USS William B Preston (DD-344/ AVP-20/ AVD-7)

USS William B. Preston (DD-344) was a Clemson class destroyer that was caught up in the Japanese invasion of the Philipinnes in 1941-42, and badly damaging during the bombing of Darwin. She spent the rest of 1942-43 supporting Catalina patrols along the west coast of Australia, most of 1944 as a target vessel for submarine exercises, and the rest of the war acting as a plane guard for naval aviators in training in the United States.

The William B. Preston was named after William B. Preston, Secretary of the Navy from 1849 until 1850.

The William B. Preston was laid down by the Norfolk Navy Yard on 18 November 1918, launched on 9 August 1919 when she was sponsored by William B, Preston’s eldest daughter, and commissioned on 23 August 1920.

USS William B Preston (DD-344) in 1920 USS William B Preston (DD-344) in 1920

The William B. Preston joined Destroyer Division 19 for the rest of 1920. She joined the fleet in Guantanamo Bay in the winter of 1920-21, then took part in a fleet visit to Callao, Peru, arriving on 21 January 1921.

In the middle of 1922 the William B. Preston was assigned to the Asiatic Fleet. From the start of that posting until July 1924 she was commanded by Willis A. Lee, the commander of the Pacific Fleet’s battleships for most of the Pacific War.

Her new home base was Cavite, near Manila, although the Asiatic Fleet was normally based at Chefoo, on the coast of Shantung Provine, China, for most summers and the Philippines for the winters. 

The early part of this deployment came during a relatively peaceful moment in China, allowing for some relaxed times in Chinese ports. In 1923 this included a whaleboat race between the William B. Preston and USS Black Hawk (AD-9) at Chefoo which saw 19,000 Mexican silver dollars wagered on the outcome! The William B. Preston’s crew won the final race.

However even this early there were still some problems. In December 1923 the William B. Preston was part of an international force that visited Canton to convince the Chinese not to take control of the Chinese Maritime Customs. This was a rather unusual organisation that had been set up by the foreign consuls at Shanghai and was normally run by a westerner, but that was actually part of the Chinese civil service, and made one of the larger contributions to the government budget. The international action was effect, and the customs survived until the Communist takeover.

USS William B Preston (DD-344) in 1927 USS William B Preston (DD-344) in 1927

In 1926 civil war broke out in China. This soon led to the ‘northern expedition’, which saw Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist army push north. By March 1927 they were close to Nanking, and the Americans sent the William B. Preston to join the Noa (DD-343) off Nanking. She arrived on 21 March, and took on 73 American refugees. Chiang’s men soon approached Nanking, while the Northern troops defending the city disappeared. As the Nationalists captured the city, looting broke out, and the foreigners in the city were threatened. On 24 March Western ships in the river opened fire on the city, eventually forcing the rioters and Nationalist troops to withdraw. On the following day the William B.Preston came under rifle fire while attempting to rescue refugees fro the city, and returned fire with her Lewis Gun. As she was withdrawing down the river a 3in gun at Hsing Shan fort opened fire on her, but stopped after the destroyer fired three 4in shells. The William B. Preston returned to the city once again on 27 March, and carried another 70 refugees to safety.

Anyone who served on her in during one of four periods between October 1926 and August 1927 qualified for the Yangtze Service Record.

The William B. Preston returned to the US in 1929, and joined the Battle Force at San Diego.

The William B. Preston was photographed with a large group of destroyers at Balbao, in the Panama Canal Zone, in April 1934.

After five years with the Battle Force the William B. Preston was chosen to be decommissioned to satisfy the terms of the naval treaties. She was decommissioned at Philadelphia on 15 October 1934.

In the aftermath of the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939 the William B. Preston was chosen for conversion into a small seaplane tender and redesignated as AVP-20. She was converted at New York, where she was recommissioned on 14 June 1940. On 2 August 1940 she was reclassified as a destroyer seaplane tender, AVD-7.

