Born on 25 September 1855 on a plantation in Bibb County, Ga., William Shepherd Benson entered the Naval Academy on 21 September 1872 and graduated on 20 June 1877. Following two years of service off the coast of South America (first in the flagship Hartford and, after New Year's Day 1879, in the steamer Essex) he reported to the famous frigate Constitution at Norfolk in October 1879 and subsequently sailed the North Atlantic in her from Nova Scotia to the West Indies training apprentice seamen. At the end of six months of duty at the New York Navy Yard, Benson served briefly in the gunboat Alliance in home waters before joining Yantic in May 1882 to participate in that screw gunboat's cruise to Arctic waters near Greenland searching for the ill-fated Greely expedition. Shore duty at Boston under the Naval Advisory Board and at Baltimore with the Hydrographic Office preceded an assignment in the Fish Commission steamer Albatross through 1886 and 1887. The following January, orders sent Benson to Dolphin for a round-the-world cruise. In the fall of 1890, he began three years of work as an instructor in the Department of Seamanship, Naval Construction, and Tactics of the Naval Academy. He taught ordnance at the Washington Navy Yard in the autumn of 1893 before reporting to the Coast Survey in January 1894 for a two-year tour. He returned to Dolphin early in 1896 to participate in her survey of the Atlantic coast of Guatemala in January and February. He left the dispatch vessel in August to return to the Naval Academy where he again taught seamanship until just after the outbreak of war with Spain.
In May 1898, Benson reported to the old ship-of-the-line Vermont, then serving as the receiving ship at the New York Navy Yard; but, on 1 December 1898, he transferred to Chicago when she was recommissioned. While that protected cruiser was making a brief cruise to the West Indies as a unit of the North Atlantic Squadron, she was selected to be the flagship of the South Atlantic Squadron upon the reestablishment of that organization; but, en route to the coast of South America, the cruiser crossed the Atlantic to Tangier to support American claims against Morocco.
Benson left Chicago in the fall of 1899 to become aide to Rear Admiral Norman von Heidreich Farquhar, commander of the North Atlantic Squadron and then returned to Annapolis to serve as assistant commandant of midshipmen between 1901 and 1903. He went to Iowa (Battleship No. 4) as executive officer during operations in the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean before becoming lighthouse inspector for Charleston, S.C., from 1905 to 1907. During the latter year, he returned to the Naval Academy as commandant of midshipmen.
Command of Albany took the rising officer to the Pacific coast of Central America during 1908 and 1909 before he became chief of staff to the commander-in-chief of the Pacific Fleet, Admiral Uriel Sebree. Soon after accepting that post, Benson was promoted to captain on 24 July 1909. An even more impressive command, the new battleship Utah (Battleship No. 31) of the Atlantic Fleet, came to him in 1910; and, three years later, he took command of the Philadelphia Navy Yard, his last assignment before he was sworn in on 11 May 1915 as the first Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), with the temporary rank of rear admiral.
While preparing the Navy for combat during his more than four years in that post, Benson gave strength and shape to what had originally been a somewhat weak and amorphous office. For his services during his first months as CNO, Benson was rewarded with the wartime rank of admiral starting from 29 August 1916. After the United States entered World War I in the early spring of 1917, he directed the Navy's operations through the end of the conflict. Then, while serving as the principal naval officer during peace negotiations following the armistice, he insisted upon American naval equality with England.
On 25 September 1919, his 64th birthday, Benson retired from the Navy with the permanent rank of rear admiral. However, he continued his public service by his championing the cause of a strong merchant marine while chairman, and subsequently as commissioner, of the United States Shipping Board. On 21 June 1930, Congress restored his full wartime rank of admiral.
Admiral Benson died in Washington, D.C., on 20 May 1932.
Benson (DD-421) was laid down on 16 May 1938 at Quincy, Mass., by the Bethlehem Steel Co.; launched on 15 November 1939; sponsored by Mrs. William S. Benson, the widow of Admiral Benson; and commissioned on 25 July 1940, Comdr. Clifford A. Fines in command.
