After fitting out in New York, Benham steamed to Norfolk, Va., on 10 April. There, she loaded depth charges and other equipment in anticipation of her planned shakedown cruise to Europe. Before starting this voyage, however, the destroyer steamed to the Washington Navy Yard on 13 April—where she was visited by officials from several Navy Department bureaus—before moving on to New York a week later to participate in the 1939 World’s Fair celebrations.
While she was there, the tense international situation in Europe—Nazi Germany had occupied Czechoslovakia in March, and Italy had declared war on Albania on 7 April—prompted the cancellation of Benham’s shakedown cruise to Europe. Ordered south instead, she departed New York on 17 May—visiting Guantánamo Bay, Cuba; Corpus Christi, Tex.; and New Orleans, La.—before returning north on 16 June. Following an overhaul and minor alterations at the New York Navy Yard in July, the destroyer conducted final acceptance trials on 11 August. She then reported for duty with the Atlantic Squadron’s Destroyer Division (DesDiv) 18 at Newport, R.I., on 1 September—the same day Nazi Germany started the war in Europe by invading Poland.
Benham, in company with Davis (DD-395), got underway on 5 September for a neutrality patrol in the Grand Banks area southeast of Newfoundland, evolutions intended to persuade belligerent warships to keep away from American shores. During the course of one of these patrols, the U.S. Naval Attaché in Berlin learned of a plot, recounted to him by none other than Grossadmiral Erich Raeder, Commander in Chief of the German Navy, of a plot (presumably to be carried out by the British) that the U.S. passenger liner Iroquois, which had sailed from Cobh, Ireland, with 566 American passengers on 3 October, would be sunk under “Athenia circumstances” (the British passenger liner that had been torpedoed and sunk in September). The attaché’s report, on 4 October, prompted President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s announcement the following day that a Coast Guard vessel and ships from the Neutrality Patrol would meet Iroquois at sea and convoy her to New York. Consequently, Benham and Davis joined the Coast Guard cutter Campbell on 8 October, and together saw to it that Iroquois reached port without incident. Ultimately, Benham brought her Grand Banks patrols to a close, putting into the Boston Navy Yard on 14 October. While there, she had her starboard propeller replaced and began preparations for an extended cruise in the Gulf of Mexico.
Departing Boston on 13 November, Benham proceeded south to Galveston, Tex., arriving there on the 18th. Between 9 December 1939 and 7 February 1940, she conducted five neutrality patrols—mostly in the western Gulf of Mexico off Veracruz—before receiving orders reassigning her to the Pacific. In the most dramatic of these otherwise uneventful evolutions, she was steaming toward Veracruz during the mid watch on 14 December, patrolling four miles northeast of Anegala de Adentro Light. At 0625 she identified the ship lying about a mile southeast of Verde Island Light as the Norddeutscher Lloyd passenger liner Columbus, the second-largest vessel in the German merchant marine, which had lain off Veracruz since September. The German freighter Arauca, however, which had also lain off that Mexican port since the presence of British cruisers and destroyers had forced German shipping to shelter in neutral waters, had gotten up steam and was slipping out to sea through the scud. Benham began trailing her, maintaining her position astern into the afternoon watch.
At 1240, however, Benham spotted Columbus now making for the open sea, too. Apprised of Columbus’s unfolding bid for freedom, Commander Destroyer Division 18 ordered Benham to trail the higher-priority liner. Complying, the destroyer swung away from Arauca’s wake and at 1245 ran down full speed ahead, shaping a course to “intercept and trail” Columbus. She soon swung into position 3,000 yards off the big liner’s starboard quarter, shifting to the port quarter when sistership Lang (DD-399) joined up.
