Following peacetime duty in the Pacific, Phelps was with her squadron at Pearl Harbor and shot down one enemy plane during the Japanese attack, 7 December 1941.
With Captain A.R. Early, squadron commander, embarked, she served as flagship of the destroyer screen in Lexington ‘s Task Force 11 (RADM. Wilson Brown) with cruisers Indianapolis, San Francisco, Pensacola and Minneapolis plus Dewey, Aylwin, Bagley, Patterson, Dale, Hull, Clark and Macdonough in an aborted raid on Rabaul, 20 February and, with Yorktown’s Task Force 17 added, a productive strike on transports in the Huon Gulf off Lae and Salamaua, New Guinea, over the Owen Stanley mountain range from the Gulf of Papua, 10 March, two days after the Japanese had landed there.
Incorporated with Lexington into RAdm. Fletcher’s Task Force 17 in May, she served as flagship for Dewey, Aylwin, Farragut and Monagahan in RAdm. Kinkaid’s attack group with cruisers Minneapolis, New Orleans, Chester and Portland preceding the Battle of the Coral Sea. On the morning of 8 May, Lexington and Yorktown steamed together with Phelps in their combined screen, but diverged while maneuvering to evade Japanese air attacks—Yorktown drawing with her cruisers Astoria, Portland and Chester and destroyers Phelps plus Aylwin, Hammann and Russell. Emerging from the battle without casualties, Phelps, as directed, sank the abandoned Lexington with five torpedoes.
In June 1942 she protected the American carriers that dealt a heavy blow to the Japanese Navy in the Battle of Midway. In August 1942 she guarded forces invading Guadalcanal. After a visit to the west coast in October, she participated in landings upon Attu, Alaska, in May 1943. After bombarding Kiska, Alaska, she provided gunfire support for landings at Makin Atoll in November 1943. In the Marshall Islands campaign in February 1944, she bombarded Kwajalein and Eniwetok. In March she guarded tankers during a strike on the Palau Islands. In June she bombarded Saipan to protect American forces that had landed there on the 15th.
Following duty at Saipan, she steamed via the Panama Canal to Charleston, South Carolina, for armament alterations, arriving 2 August. Departing Norfolk Va., in November, she escorted a convoy to Mers-el-Kébir, Algeria. After three more convoy escort voyages to the Mediterranean in 1945, she arrived at New York 10 June. Decommissioned 6 November, she was struck from the Navy list 28 January 1947 and scrapped by Northern Metals Co., Philadelphia, PA.
Phelps received twelve battle stars for World War II service.