Friday, December 15, 2017

Seventy-Five Years Ago: The "Lucky Herndon" Joins the Fleet

By Steve Milner
Contributing Writer

While I'm still recalling the noteworthy observances of Norfolk Naval Shipyard's recent 250th anniversary events that I attended, I'm now writing about another story that again puts our unique facility solidly on our nation's historical map.

It deals with USS Herndon (DD 638), a destroyer that NNSY built, and later launched on February 5, 1942.  It was commissioned on December 20, 1942, and was the lead ship at Omaha Beach during the Allied invasion of Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944, at the start of the D-Day effort to retake Europe from the Germans.

USS Herndon (DD 638) enters the Elizabeth River at Norfolk Naval Shipyard on February 5, 1942. (Historic Norfolk Navy Yard Film Collection, Serial #11-19, courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)
This ship was nicknamed the "Lucky Herndon," because it was never hit by enemy gunfire, despite being targeted by well-fortified German shore batteries.  By contrast, Herndon effectively pounded enemy gun emplacements on Omaha Beach, ahead of our first troop landings there, and was credited with firing the first naval shots of this campaign.

Although Navy artist Dwight Shepler depicted the actions of the destroyers Emmons (DD 457) and Doyle (DD 494) on June 6, 1944, his watercolor depicting the duel between the destroyers' 5-inch guns and German 88mm guns on the Normandy cliffs gives an idea of what the battle must have been like for USS Herndon (DD 638), which was the first destroyer to bombard the coast that morning. (Navy Art Collection)
Following its exemplary service in the Atlantic and Mediterranean, Herndon eventually went to the Pacific Theater in preparation for the invasion of Mainland Japan which, fortunately, didn't take place due to our dropping two Atomic bombs there.  Herndon later escorted convoys in the Pacific until World War II ended.

Here are some other statistics about the NNSY-built ship, which was a Gleaves-class destroyer: It was named for Commander William Lewis Herndon, who went down with his passenger ship, the mail steamer SS Central America, in a storm off North Carolina in 1857.  At that time, he and his crew saved more than 150 of its 474 passengers.  To commemorate his bravery, there's a monument to him at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.  The towns of Herndon in Fairfax County, Virginia and Herndon, Pennsylvania, were named for him as well.

Cmdr. Herndon, who was born in Fredericksburg, Virginia, in 1813, was noted for his exploration of the Amazon, in searching for natural resources.  The reason that Herndon was commanding Central America, a commercial vessel, was because Navy captains were assigned to ships that were operated by private companies contracted to the U.S. government.

Central America was also noteworthy because it was carrying an estimated 15 tons of gold, then worth about $2 million, from California to the United States Mint in Philadelphia.  This precious cargo was retrieved in 1987.

Commander Herndon's great-grandniece, Lucy Herndon Crockett, sponsored USS Herndon, the second ship to bear this hero's name.  The first, DD 198, was transferred to Great Britain and renamed HMS Churchill, before America entered WWII.  It was then sold to the Soviet Union and was lost in battle in 1945.

Herndon was 348 feet long and had a crew of 16 officers and 260 enlisted personnel.  It had surface-to-surface guns, anti-aircraft guns, torpedo tubes and depth charge launchers.  It could reach speeds of more than 37 knots and travel 6,500 miles at that speed.  Cruising at 12 knots, Herndon's range was 7,500 miles.   

Another one of the ship's noteworthy achievements was serving as an escort vessel for USS Quincy (CA 71), a heavy cruier that transportted President Franklin D. Roosevelt on the first leg of his historic trip to the Yalta conference in Crimea in 1945, to discuss the end of the Second World War.  The other "Big Three" leaders were Great Britain's Winston Churchill and the Soviet Union's Joseph Stalin.

To honor the NNSY-built destroyer and its crew, the Herndon High School marching band will travel from Virginia to France in 2019 to participate in D-Day 75th anniversary commemorations.  That is, it will with the public's financial and other support.  As they march in Normandy, each member will carry a photograph of a member of a Herndon crew member who served during WWII.  The band will also carry the American flag that flew aboard the ship on D-Day.

"What these students are doing is wonderful," said Tom Wilmore, a 92-year-old USS Herndon veteran.  "It means the world to me that they are honoring me and my shipmates in Normandy."

What a great legacy our shipyard has.  Whether it's our past, our current operations or our future accomplishments, we are proudly "America's Shipyard" that observed its 250th anniversary on November 1, with the exciting theme, "an important past, a vital future."

Editor's Note: In addition to serving as public affairs officer at Norfolk Naval Shipyard during his long and varied public relations career, Steve Milner was also a public affairs officer at Cape Canaveral, Florida, during the Gemini and Apollo programs. This article originally ran with the title, "NNSY's 250th observances were great; and here's another winner" in the November Federal Managers' Association Chapter 3 (Norfolk Naval Shipyard) newsletter.     


onehstrybuff said...

Great article, Steve !!

onehstrybuff said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
D Connelly said...

My father who was a sailor on the USS Herndon during the Invasion of D-Day will be traveling to France with the Herndon High School band for the 75th Anniversary. He is the only sailor from his ship that is well enough to attend