After a shakedown cruise for her new role she moved to Hawaii, arriving at Pearl Harbor on 19 September 1940. For the rest of the month she was used to tow targets, carry out local patrols and work with scout planes. At the start of October she spent a few days at Palmyra Island. She returned to Pearl Harbor, where she was used as a plane guard for aircraft flying west to join the Asiatic Fleet.

On 6 December she left Pearl Harbor to rejoin the Asiatic Fleet, but this time the focus was on the Philippines. During the voyage she was used as a plane guard as squadron VP-26 flew west heading for the Philippines. She reached Cavite on 22 December 1940. She then took up her new role, supporting PBY Catalinas from a variety of bases.


The William B. Preston spent most of 1941 operating with the Catalina patrols in the Phippines. She underwent a well timed overhaul at Cavite in November 1941.

On 1 December the William B. Preston left Manila to move to Malalag Bay in Davao Gulf, on the south-eastern shore of Mindanao, where she was joined by a group of PBY Catalinas. The aircraft carried out a series of patrols looking for any suspicious ships in isolated bays and inlets.

Just after 0300 on 8 December 1941 the William B. Preston received the news that ‘Japan has commenced hostilities’. Most of the Catalinas were sent off on patrol, while two remained in the bay. The William B. Preston moved away from them to prevent the entire force being knocked out by a single attack. They didn’t have to wait long for that attack – at about 0800 a force reported at the time as being made up of nine Mitsubishi A5M ‘claudes’ and thirteen Aichi D3A ‘vals’ from the carrier Ryujo attacked, destroying both of the Catalinas. The William B. Preston was able to get underway and avoided a series of attacks. She was then able to rescue the survivors from the two aircraft. Later on the same day she was ordered to move to Police Bay in Moro Gulf. During the voyage she had to sneak past four Japanese destroyers, and was trailed by a Japanese aircraft for three hours, although the feared air attack never came. She arrived outside Moro Gulf during the afternoon on 8 December.

On the morning of 9 December she entered the bay, after a brief alarm caused by local fishermen out dynamite fishing. One Catalina was already present, and two more Catalinas and two OS2U Kingfishers arrived later in the day. However this new base soon had to be abandoned after it was discovered that Japanese troops were already marching towards Police Bay. On 10 December the William B. Preston and the aircraft moved to Tutu Bay, Jolo. At sunset the Americans could only watch as a large naval force sailed past, luckily for them just over the horizon, leaving only their masts and funnels visible.

On 10 December the aircraft were sent on patrol. The Catalinas were to move to Lake Lanao in Mindanao, while the OS2Us were to follow the William B. Preston to Tawi Tawi. One of the two Kingfishers were hoisted onboard, and the other was towed behind, as the William B. Preston left the Philippines, heading for Tarakan on Borneo. From there she moved on to Balikpapan, where she found several other survivors from the Asiatic Fleet, including the Marblehead (CL-12), Holland (AS-3) and Langley (AV-3).  On 13 December this small fleet departed for Makassar. The William B. Preston remained there for three days, then moved to Sourabaya, Java. She stayed there until 27 December, then departed for Australia.


The William B. Preston arrived at Darwin on 2 January 1942. She didn’t stay there for long, and was soon on her way to Ambon in the Dutch East Indies, carrying supplies and replacement crews for PatWing 10. At Ambon she refuelled her sister ship USS Childs (AVD-1) to allow her to return to Darwin. The William B. Preston then moved on to Kendari, where she spent the rest of January and the first half of February supporting the Catalinas of PatWing 10.