Following fitting out at the Boston Navy Yard, the destroyer made a short cruise to Portland, Maine, before departing Boston on 22 August and heading, via Newport, R.I., and Yorktown, Va., for Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and abbreviated shakedown training. She sailed for the Chesapeake Bay on 3 September and, after visits to Quantico,.Va., and Washington, D.C., departed Norfolk, Va., on the 13th and proceeded via Guantanamo Bay to Cayene, French Guiana, where she arrived on the 21st to check on the possibility of Axis activity in that French colony and its Dutch neighbor, Surinam. This effort seemed necessary to keep fascism out of the Americas and to protect a rich source of bauxite ore, the source of aluminum, for Allied war production. On the 27th, the colony’s governor embarked in the destroyer for a visit to Iles du Salut, some seven or eight miles off the coast. He returned to Cayenne later that day and disembarked before the ship sailed for Paramaribo, Surinam. Benson departed Cayene for the third time on 6 October and proceeded via San Juan, Puerto Rico, to the New York Navy Yard where she underwent a post-shakedown overhaul that lasted through mid-November.
Benson stood out of New York harbor on 18 November to begin the neutrality patrols that constituted her main concern well into the following spring. A highlight of this period of her service came in March 1941 when she escorted Potomac (AG-25) while the yacht carried President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the Bahamas for a holiday of fishing. Late in May, the destroyer helped to screen Texas (BB-35) as the battleship patrolled the North Atlantic. While they were at sea, German battleship Bismarck got underway on 21 May and headed for the Denmark Strait hoping to prey on Allied convoys. When Churchill learned of her foray, he asked President Roosevelt to have the American Navy look for the raider and to keep the Royal Navy informed of developments during the search. Once alerted, Texas and her consorts scoured the seas for Bismarck until the British sank the German warship on 27 May.
Soon thereafter, Benson returned to the Boston Navy Yard for a month's availability to prepare for a new mission. She got underway on 28 June to join Task Force (TF) 19 which was being formed to carry Marines to Iceland to free the British troops who had been guarding that island for more active service. Task Force 19 departed Argentia, Newfoundland, on 1 July and, at the end of a passage through U-boat-infested waters, anchored in Reykjavik on the evening of 7 July. After returning to Boston, Benson quickly refueled and moved to Casco Bay for exercises off Portland, Maine. In September, she began almost seven months of duty shuttling between Boston and Iceland escorting convoys. Three months later, in December, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and Hitler's declaration of war allowed the United States to drop the last pretense of neutrality and prosecute the war against the Axis openly. At the end of March 1942, she got underway to escort a convoy all the way eastward to Londonderry, Ireland, and returned to Boston early in May.
Convoy escort operations, which took her to the British Isles, Bermuda, and the Canal Zone, continued to be her main duty into the autumn when she began readying herself for Operation “Torch,” the invasion of French North Africa. As a part of those preparations, she took part in shore-bombardment exercises with the new battleship Massachusetts (BB-59). En route to Casco Bay, Maine, for one of these rehearsals in the pre-dawn darkness of 19 October, she collided with Trippe (DD-403), killing four and wounding three of the latter’s crewmen when her prow pierced Trippe’s starboard quarter. The accident also caused enough damage to Benson to keep her in the New York Navy Yard undergoing repairs until after Allied troops had invaded North Africa.
When she was again ready for action, Benson resumed convoy-escort duty across the North Atlantic and in the Mediterranean. In July 1943, she turned her attention to supporting the invasion of Sicily. She sailed from Oran, Algeria, on the 6th with Task Group (TG) 80.2, the escort group of Vice Admiral H. Kent Hewitt's Western Naval Task Force, and escorted convoy NCS-1 to the assault area at Gela, Sicily. She arrived off the beaches there several hours before dawn on the night of 9 and 10 July and spent the next two days in the antiaircraft screen fighting off almost incessant raids by Luftwaffe warplanes. On the 11th, a bomb exploded close aboard the destroyer wounding 18 of her crewmen, but inflicting only superficial damage to the ship. The next day, she set out to escort attack cargo ship Betelgeuse (AKA-11) to Algiers where she arrived on the 18th.
