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World War II: Interview with Burdick Brittin

Originally published by Military History magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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When carrier aircraft of the Japanese Combined Fleet staged their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on the Sunday morning of December 7, 1941, many American ships were caught with their crewmen ashore. In the case of the destroyer Aylwin, only half the crew and four officers–all Naval Reserve ensigns–remained aboard. Of them, Stanley B. Caplan and Hugo C. Anderson had been with the ship for six months, while William K. Reordan and Burdick H. Brittin had been aboard only since November.

Caplan, who was officer of the deck that morning, responded to the attack by taking command, with Anderson as executive officer (XO), Reordan as gunnery officer and Brittin as torpedo officer, while a crewman, Quartermaster 3rd Class Charles E. Wilcox, served as navigator.

For Brittin, this memorable combat debut was the harbinger of another occasion when he himself would be called upon to take command of a destroyer in distress, as he recently explained.

Military History: What was your civilian background prior to World War II?

Brittin: I was born in 1917, in Lorraine, Ohio. My undergraduate degree was from Union College up in New York state: bachelor of arts, political science, 1940.

MH: What led you from Ohio to the sea?

Brittin: In my last year in school at Union, I was a policeman in the summertime at a fancy resort on the New Jersey coast. That's where I met my future wife, Trudi. Even then, and later in law school, the courses had some utility in terms of ocean affairs. I liked that very much; I started writing, and published several articles.

MH: When did you 'go Navy'?

Brittin: When I graduated from college, I didn't know what I wanted to do. The Navy had a representative in the area, so I went to see him with a friend. In one program, I could get a commission as an ensign and'see the world in a year.' That sounded like a great idea to me, so I signed up for 90 days in the V-7 Naval Reserve training program–a '90-day blunder,' as we were sometimes called by the Regulars. In order to get duty on a combat-type ship at that particular time, the things available were submarines or destroyers. Of the two, the one that appealed to me was the destroyer.

MH: Did you get one?

Brittin: Not at first. I was sent to torpedo school near Puget Sound, Wash. While the other 10 chaps with whom I graduated went to combat ships, I was ordered to the submarine tender Vulcan. My stay aboard her was very short–the commandant of the naval district noted that as a young squirt ensign I had been sent to a repair ship when I should be on a combat-type ship, so he had my orders changed to the destroyer Aylwin (DD355), which was based at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. I reported aboard her as assistant torpedo officer.

MH: Which, I presume, brings us to December 7, 1941. Where were you at that time?

Brittin: I was one of the four ensigns–and the only four officers–aboard Aylwin when the Japanese attacked. More than half the crew was ashore. That Saturday night, the night of the 6th, we had shore leave–ensigns didn't get much shore leave in those days. We had gone to a place called Lawee Chow's–dinner, music, dancing. I was a big spender, since I was dating a pretty nice girl, until all I had was a dollar or so left. Then I went back to the ship. The others stayed in Waikiki overnight.

MH: And on the 'morning after'?

Brittin: I was asleep aboard Aylwin. We were moored to buoys in the Middle Loch. What awakened me was that I heard shells going off, and I thought it was a crazy time to have anti-aircraft practice. I looked out the porthole and there was the old battleship-turned-floating-target Utah rolling over on its side. That was my introduction to the 'date that will live in infamy.'

MH: What did you do then?

Brittin: With Ensign Stanley Caplan–who was officer of the deck at that time–as acting skipper, we went out of the harbor shooting with every weapon we had, like everybody else. I later learned that the gunners for our 5-inchers rammed in their shells by hand because of the lack of air pressure, and that no fuzes had been set because of mechanical problems. We were passing the seaplane tender Curtiss when one of our gunners hit a low-flying plane, which crashed into Curtiss' superstructure and started a sickening blaze. I helped roll drums of nonessential lubricating oil over the side, and personally cut free our beautiful mahogany accommodation ladder. Our whaleboat was left floating in the harbor.

MH: What did you do when you got out of there?

Brittin: When we got outside the harbor, we were assigned a particular area to patrol for submarines. As we were patrolling, a whaleboat came out of the harbor; in it was our skipper, Lt. Cmdr. Robert H. Rodgers, and his XO. They approached us and wanted to come aboard. Caplan, still steering the course that was assigned to us, would not stop the ship, so we continued our patrol. We did not see the skipper, or exec, or anyone else until we returned to Pearl late the next day.

