Virginia native Presley O’Bannon entered the U.S. Marine Corps on Jan. 18, 1801. Assigned to the brig (sailing vessel) USS Argus, First Lt. O’Bannon led seven Marines and two Navy midshipmen in the victorious attack at the Battle of Derna on April 27, 1805, during the First Barbary War. The combat at Derna, a small coastal town in eastern Libya, gave the Marine Hymn its line “to the shores of Tripoli.”
Lt. O’Bannon became the first American soldier to raise the American flag over foreign territory in time of war. For his part in restoring Prince Hamet Karamanli to the throne as the Bey of Tripoli, the prince gave O’Bannon a Mameluke sword as a token of admiration for his bravery. In 1825, the Mameluke sword was adopted by the U.S. Marines for wear by all Marine Corps commissioned officers. The Mameluke sword is worn by Marine Corps officers with all uniforms except utility uniforms and the evening dress.
The Navy launched the USS O’Bannon, a Wickes class destroyer, on Feb. 28, 1919, during World War I. She never saw combat. The third USS O’Bannon, a Spruance class destroyer, was launched on Sept. 25, 1978. She, too, never saw combat. However, the second USS O’Bannon, a Fletcher class destroyer, launched on Feb. 19, 1942, was the most decorated destroyer during World War II. The O’Bannon earned 17 battle stars and a Presidential Unit Citation, fought in the Korean and Vietnam wars, and is the only U.S. Navy destroyer in history to defend herself by throwing potatoes at an enemy submarine.
After briefly training in the Caribbean, the O’Bannon and her crew headed for the South Pacific on Aug. 29, 1942, to join the grueling Guadalcanal campaign in the Solomon Islands. The arduous fighting on and around the Solomon Islands was one of the most bitterly contested battles in history.
The O’Bannon escorted the escort carrier USS Copahee from New Caledonia on a run to Guadalcanal where in early October of ’42 Marine pilots flew 20 Grumman F4F Wildcats off the deck of Copahee to reinforce the hotly contested Henderson Field. In November, she joined a task force bound for the Solomons with desperately needed supplies, replacements and aviation items. Nearing Guadalcanal, the O’Bannon spotted a surfaced Japanese submarine and engaged the enemy so the convoy could safely pass. On Nov. 12, the partially unloaded U.S. ships were attacked by 16 enemy torpedo bombers. Eleven were shot down; O’Bannon participated in the downing of four.
The next day the vastly outnumbered American combat ships, including the O’Bannon, intercepted two Japanese battleships, a light cruiser and 14 destroyers headed to destroy Henderson Field and to resupply their own troops. The O’Bannon bravely attacked the Japanese battleship Hiei from such a close range that the big warship could not depress her main guns enough to engage the American destroyer. Damaged by the O’Bannon and other American warships, the Hiei was scuttled by her crew the next day.
This was the first sea action of the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. American losses: two cruisers and four destroyers. Japanese losses: the battleship Hiei and two destroyers. The seemingly lopsided victory by the Japanese was tactical yet not strategic; the entire Japanese fleet tucked tail and ran. Marine aviators from Henderson Field sank 11 enemy troop transports the next day trying to reinforce Guadalcanal.
In the coming months, O’Bannon continued escort duties and the protection of reinforcements and landings on Tulagi and Guadalcanal. At night she patrolled the narrow waters of The Slot plus joined in the shelling of enemy positions on Munda, Kolombangara and Guadalcanal.
April 5, 1942: The USS O’Bannon enters naval history in one of the most bizarre ship-to-ship encounters ever recorded. Early that morning, the O’Bannon spotted the Japanese submarine, Ro-34, which for some odd reason had surfaced. The officers aboard the O’Bannon decided to ram the enemy sub, a tactic that would certainly sink the submarine while causing little damage to the American destroyer. As the collision drew near, the leadership aboard the O’Bannon suddenly realized the Jap sub may have been laying mines since she was surfaced in the morning light. A collision with a submarine loaded down with mines would have blown both vessels out of the water.
The O’Bannon turned hard to avoid the impact. The desperate maneuver succeeded but placed the destroyer alongside the Japanese submarine, which incidentally was not laying mines. Now both vessels were cruising next to each other. The enemy sub had the advantage. O’Bannon’s guns were not designed for close combat and could not depress far enough to engage the enemy. The Japanese sailors scrambled to man their deck gun; the American destroyer was a sitting duck. The sailors aboard the O’Bannon could have easily picked off the Japanese sailors but the American boys were unarmed; the thought of face-to-face combat had never crossed their minds.
