Sumner-Gearing Class Destroyers
Their Design, Weapons, and Equipment
by Robert F. Sumrall
c1995 Naval Institute Press
Sumrall’s book, Sumner-Gearing Class Destroyers; Their Design, Weapons, and Equipment, is a highly technical work that provides superb detail, technical specifications, and abundant photographs and illustrations for a reader who is a naval architecture and shipbuilding enthusiast.
Sumrall begins his story with the signing of the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty, which imposed tonnage and design limits across the entire spectrum of warship classes, in all the world’s major navies. Sumrall takes us through the ups and downs of ship design and building during the interwar period, as the US Navy sought to replace the aging and inadequate “flush-deckers” that faced block obsolescence due to foreign design developments into the 1930s.
The author traces the pedigree of the Sumner-Gearings from the Farraguts and Porters, through the Benson-Gleaves class, to the 175 ships of the famous Fletcher-class, whose hull and engineering plants the Sumners shared. In that tracing, Sumrall lays out the progress of design and development of the boilers and turbines and the evolution of the main battery armament from the 4”/50 to the ubiquitous 5”/38 which saw sixty years of service. He introduces the various plans for proposed “improved Fletchers”, with drawings of the various layouts that were considered before BuShips settled on the familiar schema that would be the shape of destroyers for more than three decades.
Sumrall provides a fascinating and expertly-researched study of the Sumner-Gearings in service. He provides technical information and illustrations aplenty regarding weapons systems, fire control, engineering machinery, and radar/sonar suites for virtually the entire 168 units that entered US service. He outlines the mind-boggling modifications and alterations to radar, sonar, and AAW/ASW weapons systems as the threat changed from Japanese aircraft to Soviet submarines and surface fleet in the years following World War II. Sumrall spares no detail in examining the various conversions (DDE, DDK, DDR) that the Sumner-Gearings underwent, and provides copious data for each.
Perhaps the most interesting of all is Sumrall’s walk through the various and radical Fleet Rehabilitation and Modernization (FRAM) programs that would keep the Sumner-Gearings in service for nearly two additional decades. Proposed in 1958 to modernize what was still the backbone of the US destroyer force, the FRAMs included extensive and radical overhaul as well as varying levels of modernization. The illustrations provided make clear the herculean tasks involved with the upgrade of these veteran warships, most of whom had seen extensive combat during World War II (and many during Korea), bringing them into the Missile Age of the 1960s Cold War.
This book is not without its recognition that these ships were more than steel plating and gray paint. Throughout, Sumrall writes with a clear affection for these sturdy, powerful, useful little ships. Additionally, Sumrall includes a series of photographs showing examples of the extensive damage suffered by some of these vessels from mines, kamikazes, and collisions, yet managed to survive and bring their crews home. Both the foreword and the postscript pay a touching tribute to these wartime designs of another age that remained the backbone of the US surface Navy far longer than their designers or builders ever would have imagined.
Interestingly, as of the book’s writing (1994), some two dozen Gearings remained in service with the world’s navies, many as the most modern and powerful units of those fleets. Nearly all have been decommissioned during this decade. (As of 2008, only one Gearing-class destroyer remained in service, Netzahualcóyotl (D-102), former USS Steinaker (DD-863), more than 25 years after being sold to Mexico, and more than sixty years after her commissioning.)
This book is not light reading, and will quickly overwhelm those who pick it up looking for stories of combat at sea. However, this book is a must for anyone whose interests lie in the design and building of modern warships. There are also some potential lessons for the US Navy one might draw from this work. Building sturdy, useful, flexible platforms that perform a variety of critical functions well pays off. So does a sensible plan for modernization of existing hulls, even after 15-20 years of service.
All in all, Sumrall’s work is a brilliantly researched and fascinating look at perhaps the greatest steel warships ever to put to sea. I thoroughly enjoyed each and every page.
Robert Sumrall, author of Iowa-Class Battleships, is a retired US Navy Chief Petty Officer whose 40 years’ service included extensive time on Gearing-class destroyers, as well as service aboard the aforementioned Iowa.