MH: Rodgers returned to Pearl and waited aboard the destroyer Chew until you came back. He later wrote up a glowing citation on Ensign Caplan.

Brittin: He deserved it! Later that day, we were in a high-speed scouting line going southwest, where we were sure the Japanese were–not suspecting that the attack on Pearl, in actuality, had come from north of the islands, not south. We spent a total of 36 hours at general quarters, steaming at 30 knots all day and all night. No sleep, no real food. During the night another ship came along, going in the opposite direction of us. We were getting ready to fire when it identified itself by signal light as the destroyer Farragut and asked, 'Who are you?' We told them. As he flashed by, Farragut's skipper asked, 'Where are you going?' We said, 'Going on assigned scout mission.' Farragut replied, 'You'd better turn around and follow us.' Which we did–otherwise, we might still be steaming out there to the South Pacific. The reason we didn't get the right message was because it was classified. Caplan was up on the bridge, and as our communications officer, he was the only one who understood the kinds of machines used for uncoding the message.

P>MH: What happened when Aylwin got back to Pearl?

Brittin: At the harbor marker buoy, we picked up Commodore Ralph S. Riggs, commander of our Destroyer Squadron [Desron] 1, and Rodgers, who took the ship in. Never had it been so sweet to welcome the captain aboard! The night of the 8th, we were moored and discovered that one of our propellers had been nicked when a near-miss by a bomb sent our fantail against the anchor buoy, and we had to get a new propeller. After 33 hours at sea, I had finally gotten into my bunk, when I was called up on the bridge. The captain said, 'I want you to get in a whaleboat and go to the flagship and find out what the instructions are.' We'd already received a fright that the Japanese might be landing on the 8th or the 9th. I put my .45-caliber pistol on and went out to Phelps, flagship of Desron 1, looking for Japanese. The report of a possible Japanese landing proved to be false. That was it; then I went back to the ship and finally got to sleep.

MH: What was Aylwin's next mission?

Brittin: Food, oil, new propeller, exploders for the torpedoes, everything was thrown at us. In a day and a half or two days, we were out of there. We rendezvoused with the aircraft carrier Enterprise, which was coming back from Wake Island. I'm pretty sure that the first operation we did after rendezvousing with Enterprise was to go down to Tarawa, just to let the Japanese know that we could still operate at sea. Aylwin didn't bombard the island, just Enterprise's planes.

MH: What was your next major operation?

Brittin: As I recall, it wasn't until we were getting ready for the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942 that I saw more than that one carrier, Enterprise . We went with Lexington, and that was a proud ship. We thought she was great–but then she was sunk by Japanese carrier planes!

MH: In the last couple days of the battle, the opposing carrier forces squared off, launching an equal number of aircraft at each other. Was Aylwin caught in the middle?

Brittin: Yes, we were in the carrier screen, about 3,000 yards from Lexington. I remember during daylight we were firing at planes that had made their run on the carrier, or coming at her, low on the water. A couple of them flew over us, and I fired my .45 at the airplanes that went by. I wasn't alone in doing so…but what an imagination it took to do that! That night, a plane came over us, real low, and there was confusion as to which airplanes would be in the air. I remembered that our planes had twin exhausts, and this one that flew over us had one exhaust, so we reported that this plane was coming in and we were pretty sure it was Japanese. And it was.

MH: In the end, Lexington was fatally torpedoed by the Japanese. Did you assist in her evacuation?

Brittin: A lot of survivors ended up aboard Aylwin. Two heavy cruisers, Minneapolis and New Orleans, rescued a lot of them. A few other destroyers, Anderson, Hammann and Morris, also got a lot. And it was Phelps, our squadron command ship, that finally finished off the Lex with her torpedoes. We were going to go to Brisbane, Australia, to offload the survivors, and that was great–civilization! But about 100 miles from Brisbane our orders were changed to go to a small island, Tongatabu.

MH: I suppose Aylwin was needed for the upcoming 'Round 2' with the Japanese Combined Fleet?

