USS Laffey (DD-459)

USS Laffey (DD-459) was a Benson class destroyer that fought in the Pacific and was sunk at the naval battle of Guadalcanal in November 1942.

The Laffey was named after Bartlett Laffey, who served in the US Navy during he American Civil War, winning the Medal of Honor for his performance at Yazoo City in 1864.

The Laffey was laid down at San Francisco by the Bethlehem Shipbuilding Co on 13 January 1941, launched on 30 October 1941 when she was sponsored by Laffey’s grand-daughter Eleanor G. Forgerty and commissioned on 31 March 1942.


After her shakedown cruise off the US West Coast the Laffey departed for Pearl Harbor.

USS Laffey (DD-459) Fitting Out USS Laffey (DD-459) Fitting Out

She left the US West Coast as part of the task force built around the Saratoga, which left San Diego on 1 June in an attempt to reach the central Pacific in time to take part in the battle of Midway, but which arrived too late.

She left Pearl Harbor in early July with the San Francisco and seaplane tender Ballard (AVD-10) to escort Convoy 4120 to Fiji. On 28 August she reached Efate. She was then used in anti-submarine screens for the next week.

On 7 September the Juneau, Laffey, Lansdowne, Duncan, Lardner were ordered to join up with Task Force 18, centred on the carrier Wasp (CV-7), They reached the task force on 10 September, as it was heading east from the New Hebrides to join TF 17 (Hornet), The two forces met on 12 September and merged into Task Force 61. Soon afterwards the task force was ordered to San Cristobel Island to cover a convoy carrying marine reinforcements to Guadalcanal.

On 15 September the Japanese submarine I-19 torpedoed the Wasp. The carrier was set on fire, and eventually had to be abandoned. However she sank slowly, and the destroyers were able to rescue 1,910 of her crew. The Laffey picked up many of the survivors, and took them to Espiritu Santo. She then joined Task Force 64 and accompanied it to Noumea, New Caledonia, arriving on 18 September.

In early October the Laffey was part of Admiral Norman Scott’s task force. On 7 October this force, then consisting of the cruisers Helena and Boise and destroyers Buchanan, Duncan, Farenholt, Laffey and McCalla put to sea from Espiritu Santo to move to a position near the Russell Islands, from where it was to disrupt the movement of Japanese supplies, and also screen the convoy bringing the first troops from the Americal Division to Guadalcanal.

On 11 October this force, with reinforcements, was ordered to move into the waters north of Guadalcanal to intercept a Japanese convoy carrying reinforcements to Guadalcanal. Instead they ran into a cruiser force that was coming to bombard Henderson Field, triggering the Battle of Cape Esperance (11-12 October 1942).

Just before 22.30 on 11 October the task force prepared to move around the north-western corner of Guadalcanal, entering the danger zone north of the island, where contact with the Japanese was expected. The fleet took up its battle formation in a single column, with the destroyers Farenholt, Duncan and Laffey in a column in the front, followed by the four cruisers and then two destroyers at the rear. This neat formation would be disrupted just as the fleet was about to make contact with the Japanese. By around 23.30 Admiral Scott was worried that he was too far to the north and decided to turn south. However it wasn’t clear if the two destroyers at the rear had turned first, to take the lead, or had followed the cruisers, so the lead destroyers were ordered to slow down to make sure. When it was clear that the rear destroyers had remained behind the cruisers, the three lead destroyers were ordered to pick up speed and move along the starboard side of the American fleet to resume their position in the lead.

Unfortunately while they were doing this the Japanese force finally appeared on the scene, coming from the north-west. This meant that the three American destroyers were now advancing into the space between their cruisers and the Japanese. This caused a great deal of confusion in the early stage of the battle, when the American cruisers opened fire on their Japanese opponents, only for Admiral Scott to order a cease fire because he believed they were firing on the American destroyers. He soon realised that the Japanese were out there as well, and ordered a resumption of fire. However the destroyers were still in the danger zone and the Duncan appears to have been hit by fire from both sides before sinking. 

