BOOK REVIEW – Destroyerman

By John T. Pigott, (2006)

Reviewed by Rear Admiral Peter B. Booth, U.S. Navy (Retired)

The whaleboat was deep in the water, grossly overloaded with sailors hauled from the ocean. I grabbed the oil-soaked life jacket of the sailor who would have brought our total to thirty-five, and had started to heave him aboard when I felt the sea pour over my feet. I eased him back and let go. “We’ll get you next trip!”

Such was the terse beginning to a fascinating memoir of tough, wartime duty on two destroyers from mid-1942 to the fall of 1945. The author, John T. Pigott, a retired lawyer, only qualification for becoming an ensign on his first ship, the USS Lansdowne (DD 486), consisted of one course a year having something to do with Navy ships and a few weeks of summer training. Upon graduation from Yale, within one week, he was married, commissioned as a reserve ensign, stepped upon his first warship and set sail for wartime duty. The breadth of his over-three years of constant combat sea duty spanned both oceans from submarine hunting in the Atlantic and Caribbean (two confirmed sinkings) to the fast actions around Guadalcanal, to the Aleutians on his first ship. His second ship, with hardly a break, was the 2200-ton USS Barton (DD 722) where it supported the Normandy landings, then back to the Southwest Pacific fray, the three-month battle for Okinawa, Tokyo Bay and back to Conus at war’s end. By my rough count, Pigott spent around 800 days underway and most likely, stood some 2,000 hours on the bridge as OOD or at his GQ station.

Interestingly, his first CO was then-Lieutenant Commander William Smedberg III (later Vice Admiral) whom the author repeatedly described as a brilliant leader and ship handler. As I read the first few chapters, Pigott easily chronicled his hesitant growing steps as a young officer and his descriptions of the inner-workings of his old destroyer. There were no laborious training workups; it was the combat Navy from the start. Three months after joining the ship wherein his general quarters station was high atop the bridge, the ship was in the thick of fierce fighting in the southwest Pacific, one sad casualty being the loss of the carrier USS Wasp to Japanese torpedoes. In addition to the forgoing rescue vignette, Ensign Pigott made several round trips that day to the burning and listing carrier to rescue many dozens of sodden and lucky Navy sailors.

And, while still in the year 1942, the Lansdowne, as described from his vantage point in the main battery director, was engaged in the most intense night combat imaginable. Coincidentally, I had read not long ago, Admiral Jim Holloway’s Aircraft Carriers At War, the first chapter of which is devoted to his experiences as an ensign right out of the USNA directing gunnery and torpedo attacks against multiple Japanese targets in the same waters and about the same time frame as that of the Lansdowne. In both cases, the authors describe the actions of destroyers at thirty-knots plus, complete darken ship, antiquated radars, shoal waters all about and a competent enemy out to kill them. The writing is riveting, this reviewer unwilling to put the books down.

DestroyerMan is exceptionally well written with great attention to detail and is as good a read as the best of the many maritime memoires I’ve read over many decades. Both of Pigott’s ships were in the thick of constant battles with only two short forays back to the states for repairs, one for a grounding near Guadalcanal by the Lansdowne and the other by Barton after a significant collision at night. The book is only about 150 pages, but each page is chock full of combat lessons from yesteryear with numerous forays and vignettes of real sailors doing the tough combat job at sea for extremely long and arduous periods, with precious little time ashore and essentially no family.

The forward to the book, published in 2006, by a law firm compatriot of Mr. Pigott described him thusly:

John’s war experiences forged his character. Something about the naval chain of command, the duty to protect the ship at all costs, and mortal danger of combat, fired in his soul a strong central core of principle. He came away from the smoke, fire and death risk knowing who he was and what he stood for. Forged by combat, his character was not to bend in the trade winds of commerce.

The same could be said for the thousands of destroyer sailors, both officer and enlisted, who so ably and honorably served with heads held high on hundreds of these tough smaller ships over the millennium. I give Mr. John T. Pigott five stars for a most impressive, readable and captivating book that embraces the spirit of tough ships and tougher crews during WWII.

Rear Admiral Booth served for fourteen peacetime months on the USS Buck (DD 761) following his graduation from the USNA in 1956.  

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