Brittin: We all raced back from the Coral Sea to Pearl just as fast as we could go without running out of fuel, with the other damaged American carrier, Yorktown, leaving a stream of oil in her wake. We went in and, like on December 7, there was no demand that couldn't be met–provisions, ammunition, fuel. I think we stayed there about 36 hours, then headed north to Midway.

MH: Of the carriers damaged at Coral Sea, Japan's Shokaku and Zuikaku were not repaired in time for the Battle of Midway on June 4, 1942, but Yorktown was. Were you still with her?

Brittin: At Midway we had Enterprise, Yorktown and Hornet opposing the Japanese carriers Akagi, Kaga, Soryu and Hiryu. Yorktown operated with her own destroyer screen. Enterprise and Hornet operated closer together; we were part of their screen. I think they had enlarged the circle of destroyers around the carriers, making it about 4,000 yards instead of 3,000 yards. We did a lot of shooting, and it was all anti-aircraft fire. We put up a pretty good screen, using all of our 5-inch guns. We used the 40mm and 20mm secondary armament, but I don't think we did very much damage with them. We also picked up downed fliers from both the Coral Sea and Midway battles.

MH: What did you do after Midway?

Brittin: As a solitary escort, we had to rendezvous with a supply ship or a tanker and head toward the Aleutians. I remember when we got there it was cold, and we really didn't have the right equipment and clothing. But in June 1942, the Japanese had raided Dutch Harbor and landed at Attu and Kiska islands in an attempt to decoy part of our carrier force up there and thus divide and reduce our force at Midway–a ruse that failed. We went into Dutch Harbor, and there was the wreckage of a Japanese Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero fighter right up against the coast. I thought it had been shot down. I later heard that a Zero that was in great shape had been recovered, but whether that was the one I saw or not, I don't know.

MH: What was your principle mission up there?

Brittin: We were up there for a total of three or four months. We operated out of Adak. Each day, one ship of our division would be out patrolling off Kiska, and at night we would fire intermittently at Kiska with one of our 5-inch guns, just to keep them awake. Of course, it kept us awake, too.

MH: You said it was cold in the summer. What was it like later in the year?

Brittin: We could wake up in the morning and find the entire ship was encased in ice–which was dangerous, because the weight affected stability. The Arctic winds, the williwaws, dictated what we could and could not do. One night there was a brutal storm. Stan Caplan had the deck. I was supposed to relieve him at the end of his watch. I asked him where we were, and he said, 'Truthfully, I don't know.' So I, being very 'by the book,' wouldn't relieve him because, you know, you can't relieve an officer of the deck until you know where you are. Poor Stan! I felt like an ass, but he agreed, and the skipper, Lt. Cmdr. R.E. Malpass, supported me on my decision.

MH: Caplan must have loved you after that!

Brittin: He was a great guy. When the war was over, I was in the hospital back in Norfolk, Va. Stan, between commands, visited me. We were together when the surrender was taking place at Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945. My wife was with us, and she remarked: 'You two guys! You're home, you're free, you're safe–and you want to be out there in the Pacific, in Tokyo Bay!'

MH: The Japanese tried to slip supplies to Kiska by submarine, and some were sunk by American destroyers up there. Did you encounter any?

Brittin: Yes, we had several contacts, but, of course, when it's real rough it's tough to get good sonar contacts. We had one that was a real good one, but we never dropped any depth charges on it.

MH: Were you supporting the Attu invasion in May 1943?

Brittin: Yes, that was a real fight. We were screening the landing force of attack transports and taking part in shore bombardment. The day we went in, it was very foggy and we couldn't see a damn thing, but a couple of days later it cleared up and we bombarded it more efficiently.

MH: And then came Kiska–the 'Battle of the Pips' with a Japanese naval force that wasn't there, followed by the invasion of an island that had already been evacuated. Any comments you'd care to make on that?

Brittin: Oh, we were one of the culprits. Aylwin was out there and had bombarded Kiska the whole time. But those submarines got by us, and on the night of July 25 the Japanese sent in two light cruisers, Abukuma and Kiso, along with six destroyers, to pull off the final evacuation. We never saw them.

