Some of the most interesting curiosities in the history of naval warfare surround older warships remaining in service long after similar vessels have been retired. Sometimes, the story of such ships is one of tragedy, like the three elderly Royal Navy cruisers sunk in the Channel by a German U-Boat in 1914, or the nearly-helpless Spanish wooden-hulled Castilla, quickly sunk at Manila Bay. Other times, like with Oldendorf’s “Old Ladies” at Surigao Straits or the Iowas in Desert Storm, the veteran ships were found to still be plenty lethal. One such curiosity is the unlikely tale of USS Allen, DD-66.
The rapid advances in Naval technology that spanned the last decade of the 19th Century and the first decade of the 20th included generational leaps in warship design, hastened further by the outbreak of war in 1914. Nowhere was this more manifest than in the smallest of the combatant ships of the world’s navies, the destroyer. Originally the “torpedo boat destroyer” built to protect larger ships of the battle line from the speedy small craft and their ship-killing weapons, powered torpedoes, soon these “torpedo boat destroyers” became the carriers of torpedoes themselves, then called simply, “destroyers”.
US destroyer construction in the early part of the century followed apace with designs elsewhere. Small, largely coastal craft evolved into the 700-ton “flivvers” and later, the “thousand-tonners” of the O’Brien, Tucker, and Sampson classes. Despite being almost new, these 26 ships of the latter three classes had proven barely suitable for the requirements of destroyer service in a modern war at sea. Among the first US ships to attach to the Royal Navy in 1917, by the end of the war they were hopelessly outdated, as the British W and V classes, and the latest German destroyers, were significantly larger, much faster, far more capable warships.
Following the Armistice, almost all the “thousand tonners” were quickly decommissioned, as they were replaced in service with the “flush-decker” Wickes and Clemson classes, of which an astounding 267 were built (though few were completed in time for war service). A number of the obsolescent “thousand tonners” were given to the US Coast Guard, where they served into the 1930s. Most, however, were scrapped or sunk as targets. Most, but not all.
One unit of the Sampsons, USS Allen, DD-66, was placed back in commission, to serve as a training ship for US Navy Reserve personnel. She would serve in this role between 1925 and 1928, after which she returned to the Reserve Fleet in Philadelphia. Allen was retained even while a number of her younger and far more capable “flush-decker” sisters were scrapped. As war clouds loomed, Allen was selected to be recommissioned, in the summer of 1940. She must have been an exceptionally well-maintained vessel. Even with that, the choice to recommission Allen was a curious one. She and her sisters were designed before the First World War, and still reflected the “torpedo boat destroyer” mission in her layout and systems.
After some time in the Atlantic, Allen was assigned to the Pacific Fleet, which had recently moved to Pearl Harbor. She was present and fired her only shots of the war during the attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. Lacking adequate endurance and weapons, Allen spent the war escorting vessels between the Hawaiian Islands, helping to train submarine crews by acting as a mock sub chaser, and she made the occasional voyage back to the US West Coast. In the course of the war, Allen had her antiaircraft armament considerably augmented, with six 20mm cannon, and she lost at least one set of torpedo tubes. She gained depth charge throwers, and even a modest air search radar. I could find no reference to her being fitted with sonar of any kind, however. (And if Norman Friedman didn’t say it happened, it didn’t happen!)
Immediately following the war, of course, the worn-out and thoroughly obsolete Allen was quickly decommissioned, in the fall of 1945, and just as quickly sold for scrap. She is shown above, disarmed and awaiting disposal. At the time of her decommissioning, she was the oldest US destroyer in commission, and the last survivor of her class and type. Built to specifications which dated to before US entry into the First World War, USS Allen would serve through the Second, a throwback of four generations of destroyer design. A remarkable record of service indeed.