James Shepard Thornton—born on 25 February 1826 at Merrimack, N.H.—was appointed midshipman in the United States Navy on 15 January 1841 and served in the sloop-of-war John Adams during the Mexican War. The outbreak of the Civil War found him serving on the Atlantic coast in brig Brainbridge. He later became executive officer in Farragut's flagship Hartford and was serving in her when she and other ships of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron dashed past Forts St. Philip and Jackson on 24 April 1862 to capture New Orleans. He continued to serve in Hartford, with great credit, during the engagement with the Confederate ram Arkansas, during duels with the Vicksburg batteries, and in other operations on the Mississippi River.
In August 1862, he assumed command of gunboat Winona which was stationed with the Union blockading force off Mobile Bay, Ala. On 13 September, the gunboat shelled and destroyed a Confederate steamer lying under the protection of the guns of Fort Gaines. He subsequently became executive officer of Kearsarge and received a vote of thanks from Congress for gallantry during the successful engagement with the Confederate raider Alabama off Cherbourg, France, on 20 June 1864.
After the Civil War, he commanded Kearsarge on the South Pacific Station. Thornton was commissioned captain on 24 May 1872. Captain Thornton died at German-town, Pa., almost three years later on 14 May 1875.
(DD-270: dp. 1,215 (n.); 1. 314'4½"; b. 30'11½"; dr. 9'9¾" (aft); s. 34.72 k. (tl.); cpl. 122; a. 4 4", 1 3", 12 21" tt.; cl. Clemson)
The second Thornton (DD-270) was laid down on 3 June 1918 at Squantum, Mass., by the Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corp.; launched on 2 March 1919; sponsored by Miss Marcia Thornton Davis; and placed in commission at Boston on 15 July 1919, Comdr. A. G. Stirling in command.
On 26 August, Thornton sailed for Europe. Following a port call in the Azores, the destroyer reached the Strait of Gibraltar on 15 September. For the remainder of 1919, she visited a number of ports, both in the Mediterranean and along the Atlantic coast of Europe.
The ship returned to Boston on 12 February 1920 and remained there until 27 March, when she weighed anchor for the Pacific. After calls at several ports on the Gulf of Mexico, the destroyer transited the Panama Canal on 30 April. She then steamed slowly up the western coast of Mexico, stopping along the way at Salina Cruz, Manzanillo and Guaymas to show the flag. On 27 May, Thornton reached San Diego and, for the next two years, conducted operations along the California coast. On 24 May 1922, Thornton was placed out of commission and laid up at the Destroyer Base, San Diego.
Thornton remained in reserve throughout the 1920's and 1930's. On 25 May 1940, she was ordered recommissioned for conversion to a seaplane tender. Accordingly, she was recommissioned, in ordinary, on 24 June 1940 and moved to the San Francisco yard of the Bethlehem Steel Co. for conversion. On 2 August 1940, Thornton was officially redesignated a seaplane tender (destroyer), AVD-11. Her alterations were completed early in 1941, and she was placed in full commission on 5 March 1941, Lt. Comdr. Wendell F. Kline in command. On 8 April, she reported for duty to Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet, at San Pedro. Ten days later, the seaplane tender arrived in Pearl Harbor, and she operated in the Hawaiian Islands until August 1942. During her 16 months in the islands, she made frequent voyages to Midway, Wake, Palmyra and other outlying islands of the 14th Naval District.
On the morning of 7 December 1941, she was moored at the Submarine Base at Pearl Harbor. Her action report for that day states that the Japanese opened their attack on Pearl Harbor at 0756 and that Thornton's crew, led by four reserve ensigns, was at action stations two minutes later. They fought back with every available weapon—four .50-cal. machineguns, three Lewis guns, three Browning automatic rifles, and twelve .30-cal., bolt-action Springfields. The combined fire of Thornton and Hulbert (AVP-6) accounted for at least one Japanese torpedo bomber and discouraged two more from making a run on Neosho (AO-23) as the oiler changed berths during the second dive-bombing attack between 0910 and 0917. Thornton fought hard and bravely during the attack on Pearl Harbor and was fortunate enough to suffer no casualties.
Following the Pearl Harbor attack, she was stationed at French Frigate Shoals with Ballard (AVD-10) as aircraft rescue ships for the planes engaged in the expanded air searches. After the victory at Midway, she resumed her runs between the outlying islands of the 14th Naval District—though the Japanese occupation had removed Wake Island from her itinerary— until August 1942. On the 25th, Thornton steamed out of Pearl Harbor, headed north, and arrived at Kodiak, Alaska, on the 30th. For the next two months, the seaplane tender cruised the icy Alaskan seas as a part of Task Force 8. She visited Kodiak, Attu, and Chernofski before departing Kodiak for Pearl Harbor on 21 October.
Thornton stopped at Pearl Harbor from 30 October to 10 November, then headed for duty in the South Pacific. After short periods of duty at Suva in the Fiji Islands, Funafuti in the Ellice Islands, and at Vanikoro in the Santa Cruz Islands, she moved to Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides, arriving on 18 July 1943. The seaplane tender remained at Espiritu Santo until 11 November, when she put to sea for Guadalcanal in the Solomons. Between 13 and 15 November, she made a round-trip run between Guadalcanal and Espiritu Santo to escort Chandeleur (AV-10) from the latter to the former.
Following duty in the Solomons and a stop at Pearl Harbor from 5 to 8 February, Thornton returned to the west coast at Mare Island on 17 February 1944. She remained on the west coast for the next 10 months conducting normal operations and undergoing extensive repairs. On 3 December 1944, the warship departed San Pedro to return to the western Pacific.
From mid-December 1944 until late February 1945, Thornton was at Pearl Harbor. On the 22d, she got underway for operations to prepare for the assault on Okinawa. She stopped at Eniwetok early in March, then moved on to Ulithi, the staging area for Okinawa. On 5 April 1945, while operating in the Ryukyus as part of the Search and Reconnaissance Group of the Southern Attack Force, Thornton collided with Ash-tabula (AO-51) and Escalante (AO-71). Her starboard side was severely damaged and open to the sea. On 14 April, she' was towed into Kerama Retto. On the 29th, a board of inspection and survey recommended that Thornton be decommissioned, beached, stripped of all useful materiel as needed, and then abandoned. She was beached and decommissioned on 2 May 1945. Her name was struck from the Navy list on 13 August 1945. In July 1957, Thornton's abandoned hulk was donated to the government of the Ryukyu Islands.
Thornton earned three battle stars for World War II service.