The three ships steamed in uneasy company into the mid watch on 15 December, when Jouett (DD-396) hove into sight at 0200, relieving Benham to resume her pursuit of Arauca soon thereafter, the destroyer losing sight of the German ship and her two American consorts a little over an hour later. Benham conducted a retiring search for the fugitive freighter, pressing on through heavy rains that set in during the forenoon watch and reduced visibility to less than a thousand yards. Unable to find the German ship, the destroyer put into Galveston on the 16th. Arauca, which had given Benham the slip, ultimately reached Port Everglades, Fla.; trapped by British light cruiser HMS Orion, she put into that port to avoid capture. Columbus’s end, however, proved less pleasant: after being shadowed by a succession of U.S. destroyers, and, ultimately, heavy cruiser Tuscaloosa (CA-37), she found herself trapped by British destroyer HMS Hyperion off the coast of New Jersey. She scuttled herself, with all hands save two rescued by Tuscaloosa.
Benham maintained the conduct of Neutrality Patrols into the new year 1940. Ultimately, she sailed from Galveston on 26 February, transited the Panama Canal on the 29th, and arrived at San Diego on 11 March. She set out for Hawaii on 2 April, arriving in Lahaina Roads on the 10th. She briefly participated in Fleet Problem XXI, what proved to be the last of the large-scale fleet maneuvers, putting into Pearl Harbor on the 14th. Moving into the yard, she received alterations and additions calculated to improve her combat capability. Dockyard workers installed improved sonar gear, added splinter shields to her two after gun mounts, and installed anti-magnetic-mine degaussing cables around her hull. Meanwhile, the Roosevelt administration, alarmed over Japan’s aggressive course in the Far East, determined that a show of American resolve was necessary. A major portion of the Fleet, including Benham, received orders to stay in Hawaii indefinitely.
The destroyer joined DesDiv 12 on 5 May and, over the next five months, operated locally out of Pearl Harbor and Lahaina Roads. In the course of conducting “intensive training for war operations,” Benham’s evolutions included antiaircraft and surface gunnery drills, antisubmarine exercises stalking friendly submarines, depth-charge battle practice, tactical and torpedo training, and refueling-at-sea maneuvers. The warship also maintained security patrols off the Lahaina Roads anchorage and at Honolulu harbor. Because of Pearl Harbor’s limited repair facilities, detachments from the Fleet were rotated back to the west coast at periodic intervals. Benham therefore steamed to San Diego for a yard period at San Pedro late in October.
Returning to Pearl Harbor on 6 December 1940, the destroyer resumed a normal training routine and continued so occupied into the critical year of 1941. For the next ten months, Benham trained and operated locally out of Pearl Harbor. Action reports from observers serving with the British Royal Navy were studied and analyzed. Frequent exercises with DesDiv 12, particularly antiaircraft defense training, were interspersed with carrier escort operations centered around Enterprise (CV-6), and occasionally Lexington (CV-2) and Saratoga (CV-3). The pace of these operations grew in intensity as American economic sanctions, instituted in response to Japanese actions in China and French Indochina, provoked diplomatic protests.
Assigned to Task Force (TF) 8, Vice Admiral William F. Halsey, Jr., Commander Aircraft, Battle Force, in command, on 28 November 1941, Benham sailed in company with Enterprise, three cruisers and the eight other destroyers of Destroyer Squadron (DesRon) 6 to deliver a detachment of Grumman F4F-3 Wildcats of Marine Fighting Squadron (VMF) 211 to Wake Island. During the westward passage, after the completion of fueling evolutions on the afternoon on 1 December, heavy cruiser Northampton (CA-26) reported a towing hawser fouling her number one shaft. Vice Admiral Halsey ordered Benham to stand by the hobbled heavy cruiser that dropped out of the disposition; both ships eventually rejoined the formation the next morning. After delivering the marine Wildcats to Wake, TF-8 shaped a course to return to Oahu. En route back, during fueling evolutions on 6 December, conducted in weather that one Enterprise pilot recorded as “raining and rough as hell,” Northampton fueled Benham. The heavy weather, however, proved providential, for it delayed TF-8’s return to Pearl Harbor.
