John Henry Upshur, born on 5 December 1823 in Northampton County, Va., was appointed a midshipman on 4 November 1841 and initially served at sea with the Mediterranean Squadron. During the war with Mexico, Upshur was assigned to St. Mary's as that brig participated in operations against Tampico. He also served ashore with the naval battery during the attacks against Vera Cruz in March 1847. In the years preceding the Civil War, Upshur carried out assignments in the Mediterranean, the West Indian, and the African Squadrons. He also performed brief tours of duty at the Naval Academy and at the Washington Navy Yard as an ordnance officer. From 1853 to 1856, Upshur served in Supply during Como. Matthew Calbraith Perry's expeditions to Japan which opened that nation to the west.
During the Civil War, Upshur participated in the capture of the Southern forts at Hatteras Inlet which opened the Carolina sounds to Union forces. He was executive officer of Wabash during the expedition which wrested Port Royal, S.C., from Confederate hands. Later on, he served in the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron during operations against Charleston. He returned to the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron in time for the abortive joint expedition against Fort Fisher late in December 1864. He was also in the expedition which finally carried the Southern works guarding Wilmington in mid-January 1865.
After the Civil War, Upshur served in a succession of sea and shore billets, culminating in his service as commander of the Pacific Squadron from 1882 to 1884. Rear Adm. Upshur retired in 1885 and died in Washington, D.C., on 30 May 1917.
The first Upshur (Destroyer No. 144) was named for Rear Adm. John Henry Upshur; and the second Upshur (T-AP-198) was named for Maj. Gen. William Peterkin Upshur, USMC (see Upshur II for biography).
(Destroyer No. 144: displacement 1,247; length 314'4½"; beam 30'll¼"; draft 9'½" (mean); speed 34.61 knots; complement 113; armament 4 4-inch, 2 .30-caliber machine guns, 12 21-inch torpedo tuibes; class Wickes)
The first Upshur (Destroyer No. 144) was laid down on 19 February 1918 at Philadelphia, Pa., by William Cramp and Sons' shipyards; launched on 4 July 1918; sponsored by Mrs. Alexander Gustavus Brown, the granddaughter of Rear Adm. Upshur; and commissioned at the Philadelphia Navy Yard on 23 December 1918, two days before Christmas, Cmdr. William V. Tomb in command.
Following shakedown and fitting out, Upshur departed Newport, R.I., on 20 May 1919, bound, via the Azores for north European waters. She arrived at Devonport, England, on 16 June and shifted to Harwich two days later before subsequently calling at Heligoland, Germany; Copenhagen, Denmark; and the free city of Danzig. She eventually returned, via Harwich, England, and Ponta Delgada, in the Azores, to the United States, arriving at New York City on 22 July.
Assigned to the Pacific Fleet soon thereafter, Upshur transited the Panama Canal, bound for San Diego, her base of operations until the spring of the following year. During her time at San Diego, the ship conducted gunnery and torpedo training and local coastal operations. In April 1920, Upshur got underway and proceeded via Honolulu, Pearl Harbor, Midway, and Guam to the Far East, arriving at Cavite, in the Philippines, on 20 May. She soon sailed for duty on the lower Yangtze River.
At Yochow on 16 June 1920, troops of warlord Chang Ching-yao murdered American missionary William A. Reimert. At Hankow when the incident occurred, Upshur, acting under urgent orders, got underway for the trouble spot on the 22nd, departing with such great haste that four of her complement (one officer and three enlisted men) were left behind. Arriving at Yochow on the 23rd, Upshur sent ashore a landing party of one officer and 40 men at 1805 on 25 June to protect the American mission. Two days later, when local tensions had eased, they were reembarked.
The Standard Oil Company's steamer Mei Foo arrived at Yochow on the 28th and delivered 100 bags of rice for refugees in the vicinity. Over the ensuing days, Upshur delivered that food staple to the American mission. In the meantime, the Commander in Chief, Asiatic Fleet, Adm. Albert Cleaves, arrived at Yochow in Elliott (Destroyer No. 146) to observe the local situation. Eventually, the offending Chinese official in charge, Chang Ching-yao, was removed, and the Chinese foreign office, while investigating the incident, expressed its profound regrets.
Upshur remained on the Yangtze until 9 July 1920, when she resumed routine operations, target practices and torpedo drills. For her tour on the river, the destroyer received commendation in the Secretary of the Navy's annual report, noted as being "especially serviceable in establishing radio communication along the river."
