The surprise Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, 1941, is already etched in history whenever we talk about World War II. USS James H. Ward was one of many warships used during the war. But, there was something special about USS Ward that cemented its early popularity and its place in naval history – it fired the first shots of the United States in WWII during the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7th, 1941.

USS Ward: Defender of Pearl Harbor

The destroyer was a “Four Stacker” Destroyer hastily built for World War I at the Mare Island Navy Yard, in California. She also worked to support the trans-Atlantic flight of the NC flying boats in May 1919. The year after, she was designated the hull number DD-139.  After the war, she went into mothballs until she was recommissioned some 20 years later with the outbreak the WWII in Europe in 1939.  Obsolete in comparison to more modern destroyers in the US Navy she arrived at Pearl Harbor in 1941.


Photo from a Japanese plane during the torpedo attack on ships moored on both sides of Ford Island. This was shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor began. (Imperial Japanese Navy, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)


USS Ward: The Story of America’s First Shot in WWII

In an article released by Pearl, it recounted how USS Ward fired the shot against the Japanese,

On December 7, 1941, at 0358, minesweeper Condor signaled to Ward that an object looking like a submarine was spotted. The skipper of Ward, Lt. William Outerbridge, had taken command of the ward just that weekend. He immediately called general quarters and began ‘pinging’. The ‘pinging’ was useless, and Ward could not find the submarine that Condor had seen.

The U.S. Navy destroyer USS Ward (DD-139) off the Mare Island Navy Yard, California (USA). (Official U.S. Navy photo NH 50265 from the U.S. Navy Naval History and Heritage Command) (USN, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

At around 0630, a PBY plane spotted the periscope wake of a submarine following in the wake of the USS Antares, a repair ship. Antares was going to enter Pearl Harbor through an opening in the torpedo nets used to protect the harbor and the sub intended to slip through with her. Antares had also spotted the submarine, but it was Lt Outerbridge and the Ward that was in the position to react and she was bearing down on the sub at 25 knots. She took the submarine under fire firing at 50-60 yards, scoring a direct hit on the Japanese midget submarine that appeared to sink immediately leaving a small oil slick on the surface.

As it turned out, the submarine they just sank was one of the five top-secret Japanese vessels that was armed with two torpedoes intended to penetrate the harbor while lurking in the darkness of the vast sea. The air raid on Pearl Harbor and throughout Oahu began about an hour after the USS Ward attacked and sank the Japanese submarine.

Lt Outerbridge radioed back to Pearl Harbor that he had spotted and attacked a submarine by gunfire and depth charges. Over the previous weeks, there had been numerous reports of sub-sightings that turned up to be nothing and the Naval HQ at Pearl dithered over whether this report was accurate or was it just a new destroyer skipper seeing phantoms in the dark.

Outbridge’s report should have raised the alarm;

“USS Ward to Com 14. Have attacked, fired upon, and dropped depth-charges upon unidentified submarine operating in defensive sea area. A direct hit from our number three gun on his conning tower. Followed up with four ashcans. Oil slick 300 yards astern visible on surface.”

Instead, it prompted a series of phone calls between duty officers who all sought “confirmation” of the message before they woke up the big bosses and bring the base up to full alert status.  Afterward, Lt Outerbridge would be criticized by his superiors for not sending a more clear message, though it’s hard to imagine being more clear than ‘I have seen a submarine, attacked a submarine, hit the submarine and sank a submarine.’  That should have been enough to wake up the fleet and army planes on the base, bit it wasn’t.

Needless to say, about an hour later more than 200 Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor and nearly wrecked the US fleet sitting at anchorage killing more than 3,000 US service members and civilians.

The Ward and Lt Outerbridge would spend that day guarding the harbor entrance, chasing down suspected sub contacts and dropping more than 130 depth charges.

