The USS McKean was launched on 31 March 1945 and commissioned on 9 June 1945, named after Commodore William Wister McKean, a squadron commander on the Union side during the American Civil War. DD-784 is the second ship in the United States Navy to be so named for Commodore McKean. In total, the McKean was one of the 98 Gearing class destroyers built.
The first ship to bear the name McKean was a “Wickes” class four-stack destroyer (DD-90) which was commissioned on 25 February 1919. Laid up shortly after World War I, the first McKean was reclassified a fast transport (APD) and recommissioned on 2 August 1940. She saw service in both the Atlantic and the Pacific during World War II and participated in the New Georgia, Rendova, and Guadalcanal campaigns. On the night of 17 November 1943, she was attacked and sunk by Japanese torpedo planes off Bougainville. She went down with her guns blazing.
Her first duty assignment was in the autumn of 1945 in a three-month tour as part of the overall occupation forces following the surrender of Japan. This included clearing Allied floating mines from Japanese waters.
LTjg D. Wayne Smyth was the Engineering Officer on the USS McKean’s maiden voyage – his photo page has some interesting early history and a 40 minute audio conversation between LTjg Smyth and his friend Douglass Owen Nicholson a SOM 2c on the USS Reynolds Destroyer Escort (DE) who served during the same time period. *Photos, audio and information courtesy of Sarah Smyth McIntosh (daughter).
Following the outbreak of war in Korea in June 1950, McKean joined the 7th Fleet in August. Her Commanding Officer was Cdr. H. L Reiter, Jr., USN. She was assigned to Task Force 77 initially as part of DesDiv 112. She participated in the Inchon invasion which spearheaded the ground offensive operations against the North Korean Communists. Later, while steaming independently off the Chinnampo River, she discovered the first minefield reported during the Korean War. Commander John Weatherwax took command of McKean in November 1950. From October 1950 to December 1950, she joined patrolling destroyers with Task Force 72 in the Taiwan Strait with the light cruiser Manchester (CL-83), and the destroyers Frank Knox (DD-742), Hollister (DD-788), and Ozbourn (DD-846). They had to battle the typhoon Clara which broke apart into two typhoons.
The night of 25 November 1950, hundreds of thousands of Chinese Communist troops had crossed the Yalu River into North Korea to attack advancing U.N. forces. Hordes of Chinese cut off and surrounded the 5th and 7th Marine Regiments with a human wall at Chosin Reservoir on 27 November. The breaching of this wall and releasing of UN troops depended upon air cover and firepower from planes of carriers stationed off the eastern coast. McKean, Hollister and Frank Knox were released from patrolling the Formosa Straits sometime after 8 December. Under a protective canopy of naval air cover, the leathernecks broke through 10 December at Chinhung-ni and moved to Hŭngnam for evacuation. The United States Navy completed the Hŭngnam withdrawal of 24 December after embarking 105,000 troops, 91,000 refugees and vast quantities of military cargo. Needing upkeep, McKean first ported at Yokosuka, then to Sasebo until 23 December 1950. She was to rejoin TF 77 on 24 December 1950, Christmas Eve. At that time TF 77 was the largest assembled fleet since World War II, with four carriers, the battleship Missouri, two cruisers, and over 30 destroyers.
According to the book Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage by Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew; “U.S. intelligence officials have long believed that a U.S. surface ship sank a Soviet sub that came close to an aircraft carrier attack force in 1950, early in the Korean War, according to two former intelligence officers.” The United States was so concerned that the Soviet Navy would try to help the North Koreans that surface ships were under orders to protect U.S. warships by depth charging any possible hostile submarines, and in this case, one force depth charged a suspected Soviet sub and then saw no signs that it had survived.”
This is the story of “Rancher” and two Russian submarines. “Rancher” is the call sign for the destroyer McKean (DD-784), otherwise known as “Mighty Mac”. The Russian submarines were part of numerous USSR combat missions during the Korean war, Russians against Americans. The incident started December 1950. “Rancher” and its crew had left Long Beach on August 1950, and now five long months later her crew was battle hardened. She had previously dropped five depth charges on a submarine on 23 September 1950. Under the command of Cdr. J. C. Weatherwax since November 1950, what the Russians did not know was Capt. Weatherwax had been in submarines during World War II and knew how and why they moved.