Upshur conducted exercises in the Philippine Islands in the winter and in Chinese waters, off Chefoo, in the summer, with more training and "snowing the flag" cruises in between. During her tour in the Asiatic Fleet, Upshur was reclassified DD-144 on 17 July 1920. After completing her assignment in the Far East early in 1922, the destroyer arrived back on the west coast in the spring and was decommissioned at San Diego on 15 May 1922 and placed in reserve.
Recommissioned on 2 June 1930, Lt. Cmdr. Morton L. Deyo in command, Upshur operated with the Battle Fleet and Scouting Force, first on the west coast and later on the east, until decommissioned on 22 December 1936 at Philadelphia. She was berthed in the Philadelphia Navy Yard until the autumn of 1939.
Soon after the outbreak of war in Poland in September 1939, President Roosevelt declared the neutrality of the United States and ordered the establishment of a Neutrality Patrol off the eastern seaboard and gulf ' coast on 5 September. To augment the ships first assigned to this duty, the Navy began reactivation of 77 light minelayers and destroyers. Accordingly, Upshur went back into commission at Philadelphia on 4 October, a little over a month after Germany invaded Poland. Attached to the Atlantic Squadron of the United States Fleet, Upshur interspersed her routine training evolutions (battle practices, torpedo exercises, and tactical maneuvers) with patrols safeguarding America's neutral shores along the Atlantic and gulf coasts.
Upshur's routine was broken briefly in December 1939. On the 13th, the North German Lloyd Line steamship Columbus slipped out of Vera Cruz, Mexico, in an attempt to reach Germany and slip through the British blockade. She had not reckoned with the Neutrality Patrol, however, that persistently shadowed the liner from the moment she stood out of the Mexican port. Upshur participated in the tracking and reporting of the steamer, the 13th largest merchant steamship in the world. Columbus ultimately met her doom on 19 December; she was scuttled when confronted by the British destroyer HMS Hyperion. U.S. heavy cruiser Tuscaloosa (CA-37), steaming nearby, rescued Columbus' crew and took them to New York City.
The rapid fall of France in the spring of 1940 caused alarm in the western hemisphere that French possessions in the West Indies might fall into German hands. American planners quickly drew up contingency plans to take these isles by force if necessary. In the event of such an invasion, Upshur and her sisters in Destroyer Squadron 30 were slated to screen the counter-battery and gunfire support group built around the battleship Texas (BB-35) and the heavy cruisers Vincennes (CA-44), and Chester (CA-27). Fortunately for France and the United States, skillful diplomacy obviated such flexing of America's naval muscles; and the crisis abated by the autumn of 1940.
In between the routine neutrality patrol assignments and training, Upshur was called upon to perform a special escort mission. On 23 December 1940, the heavy cruiser Tuscaloosa departed Norfolk with William D. Leahy, Ambassador to Vichy France, and his wife Louise, embarked, bound for Lisbon, Portugal. Upshur and the new destroyer Madison (DD-425) escorted the heavy cruiser, until they were detached on Christmas Day to return to Norfolk while the cruiser proceeded on, unescorted, on her diplomatic mission.
In March 1941, the Support Force was established for the United States Fleet, under the command of Rear Admiral Arthur LeRoy Bristol. Based at Narragansett Bay, this group prepared for assignment to "distant seas" and was formed around the nucleaus of the destroyer tender Denebola (AD-12), seaplane tender Albemarle (A.V-5), and seaplane tenders (destroyer) Belknap (AVD-8), and George E. Badger(AVD-3). Four patrol plane squadrons and three destroyer squadrons, the last including Upshur, rounded out the Support Force.
Over the ensuing months, Upshur operated alternately out of Argentia; Newport, R.I.; Philadelphia; Narragansett Bay; Boston; and Reykjavik, Iceland, after its occupation by the United States that summer. On 11 September, the destroyer departed Argentia, bound for a rendezvous with an outward-bound convoy headed for the British Isles.
Five days later, a convoy of 50 merchantmen of British and Allied nationalities, classified as HX-150, put to sea from Halifax, Nova Scotia, escorted locally by Canadian units. On 17 September, about 150 miles out of Argentia, the U.S. escort group under Capt. Morton L. Deyo, which included Upshur, met up with the British convoy. The ensuing days witnessed the five American destroyers shepherding the convoy towards the "Mid-Ocean Meeting Point" (MOMP). Upshur steamed on the port side of the convoy, 500 to 2,000 yards out, searching with her sound equipment on a 30-degree sector during the day, and patrolling 500 to 1,000 yards out at night. The Americans brought the convoy safely to the MOMP, where British ships, two destroyers and four corvettes, picked up the England-bound ships. The five American destroyers then convoyed the Iceland-bound section of the convoy to Reykjavik. This convoy was the first one assisted by the United States Navy in the Battle of the Atlantic.
