From the late World War I era through the 1930s, the most common vessels in the Navy’s inventory were Wickes and Clemson class ‘four stacker’ destroyers. Mass produced between 1917 and 1922, 267 of these ships were built at ten shipyards across six states. Three of the later Clemson class designs were constructed at the Norfolk Navy Yard, with all surviving the great scrapping purges of the interwar years to serve on in various capacities during World War II. The first of this trio, USS Hulbert, would have the unique distinction of firing some of the first American shots during the infamous attack on Pearl Harbor.
USS Hulbert was the 157th example of the improved Clemson class flush deck destroyer approved by the Navy for construction, assigned to the Norfolk Navy Yard along with the future USS Noa and William B. Preston. Laid down seven days after the Armistice on November 18, 1918, the Hulbert was not launched until June of the next year, and was not commissioned until October 27, 1920. Built too late to participate in the First World War, the destroyer was able to avoid the quick mothballing faced by many of her sister ships and began an interesting fourteen year tour of duty.
Clemson class destroyers USS Hulbert (left) and USS Noa (right) under construction at the Norfolk Navy Yard in May of 1919. United States Navy Photograph.
The completed hull of USS Hulbert launching into the Elizabeth River on June 28, 1919. United States Navy Photograph
For the first year and a half of her service, the Hulbert stayed close to her birthplace, operating on the Atlantic Coast in the Chesapeake Bay and out of Newport, Rhode Island. She transferred to the Asiatic Fleet on June 20, 1922, reaching her new home at the coastal Chinese city of Chefoo on August 26 after traveling across the Atlantic Ocean and passing through the Suez Canal. The Hulbert became known for her efficiency and maintenance, winning the Navy’s Engineering Trophy for performance in both 1924 and 1925, making her the pride of the 108 destroyers and minelayers in the various American fleets. This was also seen as a tremendous comeback, as the ship had lost six men to an Engine Room fuel oil fire in 1923. The awards had resulted in high morale and efforts to promote the crewmen whenever possible, bringing a bit more of an internal Navy spotlight to the oft-neglected Asiatic Fleet.
The crew of USS Hulbert posing on deck with their Engineering Trophy in Manilla Bay, Philippines. United States Navy Photograph
The Hulbert also received her first taste of combat in the waters off China, when the turbulent situation in China led to the Nanking incident of 1927. Over the course of several days in late March, the Hulbert, her sister ships Noa and William B. Preston, and other British and Japanese warships took part in the evacuation of foreign nationals from Chinese port cities, sometimes deploying shore parties and providing covering fire for the bands of international refugees. After successfully carrying out this task, the ship and crew returned to standard patrol duties before receiving orders to return home to the United States in 1929.
USS Hulbert moored alongside USS Stewart and USS Preble off Shanghai, China in 1927. Ensign William Grandville Verge Photograph
USS Hulbert flying her ‘Homeward Bound’ Pennant in August of 1929 during her return from the Asiatic Fleet. United States Navy Photograph
Arriving in San Diego on August 17 of 1929, the Hulbert spent the next few years carrying out fleet exercises with both the Atlantic and Pacific Fleets, to include working with the carriers Langley, Lexington, and Saratoga. This Exercise and Fleet Problem duty would see the destroyer carry out guard duty as carrier aircraft launched successful mock attacks against a variety of land and sea based targets, an unintentional foreshadowing of things to come. After the exercises of early 1934, however, it was decided to decommission the now older destroyer, allowing her experienced crew to be transferred to the new wave of modern ‘Gold Plater’ Farragut class vessels just entering service. As such, the Hulbert was officially mothballed in Philadelphia on October 17, 1934, destined to slowly rust in reserve for half a decade. World events would stay the scrapper’s torch, however, and a design conversion would set the vessel onto a collision course with history.
The USS Hulbert as seen from the bridge of the carrier USS Saratoga in the early 1930s, with the USS Langley and USS Lexington in the background. United States Naval Aviation Museum Photograph
As the global situation of the 1930s deteriorated, the Navy sought to supplement its forces by modifying the stockpiles of outdated destroyers stored at various navy bases. One such conversion, begun in July of 1938, was meant to create a fast, long rage seaplane tender. Designed with the relatively new PBY Catalina flying boat in mind, the Navy’s architects significantly altered the central section of vessels. The two forward boilers were removed to create a 50,000 gallon aviation fuel reservoir, and the area formerly occupied by the two forward smokestacks was built up into quarters for aircrews and maintainers. Torpedo tubes and waist guns gave way to service boat davits and a lifting crane, completing the design overhaul. After initial successes, the Navy authorized the conversion of fourteen total vessels, with USS Hulbert selected to be the sixth of the new ‘AVD’ Seaplane Tenders. Brought to the New York Navy Yard from her mothball berth, she was officially reclassified as AVD-6 and recommissioned on August 2, 1940. The ship’s new crew immediately departed for San Diego, California, where they began operations with Patrol Wing 1 on August 24. When this reconnaissance wing of PBY Catalinas transferred to Pearl Harbor on May 8, 1941, the Hulbert followed.
