The USS Swanson

An Essential Ship Named for an Essential Man

By Herman Melton

Launch of the USS Swanson

Launch of the USS Swanson on November 2, 1940, at the Charleston Navy Yard (photo provided by Charles C. Hall).


By the time Claude Swanson stowed his working gear in the office of Secretary of the Navy in March of 1933, the size of the U.S. fleet was less than that of Imperial Japan. Isolationists in the halls of Congress continued to argue that there was nothing to fear from the fact that ships were being launched almost daily bearing flags of the Rising Sun. They argued that the surest way to create conflict was to attempt to keep pace with the inscrutable Imperial Japanese war lords such as Tojo, Yamamoto and Numura. The impotent League of Nations blustered noisily but stood helplessly by as the Japanese Imperial Army overran Chinese Manchuria and briefly occupied Shanghai. The war lords influenced the Emperor to scrap most existing military and trade treaties with the U.S. in a haughty flourish. This did nothing to reassure a peaceful U. S.

The latter events coincided with the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt as President of the United States. Roosevelt's interest in the military was best personified by his connection with the Navy. It was not surprising that he appointed to the post of Secretary of the Navy in his original cabinet a U.S. Senator who had an abiding interest in building up a strong fleet to counter the threat posed by Hirohito, Mussolini, and Adolph Hitler. Claude Augustus Swanson (1862-1939) of Pittsylvania County, Virginia, devoted more time during his Senatorial years looking after the U.S. Navy than in all other activities. He was convinced, in the face of strong isolation influence, that a strong navy was essential for survival of the nation and for the possibility of world peace. In consequence thereof, during the next two years he succeeded in getting Congressional approval for the construction of a greater tonnage of warships than in all the previous twelve years combined.

When he died in office on July 7, 1939, it would be only two months until the Nazi juggernaut wheeled into Poland to trigger WWII. Fortunately for this nation, Secretary Swanson had by this time secured from Congress the authority for constructing the largest navy in the world, thus making the attack on Pearl Harbor less cataclysmic.

It was entirely appropriate that a ship be named in honor of Claude Swanson. He had served as Congressman from Virginia's Fifth District, as Governor of Virginia and as U.S. Senator prior to the above mentioned appointment. On November 15, 1939, four months after Swanson had gone to his reward, the keel was laid for the USS Swanson, a destroyer, in the Charleston Navy Yard. Less than three months later, she would be launched by the former Secretary's widow and joined the Atlantic Fleet after being fitted with four 5' 38-caliber guns, depth charge equipment and many other smaller arms. The Swanson measured 348 feet long, 35-1/2 feet wide and sported two funnels. Her 50,000 horsepower steam turbines were capable of driving the ship to a maximum speed of 37 knots. This was well above the underwater speed of Adolph Hitler's enormous fleet of U-boat submarines.

In U.S. Navy terms, the Swanson was of the BENSON Class which included those 19 destroyers built in the 1937-39 shipbuilding program. She was one of two other identical destroyers which included the Grayson, and the Hilary P. Jones built in the Charleston Navy Yard. The Swanson happened to be the final one of the BENSON Class to be launched.

As for her first WWII service, it appears that the Swanson's baptism of fire came when she was assigned to escort duty for Atlantic convoys conveying essential supplies to Allied forces in Africa and Europe. She found herself protecting the armada involved in Operation Torch in November of 1942 when Allied forces under General Dwight D. Eisenhower invaded North Africa to expel the forced of German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel.

Recently released German wartime records account for one significant confrontation the Swanson was involved in. It was off the port of Casablanca in early 1943, when sonar equipment on the Swanson and that of another destroyer detected the presence of a U-boat bent on sinking the supply ships in the convoy. The two swooped down on the sub, straddled it with depth charges and sent it to the bottom with all hands aboard. No doubt there were other wartime exploits of the mighty Swanson and interested researchers, Pittsylvania County amateur historians and WWII buffs could do worse than research this promising subject. Thanks to the generosity of Mr. Charles C. Hall, a step-grandson of Secretary Swanson, the Society is the recipient of a mounted “first rivet” of the Swanson presented to his widow at the launching. There is also a brass ash tray from the ship on display in the museum in the 1813 Clerk's Office in Chatham. It was given to Mr. Hall at the ship's decommissioning ceremony. Mr. Hall also figured prominently with former Society President, Preston Moses (now deceased) in securing a roadside marker on U.S. 29 near Chatham which denotes the proximity of “Eldon,” the former Swanson home.

Meanwhile, it is hoped that this brief and obviously incomplete history of the U.S.S. Swanson enhances the pride of all those with ties to the area have in their heritage.


Notes


Books by Herman Melton

(Available from the sponsor.)

Pittsylvania's Eighteenth-Century Grist Mills

Pittsylvania's Eighteenth-Century Grist Mills

Pittsylvania's Nineteenth-Century Grist Mills

Pittsylvania's Nineteenth-Century Grist Mills

Thirty-Nine Lashes, Well Laid On

Thirty-Nine Lashes, Well Laid On


Pittsylvania County's Historic Courthouse

Pittsylvania County's Historic Courthouse



Other Books Concerning Pittsylvania County History

(Available from the sponsor.)

History of Pittsylvania County, VA

Clement: History of Pittsylvania County

Pittsylvania: Homes and People of the Past

Fitzgerald: Pittsylvania: Homes and People of the Past

Eighteenth Century Landmarks of Pittsylvania County, VA

Hurt: Eighteenth Century Landmarks of Pittsylvania County


An Intimate History of the American Revolution in Pittsylvania County, Virginia

Hurt: An Intimate History of the American Revolution in Pittsylvania County

Footprints from the Old Survey Books

Dodson: Footprints from the Old Survey Books

Histories of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina (Dover)

Byrd: Histories of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina


Tales About People in a Small Town

Jones: Tales About People in a Small Town



Herman Melton's online articles are posted by Mitchells Publications and the Sims-Mitchell House as part of an effort to document Pittsylvania County, Chatham, and Danville, Virginia.