In a brief but gallant career, USS Duncan (DD 485) carried on the fighting reputation of her namesake, Commander Silas Duncan. Before being sunk by crossfire from Japanese warships during the surface engagement off Cape Esperance on 11–12 October 1942, Duncan’s gunfire and torpedoes contributed to the destruction of an enemy cruiser.

A destroyer of the Livermore Class, USS Duncan (DD 485) was built by the Federal Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company at Kearny, New Jersey, where her keel was laid on 31 July I941. The sleek new destroyer was launched on 20 February 1942 and sponsored by Mrs. Dorothy Clark Taylor, first cousin three times removed of Commander Silas Duncan.

USS Duncan (DD 485) was the second ship honoring Commander Duncan. The first Duncan (DD 46) was authorized by Congress on 4 March 1911 and launched on 5 April 1913. DD 46 remained with the Fleet until March 1935, when she was scrapped in accordance with the London treaty for the limitation and reduction of Naval Armaments.

On 16 April 1942, USS Duncan (DD 485) was placed in commission at the New York Navy Yard and Lieutenant Commander Edmund B. Taylor, USN, became the ship’s first and only Commanding Officer.

Because of the acute need of destroyers in early 1942, Duncan was hurriedly outfitted for sea and by 30 April was ready for her shakedown exercises. Throughout most of May and June, Duncan rushed through training, had post-shakedown availability, and on 24 June, got underway from Hampton Roads, Virginia as escort ship for a convoy bound for Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Arriving on 28 June, the ship was released from convoy duty and two days later steamed independently for the Canal Zone, anchoring at Cristobal ori 2 July.

Throughout July and early August, Duncan continued escorting various convoys between Guantánamo Bay and Cristobal. Aside from occasional submarine contacts, the long hours passed slowly. However, since the majority of Duncan’s crew were untrained, a rigorous training program was inaugurated, and drills, drills, and more drills prepared Duncan’s green crew for the days ahead.

By mid-April, Duncan bid “adieu” to convoy duty in the South Atlantic and transited the Panama Canal, anchoring in Balboa Harbor. On 22 August, the destroyer, in company with USS South Dakota, Lansdowne and Lardner steamed into the Pacific bound for Espiritu Santo Island, via Tongatabu Island in the Friendly Island Group.

After leaving Tongatabu Island on 7 September, the ships joined a friendly task force and a few days later Duncan performed her first errand of mercy. She and three other warships of the force picked up survivors of the carrier Wasp, which was so badly damaged that she had to be sunk by Lansdowne. Survivors were transported to Espiritu Santo for proper medical treatment.

At Espiritu Santo, Duncan joined the fleet at a crucial time in the Guadalcanal campaign. Following the surface engagement in the eastern Solomons in mid-August 1942, no major action took place for a period of about six weeks. During those six weeks, however, the supply lines had to be kept open to Guadalcanal. Japanese submarines and aircraft were active in the vicinity, and by 13 September, enemy ground forces had been reinforced. In addition, by the end of September, Japanese fleet units had been assembled to the northward, and the situation was serious. Reinforcements to the Marines was now becoming a necessity, even though made in the face of enemy naval and air superiority.

As a preliminary, carrier planes attacked enemy shipping in the northern Solomons and Duncan, acting as plane guard, took part in the strikes. By early October, a clash with enemy surface units appeared imminent, and U.S. naval forces were disposed in three groups. One was built around the carrier Hornet, to the westward of Guadalcanal, a second, to the eastward of Malaita Island included the new battleship Washington, and the third, (Task Group 64), composed of cruisers and destroyers under the command of the late Rear Admiral Norman Scott, was stationed south of Guadalcanal pending developments. Stationed in the anti-submarine screen of this force, Duncan kept a sharp lookout for the “Tokyo Express,” or ships bringing in reinforcements for the Japanese ground forces.

On the afternoon of 11 October, enemy forces were reported in the “Slot” between Choiseul Island and the New Georgia Group, headed for Guadalcanal. Admiral Scott immediately steamed northward with his force, which rounded the northwest tip of the island, about two hours before midnight. At 2308, unidentified objects appeared on Duncan’s radar scope. Following a left turn by the force the contacts now came in clear, bearing on the starboard bow at a distance of 8,000 yards.