Desperate situations produce desperate responses. Looking for anything to hurl at the enemy, the sailors aboard the O’Bannon discovered a storage bin full of Uncle Sam’s potatoes. A salvo of spuds pelted the Japanese sailors. To the Japanese sailors, those spuds were thought to be hand grenades. Panicked, a few enemy sailors tossed the potato-grenades back onto the O’Bannon while other Japanese sailors took cover. The potato attack succeeded: the Japanese abandoned their deck gun and Ro-34 disengaged from the fight and started to slip beneath the waves in a crash dive.
The potatoes were no longer needed, the exception being the next starchy meal prepared by the O’Bannon’s cooks. Ro-34 had made a fatal mistake. By distancing itself from all those dangerous potatoes, the submarine permitted the O’Bannon’s guns to depress far enough to fire on the Ro-34. A projectile pierced the conning tower, but the sub continued its dive. The O’Bannon continued the attack with depth charges and finally sank Ro-34; none of the 66 Japanese sailors survived. In the same month the O’Bannon also shot down at least two enemy planes in various attacks.
The men of the O’Bannon spent very little time in-port due to the rigors of war and the need for experienced sailors at sea. She participated in the savage Battle of Kula Gulf and the Battle of Kolombangara, both engagements favoring the Japanese, yet the Americans prevailed. Spending most of her time patrolling in Valla Gulf, she sank numerous barges, an armed boat, two submarine chasers and a gunboat.
In the Battle of Vella Lavella, the O’Bannon along with Selfridge and Chevalier, spotted six Japanese destroyers, disregarded the odds, then charged full speed ahead to launch torpedoes and fire on the enemy ships. The Japanese destroyer Yugumo was soon a blazing wreck, but the Shefridge and Chevalier both took hits from Japanese torpedoes. Three newly arrived American destroyers pursued the enemy while O’Bannon guarded her damaged sister ships plus rescued the survivors of Chevalier.
From 1944 until the 1945 Japanese surrender, O’Bannon helped take New Guinea, pulled escort and bombardment duties, and participated in the October ’44 Battle for Leyte Gulf where she fought off numerous air attacks. By June of ’45, she had served as escort or joined the assault force for the invasions of Ormoc Bay, Mindoro, Lingayen Gulf, Bataan, Corregidor, Zamboanga, Palawan, Cebu, and Caraboa. During these engagements, the O’Bannon and three other destroyers sank a Japanese sub and shot down several enemy planes. She provided fire support at Tarakan and Borneo and covered the minesweeping operations in the area.
Always in the thick of things, O’Bannon guarded escort carriers off Okinawa and protected the larger carriers hitting northern Honshu and Hokkaido. On Aug. 27 she joined the destroyers Nicholas and Taylor to escort the battleship USS Missouri into Tokyo Bay to accept the Japanese surrender. Admiral William “Bull” Halsey had ordered the destroyers as escorts “because of their valorous fight up the long road from the South Pacific to the very end.”
The USS O’Bannon (DD-450) was the most decorated American destroyer during WWII, with 17 battle stars and a Presidential Unit Citation. During the Korean War she guarded carriers at sea, served as the flagship during the Battle at Wonsan, fired on enemy gun emplacements, roads and railways, ammo depots, and enemy troop concentrations. For her actions in the Korean War, O’Bannon received three more battle stars.
She participated in the atomic bomb tests off Eniwetok and Johnson Island plus covered space orbits and missile shots. In 1964, O’Bannon took part in the John Wayne movie “In Harm’s Way.” By 1966 she was on Yankee Station protecting the USS Kitty Hawk while the carrier launched and recovered aircraft hitting targets in North Vietnam. In May and June of ’66, she fired on and destroyed Viet Cong base camps, small landing craft and troop concentrations.
After a brief respite O’Bannon returned to Vietnam in late 1967 to safeguard the carrier USS Constellation, bombarded enemy targets near Da Nang, provided fire support south of the DMZ, and rescued the crew of a downed American plane. She was fired on by enemy batteries but never received a hit.
The proud and courageous O’Bannon was decommissioned on Jan. 30, 1970, and sold for scrap on June 6, 1970. She had survived three wars, protected herself against a Japanese sub by hurling Uncle Sam’s potatoes at the enemy deck crew, was an outstanding warship in the Battle for Guadalcanal, tackled Japanese battleships, cruisers, and destroyers, fought against overwhelming odds, but never earned the distinguished medal called the Purple Heart. None of her crew was ever wounded or injured in combat, thus earning the nickname the “Lucky O.”
“The history of the Pacific War can never be written without telling the story of the USS O’Bannon. Time after time the O’Bannon and her gallant little sisters were called upon to turn back the enemy. They never disappointed me.”
- Admiral William “Bull” Halsey -
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran. For story consideration visit his website at aveteransstory.us and click on “contact us.”