The case for USS BURNS (DD-588)
compelling evidence that the Fletcher Class Destroyer
discovered at San Clemente Island is the
USS BURNS (DD-588). We
reached this conclusion based upon a thorough process of
elimination as well as confirmation by two independent
sources. Our analysis is described below.
On December 12, 2009 a sunken U. S. Navy Fletcher Class destroyer was found off the coast of San Clemente Island, California, the apparent victim of a Naval exercise. Basic configuration of the vessel and in particular, evidence of three 5-inch guns in the aft section of the wreck, are unique to this class of ship. We also observed that the ship had a square bridge, a single pole main mast and two torpedo tube foundations. Furthermore, the ship was missing her No.2 and No.5 5-inch gun turrets along with her forward set of torpedo tubes. This armament must have been removed from the ship prior to her disposal. This specific combination of features was essential in the ship's identification.
We immediately checked the location of the wreck with the California State Lands Commission. They returned the name of former U. S. Navy destroyer USS BURNS (DD-588), Sunk June 30, 1976, in the same general vicinity.
On December 27, 2009 we learned from diver Jim Carver, former crew member of USS HULL (DD-945), that HULL sank a target ship at San Clemente Island sometime in 1976. The target ship was being used to test the effectiveness of the Navy's new Mk 71 8"/55 Major Caliber Lightweight Gun (MCLWG), the first major caliber weapon to be installed on a U.S. Navy destroyer. Jim also recalled the name of the target ship as USS BURNS (DD-588). That was great news, or so we thought.
Based upon the CSLC listing of BURNS being sunk in June 1976 in combination with Jim Carver’s eyewitness account of her sinking, we began digging into the fate of the BURNS. What we found was conflicting information. We found references to BURNS’ sink date as both 20 June and 20 September, 1974. How could this be? As we started digging further, we found numerous cases where the sink dates of various destroyers conflicted with photographs showing the ships afloat subsequent to the listed sink date. We concluded that, in some cases, the “sink date” was really the date the ship was designated as a target for sinking. In other cases, the sink dates simply appear to be wrong. We obviously needed to start from scratch with a thorough process of elimination.
On January 9, 2010, we had the good fortune of being contacted by CDR Paul J. Piper, USNR-Ret. CDR Piper was the former Gunnery Officer aboard USS HULL during testing of the Mk 71 8"/55 gun. CDR Piper vividly recalls the events of that day more than 30 years ago. In fact, he personally fired the guns that sent the target ship to the bottom. Unfortunately he doesn't recall the name of the target ship. He was able to accurately describe the location, orientation and condition of the wreck, which were confirmed during our dives on December 12, 2009 and January 2, 2010. There is no doubt that the ship we found is the same ship that HULL fired on and sank.
On January 11, 2010 another key piece of information came to us from Leo Fisher, one of the project engineers assigned to the the Mk 71 8" MCLWG Program.
"As to the destroyer the HULL sank, that was part of a guided projectile test conducted on June 22, 23 and 29 1976. The five hits were with the 8" paveway GP. Actually we were not supposed to sink the target, but the laser spot on the hull reflected down on the water and a round hit low and put a hole below the water line and we were stuck with a slowly flooding target. We had to pump about 50 rounds of 5-inch into the target before it finally sank. I don't remember the hull number of the target.”
"CNO Project 186, consisting of ten Eight-Inch Unpowered SAL Guided Projectile firing tests from the USS Hull (DD-945) Mk 71 Major Caliber GP's (as well as 24 nonguided rounds, consisting of nine Ballistic Shapes and fifteen conventional rounds) were fired against shore and seaborne targets. Two GP's were fired at a bunker target (MULE Laser - 13 KYD firing range), two at a stationary truck (MULE Laser - 13 KYD firing range), one at a moving tank (Spot Laser - 16 KYD firing range), and five at an ex-destroyer target HULK (13 to 16 KYD firing ranges)."
Above quote from: Major Caliber Lightweight Gun Integrated Development Plan, Feb. 1978.
“All five rounds fired at the hulk were hits. No mention of the name of the hulk target but at least we now know exactly when the tests took place."
