-range fighting and scouting missions.

On 7 December 1941, McFarland was headed south when the news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was received. Every gun afloat was needed in the South Pacific and McFarland, instead of serving as a seaplane tender, was assigned to anti-submarine patrol. While on this duty, forces were being gathered to stop the Japanese drive south. The French possession of New Caledonia, which had never acknowledged the Vichy traitors, became the United States’ main base. Japanses submarines were present in numbers to patrol around the fine harbor of Nouméa.

McFarland drew her first blood from those watchful undersea eyes when in July 1942 she sank the I-1231, one of the big minelaying subs which the Japs were reported to have built according to German design. With her 5.5-inch guns and her for torpedo tubes, the I-123 was a formidable adversary for the little ex-destroyer, but the “Galloping Mac’s” superior speed served her well and her depth charges did their work.

Jap submarines were thick around New Caledonia in those days and only a few days after sending the I-123 to Davy Jones’ locker, McFarland rescued the 88-man crew of a Dutch freighter, which had been torpedoed by the Japanese.

On 2 August 1942, McFarland received her Catalina flying boats, all six of them. She was immediately ordered to the Solomons and actually kept the sea lanes open for transports, which brought the initial Marine forces some five days later. The “Mac” came out unscathed from her Guadalcanal venture though her Catalinas did not fare so well. One was shot down by the Japs though the crew was saved. Pulling themselves on top of a bare rock where they remained for five days, McFarland herself rescued the PBM survivors while leaving Guadalcanal. (continued)

1 N.B. Other sources, e.g., DANFS, Morison and Roscoe, credit the sinking of I-123 to USS Gamble, 29 August 1942.

Source: Office of Naval Records and History, Ship’s Histories Section, Navy Department: History of USS McFarland (DD 237), 1952.