This mission proved to be only the beginning of U.S. escort operations prior to the formal entry of the United States into World War II, as ships of the Support Force escorted 14 convoys between 16 September and 30 October. As the months wore on, clashes of U.S. warships with German submarines grew in frequency and intensity. Destroyer Kearny (DD-432) was damaged by a German torpedo on 17 October, and oiler Salinas (AO-19) suffered a similar fate on the 30th. The next day, Reuben James (DD-145) was sunk by U-552. Over the ensuing period from 1 November to 7 December 1941, Support Force destroyers conducted seven round-trip convoy missions in shepherding 14 convoys consisting of some 550 ships across the North Atlantic.
Besides the ever-present danger from lurking U-boats during these missions, there always existed the difficulties posed by the weather of the North Atlantic. Biting cold winds and raging seas combined to make life miserable on board the older destroyers like Upshur. Storm damage often forced ships back into port for repairs, and heavy concentrations of ice formed by the heavy spray and cold temperatures often dangerously increased a ship's top-hamper. Damages inflicted by Neptune often changed the schedules for the escorting destroyers, giving some very little time to rest and refit in port before having to go out on another arduous convoy mission.
On the other hand, the weather could also be an effective ally in that convoys were sometimes given the advantage of fogs which blotted out their presence from the prying eyes of U-boat periscopes. While sometimes giving the friendly forces more than a few anxious moments, the weather also gave the enemy just as difficult a time. In the period following full-scale American entry into the war with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 and until themiddle of February 1942, Support Force destroyers escorted a dozen convoys in each direction across the Atlantic, 750 ships, in comparative safety.
On the night of 4 February 1942, Upshur departed Londonderry, Northern Ireland, in company with Gleaves (DD-423), Dallas (DD-199), Roper (DD-147), and the Secretary-class Coast Guard cutter Ingham. Throughout the day on the 5th, the ships hunted a U-boat whose intentions seemed to be to follow the Americans to their outbound convoy assignment. Seven times the destroyers and the Coast Guard cutter attacked the submarine, dropping 30 depth charges, but could not "kill" the elusive submersible.
After rendezvousing with Convoy ON-63 on the morning of 7 February 1942, the escorts shaped a course southwest with the 30 merchant vessels, shepherding them along in the wintry seas. Upshur's lookouts spotted a U-boat running on the surface two miles away and gave chase, but the German lookouts proved alert, and the submarine submerged before Upshur could attack.
For two hours, Upshur and Ingham scoured the area, dropping 15 depth charges before they returned to their stations. Upshur had no sooner returned to station when she again spotted the U-boat, 8,000 yards away. Accelerating to flank speed, the flush-decker headed towards the enemy, only to have the U-boat submerge out of sight once more. Upshur fired two rounds from her forward 3-inch gun, both shells splashing around the enemy's disappearing conningtower. Gleaves soon arrived on the scene and assisted Upshur in searching for the U-boat. Neither ship was able to make contact with the enemy that day nor the next, but they succeeded in preventing the German submersible from making contact with the convoy and managed to bring all of their charges safely into port.
Over the ensuing two years, Upshur operated on convoy escort missions with the Atlantic Fleet. Her duties took her from the eastern seaboard of the U.S. to the mouth of the Mediterranean Sea, from the inhospitable climes of the North Atlantic to the tropical Caribbean. As the Allies slowly gained the upper hand in the Battle of the Atlantic, newer and more modern destroyers replaced the aging flush-deckers as front line convoy escorts. Throughout 1944, Upshur operatedbetween Norfolk, Va., and Quonset Point, R.I., serving as plane guard and target vessel during qualification trials for aircraft carriers. During this period, she worked successively with Kasaan Bay (CVE-69), Ranger (CV-4), Mission Bay(CVE-59), Tulagi (CVE-72), Tripoli (CVE-64), Wake Island (CVE-66), Prince William (CVE-31), and Solomons (CVE-67).
Reclassified as a miscellaneous auxiliary, AG-103, on 3 June 1945, Upshur was plane-guarding for the new Essex-class carrier Lake Champlain (CV-39) when Japan capitulated on 15 August 1945, ending the war in the Pacific. Decommissioned at Norfolk, Va., on 2 November 1945, Upshur was stricken from the Naval Register on 11 November 1945; was sold to the Northern Metals Co. of Philadelphia on 26 September 1947; and was scrapped by April 1948.
Robert J. Cressman
Updated, 15 April 2022