We started our process of elimination by examining the reported fate of all Fletcher Class ships ever built (175). From this list, we first eliminated all ships with a rounded bridge (58). We then eliminated all ships sunk during WWII (13), sold or scrapped (46), transferred to foreign navies (38) or museum ships still afloat (3). From this we were left with all ships sunk as targets (17). We then eliminated those ships which had specific modifications. These modifications included conversion of the single pole main mast to a tripod mast (13) and the replacement of the forward quintuple torpedo tubes with twin quad 40mm anti-aircraft guns (1). Finally we eliminated any remaining ships sunk after June 1976 (1).
This process reduced the number of possible ships from 175 to 2. The two ships remaining on the list are USS BELL (DD-587) and USS BURNS (DD-588). USS BELL has officially been eliminated. See update below.
The combination of physical and dispositional data used in our analysis precludes all Fletcher Class destroyers other than BELL and BURNS. BELL and BURNS share many of the same physical features. We know BELL had its forward tubes removed prior to July 1969 and at least its number 5 turret removed prior to March 1973. We also know BURNS had its forward tubes removed prior to 1969 and turrets 2 and 5 removed prior to January 1974. Both ships were approved for transfer to Pt. Mugu from San Diego in 1972 for disposal as part of the Harpoon Missile Test program.
Is it possible we found the BELL and not the BURNS? Yes, but if BELL's reported sink date of 11 MAY 1975 is correct then BELL must be eliminated from the list, leaving BURNS as the only remaining ship. USS BELL has officially been eliminated. See update below.
There is still hope of making a positive ID directly from the wreck itself. All Fletcher Class destroyers had their names welded on the transom just below the stern chock. The dive team will take a closer look for the ship’s name in the future.
We have additional research requests pending from the National Archives. We will post new information on this page as it becomes available.
UPDATE: MARCH 10, 2010 - Today we received the deck logs of USS HULL (DD-945) from the National Archives. Unfortunately, the name of the target ship was not recorded in the log. The log does confirm the date of sinking as 29 JUNE 1976. USS HULL Decklog 29 JUNE 1976
UPDATE: APRIL 27, 2011 - The official disposition of USS BELL (DD-587) was received today from the Navy. USS BELL was sunk by aircraft 40 NM west of San Clemente Island on 11 MAY 1975. This new information positively eliminates USS BELL from our list, leaving USS BURNS as the only remaining ship. USS BELL Disposition
A close up of the welded letters on the transom of USS BURNS. This is likely the only place where a positive identification can be made directly from the wreck. This photo was taken on 12 MAR 1973 at the reserve anchorage, San Diego, CA. Photo by Larry Cote.
Starboard view of USS BURNS (DD-588) taken on 29 JAN 1974 in the reserve anchorage, San Diego, CA. Photo clearly shows her No.5 5-inch gun has been removed. Photo by Larry Cote.
This view of USS TINGEY DD-539 shows the installation of twin quad 40mm anti-aircraft guns in place of the forward quintuple torpedo tubes. The wreck found at San Clemente Island does not have this modification.
The angled construction of the bridge indicates that this is a square bridge model. All round bridge Fletchers were eliminated. Photo by John Walker.
Larry Cote took this photograph of BURNS from aboard a Navy launch on 29 JAN 1974. This view clearly shows her square bridge and single pole mast. Her No.2 5-inch gun has also been removed. Her hull number has been painted over prior to disposal. BURNS departed San Diego for Pt. Mugu on 5 JUN 1974.
The destroyer has a single pole mast. All tripod mast Fletchers were eliminated. Photo by John Walker.
Four Fletcher Class destroyers moored at Pier 10, NISMF San Diego, CA in July 1969. From the ship closest to the camera: HALFORD DD-480, WILEY DD-597, BURNS DD-588 and TRATHEN DD-530. Photo and ship identification courtesy of Larry Cote.
An enlargement of the preceding photo. Note the forward torpedo tubes have been removed between the stacks of HALFORD, WILEY and BURNS. Photo courtesy of Larry Cote.
Forward torpedo tube foundation, confirmed by builder’s drawings (below), indicates that this ship was never modified for quad 40mm anti aircraft guns. All mid-ship twin quad-40mm modified destroyers were eliminated. Photo by John Walker.
Builder’s drawing of forward torpedo tube foundation.
