John McDougal Atherton, born in Harrods Creek, Ky., on 3 August 1918, graduated from Harvard in 1940 and enlisted in the Naval Reserve on 28 June 1940, He served on board Wyoming (BB-32), where he received his initial training, until August. His enlistment was terminated on 15 September so that he could accept an appointment the next day as a midshipman at the Naval Reserve Midshipman School located at Northwestern University in Evanston, 111. On 12 December 1940, Atherton took the oath of office as an ensign in the Naval Reserve. He was released from active duty on the 13th.
On 3 February 1941, Ens. Atherton reported for duty in conjunction with the outfitting of the destroyer Meredith (DD-434) at the Boston Navy Yard. He served in that warship for the remainder of his brief naval career. Meredith went into commission on 1 March, and Atherton served in her while she carried out patrols in the Atlantic Ocean. Even after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December, Atherton's ship continued to operate in the Atlantic, escorting convoys and prosecuting the war against U-boats. On 18 February 1942, however, his destroyer departed Boston in company with Washington (BB-56) and shaped a course for Norfolk. There, the two warships joined a task force built around carrier Hornet (CV-8).
The force, designated TF 18, stood out of Chesapeake Bay on 4 March and embarked upon a long and famous voyage. Steaming by way of the Panama Canal and San Diego, TF 18 entered the Golden Gate on 20 March and moored at San Francisco, where Hornet loaded 16 Army B-25 medium bombers and embarked 70 officers and 64 enlisted men under the command of Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle. Ens. Atherton sailed with his ship in the screen of TF 18 on 2 April. The Hornet force rendezvoused with Enterprise near Midway Island 11 days later, and the combined force, TF 16, headed toward Japan. Discovery by a Japanese surveillance trawler on the morning of 18 April, about 600 miles from Japan and some 200 miles short of the intended launch point, forced the Tokyo raiders to take off from Hornet earlier than planned and execute the raid from extreme range. Though it accomplished little from a military standpoint, the raid provided the Americans with an enormous morale boost during their darkest period of the war.
Atherton returned to Pearl Harbor in Meredith on 25 April, but he and his ship put to sea five days later in the Enterprise task force in the attempt to reinforce Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher's TF 17 before it engaged Japanese carriers in the Battle of the Coral Sea, an effort that was both unsuccessful and, mercifully, not absolutely necessary. Not only did Atherton's task force miss the battle, but his ship was detached from the force on 13 May to escort Cimarron (AO-22) and Sabine (AO-25) to New Caledonia. After seeing the two oilers safely into Noumea, Atherton's destroyer patrolled off the entrance to the harbor, Bulari Passage. On 15 June 1942 while serving on patrol duty at Noumea, he was promoted to lieutenant (junior grade). The Bulari Passage assignment lasted until 21 June when Meredith departed New Caledonia in the screen of Tangier (AV-8) and shaped a course for Hawaii. After stops at Fiji and Samoa, his ship arrived back at Oahu on Independence Day 1942.
Between early July and the middle of August, Lt. (jg.) Atherton's destroyer carried out patrols and drills in the Hawaiian Islands. On 15 August, he left Pearl Harbor in Meredith, escorting a convoy bound for the southwestern Pacific. After a two-week voyage that took Atherton by way of Suva in the Fiji Islands and Tongatabu in the Friendly Islands, his ship arrived at Pago Pago, Samoa, on 30 August. Early in September, he sailed in Meredith when she escorted a convoy of transports from Samoa to Tongatabu. From there, his ship steamed to Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides where the destroyer began duty screening convoys carrying supplies and reinforcements to Guadalcanal in the southern Solomons.
Lt. (jg.) Atherton and his ship completed one such mission in late September and embarked upon another on 12 October. Two days out of Espiritu Santo, Meredith's task unit received orders to return to port because of strong enemy forces operating in the vicinity of Guadalcanal. The next morning, planes from Zuikaku jumped Atherton's ship and sank her after a fierce but unequal struggle. Of the more than 200 on board Meredith, only seven officers and 56 enlisted men survived the combat and the subsequent ordeal in the water after the warship sank. Lt. (jg.) Atherton was not among them.
(DE-169: displacement 1,240; 1ength 306'0"; beam 36'7"; draft 11'8" (mean) (full load); speed 20.9 knots; complement 216; armament 3 3-inch, 6 40 millimeter, 10 20 millimeter, 8 depth charge projectors, 2 depth charge tracks, 1 depth charge projector (Hedgehog); class Cannon)
Atherton (DE-169) was laid down on 14 January 1943 at Newark, N.J., by the Federal Drydock & Shipbuilding Co.; launched on27 May 1943; sponsored by Mrs. Cornelia A. Atherton, the mother of Lt. (jg.) Atherton; completed at the Norfolk Navy Yard; and commissioned there on 29 August 1943, Lt. Cmdr. Paul L. Mansell, Jr., USNR, in command.
Atherton began shakedown in September. During this time, conducted exercises in Chesapeake Bay and made two cruises to Bermuda. On 13 November, she got underway for Puerto Rico. Upon her arrival there, the destroyer escort assumed antisubmarine warfare (ASW) patrol duties in waters between St. Croix, Virgin Islands, and the Anegada Passage. On 24 November, she attacked a submarine contact, but observed no evidence of damage. The ship was relieved three days later and returned to Norfolk on 30 November. There, she began making daily cruises in Chesapeake Bay to train prospective crew members for destroyer escorts. Atherton left Norfolk on 11 December to escort a convoy bound for the Panama Canal but was back in Hampton Roads on 27 December.
From January 1944 to May 1945, Atherton operated under the control of Task Force 62 on escort duty for transatlantic convoys. She escorted convoys from Norfolk and New York City to various ports in the Mediterranean. These ports included Casablanca, Morocco; Bizerte, Tunisia; and Oran, Algeria. Atherton periodically reported to the Boston Navy Yard for overhaul. On 9 May 1945, while en route from New York to Boston, Atherton encountered a U-boat. After four depth charge attacks, pieces of broken wood, cork, mattresses, and an oil slick broke the surface. Atherton, in conjunction with Moberly (PF-63), was later credited with destroying the German submarine U-853.
On 28 May, Atherton sailed for Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. She arrived on 1 June and held a week of exercises with Escort Division 13 before sailing on 6 June for the Pacific. Proceeding via the Panama Canal and San Diego, Atherton arrived at Pearl Harbor on 29 June. There, the ship underwent a tender availability and carried out a series of exercises before getting underway on 15 July for the Marianas. She reached Saipan on 26 July and conducted antisubmarine patrols off Saipan. On 5 August, she got underway for Ulithi, where she operated on picket station until 18 August. Between 19 August and 16 September, Atherton made two round-trip voyages escorting convoys to Okinawa. She was then assigned to rescue station duties out of Saipan which lasted through the end of the war.
On 1 November, Atherton headed back toward the United States. After stops at Pearl Harbor and San Diego, she transited the Panama Canal and arrived at Jacksonville, Fla., in December. On 10 December 1945, she was decommissioned and placed in reserve at Green Cove Springs, Fla. On 14 June 1955, Atherton was transferred to Japan; and, her name was struck from the Navy list.
Atherton was awarded one battle star for her World War II service.