On 7 December, while on the way back to Hawaii, the task force received a radio message from CincPac: “Hostilities with Japan commenced with an air raid on Pearl Harbor.” Benham patrolled south of Oahu, screening Enterprise and her heavy cruiser consorts that anxious night and entered Pearl Harbor around noon on the 8th. After refueling at the relatively undamaged Merry Point docks, the warship returned to sea the following morning and spent the next six days patrolling northeast of Oahu.
In late December, Benham cruised west of Hawaii, covering the approaches during the unsuccessful attempt to relieve Wake Island. After a brief repair period at Pearl Harbor, where she received depth charge projectors and additional antiaircraft guns, the destroyer began preparations for offensive operations. On 10 January 1942, however, the warship received orders to proceed to San Francisco for her long overdue annual overhaul. Then, shortly before midnight on the 11th, she received the news that Saratoga had been torpedoed some 500 miles southwest of Oahu. Benham put to sea shortly thereafter and, after making rendezvous with the damaged carrier on the 13th, escorted her back to Pearl Harbor.
The warship, in company with Ellet (DD-398), then escorted a slow convoy to San Francisco, arriving at that port on 28 January. She shifted to the Mare Island Navy Yard that same day for maintenance and alterations, receiving repairs to her hull and fittings, a new streamlined sonar dome, new radar equipment, and four 20-millimeter antiaircraft guns. Departing San Francisco on 16 February, Benham helped escort a large convoy to Hawaii, arriving in Pearl Harbor on 1 March.
Local patrol and escort duties, punctuated by antiaircraft and gunnery exercises, kept the destroyer’s crew busy for the next six weeks. Benham took departure from Pearl Harbor on 8 April with the Enterprise task group and steamed northwest toward Midway. After the warships rendezvoused with Hornet (CV-8) and her escorts on the 13th, the carriers and cruisers parted company with the destroyers on 17 April. They sailed west to launch the Halsey-Doolittle raid on Tokyo and other Japanese cities while the destroyers guarded the task force’s fleet oilers. After the carriers returned from the successful raid on the 19th, the task force returned to Pearl Harbor on 25 April.
Meanwhile, radio intelligence pointed to a Japanese offensive toward New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. The Enterprise and Hornet groups sailed from Pearl Harbor on 30 April, hoping to join Yorktown (CV-5) and Lexington in the South Pacific. Although the task groups missed the Battle of the Coral Sea, which halted a planned Japanese attack against Port Moresby, New Guinea, the warships did cover the withdrawal of forces back to Pearl Harbor, mooring there on the 26th.
Two days later, Benham got underway with TF-16, built around Enterprise and Hornet, and hurried to the northwest. Radio intelligence and message-traffic analysis pointed to a Japanese attempt to invade Midway Island; and the warships, joined later by Yorktown in TF-17, hastened to intercept the enemy warships. Search planes crisscrossed the waters west of Midway as the two fleets steamed toward each other, but not until 4 June did opposing air strikes launch in earnest.
Japanese planes struck first, bombing installations on Midway Island and returning to their carriers to rearm for a second strike. Confusing and incomplete reports of American forces in the area proved fatal to the Japanese, however, as dive bombers from Yorktown and Enterprise caught them by surprise, mortally wounding three out of the four enemy flattops. Shortly thereafter, Japanese Aichi D3A1 Type 99 carrier [dive] bombers from Hiryu located and attacked Yorktown in TF-17. The strike group scored three damaging bomb hits, knocking out her power and starting fires in her uptakes that produced a huge column of black smoke. Benham, ordered to protect the now drifting carrier, joined TF-17 at 1335 and helped form the antiaircraft screen.
Just after Yorktown’s crew restored power, the radar warning net reported a second incoming enemy air raid. Although attacked by Grumman F4F-4 Wildcats from the combat air patrol, some of which had just gotten airborne, a dozen Nakajima B5N2 Type 97 carrier attack planes (later nicknamed Kate) emerged from the melee and closed the warships. Over the next eight minutes, Benham fired her 20-millimeter guns at the enemy planes, also from the Hiryu air unit, helping to splash five of the torpedo bombers. Despite intense antiaircraft fire, six Type 97s still managed to drop torpedoes into the water on Yorktown’s port beam, and two struck home, inflicting severe underwater damage. Benham suffered her first combat losses during this action when a stray antiaircraft shell hit the ship, killing Ens. Walter E. Pierce and wounding four other crewmen. Benham, along with three other destroyers, then formed an antisubmarine screen around the damaged Yorktown. When the carrier signalled “abandon ship” just before 1700, Benham closed to pick up survivors. Using the destroyer’s single motor whaleboat, lifelines, rafts, and stretchers, the crew rescued some 725 officers and enlisted men from the carrier.