Courtesy of Dave McComb at destroyerhistory.org
USS HULL (DD-945) test firing the Mk 71 8” gun. US Navy photo NH 98310.
Statement from Jim Carver
Crew Member USS HULL
“I recall that the USS BURNS was sunk during
testing of the USS HULL’s new 8" gun. Using inert
(sand filled) laser guided shells the bridge was first
targeted, then the waterline, sinking the target quite
unexpectedly. I was a sonar tech on the HULL starting in
the fall of 75 until the winter of 77. Testing of the Mk 71
started in 75. At that time all of the testing was
targeting San Clemente Island itself. This lasted into
early 76 when shipboard damage from the intense recoil of
the Mk 71 became a problem (It was a nightmare for my tube
based AN-SQS-23 sonar system). In the spring/summer of 76
we resumed live fire to test the new laser guided rounds,
again this was initially on land based targets, then
finally on a "real" target, which I vaguely remember as the
Close up of Mk 71 8” gun 17 SEP 75. Photo by Photographer's Mate 1st Class Carl R. Begy
Statement from CDR Paul J. Piper, USNR-Ret.
“I was the Gunnery Officer who sank the Fletcher
class destroyer at San Clemente Island. We were not
only using the 8” 55 Cal. gun but we were testing a
laser guided projectile. My first laser shot put a
large hole through the bridge area which would have taken
out her control area if it were an enemy
combatant. As the sun was going down the
captain told me to finish off the target ship with all
three guns from close in as he didn't want to leave a
floundering vessel as a hazard to navigation. We
pulled around to about 4,000 yards; 2 nm and I had one
trigger in one hand for the 8" gun and one trigger in
the other for the 2 5" guns aft. I was sitting in the
gun director which is located high above the bridge.
Even though the target ship had all of her fuels removed
flames shot up more than 100 ft. as I sent shell after
shell into her engine room pulling the triggers as fast as
the guns would load. My last shots that sent her to
the bottom were below the waterline or close to it.
She went under by the stern with a large cloud of
smoke. There should be 20 to 25 hits on her.
Unfortunately I don't recall her name or exactly when she
went under. I am in contact with some of my old
gunners mates and they might have the answers.
The target ship was secured by anchors bow and stern. In thinking about it, the ship was probably just 2,000 yards from shore. We did use live rounds from the 5" 54's but we may not have set the HE fuses. I just don't recall if we used HE (High Explosive). All the holes going into the ship would be from the starboard side. I never put any rounds through the port side. I do remember when I finished her off we were at 2 nm. It had to take at least 1/2 hour or more to sink her as we started about 4 or 5 nm. and we had to get down to 2 nm. I also shot a concrete bunker on San Clemente Island with armor piercing rounds and an army 6x6 truck with a 60 ft. air detonation. Even the engine block on the truck was peppered with holes. They also set up a large target painted on canvas on the side of the island. On the third shot I hit the target dead on. We also shot an orange target ship out in the open ocean. It was a real long shot as I recall. Probably 7 or 8 nm as I could barely make it out from the gun director with high powered optics. 1976 was probably pretty close as we deployed to the Far East for 7 months after that. It was probably the spring/summer of 1976.”
We gratefully acknowledge all who responded and assisted us in our research on this project. Many shared with us their personal recollections. We could not have learned many of the details without their cooperation. Thank you very much.
Randy C. Andrews - USS HULL
Jim Carver - USS HULL
Kim Christiansen - USS HULL
Lou Colella - USS Hull Association Historian
Larry Cote - Photographer and Naval Historian
Rick E. Davis - Naval Historian
Carl Decker - USS HULL
Harold Decker - USS BURNS
Tony DiGiulian - NavWeaps.com
Tom Ferstl - USS HULL
Leo Fischer - Mk 71 Project Engineer
Pamela Griggs - California State Lands Commission
Terry Hamill - USS HULL
Brent Jones - Mighty90.com
Dave McComb - Destroyerhistory.org
Terry Miller - Tin Can Sailors, National Association of Destroyer Veterans
CDR Paul J. Piper USNR-Ret - Gunnery Officer USS HULL
Paul Thayer - California State Lands Commission
Matt Van Haren - USS HULL