While it could not be confirmed that Outerbridge and the Ward had sunk the submarine, he was awarded the Navy Cross and after promotion was relieved of command of the Ward and went to a staff job with the Chief of Naval Transportation in Washington DC. This is a bit of a slam against a guy who had won a Navy Cross at Pearl Harbor.   In July of 1943, he was given command of a brand new Allen Sumter class Destroyer, the USS O’Brien, and crossed the Atlantic to participate in the Normandy landings on D-Day.  There, now Commander Outerbridge fought his ship well. At Omaha Beach on D-Day, the landings were not going well.  Outerbridge on the O’Brien and three other destroyers were 4,000 yards off the beach to mask and cover the movement of landing craft towards the shore.  From the bridge Outerbridge could tell the initial wave of landings was a failure, there was little movement on the beach, fires everywhere, and smoking landing craft with dead crews drifted in the waters between his ship and the beach  Behind him, he could see another wave of landing craft about to enter the slaughter and he just couldn’t stand the idea of being idle and not able to assist.  Disobeying orders, Outerbridge pushed the O’Brien within 500 yards of the beach in very shallow water and blasted away at shore emplacements firing down on US troops.  For decades, the USS O’Brien was all but uncredited for its actions.  Knowing he was disobeying orders, his ship’s logbook did not mention their moving closer to the beach to engage targets.  Today, historians generally agree that the actions of destroyers like the O’Brien and as many as 13 others probably saved the landings at Omaha Beach on that day.

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On June 25th, the O’Brien was escorting the battleship Texas and minesweepers trying to clear a sea lane into Cherbourg harbor in France. German shore batteries were engaging the Texas and scoring hits on her.  Outerbridge took the O’Brien close to shore and her 5inch guns blasted away at these emplacements at close range. Its fire was so accurate that the shore guns swung their sights off the huge battleship and onto the tiny destroyer.   She took a hit from a high-caliber weapon just behind the bridge that killed 13 sailors and wounded 19. Still, Outerbridge refused to abandon his station until he was able to lay a smokescreen to cover the Texas moving out of range of the shore batteries.

The O’Brien returned to the US for refit and repairs and was then sent to the Pacific.

The Fall of USS Ward

Following Pearl Harbor, the destroyer USS Ward was repurposed as a Fast Transport Destroyer able to carry as many as 200 troops and their equipment and was redesignated as APD-16 in February 1943. She went on to earn 9 Battle Stars for various exploits in transporting raiding parties on various missions in the islands of the Pacific.

On December 7, 1944, would find the USS Ward part of a 70 ship convoy making landings at Ormoc Bay across from the island of Leyte in the Philippines. The convoy came under determined attack by Japanese kamikazes. The destroyer was hit broadside by a twin-engine G4M2 bomber and was badly damaged. Her skipper was Lieutenant Richard Farwell, who had served as the assistant engineering officer when Outerbridge had been her captain at Pearl Harbor.  He had stayed with the ship ever since.  With the Ward on fire and sinking, Farwell was unable to determine if her forward ammunition magazine had been flooded and feared she might explode at any moment.  He ordered the crew to abandon ship, which the crew did only with great reluctance apparently.  The Ward, however, not only refused to blow up but wouldn’t sink either. The Task Force admiral ordered her taken under tow hoping to get her back to Leyte where she might be repaired.

Japanese air attacks were unrelenting and soon a decision was made that the vessel towing the Ward at slow speed was a sitting duck for further Kamikaze attacks, the tow line was severed and the admiral ordered that the Ward be scuttled by gunfire by another ship in the convoy.

The closest destroyer to the Ward was tasked to close with the stricken destroyer, take off her crew at sink her by gunfire.   That destroyer was the USS O’Brien with CDR Outerbridge at the helm.

Outerbridge transferred the crew of the Ward to his ship and had Lt Farwell join him on the bridge. The O’Brien then peeled away and fired a salvo into the aft magazine(Outerbridge would know exactly where to hit the ship for greatest effect).

The Ward exploded and sank within minutes.

The USS O’Brien taking survivors off the USS Ward, shortly before sinking her of Ormoc Bay in the Philippines

The Ward Rediscovered.

An article from Fox News written by Greg Norman reported that USS Ward was found more than seven decades later after it sank.

The USS Ward was located in the waters near Ponson Island in the Philippines, an expedition crew led by Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Paul Allen announced, just before the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

US Pacific Fleet Commander, Admiral Scott Swift, said in a press release, in 2017

The USS Ward found herself in the crucible of American history – at the intersection of a peacetime Navy and war footing. She took decisive, effective, and unflinching action despite the uncertain waters. Now 76 years on, her example informs our naval posture.