The following day, after most of the survivors were transferred to Portland (CA-33), Benham and Hammann (DD-412) helped transfer repair parties to the damaged Yorktown. Before the carrier could be saved, however, Japanese submarine I-58 closed and fired four torpedoes at the American warships. One torpedo broke the destroyer Hammann in half, sinking her with great loss of life; and two others plowed into the carrier. Benham commenced rescue operations for the second time in two days, pulling some 200 men from the water. After the carrier rolled over and sank the following morning, the destroyer proceeded at high speed back to Pearl Harbor, delivering the survivors to medical facilities ashore on 9 June.
Ship upkeep and repair, punctuated by a drydock period, kept the destroyer’s crew busy until the 22nd. Benham then conducted intensive training at sea—day and night surface gunnery practice, antiaircraft exercises, and torpedo attack drills—in preparation for operations in the South Pacific. On the morning of 15 July, she departed Pearl Harbor in the screen of TF-16, built around Enterprise and North Carolina (BB-55). The force sailed southwest, joined the Saratoga and transport task forces in late July, and began rehearsals on the 31st for Operation “Watchtower”—the invasion of Guadalcanal in the British Solomon Islands.
Benham screened the carriers as they launched air strikes to support the initial Marine Corps landings on 7 and 8 August. The destroyer stayed in the vicinity of Guadalcanal until withdrawing with the carrier task forces on the 9th. For the next two weeks, Benham remained in the carrier screen, covering Enterprise and Saratoga while the task force patrolled east of the Solomons. On 23 August, American reconnaissance planes spotted a Japanese convoy of six transports and seven escorts heading for Guadalcanal. The following day, while American carrier aircraft waited for scout planes to find a target, sightings of Japanese carrier aircraft indicated enemy “flat tops” were nearby. Reports of more Japanese warships trickled in to the task force all day. Finally, after a radar operator picked up a force of 21 enemy planes heading for the airfield on Guadalcanal, Saratoga launched the raid of 29 Douglas SBD-3 Dauntless scout bombers and eight Grumman TBF-1 Avenger torpedo bombers that found and sank the Japanese light carrier Ryujo late that afternoon.
In the meantime, however, a Japanese search plane had found the two U.S. carriers. Around 1500, Japanese carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku launched bomber and fighter aircraft towards TF 16. Despite attacks by Wildcats flying combat air patrol (CAP), some two dozen Aichi Type 99s penetrated the air defenses and pushed over to attack Enterprise. Benham, along with the rest of the screen, opened fire with all batteries, contributing 109 5-inch and 510 20-millimeter rounds to the barrage that splashed most of the attacking Aichis. Despite this spirited defense, the carrier took three bomb hits, forcing the two task forces to withdraw east and regroup.
Still, American forces managed to thwart the Japanese. Later that day, a seven-plane strike from Saratoga severely damaged seaplane carrier Chitose, and planes from Henderson Field and Wasp (CV-7) sank a destroyer and a transport. These additional losses convinced the Japanese reinforcement convoy to withdraw as well. The Battle of the Eastern Solomons had turned back a major Japanese attempt to recapture Guadalcanal.