MH: On that same night, the Allied invasion force expended a lot of 14-inch and 8-inch ammunition firing at a dubious radar contact. What happened?

Brittin: Aylwin was one of the four destroyers in the van. Astern of us, the battleship Mississippi reported a contact at a certain bearing and range, and its next message was, 'We're ready to fire.' The heavy cruisers San Francisco and Portland got involved, too; they picked up a 'pip' on their radar. So, too, did the battleship New Mexico. At 12:13 a.m., they started shooting and kept firing over the next 31 minutes. Well, we on the destroyers couldn't see a thing–you could only see the wake of the destroyer ahead of you–but we got instructions to make a torpedo attack. We didn't have the latest SG radar, just the older SC radar, so we didn't have a target. We turned and started in–but then the attack was canceled.

MH: A few hours after the Americans disengaged from whatever they were shooting at–possibly five Japanese submarines that were in the area–the Japanese dashed up to Kiska from the south and evacuated all 5,183 of their remaining personnel.

Brittin: When the Americans and Canadians finally landed on Kiska on August 15, all they found were three stray Japanese dogs. After the Aleutians, we returned to the Central Pacific, joining the Fifth Fleet. When we came into Pearl, it was full of ships–battleships, carriers. It was like a whole new navy. We felt a little lonesome.

MH: In what operations did you take part after that?

Brittin: The invasions of Kwajalein and Eniwetok at the end of January 1944. Our mission at Eniwetok was sort of an odd one. At one particular smaller island, we were assigned the task of knocking all the trees down. We used the 40mm and 5-inch guns. Eniwetok was an easy operation. Kwajalein was tougher–a lot of firing. During the raids on Truk in February and April, Aylwin was out with the carriers. We had so many planes in the air that the Japanese couldn't get to us at all. We also raided Yap and the Palaus, then supported the invasion of Hollandia, New Guinea. Hollandia was General Douglas MacArthur's operation. When the Army troops landed, they had no opposition. But part of the instructions for the invasion of Hollandia, a couple of pages, were about poisonous snakes. That's all the units who were supposed to land talked about.

MH: In June 1944, the Fifth Fleet supported the invasion of the Marianas and was confronted–unsuccessfully–by the Japanese Combined Fleet in the Battle of the Philippine Sea. Where was Aylwin during that battle?

Brittin: During the Marianas 'Turkey Shoot'? We were with the carriers. As I recall, by that time we had 15 of them–that's a lot of carriers. But looking at a radar scope, seeing those four big circles–it was awesome. On the second day, our aircraft attacked the retreating Japanese fleet at maximum range and came back in the dark. Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher took a calculated risk and lit up the fleet. I thought his decision was courageous. It allowed some aircrews to land and others to ditch so that destroyers could pick them up. We picked up a couple.

MH: Did Aylwin perform any other duties in the Marianas?

Brittin: We were used for bombardment, too–at Saipan, Tinian and Guam. On Saipan there was very tough fighting. At night, a couple of destroyers were always assigned to fire starshells. Every couple of nights, we would be assigned that job. There would usually be a couple of heavies there, too–cruisers or battleships. We later heard that a battleship captain complained, 'Starshells are endangering my ship because they are silhouetting it for the Japanese.' And the fleet commander, bless his heart, came back and said, 'If you think you are being endangered, you may leave.' I thought that was great. While fighting was still going on at Saipan, we were selected to escort the underwater demolition teams (UDTs) to Guam. Guam was fully fortified. We couldn't see a thing except the forest, coming up to the beach. Those UDT men got in the water and paddled ashore in little yellow boats. All I could think of was, 'We're a sitting duck out here,' since we couldn't be too far away from the beach, but not a shot was fired at them.

MH: Was Aylwin involved in the landings in Leyte Gulf on October 20, 1944?

Brittin: We were operating with the Third Fleet, north of Leyte. What we were concerned with was a major portion of the Japanese fleet coming down the coast. We weren't much help at Leyte.

MH: Aylwin was nearly sunk in the typhoon that battered the Third Fleet in the South China Sea on December 18, 1944. Were you there?