Composited comparison of Clemson class profiles, showing an unmodified destroyer (USS Droyen) verses a seaplane tender conversion (USS Kane). National Archive Images
Designated as Patrol Wing 1’s headquarters ship, the Hulbert was accompanied by the former airship tender USS Wright, converted minesweeper USS Avocet, and fellow Clemson conversion USS Ballard. These four vessels were assigned to maintain the 68 PBY-5 Catalinas and three BP2Y-1 Coronado seaplanes of VP-11, VP-12, VP-13, and VP-14. A majority of these aircraft were actually stationed at North Island, California as part of the VP-13 training unit along with the Ballard, with the other three squadrons and ships based at Kaneohe in Hawaii. As tensions between the United States and Japan mounted, USS Wright received orders to depart for Wake and Midway Islands to deliver supplies and accept passengers. Her task was completed on December 4, 1941, and she set sail once again for Pearl Harbor to rejoin the Avocet and Hulbert. On the night of December 6, however, her crew witnessed the curious sight of a fully laden aircraft carrier overtaking them on their way toward Hawaii. They did not recognize it then, but in a few short hours that murky vessel would launch the attack that would resound throughout the world and forever impact American history.
Nine of VP-14’s PBY-5 Catalinas flying above Hawaii at the end of November 1941. United States Navy Photograph
The fully laden IJN Kaga steaming towards Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, as seen from IJN Akagi, with the Zuikaku astern. United States Navy Film Still
The morning of December 7, 1941 saw the USS Hulbert moored in an unusual spot for a seaplane tender. Pearl Harbor was crowded with naval vessels, and the berthing space she was assigned was ‘S-3,’ a location at the submarine base to the east of Ford island. The smaller Avocet remained at the Naval Air Station mooring off Ford Island in the ‘F-1’ slot. This positioning placed the vessels of Patrol Wing 1 on either side of the Navy Yard’s full dry docks, and saw the Hulbert sitting directly in the path of two dozen Japanese torpedo planes.
An aerial view of Pearl Harbor taken circa 1940. The Submarine Base is seen at center right. National Park Service Photograph
Official Navy Mooring and Berthing Plan for Pearl Harbor, with the Hulbert’s S-3 slot circled in red and the Avocet’s F-1 slot circled in blue. United States Navy Image
When the Japanese began planning for their attack on Pearl Harbor, their primary concerns were the American carriers and battleships. Battleships were usually grouped around both sides of Ford Island, but the American Navy had a tendency to dock carriers on the eastern side. As such, the first wave of Japanese attack aircraft saw a favoring of eastern approaches for torpedo aircraft, with sixteen coming in from the west and twenty-four circling in from the east. At approximately 7:57 AM, the men on the deck of the Hulbert caught sight of Lieutenant Commander Murata of IJN Akagi’s 1st Torpedo Attack Unit, trailed closely by Lieutenant Kitajima and the 2nd Torpedo Attack Unit from the Kaga. The Attack on Pearl Harbor had begun.
Lieutenant Kitajima of the 2nd Torpedo Attack Unit covers the attack plan for Pearl Harbor on the Kaga’s flight deck for his B5N crews shortly before takeoff. The chalk outline at the feet of the airman kneeling directly to the left of Kitajima portrays the mooring location of the Hulbert, with the upward angled arrows denoting the flight path of the 2nd Torpedo Attack Unit. Imperial Japanese Navy Photograph
Profile of a Nakajima B5N2 ‘Kate Torpedo Bomber of the type used by the Pearl Harbor attack force. Kaboldy Rendering
Some of the first crewman on the Hulbert to realize what they were witnessing were ship’s cook Wally Martenson and his helper Marion Ray Kesler. The ship’s General Quarters alarm was not working, so Kesler, the faster of the two, ran to tell the men eating breakfast that they were under attack. The men on deck scrambled to the ship’s .50 caliber machine guns and their 300 rounds of ready ammunition, snapping up sights and pulling back charging handles as their crewmates below laughed at Kesler’s ‘joke.’ Less than a minute after the swarm of warbirds was spotted, the Hulbert opened fire.
