Laid down on 2 December 1936 at the Charleston Navy Yard, she was sponsored at her launch on 27 October 1938 by Mrs. Camilla Ridgely Simpson, and commissioned on 15 August 1939, LCdr. Atherton Macondray in command.
Sterett departed Charleston on 28 October 1939 in company with Hughes and Mustin, which were also newly-commissioned, for shakedown in the Gulf of Mexico. She visited Vera Cruz, Cristobal, Mobile, and Guantánamo Bay before returning to Charleston on 20 December. She underwent post-shakedown overhaul and trials at Charleston until departing on 4 May 1940.
Assigned to DesDiv 15, Sterett rendezvoused with Hammann at Guantánamo Bay, and the two destroyers steamed for San Diego, via the Panama Canal. They arrived in San Diego on 23 May; and, for a month, Sterett divided her time between training and planeguarding Enterprise (CV 6). On 24 June, she sailed for Hawaii with Enterprise and five other destroyers, and arrived at Pearl Harbor on 2 July.
She operated out of Pearl Harbor for the next 10 months, participating in a number of exercises and patrols. When Mississippi, BB 41, exited Pearl Harbor on 14 May 1941, Sterett was in her screen. The warships transited the Panama Canal and arrived at Norfolk on 28 June. Sterett next screened Long Island (CVE 1) during the escort carrier’s Bermuda shakedown cruise. Sterett concluded 1941 engaged in neutrality patrols with Wasp (CV 7). After the Japanese attacked the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Sterett sailed from Bermuda with Wasp and an assortment of cruisers and destroyers to counter possible action by Vichy French ships anchored at Martinique. (continued)