Brittin: I had left two days before, under orders. I went to an atoll where a Dutch liner, built for the South African trade, Klipfontein, was loading up with people bound for Pearl. The food service was magnificent–what a change from a warship! I had married my wife, Trudi, back in 1943. We finally had a chance to have our honeymoon in December 1944. We went to Vancouver and Victoria, British Columbia. When I returned, I had orders to board the destroyer Kidd at San Francisco, as her executive officer. By then I had the rank of lieutenant, and I had been the exec on Aylwin when I left her.

MH: What was Kidd's assignment?

Brittin: We proceeded right to Pearl. We had to work hard and work fast, getting ready for the Okinawa operation in late March 1945.

MH: What did you do during that campaign?

Brittin: The carriers we traveled with were used for strikes against Japan. Our primary task was to warn the rest of the fleet of any Japanese planes coming south. One time, the fleet turned around and they forgot to tell us. We were steaming at 25 knots until we could see the shores of Kyushu [Japanese home islands], 15 miles away, and we decided we'd better turn south!

MH: On April 7, the Japanese launched their first Kikusui ('floating chrysanthemum') operation, a wave of kamikazes, along with an attempt by the battleship Yamato to force her way to Okinawa that resulted in her being sunk by American carrier planes. On April 11, another wave of suicide planes, Kikusui 2, went after the Fifth Fleet. Wasn't Kidd one of the ships on the receiving end of that second wave?

Brittin: Could well be. We were on a picket station, 40 miles ahead of the task force during a strike on the Japanese home islands. I was in the command information center (CIC), where the exec belongs. The destroyer Black was 1,500 to 2,000 yards on our beam. A Japanese plane came in, and we were all alerted to it. It flew right over Black and then went toward us. Black couldn't fire for fear of hitting us. After we were hit, I'd say about half the crew in the CIC were killed and the other half wounded. We lost all lighting. As I started up to the bridge, I had trouble with my left leg. I had shrapnel in my left leg, the left side of my stomach and in the back of my neck. I got to the bridge, and it was a shambles, including many dead and wounded. The plane had gone in at water level from the starboard side. Its bomb went through the ship and out the other side, exploding just outside of the hull. We had a total of 38 dead and 55 wounded. I relieved the captain, Commander Harry G. Moore. He couldn't get up. He was wounded in the legs and back–I wasn't in as bad shape as he was.

MH: What did you do after taking command?

Brittin: Well, I found out just how good our damage control people were. They put out the fire in the area of No. 1 Fire Room and plugged some of the holes. My main concern was for the wounded. The ship's doctor was very badly wounded, and we had only two or three corpsmen operational out of six or seven. We could have used a dozen. We could still signal, so I asked the task force for a doctor. We repelled a plane coming in after dark; whether we shot him down or scared him off, I don't know. In the morning, we performed a burial at sea. A couple of hours later, I fainted from loss of blood. The next thing I knew, I was on a hospital ship. I was operated on aboard that ship and was subsequently taken to a hospital on Guam. The facility consisted of big tents, and they were great. But it was a six-month period before I was operational [back on duty]. Incidentally, we also recovered major pieces of that Japanese pilot and later buried him with full military honors.

MH: Where were you when the Japanese surrendered on September 2, 1945?

Brittin: I was in a U.S. Navy hospital in Norfolk. By that time I could walk with a cane. Later, while I was a lieutenant commander serving in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in 1946, I got the Silver Star for 'conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity as Executive Officer of the USS Kidd, in action against enemy Japanese forces in Western Pacific Waters on April 11, 1945.' I also got the Purple Heart and 13 battle stars on my campaign ribbons.

MH: What about your postwar career?

Brittin: After the war, while I was still recuperating, I took a semester at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania–the graduate school of business. Then I had thought that I was ready for civilian life, but the Navy contacted me and asked me if I would like to be skipper of an APD–a destroyer escort converted into a high-speed transport for Marine landings. While I was at Guantanamo Bay, emergency orders came for me to go to Burdo (APD-133), which was in China. I said, 'At least give me a couple days with my wife.' I was captain of Burdo for about five months.

MH: Were you involved in any special projects at that time?

