The USS Peary (DD-226), a Clemson-class destroyer with a storied history, sailed into the annals of World War II as a brave and fateful warship. While its heroic and tragic past is well-documented, a remarkable revelation in 2019 has added a new layer to its history – the mysterious disappearance of its stern and a safe rumoured to contain US gold bullion. This article delves into the USS Peary’s journey, its connection to US gold bullion, and the intriguing discovery of the blown-off stern.
The USS Peary: A Legacy of Service
Commissioned in 1920, the USS Peary embarked on a career that would take it from the Far East to the Yangtze River Patrol. It served diligently in the protection of American interests in Chinese waters. When World War II broke out, the USS Peary found itself in the heart of action.
The Attack on Cavite and the Precarious Escape
Stationed at Cavite, Philippines, the USS Peary experienced the onslaught of the Pearl Harbor raid, which marked the beginning of the United States’ involvement in World War II. Two days later, Japanese aircraft launched a devastating attack on the Cavite Navy Yard. In the wake of the assault, the Peary was left damaged, with one bomb causing havoc in its superstructure, and another, an incendiary, igniting the galley deck house.
Amidst the chaos, the ship’s crew confronted a precarious situation, with fires threatening to set off torpedo warheads in a nearby torpedo overhaul shop. The USS Whippoorwill came to the rescue, towing the Peary to safety. Collaborating with the USS Pillsbury, they managed to extinguish the fire in a mere five minutes.
However, the ship’s commanding officer, Commander H. H. Keith, sustained injuries during this ordeal and was relieved by Commander J. M. Bermingham.
Escape from Death and the New Year’s Attack
On December 26, 1941, the Japanese struck again as the USS Peary was underway. The crew witnessed several bombs falling perilously close to the ship, underscoring the ever-present danger.
By the dawn of December 27, the USS Peary had reached Campomanes Bay on Negros Island, where it decided to take refuge for the day. The crew resorted to camouflage, covering the ship with green paint and palm fronds in hopes of evading Japanese patrol bombers. Fortunately, five enemy planes flew overhead without spotting the concealed vessel.
As darkness fell, the USS Peary embarked on a journey through the Celebes Sea, en route to Makassar Strait. However, the spectre of Japanese bombers continued to haunt them. A Japanese bomber identified the Peary the following morning and shadowed the ship, joined by three more bombers in a two-hour attack. These aircraft dropped 500-pound bombs and launched two torpedoes just 500 yards from the ship. In a stroke of fortune, the torpedoes narrowly missed their intended target, both at the bow and stern. The attackers eventually withdrew, leaving the USS Peary to lick its wounds and continue its mission.
The Cataclysmic Attack on Darwin
The USS Peary’s fate took a grim turn when it arrived in Darwin, Australia, in early 1942. Operating primarily in an anti-submarine patrol capacity during January and part of February, the ship was later involved in a mission to transport reinforcements and supplies to Allied forces in Dutch Timor. However, this operation was swiftly abandoned due to intense air attacks.
On February 19, 1942, Darwin was subjected to a massive Japanese air attack. The USS Peary became a target for Japanese dive bombers, enduring the impact of five bombs. The first bomb struck the fantail, the second, an incendiary, hit the galley deck house, and the third, oddly, did not detonate.
The fourth bomb struck the ship’s forward section, setting off the forward ammunition magazines, causing a catastrophic explosion. The fifth bomb, another incendiary, exploded in the aft engine room. Despite the chaos, the crew valiantly defended their ship, utilizing .30 caliber and .50 caliber machine guns.
The Aftermath and Discovery
In the wake of the attack, the USS Peary and its brave crew met a tragic fate. Eighty-eight officers and men, including Commander J. M. Bermingham, were lost. Only 53 enlisted survivors and one officer, LTJG R.L. Johnson, remained. LT W.J. Catlett, who had been ashore during the final battle, was entrusted with compiling the official US Navy report on the ship’s sinking. The USS Peary marked the first destroyer of the Asiatic Fleet to be sunk in World War II, and it was subsequently struck from the Navy List on May 8, 1942.
The 2019 Revelation
Fast forward to 2019, and a revelation emerged that would forever alter the understanding of the USS Peary’s final moments. A team of dedicated underwater explorers, Grant Treloar, Roland Hugi, Mark Tozer, and Jeff Swann, invested countless hours in the exploration and documentation of the ship’s stern.
What they uncovered was nothing short of astonishing. The USS Peary’s stern, previously believed to have gone down with the ship, had been severed and found four kilometres away from the main wreckage. This discovery raised questions about the events leading up to the ship’s sinking and the potential whereabouts of the mysterious safe rumoured to contain US gold bullion.
Unlocking the Safe’s Secrets
As the explorers delved deeper into the remnants of the severed stern, they stumbled upon a stunning find—the door and side of a safe, indicating that the USS Peary had indeed carried valuable cargo.
The safe, long believed to be in the stern for protection, had been subjected to the same cataclysmic attack that ultimately sank the ship. The evidence of the safe’s destruction in the 2019 discovery raises tantalising questions about its contents and the fate of the US gold bullion it may have safeguarded.
The USS Peary’s journey through World War II is a testament to the bravery and sacrifice of its crew. However, the recent revelation of the severed stern and the remnants of a safe has added an unexpected twist to its story. The mystery of the lost gold bullion remains unsolved, leaving room for further exploration and historical investigation. As the legacy of the USS Peary endures, it serves as a reminder of the countless untold stories that still await discovery beneath the depths of the world’s oceans.