By the time the battle ended the Boise and Farenholt had also been badly damaged, but the Japanese had lost the cruisers Furutaka and Aoba and the destroyer Fubaki, and had retreated without bombarding Henderson Field. However the reinforcement convoy they were protecting had successfully reached Guadalcanal.

On 11-12 November the Laffey escorted a convoy from Noumea to Guadalcanal. While the transports were being unloaded off Lunga Point the Japanese carried out an heavy air attack.

On Friday 13 November the Laffey joined a task force that had been created to try and intercept a Japanese force that was known to be heading towards Guadalcanal to try and bombard the airfield. The Americans gathered together every available ship, giving Admiral Callaghan thirteen ships.

Survivors from USS Wasp (CV-7) on USS Laffey (DD-459) Survivors from USS Wasp (CV-7) on USS Laffey (DD-459)

Admiral Callaghan chose to deploy his thirteen ships in a single line, in an attempt to avoid the confusion and friendly fire incidents of earlier night battles. The Laffey was placed second in line, behind the Cushing.

Early on 14 November Callaghan’s force ran into the strong Japanese fleet under Rear Admiral Abe, including the battleships Hiei and Kirishima, that was heading to Guadalcanal. The actual encounter came as something as a surprise to both sides, and the initial evasive action taken by the lead destroyer meant that the American fleet soon ended up in the middle of the Japanese fleet.

During this chaotic stage of the naval battle of Guadalcanal the Laffey ended up heading across the bows of the Japanese battleship Hiei, only avoiding a collision by 20 feet! The Laffey fired her torpedoes at the Hiei, then concentrated her guns on the tall pagoda bridge, which was seen to take heavy damage. This attack wounded Rear Admiral Abe and the Hiei’s captain and killed Abe’s chief of staff and other officers. After the battle Abe could remember nothing that had happened after he was wounded.

However the Laffey was now right in the middle of the Japanese fleet, and came under fire from the Hiei behind her, the battleship Kirishima to her port and one cruiser and two destroyers. After a short duel she was hit by a salvo of 14in shells and then by a torpedo, which struck near her stern. The order to abandon ship was given, but within a few minutes the Laffey was destroyed by a massive explosion.

Despite her sudden destruction, three quarters of her crew survived, although 57 men were killed and 114 wounded.  

Amongst the survivors was her engineering officer, Lt. Eugune A. Barham, who had played a major part in organising the evacuation. He was rewarded with the Bronze Star and command of a destroyer, and retired in 1958 with the rank of Rear Admiral.

Although the Americans lost several ships during this night battle, they successfully delayed the bombardment of Henderson Field. They also inflicted enough damage on the Hiei to prevent her getting away, and she became the first Japanese battleship lost during the Pacific War. Kirishima became the second a few days later.

Laffey was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for her gallant performance in the South Pacific and three battle stars for World War II service, for the battle of Cape Esperance, the invasion of Guadalcanal and the naval battle of Guadalcanal.

Displacement (standard)

1,620 design
1,911t as built

Displacement (loaded)


Top Speed

37.89kt at 51,390shp at 2,065t on trial (Mayo)


2-shaft Westinghouse turbines
4 boilers
50,000shp design


6,500nm at 12kt design
5,520nm at 12kt at 2,400t wartime
3,880nm at 20kt at 2,400t wartime


348ft 1in


36ft 2in


Five 5in/38 guns
Five 21in torpedoes
Ten 0.5in AA guns
Two depth charge tracks
One Y-Gun depth charge projector

Crew complement


Laid Down

13 January 1941


30 October 1941


31 March 1942


13 November 1942

U.S. Destroyers: An Illustrated Design History, Norman Friedmann . The standard history of the development of American destroyers, from the earliest torpedo boat destroyers to the post-war fleet, and covering the massive classes of destroyers built for both World Wars. Gives the reader a good understanding of the debates that surrounded each class of destroyer and led to their individual features.
cover cover cover

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (14 March 2023), USS Laffey (DD-459),

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