Brittin: Several months earlier, I had put in a request for law school, and luckily I was selected and my orders were changed to transfer me to JAG (judge advocate-general). In September 1946, I entered George Washington University and chose to study international law, comparative law and admiralty law. When I finished law school in 1949, I got my orders to go to Ankara, Turkey, with the U.S. Mission. In 1951, I received orders to take command of the destroyer Fitch, operating with the Sixth Fleet, so I left my wife in Italy and joined the ship on the island of Crete. After 16 months, I received orders to take command of Fraser, out of Charleston, South Carolina, to take part in joint exercises with NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and Latin American countries.

MH: Did you ever get to use your training in law?

Brittin: Yes. After three years of sea assignments, I still had to pay my 'pint of blood' to JAG. When asked what I wanted to do, I said 'international law of the oceans.' We were getting ready for the 1958 law-of-the-sea negotiations, so the JAG admiral created a new office of international law and made me its director. The International Law Commission of the United States was about to hold a nine-week convention in Geneva on ocean law. I was adviser to the U.S. delegate, a judge who didn't know much about ocean law. I was fighting to save the three-mile limit. Of the 12 countries represented at the United Nations' International Law Commission, everybody else was opposed to three miles except for the British. I recommended that we send teams to talk to countries throughout the world and get their opinions. I spent two months going to every country in Latin America. Then I went up to New York to the United Nations, and while I was there I received orders to report to the cruiser Northampton to serve as operations officer on the Second Fleet staff, and on the ship itself.

MH: Were you able to get back into the legal field?

Brittin: I went to sea aboard Northampton for a year–with the Second Fleet in the Atlantic and the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean. When I came back, I worked for OPNAV (the staff of the chief of naval operations), policy and strategy division. One of the things I had done was write a book, International Law for Seagoing Officers, of which five editions were published over the years. From that strategy and policy branch, I became Admiral Arleigh Burke's aide on the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) for a year and a half, until he retired. Great man! When I finished, I was ordered to the National War College, Class of 1962; then I served as commodore of Desron 12. I was going to retire in 1963, but officials in the State Department were interested in my background regarding ocean law and asked if I would like to come over there. I did. One of the reasons I went was because it would involve shore duty and I could be with my wife, but I was spending an average of 13 days per month out of the country throughout that period. I was away from home more than when I was at sea! I retired in 1975 as Coordinator of Ocean Affairs. Since then, I have been active in the Council on Ocean Affairs.

This article was written by Jon Guttman and originally appeared in the April 1995 issue of Military History.

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4 Responses to “World War II: Interview with Burdick Brittin”


  1. 1
    Ponciano J. Morales says:

    I was the personal steward of then Captain Brittin on board the USS MAURY (AGS-16)in 1963. I would like very much to contact the family whom I knew then, namely Mrs. Gertrude Brittin and the three sons Michael, Chris and Peter.

    • 1.1
      Lee Vanderhoef says:

      Dear Mr. Morales,

      I don't know if anyone ever responded to your inquiry or if you were ever able to contact any of the Brittins but I have known all of them since my high school years (Peter was my high school sweetheart.) If you have not been able to contact them please let me know and I will help out.

      Sincerely,

      Lee Vanderhoef

      • 1.1.1
        Brian Edwards says:

        Dear Jon Guttman;

        Burt was my Great, Great Uncle. I am his sisters', Grace Elise Brittin, Great Grandson and am delighted that this article exists. I didn't know him very well for I was very young when I got to meet him on some of our family beach trips in the early 90's, some Christmases and/or Thanksgivings ( my memory is a little vague but my Grandmother will know the answer). Reading this has given me some insight into who he was, thank you. I look forward to telling the tale of 'Uncle Burt' (as my cousins and I referred to him) to my children.

        Sincerely

        -Brian Edwards

  2. 2
    Dan Zini says:

    Capt. B. H. Brittin was commanding officer of the USS Maury, AGS 16 from approx. 8-62 to 7-63. He commanded TU 73.8.1 during Maury's 4th of 5 Gulf of Thailand survey assignments. I served under
    Capt. Marshall, Capt. McNulty and Capt. Brittin from 10-60 until discharged 09-63 with a few months TAD aboard USS Serrano under
    LCDR Castle. Time may have faded Capt. Brittin's memory of his USS Maury command but I recall him as a fine captain and very concerned for his crew.



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