On 18 December 1950, “Rancher” had just left the harbor at Sasebo to rejoin Task Force 77. Task Force 77 included the battleship Missouri (BB-63), the aircraft carriers Philippine Sea (CV-47), Princeton (CV-37), and Valley Forge (CV-45), the escort carriers Badoeng Strait (CVE-116) and Sicily (CVE-118), the heavy cruiser Saint Paul (CA-73), the light cruiser Manchester (CL-83), and dozens of destroyers to screen the capital ships. “Rancher” was steaming with the USS Frank Knox (DDR-742). About an hour after clearing the sub nets, but with the Japanese shoreline still in sight, she received a hard contact from sonar. “Bridge, Sonar, we have a solid contact.” Sonar had picked up two contacts. Duty Quartermaster on the bridge of “Rancher” was John D. Price QM3, as Cdr. Weatherwax had gone to his stateroom. The OOD ordered Quartermaster Price to get the Captain. Cdr. Weatherwax ran to the bridge as fast he could go. He didn’t waste any time ordering Quartermaster Price to call general quarters. After general quarters sounded Cdr. Weatherwax ordered depth charge runs. Quartermaster Price was logging into the ships log that “Rancher” was making depth charge runs on a submarine, when the Captain checked the log and ordered Price to strike the word submarine from the log. He said that this could lead to an international incident. The Captain had the sonar sounds piped to the bridge, so they were able to follow the approach to the contact. It was almost a typical training exercise, with the pinging and the course changes leading us in. “Rancher” immediately sent out the international identification code, dot dash or letter A. Three times this was sent with no response, but evasive action was being taken by the subs.
“Rancher” started a depth charge run, rolling from the rear racks and firing from the side charges. The tracker aircraft overhead reported a silhouette in the center of the pattern at the time of the explosions, after which silhouette disappeared and was not sighted again. The aircraft then reported sighting air bubbles near the location of the first attack and an oil slick, which grew larger as time passed. This oil slick was also sighted by the McKean and the Frank Knox, which joined about 20 minutes after the first attack. She completed her initial run, at times she lost contact but then she picked it up again and made an additional run. “Rancher” dropped 11 depth charges per pattern. “Rancher” would drop a pattern and the Frank Knox would cross her wake and drop a pattern.
Torpedo man Hudnall was on depth charge central which was on the starboard side of the ship one deck below the bridge. Torpedo man Hudnall fired the K-guns electronically and the crews on the K-guns fired manually. The patterns of depth charges were eleven to a pattern, three on each side of the ship and two stern racks. The submarine was in 250 feet of water or above because any deeper the depth charges would not go off. McKean fired 54 depth charges the day of 18 December 1950. “Rancher” had dropped about 84 depth charges in a 24-hour period. The morning of 19 December, one of the three anti-sub airplanes overhead reported a torpedo wake passing astern of the McKean. It just missed “Rancher”, and she didn’t even see it. The other Russian submarine was lashing back.
A salvage ship, the submarine rescue ship Greenlet (ASR-10), arrived out of Sasebo on 20 December, to join the five destroyers and three anti-submarine airplanes at the site of the sinking. A hard hat diver was lowered to the scene. In a very short time he returned to the surface with a pair of new binoculars. In addition the Russian submarines had deployed during the depth charge a decoy that made all the sounds of a submarine. This Black Box was so top secret the Greenlet immediately returned to Pearl Harbor with it. Rumor has it the Greenlet was not allowed to return to the war area because it had retrieved so many Russian secrets. Perhaps it got their code books? Rumor also has it that 43 days later all the bar girls knew everything that happened, but the crew couldn’t say anything because they had signed the letters of secrecy. The story the crew was told was that it was a “sunken Jap freighter the Iona Maru. Supposedly the Iona Maru capsized on 10 December 1950. The Navy brass had already formatted their cover story with the skipper of the USS Greenlet ASR-10. “If those binoculars were from WWII, why wasn’t there debris or barnacles, on the item”. Recently a former shipmate commented, “We sunk a hulk ship that was doing five knots!”.
NOTE Regarding The Sinking Of The Russian Submarine: In June, 2010 after many years of planning, a diving expedition took place to find the sunken Russian submarine. The story of the dive and its findings has been written up in the 26th Issue of Wreck Diving magazine in 2012. The article is entitled “Sworn To Secrecy; The search for a Cold War-era Soviet submarine sunk by the US Navy.”
The diver’s findings did not support the long held belief that a Soviet submarine had been sunk by “Rancher”. Joe Porter, author of the article said: “Those of us who were part of this expedition that set out to find the Russian submarine held mixed emotions. While we didn’t find what we were looking for, we did find the truth. We would like to thank all of the sailors who fought aboard the USS McKean for their service, and for honoring their promise to keep the events of this battle secret until they were declassified. These men represent the finest of the United States of America.”
