USS Benham (DD-397)

USS Benham (DD-397) was the name ship of the Benham class of destroyers. She served with the neutrality patrol from 1939-1940 then moved to the Pacific. She was at sea when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. In 1942 she supported the Doolittle raid, fought at the battle of Midway, took part in the invasion of Guadalcanal, the battles of the Eastern Solomons, the Santa Cruz Islands and the naval battle of Guadalcanal. In the last battle she was hit by a torpedo and eventually split in two, sinking on 14 November.

USS Benham (DD-397), New York, 1939 USS Benham (DD-397), New York, 1939

The Benham was named after Andrew Ellicot Kennedy Benham, who served in the US Navy during the Civil War, operating with the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron then the West Gulf Blockading Squadropn. After the war he alternated between time at sea and time as a lighthouse inspector, before rising to the rank of Rear Admiral in 1890 and commanding the South Atlantic then North Atlantic Stations.

The Benham was laid down at Kearny, New Jersey, on 1 September 1936, launched on 16 April 1938 and commissioned on 2 February 1939. Before her planned shakedown cruise she attended the 1939 World’s Fair at New York. The German invasion of Czecholsovakia in March 1939 and the Italian invasion of Albania in April meant that her original shakedown cruise to Europe was cancelled, and she visited Cuba, Texas and Louisiana instead. After acceptance trials on 11 August she joined Destroyer Division 18 of the Atlantic Squadron at Newport, Rhode Island, on 1 September 1939 (just at the Germans invaded Poland).

From 5 September to 14 October 1939 the Benham (normally with the Davis (DD-395)), took part in neutrality patrols in the Grand Banks area, south-east of Newfoundland. The main drama during this period came when the US Naval Attache in Berlin reported that Admiral Raeder had told him of a plot in which the US liner Iroquois, which was sailing from neutral Cobh, Ireland with 566 Americans on board on 3 October would be sunk in ‘Athenia circumstances’. The Athenia had been torpedoed by a U-boat in September, but the Germans had denied the act and claimed she had been sunk by the British to try and gain American support. Presumably Raeder hoped that the Americans would believe that the British were planning to sink the Iroquois as well, but this backfired as just about everone outside Germany believed the Germans had sunk the Athenia. In order to make sure there was no repeat of this President Roosevelt announced that US ships would escort the Iroquois into port. The Benham was one of the ships that met with her at sea.

Between 9 December 1939 and 7 February 1940 the Benham carried out five neutrality patrols from Galveston, mainly in the western Gulf of Mexico. On 14 December she came across the second largest ship in the German merchant marine, the liner Columbus, and the freighter Arauca, both of which had been blockaded at Veracruz by the British. Both were now attempting to get away to sea. The Benham began to trail the Arauca, but then switched to the Columbus. The Benham trailed the German liner until 0200 on 15 December when she was replaced by the Jouett (DD-396). The Benham was then sent to try and find the Arauca, but lost her into the fog. The Arauca only made it as far as Florida before she was found by the British and forced into neutral American waters. The Columbus was less fortunate – she was eventually trapped by HMS Hyperion off New Jersey and was scuttled.


On 26 February 1940 the Benham left Galveston heading for her new post in the Pacific, reaching San Diago on 11 March and Hawaii on 10 April. After taking part in Fleet Problem XXI she underwent a refit in which she was given better sonar gear, splinter shields for her aft guns and anti-magnetic mine degaussing cables. She was then ordered to remain at Pearl Harbor, along with most of the Pacific Fleet. She was allocated to Destroyer Division 12, and spent most of her time between then and the Japanese attack operating around the Hawaiian islands. She returned to San Diego for an overhaul in October-December 1940.


During most of 1941 the Benham took part in training exercises from Pearl Harbor, normally operating with the Enterprise (CV-6), but also with Lexington (CV-2) and Saratoga (CV-3). She was allocated to Admiral Halsey’s Task Force 8 and on 28 November sailed with a force built around the Enterprise to deliver Grumman F4F-3 Wildcats of VMF 211 to Wake Island. The task force was still at sea when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on 7 December. On the night of 7-8 December the Enterprise and her group patrolled to the south of Pearl Harbor, before returning to port at noon on 8 December.

