And Now You Know: The life and death of USS Kenneth M. Willett, DE 354

Published 11:08 am Wednesday, December 5, 2018

By Mike Louviere

In 1940, it was evident that Orange was going to play a big part in the war that was on the horizon. United States Steel had bought the existing steel plant in Orange and was converting it into a large shipyard. Consolidated Steel Corporation in Orange was the only shipyard in Texas that would be building warships for the U.S. Navy.

Consolidated would build 12 Fletcher Class destroyers, then go into a program to build the smaller destroyer escorts, 102 destroyer escorts would be built. The war ended with Consolidated building 27 Gearing Class destroyers.

The first ship was launched in 1942, the last two were delivered in 1949.

During those years, there had been 20,000 employees at the shipyard.

At 2 p.m. on December 1, 1958, the USS Kenneth M. Willett docked at the Naval Station at Orange. About a half mile from where she had been built, she would be decommissioned.

On May 28, 1944, the ship had been launched at the Consolidated shipyard. She was named for Kenneth M. Willett who had been posthumously awarded the Navy Cross for heroism. His mother, Mrs. D.C. Willett, had been the ship’s sponsor.

After being commissioned on July 19, 1944, she was sent to the Atlantic Fleet to be used as a training vessel. After a short time, she joined the Pacific Fleet and participated in escorting supply convoy runs between Hollandia, New Guinea, and Leyte, Philippine Islands as part of Escort Division 82.

During this time, she fought off attacks by midget Japanese submarines. On January 1, 1945, one of her gun crews was credited with assisting in shooting down a Japanese torpedo plane.

Later that year, the Willett escorted a group of landing craft through a typhoon without the loss of a single ship.

After the war, she went to Tokyo for occupation duty. She ran a single ship convoy to Shanghai, China then returned to the U.S. and was decommissioned and placed in the mothball fleet at San Diego, California.

undated wartime image, Tony Polozzolo photo

On May 25, 1951, after the beginning of the Korean War, she was recommissioned. After a shakedown cruise, she steamed via the Panama Canal to New Orleans, Louisiana where she was assigned to the 8th Naval District.

On November 5, she departed on a Naval Reserve cruise to Puerto Rico. From then until October 1958, she made a total of 63 training cruises from New Orleans to South America, Canada, the Eastern Seaboard, and throughout the Caribbean. Her final training cruise ended at Havana, Cuba on October 16, 1958. She steamed to New Orleans and on November 30 departed there and arrived at Orange, Texas on December 1.

At Orange she was painted, all equipment was made operational, then closed and sealed. The ship was decommissioned on February 26, 1959. The Willett was assigned to the Atlantic Reserve Fleet at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.


On July 1, 1972, she was struck from the navy records and on March 6, 1974, she was sunk by gunfire while being used as a target ship off the coast of Puerto Rico.

“And now you know”