More patrol and escort duty in the Mediterranean followed until 24 August when Benson joined TF-81 in final preparations for landing on the mainland of Italy. At dawn on 9 September, the Allied troops went ashore on Salerno's beaches and met fierce opposition while the Luftwaffe struck continuously at the warships of the invaders. At mid-morning on 11 September, a German Do. 217 warplane released a radio-controlled glide bomb which struck Savannah's (CL-42) No. 3 turret and pierced through the light cruiser until it exploded in her lower ammunition handling room, opening seams in the ship's hull and tearing a large hole in her bottom. Valiant and efficient damage control parties stemmed the stricken cruiser's flooding, corrected her list, extinguished her fires, and enabled her to resume moving under her own power. Benson then helped to escort Savannah to Malta for temporary repairs that enabled her to return to the United States for permanent patching.
Benson soon returned to Salerno, rejoined the antiaircraft screen, and, on the morning of September 19th, shot down an FW-190 fighter-bomber. While supporting ground operations in Italy, she also conducted numerous shore bombardment missions and escorted other ships to various Mediterranean ports. On 2 October, she rescued the survivors from a downed Royal Air Force "Wellington" bomber.
At the end of January 1944, the destroyer departed Casablanca, Morocco, and escorted Convoy GUS-28 to New York where she entered the navy yard for an overhaul. Then, following training exercises along the east coast, she got underway with TG 27.4 on 20 April and proceeded to Oran where she arrived on 1 May. After upkeep, she headed for Gibraltar on the 9th with Convoy UGS-40. Two days later, she helped to fight off an attack by about 30 German planes, shooting down two Ju. 88 bombers, probably destroying a third, and damaging two others. Best of all, no ship from the convoy was lost or damaged.
In the months that followed, Benson continued to escort convoys and individual ships between various Mediterranean ports. In mid-August 1944, she joined TG 80.6 to help screen other warships involved in the invasion of southern France. She also served as a traffic control vessel during that operation and, from time to time, took part in the bombardment of German positions ashore. While on patrol duty in a fire-support area near Toulon, the destroyer blockaded enemy merchant ships in San Remo harbor and fired on supply buildings in the vicinity. She also supported the French cruisers Montcalm and Jeanne d'Arc during their bombardment of San Remo. Early in January 1945, she sailed to Leghorn, Italy, to shell German troops threatening to break through there. During this duty, she was attacked by enemy small combatants, either German E-boats or Italian MAS boats, but escaped injury and later escorted the French cruiser Georges Leygues in her bombardment of enemy-held shipyards in Pietra, Italy.
Detached from this duty late in January 1945, Benson returned to the United States for yard repairs and training during February. After a convoy-escort run to Plymouth, England, in April, the destroyer received orders to the Pacific. Accordingly, she transited the Panama Canal on 12 May and then reached Pearl Harbor on the 29th. The destroyer spent bit more than a month in Hawaiian waters and then got underway on 14 June to escort Lexington (CV-16), Cowpens (CV-25) and Hancock (CV-19) back to the western Pacific. Then, following upkeep at Leyte in the Philippines, she proceeded to Ulithi. Until VJ day on 15 August, the warship performed convoy and patrol duty between Ulithi and Okinawa. She served in the screen for the first occupation troops for Yokohama, who landed on 2 and 3 September 1945.
In the two months following the surrender of Japan, the destroyer escorted five different convoy groups between the Philippines and Tokyo Bay. Ordered back to the United States for inactivation, Benson got underway from Yokohama on 4 November 1945 and moored at Charleston, S.C., on 6 December. She was decommissioned there on 18 March 1946, placed in reserve, and assigned to the Charleston Group of the Atlantic Reserve Fleet. On 26 February 1954, Benson was transferred to the government of Taiwan, and she served the Taiwanese Navy as Lo Yang (DD-14) into the mid-1970's. As the result of a survey made of her early in 1974, the Taiwanese replaced her with another American destroyer that the Navy loaned them in 1975, the former Taussig (DD-746), which then became Lo Yang (DD-14). Meanwhile, Benson's name was struck from the Naval Vessel Register on 1 November 1974; and she was sold to Taiwan, presumably for cannibalization and scrapping.
Benson (DD-421) earned four battle stars for her World War II service.
James L. Mooney
8 February 2006