On 9 December the Benham put to sea at the start of six days of patrols to the north-east of Oahu. In late December she moved to the west of Hawaii to cover the area while part of the fleet was away on the attempt to relieve Wake Island. After this she was slightly modified at Pearl Harbor, and was given depth charge projectors and extra anti-aircraft guns.


On 10 January 1942 the Benham was ordered to return to San Francisco for her annual overhaul, but on 11 January she was ordered to rendezvous with the damaged carrier Saratoga, which had just been torpedoed. She met the carrier on 13 January and helped escort her back to Pearl Harbor.

The Benham and Ellet (DD-398) then escorted a slow convoy to San Francisco, arriving on 28 January. She then went to Mare Island where she was given a new sonar dome, new radar and four more 20mm anti-aircraft guns. She then left San Francisco to escort a convoy back to Hawaii, arriving on 1 March.

After six weeks of local duties around Hawaii, the Benham took part in the Doolittle raid. She left Pearl Harbor on 8 April as part of the Enterprise’s task group. On 13 April the Enterprise met with the Hornet (CV-8). On 17 April the carriers and cruisers continued on west while the destroyers remained behind to guard the oilers. The carriers rejoined them on 19 April after launching the attack, and the force was back at Pearl Harbor on 25 April.

The Benham next put to sea with the Enterprise and Hornet groups on 30 April, in an attempt to join the Yorktown (CV-5) and Lexington in time to join them in an attempt to stop the Japanese attacking Port Moresby on the south coast of New Guinea. They didn’t arrive in time to take part in the battle of the Coral Sea, but escorted them back to Pearl Harbor, returning on 26 May. 

fffff USS Benham (DD-397) carrying survivors from Yorktown

The Benham put to sea again on 28 May as part of TF-16 (Enterprise and Hornet) heading towards Midway. On 4 June the Yorktown came under air attack. She was hit by three bombs in the first attack and the Benham was ordered to protect the helpless carrier. She joined the Yorktown group at 1335 and formed part of the anti-aircraft screen. However the screen was unable to stop the second attack hitting the Yorktown with two torpedoes. During this attack one man was killed on the Benham by friendly fire. The Benham then formed part of an anti-submarine screen around the damaged carrier. At about 1700 the order was issued to abandon ship, and the Benham rescued 725 officers and men from the carrier. Most of the survivors were then transferred to the Portland (CA-33), although they had to stay onboard the Benham overnight after the first attempt to transfer them was foiled by a report of unidentified aircraft approaching.

On 5 June the Benham and Hammann (DD-412) transferred repair parties to the Yorktown, which had remained afloat. However she was then damaged once again two submarines from I-58. A third torpedo hit and sank the Hammann. The Benham rescued 200 men from the two ships. She then remained with the damaged carrier until it sank early on 6 June, and then returned to Pearl Harbor, arriving on 9 June.

The Benham was allocated to the force being built up for the invasion of Guadalcanal. She left Pearl Harbor on 15 July with TF-16 (Enterprise and North Carolina (BB-55), joined with the Saratoga group late in the month, and took part in rehearsals for the operation on 31 July.

The Benham formed part of the screen for the aircraft carriers as they supported the Marine Corps landings on 7-8 August, and withdrew with them on 9 August. She then spent two weeks in the carrier screen as they patrolled to the east of the Solomon Islands. On 23 August reconnaissance aircraft spotted a convoy of Japanese transport ships that were bringing reinforcements to the island. This was the start of the second major naval battle off Guadalcanal, the battle of the Eastern Solomons. A second Japanese force, built around two fleet and one light carrier were also in the area, hoping to provoke a battle with the Americans. The Americans struck first, sinking the light carrier Ryujo on the afternoon of 24 August. The Americans were also able to hit the troop convoy. However the Japanese then found the American carriers, and the Shokaku and Zuikaku launched an attack. The Benham took part in the anti-aircraft barrage, but the Japanese were still able to his the Enterprise with three bombs. The battle ended as something of a draw – both sides withdrew, and the Japanese largely abandoned attempts to reinforce Guadalcanal in daylight, but the Enterprise was out of action for some time and the American carriers also had to withdraw.