USS Hulbert crewman Marion Ray Kesler. Legacy Obituary Photograph
Ensign Robert L. Eichorn and Carpenter’s Mate Second Class Andrew Stephen Rose were credited with readying the machine guns atop the aircrew quarters as the first of the gunners reached their stations. The Number Three Gun was quickly given over to Ship’s Cook Third Class William Joseph Morris. Morris’ position gave him a clear view as the B5N2 ‘Kate’ Torpedo bombers roared overhead, angling over the Southeast Lock towards the dry docks and Battleship Row. His first burst of fire failed to do more than alert the rest of the crew. Instantly adjusting his aim, he depressed the trigger a second time.
An aerial view of the initial volley of torpedoes from the Akagi’s 1st Torpedo Attack Unit, taken by a Japanese pilot looking towards Ford Island. The large plume of water is marks a torpedo is detonating against USS West Virginia, and the red circle shows the Hulbert sitting in line with the 2nd Torpedo Attack Unit’s approach vector. United States Navy Photograph
Morris’ second stream of fire caught a fully laden B5N2 from the Kaga angling to pass over Dry Dock One and attack the battleship USS California. The aircraft, designated AII-356, was under the command of Squadron Leader Lieutenant Mimori Suzuki. Either by luck or Suzuki attempting to maneuver out of the gunfire, one of Morris’ rounds found the warhead of the Type 91 (Modification 2) torpedo slung underneath the airframe. With an explosion that knocked sailors along the sub pens to the ground, the weapon detonated. The engine of Lieutenant Suzuki’s aircraft was destroyed, and the three man crew instantly killed. Out of the smoke of this first victory, however, more planes screamed by. A second Kate, commanded by Airman First Class Shuzo Kitahara, successfully torpedoed the California before a Three Inch shell from the Avocet sent the plane crashing into the nearby Naval Hospital. More aircraft arrived overhead, this time dive bombers. Now aided by the nearby USS Thornton, the Hulbert’s gunners managed to down an unidentified D3A ‘Val’ dive bomber at 8:25 AM, setting its tail alight and causing the wreck to crash somewhere near Halawa. For the rest of the day, the Hulbert’s men continued to pour fire into the Japanese planes, forcing several to abandon attack runs and doubtlessly saving many lives in the process. By the time the Japanese planes finally withdrew, the seaplane tender and her crew were already engaged in rescuing their fellow sailors from the devastation around them, having sustained no damage amidst the chaos of the Japanese assault. Multiple ships’ After Action Reports authored in the immediate aftermath of the attack noted these actions, making sure to credit the Hulbert as the first vessel in Pearl Harbor to engage the enemy.
Lieutenant Suzuki’s B5N bring salvaged by Navy personnel in the aftermath of the attack. The explosive damage of Morris shooting the torpedo warhead can be clearly seen, with the engine and forward parts of the fuselage completely obliterated. United States Navy Photograph
A view of the Pearl Harbor attack taken from the hills north of Ford Island, with the burning plume of USS Arizona in the center. During the time this image was taken the Hulbert was continuing to pour out anti-aircraft fire and aid wounded sailors in the vicinity of the leftmost plumes of smoke. United States Navy Photograph
The Hulbert managed to survive the war, with a variety of duties assigned shortly after the infamous attack on Pearl Harbor. Within two days she departed with supplies for establishing an advance seaplane base on the Hawaiian island of Hilo. While moored off the island on December 30, the Hulbert was attacked by the Japanese submarine I-1 during a nighttime reconnaissance raid. The ten deck gun rounds missed the American ship, and the resulting return fire encouraged a quick withdrawal by the Japanese. Most of 1942 and 1943 were spent serving in the Aleutian Islands, aiding squadron VP-43 against the Japanese invasion force. The ship was eventually stranded in Massacre Bay, Attu during a massive storm of June 30, 1943, which forced the need for a large scale overhaul.
USS Hulbert as seen on July 14, 1943 after running aground during a massive storm in Massacre Bay, Attu. United States Navy Photograph
Uniquely, it was decided by the Navy that the Hulbert should be repaired as an escort vessel, and on December 1, 1943, she officially became a commissioned destroyer again. The aged design of the old ship became a common sight for naval aviators as the Hulbert spent her last two years serving alongside escort carriers sailing forth to avenge Pearl Harbor. The vessel ironically spent some time acting as a training target for American torpedo plane crews, steaming along in a less dangerous recreation of her first wartime experience. As the war drew to a close, however, it was finally decided that the Hulbert had served long enough. In the company of the aging carrier USS Ranger, the destroyer made her way back to the Philadelphia during the fall of 1945, arriving at her old home on October 17. She was officially decommissioned for the last time on November 2, and ended her days in the Ship Shape scrap yard on October 31 of 1946, a quiet end to the First Ship in the Fight at Pearl Harbor..
USS Hulbert in late 1944 transferring a pilot to the Casablanca class escort Carrier USS Matanikau. National Archives Photograph