After January 1951 McKean joined Task Force 95 for shore bombardment duty and blockade work around Wonsan, Songjin and Chinjŏn. Early in 1952 she was converted to a DDR radar picket ship. Special surface scanning radar was added and in addition, the 40mm, 20mm guns and torpedo tubes were removed and replaced with three twin mount 3in guns 3″50’s. In 1954 she appears in the closing scenes of the film “The Caine Mutiny.”  In 1955 she took part in an underwater A-Bomb test Operation Wigwam. In early 1956 she crossed the equator for the first time to visit Singapore and again later in 1956 to visit Melbourne, Australia, during the time of the Olympic Games being held there. The task group consisting of one cruiser and four destroyers were the first U.S. ships to visit Melbourne since the end of World War II.
In February 1964 the McKean was refitted at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard in California. This was the Fleet Rehabilitation and Modernization Program MK 1 (commonly known as FRAM) conversion which, all told, modernized 80 of the original 98 Gearing class ships.
In July 1965 the McKean joined the Seventh Fleet in the Western Pacific. She did four months of operations beginning in August with the aircraft carrier Oriskany (CVA-34) as part of the South China Sea Attack Carrier Strike Group. Regarding this tour off the Vietnam coast, Commanding officer J. E. Mitchell wrote in a December 29, 1965 letter to the state-side families of the McKean sailors: “…If you are interested in vital statistics, here are some. Figured through our arrival at Long Beach on 13 January, McKean will have steamed a total of 57,014 miles – more than twice the distance around the world at the Equator. The total hours underway – 3,502, represents almost five of the six months deployed. Our average steaming speed was about 17 knots, or approximately 20 miles per hour, during which the ship consumed 3,748,420 gallons of fuel oil. Over 1,000 rounds of five inch projectiles were fired, weighing approximately 25 tons…
After this tour she returned to Long Beach and attended two fleet exercises, “Eager Angler” and Baseline II.” For her work in these two exercises the McKean won “Best Gunnery Ship” while competing against other destroyers and cruisers.
In November 1966 the McKean returned to the Western Pacific for Search and Rescue operations at the Gulf of Tonkin off the north coast of Vietnam. During this operation the McKean set a record with 100 inflight helicopter refuelings over a single 30-day period. Until April, 1967, on this tour of duty the McKean worked on gun line deployments, firing over 4,000 rounds during ground support work in South Vietnam.
The McKean then traveled again to Australia and then on to New Zealand as part of ceremonies commemorating the Battle of the Coral Sea. She then returned to her home port of Long Beach, arriving on 8 June 1967. In the latter half of the year the McKean was overhauled at Mare Island in California.
In March 1968 the McKean returned to Long Beach and returned to the Western Pacific via stops in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii; Yokosuka, Japan; and Sasebo, the southernmost island of mainland Japan. From Sasebo the McKean was sent to the coast of Korea to join United States naval pressure on the North Korean government to win the release the crew of the Pueblo (AGER-2), which had been seized 23 January 1968. After this the McKean conducted patrols in the Sea of Japan, the South China Sea and Tonkin Gulf. During this time she also visited Hong Kong and Kaohsiung, Taiwan.
At the end of 1968 the McKean returned to Long Beach, only returning to the Western Pacific in 1970 after training cruises along the American West Coast. Back on tour, the ship visited Japan again, Bangkok, Guam, Hong Kong, and the Philippines. During this time she also returned to gunnery duty along Vietnam. In June 1970 she went back to Long Beach to take on more crew and to continue training and to take part in numerous U.S. Navy exercises.
In November 1971 the McKean accompanied the British carrier Eagle to the Indian Ocean, and then joined the U.S. Seventh Fleet. In December, 1971 the McKean was sent to the Bay of Bengal as part of Task Force 74 to safeguard United States interests there while the Indo-Pakistani War was waged. After rejoining the fleet, the McKean saw port calls at Singapore, Hong Kong, New Guinea and again Australia and New Zealand. She returned to Long Beach in November 1971 via stops in American Samoa and Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
In May 1972 the McKean joined the reserve naval forces operating between California and Hawaii. In the late 1970s her home port was in Seattle, Washington. The McKean was struck from the navy list on 30 September 1980.
The McKean was decommissioned in October 1981. In 1982 the ship was given to the country of Turkey to be cannibalized for spare parts. She was sunk by Harpoon missile in July 1987 and now lies at the bottom of Antalya Bay off the Mediterranean coast.