On 12 February the William B. Preston returned to Darwin, which became her new base. She was in port when the Japanese attacked Darwin on 19 February. She was able to get to sea (leaving her commander on shore, where he had been attempting to find more aviation fuel), where she was initially able to avoid any direct hits, although four bombs exploded just off her bows, breaking windows in the bridge. Behind her the Japanese sank the Peary (DD-226), before returning to the William B. Preston. This time she was less lucky, and one bomb hit her just forward of the aft deckhouse. Eleven men were killed, two were missing and three wounded and the aft 4in and machine guns were knocked out. The most serious damage was a loss of steering control from the bridge and a jammed rudder, but luckily her executive officer was able to steer her using the engines and some limited rudder control, and was able to escape through the harbour boom. She still wasn’t out of danger – at 1445 a Kawanishi H6K Mavis found her and attacked, although her bombs missed. The William B. Preston was able to make her way south to Derby, nearly six hundred miles to the south-west of Darwin. Her missing crew rejoined her at Derby, flying from Darwin in a Catalina.  

On 23 February the William B. Preston left for Broome, 100 miles to the west in a straight line, but more than twice that by sea, where emergency repairs were carried out. She was then sent to Fremantle for repairs, but the yard there didn’t have the facilites, so she moved to Sydney. At Sydney she was repaired and overhauls. Her 4in guns were replaced with 3in AA guns and a number of 22mm Oerlikon guns were added.

This was all completed by June 1942, and the William B. Preston was sent back to Fremantle, close to Perth in south-western Australia, where she rejoined Patrol Wing 10. For the rest of 1942 and well into 1943 the William B. Preston divided her time between Fremantle and Exmouth Gulf, at the north-western corner of Australia, supporting the aircraft of Patrol Wing 10.


The William B. Preston served as a seaplane tender with Patrol Wing 10 for most of 1943. As well as Fremantle and Exmouth Gulf, she also spent time at Shark’s Bay (about half way between the two) ant at Lewis Island, near Enderby Island, to the north-east of Exmouth Gulf.


In January 1944 the William B. Preston underwent an overhaul. She spent the spring and summer of 1944 operating as a target vessel for submarine training exercises based on Fremantle.

On 18 August the William B. Preston left Darwin, carrying the Deputy Commander, Fleet Air Wing 10 and reinforcements for that unit, taking them to Manus in the Admiralty Islands, where they arrived on 24 August. She then crossed the Pacific heading east, arriving at San Francisco on 18 September.

After another overhaul and repairs, on 21 November the William B. Preston joined the USS Ranger (CV-4), to act as a plane guard for new pilots training with the Grumman F4F Hellcat. For the rest of the year she carried out this role for the Ranger and USS Matanikau (CVE-101).


During 1945 the William B. Preston was used as as plane guard for the Matanikau, Ranger, Takanis Bay (CVE-89), Thetis Bay (CVE-90) and Siboney (CVE-120). She had to return to San Diego for repairs after a wave caved in the forward porthole in the ship’s office on 26 July, flooding the radio room. Once this had been repaired she returned to her plane guard duties, working with the Ranger and Puget Sound (CVE-113).

After the end of the war the William B. Preston was soon replaced by more modern ships. She moved to the east coast, reaching Philadelpha on 9 October 1945. On 6 December she was decommissioned, on 3 January 1946 she was struck off and on 6 November 1946 she was sold for scrap.

William B. Preston received one battle star, for the Philippines Islands operations between 8 December 1941 and 3 March 1942.

Displacement (standard)


Displacement (loaded)


Top Speed

35.51kts at 24,890shp at 1,107t on trial (Preble)


2-shaft Westinghouse geared tubines
4 boilers
27,000shp (design)


2,500nm at 20kts (design)

Armour - belt


 - deck



314ft 4in


30ft 10.5in


Four 4in/ 50 guns
One 3in/23 AA gun
Twelve 21in torpedoes in four triple mountings
Two depth charge tracks
One Y-Gun depth charge projector

Crew complement



9 August 1919


23 August 1920

Sold for scrap

6 November 1946

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 (7 July 2021), USS William B Preston (DD-344/ AVP-20/ AVD-7) ,

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