At the end of August the Benham was transferred to the South Pacific Force, and she spent three weeks escorting HMNZS Monowai as she transferred survivors from the fighting on Guadalcanal from Noumea to Wellington (NZ) and Sydney. On 24 September she returned to Gaudalacanal to join Task Group 17.8 (Washington (BB-56), Atlanta (CL-51), and Walke (DD-416)), and spent four weeks escorting transport ships moving between Espiritu Santo and Guadalcanal.

On 24 October the Benham was attached to TF 64 (Washington and San Francisco (CA-38) which was sent to the west of Savo Island to guard against any Japanese attempts to get reinforcements to Guadalcanal. She remained to the south-east of Savo Island during the battle of the Santa Cruz Islands. On 30 October TG 64.2 (Atlanta, Aaron Ward (DD-483), Lardner (DD-487), Fletcher (DD-445) and Benham) carried out a shore bombardment west of the Tenaru River, in which the Benham fired 696 rounds of 5in ammo.

On 11 November the Benham was preparing for ten days of upkeep when she was ordered to return to the fleet in response to two Japanese air attacks on Guadalcanal which suggested that another attempt to reinforce the island was about to begin. On the night of 12-13 November the Americans had the worst of a night action in which two cruiers and four destroyers were lost. The Benham joined the Washington, South Dakota (BB-57), Gwin (DD-433), Preston (DD-379), and Walke in TF 64 and the group was sent towards Guadalcanal to replace the forces that were having to retreat after the night action. The Japanese detected this force, but failed to realise it contained battleships, so the remaining Japanese surface ships were ordered to remain off Guadalcanal.

Survivors from USS Benham (DD-397) on Espiritu Santo Survivors from USS Benham (DD-397) on Espiritu Santo

The first clash came at about an hour before midnight on 14-15 November, when the Americans spotted the Japanese cruiser Sendai and her destroyer escort at the northern end of Savo Island. The Americans opened fire, forcing the Japanese to retreat. Soon after this the Americans spotted more Japanese ships, this time to the south and west of Savo Island. The Benham, Preston, Walke and Gwin all opened fire on the Japanese, but the Japanese fire was more accurate. The Benham was the only one not to be seriously damaged by Japanese gunfire, but she was then hit by a torpedo, which blew her bow off back to No.1 Gun. This clash also saw the Preston set on fire and sink and the Walke fatally damaged.

At first the Benham remained afloat, and she and the Gwin retreated to the south-east. However the Benham made very slow progress and late on 15 November she slowly split in half. The two sections remained afloat, and the crew were rescued by the Gwin. The two sections then had to be sunk by gunfire. Somewhat surprisingly the entire crew of the Benham survived. One man had been washed overboard when the torpedo hit, but he was rescued by the Meade (DD-602).

Benham (DD-397) received five battle stars for her World War II service, for Midway, the landings on Guadalcanal, the Eastern Solomons, defence of Guadalcanal and the naval battle of Guadalcanal.

Displacement (standard)


Displacement (loaded)


Top Speed

38.8kt design
40.86kt at 50,200shp at 1,738t on trial (Benham)
37.9kt at 49,250shp at 2,038t on trial (Benham)


2-shaft Westinghouse turbines
3 boilers


6,500nm at 12kt design
9,500nm at 15kt at 1,762t (Benham)
5,390nm at 12kt at 2,300t (wartime)
4,860nm at 15kt at 2,300t (wartime)
3,600nm at 20kt at 2,300t (wartime)


341ft 4in


35ft 5in


Four 5in/38 DP guns
Sixteen 21in torpedo tubes in four quad mounts CHECK!
Four .50in AA guns
Two depth charge tracks

Crew complement


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 (30 August 2022), USS Benham (DD-397) ,

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