On 25 August, the force refueled northwest of Espiritu Santo and retired east. Five days later, the task force anchored at Nukualofa Harbor, Tongatabu. Ordered to join the South Pacific Force, Benham spent the next three weeks escorting HMNZS Monowai—loaded with survivors from the battles at Guadalcanal—between Noumea, New Caledonia; Wellington, New Zealand; and Sydney, Australia. On 24 September, the destroyer returned to the Solomons area, joining Washington (BB-56), Atlanta (CL-51), and Walke (DD-416) in Task Group (TG) 17.8. The group spent the next four weeks covering transport missions from Espiritu Santo to Guadalcanal and training for a possible surface action against the Japanese.
On 24 October, in the midst of a failing Japanese ground offensive against Henderson Field on Guadalcanal, Benham was attached to TF 64, a surface task force built around Washington and San Francisco (CA-38). Ordered to conduct patrol sweeps west of Savo Island in order to prevent the Japanese from delivering reinforcements to Guadalcanal, the warships loitered southeast of the island during the 26 and 27 October Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands. This battle, which heavily damaged two enemy carriers at the cost of Hornet sunk, helped prevent another Japanese attempt to reinforce their troops on Guadalcanal.
In a follow-up operation, TG 64.2 conducted a shore bombardment against Japanese forces west of the Tenaru River on Guadalcanal. Starting at 0638 on 30 October, Atlanta, Aaron Ward (DD-483), Lardner (DD-487), Fletcher (DD-445) and Benham all closed the shoreline and fired at Japanese targets for close to two hours—Benham alone expending 696 rounds of 5-inch ammunition.
After retiring to Espiritu Santo on the 31st and then sailing on to Noumea on 6 November, she conducted minor repairs in preparation for a planned ten-day tender upkeep period. On 11 November, however, two enemy air attacks on Guadalcanal signaled the start of another major reinforcement effort by the Japanese. Since an American convoy was scheduled to arrive at Guadalcanal the following day, the destroyer received urgent orders rushing her to sea to help cover this operation. On the 13th, after hearing about the disastrous cruiser action off Guadalcanal the night before—which cost the Navy two cruisers and four destroyers—Benham joined Washington, South Dakota (BB-57), Gwin (DD-433), Preston (DD-379), and Walke in TF 64 and steamed toward Guadalcanal.
Ordered to prevent the enemy from bombarding Henderson Field on the evening of the 13th, the task force closed “Ironbottom Sound” as daylight waned. That same evening, a Japanese force of one battleship, four cruisers, and nine destroyers approached Guadalcanal from the west. At 2300 on the 14th, while patrolling southeast of Savo Island, the American task force spotted the first Japanese ships rounding Savo from the north. At 2316, the two American battleships fired on light cruiser Sendai and destroyer Shikinami, forcing them to quickly retreat north past Savo Island.
Unknown to the Americans, the Japanese warships were divided into four separate groups, and they had only driven off the northernmost one. At 2322, Walke spotted the second group, a pair of destroyers, creeping along the south shore of Savo Island. She opened fire on Ayanami and Uranami with her 5-inch guns, immediately followed by Preston and Benham. Shortly thereafter, Gwin spotted the third Japanese group—a cruiser and four destroyers—farther to the west and began firing on them at 2326. Accurate Japanese gunfire soon began to tell, however; and, within ten minutes, all the American destroyers save Benham were severely damaged topside, with Preston on fire and sinking. Then, at 2338, Japanese torpedoes began to score, mortally damaging Walke with a hit forward. At the same time, another torpedo struck Benham on her starboard side, blowing off her bow back to gun mount number one. The explosion threw up a great column of water that cascaded down on the warship, washing one man overboard. Although flooded in some compartments, the crippled destroyer remained afloat and, in company with Gwin, began retiring from the battle to the southeast around Guadalcanal.
Because of heavy debris forward, Benham made little headway. Despite exhaustive damage control efforts, worsening seas progressively weakened the destroyer’s hull; and, after she slowly split in half, the crew transferred to Gwin late on the 15th. Benham’s two floating sections were then sunk by 5-inch gunfire off the south coast of Guadalcanal at 1938 on 14 November 1942. Interestingly, the man washed overboard during the battle was later rescued by Meade (DD-602), so that Benham’s entire crew survived her sinking.
Benham received five battle stars for her World War II service.