Within the next few minutes, an enemy ship was sighted off Duncan’s starboard bow and the entire battle line opened fire. At least two shells crashed into the vessel, now identified as a Japanese cruiser, and she appeared to be almost dead in the water. Taken by surprise, the enemy did not return the fire for nearly ten minutes, during which time the cruisers poured a murderous fire into the enemy force.

Duncan, at this stage while maneuvering to clear Helena’s line of fire, sighted a second large enemy warship off the starboard beam, which had not been brought under fire by US cruisers. In order to fire torpedoes, Duncan placed herself between the enemy ship, now identified as the heavy cruiser Aoba or a Japanese cruiser of a similar class, and her own battle line. In doing so she received a number of hits but fired one torpedo before a shell wrecked the torpedo director and wounded the torpedo officer. A second torpedo was fired by local control. Both torpedoes hit the target as two explosions were observed on the port side of the enemy cruiser, and following the second torpedo hit, the target was also hit by shells from the cruisers. Almost immediately, the Japanese cruiser crumbled in the middle, then rolled over and disappeared.

Duncan’s position, sitting in a crossfire between the opposing cruisers, now became desperate. In addition to the earlier hits in her number one fireroom and near the torpedo director, a shell exploded in the handling room of the number one gun, causing fires which rapidly got beyond control. Soon after the second torpedo was fired, another series of hits added to the devastation. One shell bursting in the chart house killed all the personnel, wrecked the chart house and blocked the passage from below. A second landed near the bridge, killing the machine gun battery officer and four men, one of whom was standing alongside the commanding officer. Another shell burst near the main radio, and another entered the plotting room, wrecking the communications throughout the ship.

Gradually the damaged destroyer, with the bridge enveloped in flame and steam, and steering control lost, cleared the line of fire and circled back from the battle area. As the flames around the bridge increased in intensity, the men gathered on the bridge level were ordered to jump into the water, the only avenue of escape.

Meanwhile, the remaining crew members aboard the after part of the ship, and headed by Lt. Herbert Kabat, Engineering Officer, tried unsuccessfully to subdue the fires and to beach Duncan on Savo Island. Loss of steam pressure and explosions of ammunition frustrated these efforts, and finally the order to abandon ship was passed to all hands. About 0200 the last man left the ship.

Because of darkness, the survivors were forced to remain in the water during the early morning hours, but at daybreak the destroyer USS McCalla (DD 488), and planes dispatched from Guadalcanal, appeared on the scene to commence rescue operations. The recovery of so many survivors was remarkable. When the crew members, trapped in the bow and on the bridge, were forced by fire to drop into the water, Duncan still had considerable forward speed. And by the time the wounded were lowered into the water and the remaining survivors had jumped, individuals were scattered over a wide area. The majority were picked up in scattered groups of two or three and many were all alone.

Simultaneous with rescue operations, a salvage party from McCalla, headed by Ensign George B. Weems, USN, boarded the fire-gutted hulk and, in spite of strenuous efforts to save her, Duncan sank a few hours later, joining the host of ships lost in the fierce battles in “Iron Bottom Bay.”

The Commanding Officer of the Duncan, Commander Edmund B. Taylor, USN, was awarded a Navy Cross with the following citation:

“For extraordinary heroism as Commanding Officer of the USS Duncan during action against enemy Japanese naval forces off Savo Island on October 11, 1942. Although his ship had sustained heavy damage under hostile bombardment, Lieutenant Commander Taylor, by skillful maneuvering, successfully launched torpedoes which contributed to the destruction of a Japanese cruiser. Maintaining the guns of the Duncan in effective fire throughout the battle, he, when the vessel was finally put out of action, persistently employed to the fullest extent all possible measures to extinguish raging fires and control severe damage. His gallant leadership and courageous conduct under fire were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”

Source: Office of Naval Records and Ships’ Histories Section, Navy Department.