USS Wickes (Destroyer No. 75) off Bath Iron Works in 1918.
Orders for the mass-produced Wickes- and Clemson-class destroyers stemmed not from the United States’ entry into World War I on 6 April 1917, but from the Naval Appropriation Act of 29 August 1916, which called for a navy “second to none,” capable of protecting both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. The act authorized orders for ten battleships, six Lexington-class battlecruisers (only two of which were eventually completed—as aircraft carriers Lexington and Saratoga), ten Omaha-class scout cruisers, 50 destroyers, 72 submarines, and fourteen auxiliaries. As the cruisers were designed to make 35 knots, the destroyers needed at-least-equal speed, but this meant a 50 per cent increase in power requirements over the Caldwells, achievable only via an increase in weight. This designers tried to offset by increasing efficiency, e.g., a level keel for reduced drag, and more-nearly-horizontal propeller shafts.

The Wickes class was funded beginning in fiscal year 1917. Fifty destroyers were to be built over a three-year period; twenty in the first year. Detail design was split between Bath Iron Works, which built the lead ship, Torpedo Boat Destroyer No. 75, and Bethlehem Steel.

The number grew to 61 (through Destroyer No. 135) when a Naval Emergency Fund, created on 3 March 1917, authorized “such additional Torpedo Boat Destroyers . . . as the President may direct.” Then, following a proposal of a special “Board on the Submarine Menace,” 200 more destroyers were added. A final twelve—through DD 347—were authorized in 1918 (together with 12 more destroyers, DDs 348–359, the first of which—Farragut—was not laid down until 14 years later). Of 273 mass-production flush-deckers thus ordered, DDs 200–206 were canceled, leaving 267 to join the six Caldwells in service.

The 111 Wickes-class ships were built in eight yards. (Some sources such as Bauer and Roberts classify only the 38 ships from Bath, Cramp, Mare Island Navy Yard and Charleston Navy Yard as the Wickes class—differentiating the 26 ships each from Bethlehem’s Fore River shipyard and Union Iron Works as the Little class, the 11 ships from Newport News as the Lamberton class and the ten ships from New York Shipbuilding as the Tattnall class.) As built, they proved satisfactory and greatly improved over the preceding 1000-tonners, but they exhibited three major shortcomings:

  • They had limited endurance—at issue because, for the first time, destroyers had to be able to cruise with the fleet far from home. While Bath-designed Wickes-class ships tended to exceed their design cruising radius, those from Bethlehem tended to fall short. This shortcoming led to a redesign—the Clemson class—with 100 tons (35 per cent) greater fuel capacity, such that even the worst of the Clemsons could match the best of the Wickes. Even this measure was insufficient, however—in 1919, it was perceived that most flush-deckers would have difficulty crossing the Atlantic. In response, additional solutions were considered, such as replacing boilers or magazines with fuel tanks. Eventually, the Navy found an answer in underway replenishment: initial attempts in 1917 led to routine tanker-to-destroyer fuel transfers during the twenties.
  • They were difficult to handle: their narrow, V-shaped sterns would “squat” at speed, giving them a large turning radius. This was an early concern as they were to be equipped with then-new depth-charges and sent out to operate as anti-submarine vessels, there being no time to design a separate class of more maneuverable ships. Larger rudders were fitted on later Clemson-class ships, but the problem was only solved by the different hull form of the Farraguts.
  • They were wet forward, another problem not addressed until the advent of the Farraguts’ raised-forecastle hull design.

Thanks in part to the haste with which they were built—Mare Island, with advance planning, launched Ward in just 17 days—workmanship was inconsistent. Unlike the corresponding World War II period, there was no program to halt construction when hostilities ceased, so all ships ordered were completed. Then, because there were so many of them and so little need in the peaceful twenties, unusual measures were taken to keep them serviceable.

Surprises lay in store. When the Yarrow water-tube boilers on 60 Bethlehem-built ships wore out, they were set aside for scrapping en masse in 1930 while the Navy scrambled to recommission replacements from the “red lead fleet.”

Meanwhile, while the United States had not laid keels for any other destroyers during the ten years following 1922, other navies continued to build ships that incorporated lessons learned and technological advances. In 1932, therefore, when destroyer construction resumed, it was with ships so advanced and so seemingly lavish that they were nicknamed “goldplaters.”

This was not the end of the flush deckers, however. Those that survived the purge of 1930 found continuing roles. Some operated in secondary destroyer service, such as DesRon 29 in the far east. Some went to England and Canada in exchange for bases. Some even wound up in commercial service, e.g., transporting bananas between South America and New Orleans. But during World War II, many of them found valuable new roles—as conversions.

Sources: Bauer and Roberts, Friedman, Alden, Reilly.