Willard Woodward Keith, Jr.
Born on 13 June 1920 in Berkeley, Calif.—enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve on 18 April 1939 and served as an enlisted man until he received an honorable discharge on 3 November 1940 to take an appointment as 2d lieutenant in the reserves on the following day. Called to active duty on 20 February 1941, he served "stateside" until his unit was transferred to the South Pacific in the spring of 1942 to build up for the first Allied offensive in that theater—Guadalcanal.
Eventually promoted to captain, Keith led Company "G," 2d Battalion, 5th Marines, from the initial phase of the Guadalcanal campaign. He landed with them at Tulagi on 7 August 1942.
By that autumn, the campaign on Guadalcanal Island was still a hard-fought one. In an offensive aimed against Japanese artillery positions sited beyond the Matanikau River and within range of the important Henderson Field airstrip, the 2d Battalion was assigned the left flank position. Initial elements of the battalion crossed the Matanikau in rubber boats before dawn on 3 November 1942, supported effectively by dive bomber strikes, artillery, and naval gunfire. That afternoon, Capt. Keith led his company against a Japanese strong-point manned by a platoon not only reinforced with heavy machine guns but concealed by heavy jungle growth and entrenched on commanding high ground. Realizing that neither mortar nor artillery fire could reach the Japanese positions, Keith—determined to evict the Japanese—initiated and led successive bayonet and hand grenade charges in the face of heavy fire. Although the Japanese platoon was annihilated, Capt. Keith was struck in the head by a bullet and killed instantly.
While the 1st Marine Division (Reinforced)—of which the 2d Battalion, 6th Marines was a part—received the Presidential Unit Citation, Capt. Willard W. Keith, Jr., was awarded a Navy Cross posthumously for a "grim determination and aggressive devotion to duty" in keeping with the "highest traditions of the naval service."
The contract for the construction of Willard Keith (DE-314)—an Smarts-class destroyer escort laid down on 22 January 1944 at Vallejo, Calif., by the Mare Island Navy Yard—was cancelled on 13 March 1944.
The contract for the construction of Willard Keith (DE-754)—a Cannon-class destroyer escort whose keel had been laid down on 14 September 1943 at San Pedro, Calif., by the Western Pipe and Steel Co.—was cancelled on 2 October 1943.
(DD-775: dp. 2,220; l. 376'6"; b. 41'2"; dr. 15'8" (max.); s. 34 k.; cpl. 336; a. 6 5", 12 40mm., 11 20mm., 2 dct., 6 dcp., 10 21" tt.; cl. Allen M. Sumner)
Willard Keith (DD-775) was laid down on 5 March 1944 at San Pedro, Calif., by the Bethlehem Steel Co.; launched on 29 August 1944, sponsored by Mrs. Willard W. Keith, the mother of Capt. Keith; and commissioned two days after Christmas of 1944, Comdr. Lewis L. Snyder in command.
After shakedown training out of San Diego, Calif., Willard Keith operated temporarily out of the Precommissioning Training Center at San Francisco, Calif., as training ship for engineering personnel. During that time, she made weekly trips from San Francisco to San Clemente Island and back.
Completing that tour of training duty in mid-April 1945, Willard Keith sailed for the Western Pacific (WestPac) on 16 April, heading for Pearl Harbor in company with Atlanta (CL-104) and Tillman (DD-641). After onward routing to the forward area, Willard Keith arrived at Okinawa on 29 May. Assigned screening and radar picket duties for the remainder of the Okinawan campaign, Willard Keith destroyed two Japanese planes during her tour. Her closest brush with the enemy came on the final day of the campaign when a Japanese torpedo plane winged in low and unobserved and launched her "fish." Fortunately, the warhead proved a dud and only left a dent in Willard Keith's hull.
After her baptism of fire, Willard Keith then joined a cruiser-destroyer task force on 24 June for antishipping sweeps into the East China Sea. Due to the losses inflicted upon the once-large Japanese merchant marine, however, the pickings were slim. Willard Keith spent the remainder of the war engaged in such largely fruitless operations and, with the coming of the Japanese surrender, drew screening duties with the initial occupying forces in the erstwhile enemy's home waters. That autumn, the destroyer visited the Japanese ports of Wakayama, Yokosuka, Nagoya, and Tokyo, on occasion performing courier service between ports, carrying men and mail.
Chosen as the flagship for Commodore John T. Bottom, Jr., Commander, Task Flotilla 1 and area commander, Willard Keith wore the commodore's burgee pennant while remaining at Nagoya from the last part of October until early December. On 5 December, Commodore Bottom's burgee came down, and Willard Keith put to sea to rendezvous with her sister ships in Destroyer Squadron (DesRon) 66. She then sailed east reaching the west coast in time to spend Christmas at San Diego, Calif
Subsequently, Willard Keith proceeded down the west coast; transited the Panama Canal, crossed the Gulf of Mexico and then proceeded around the tip of Florida bound for New York City. After voyage repairs at the New York Navy Yard, Brooklyn, N.Y., the destroyer stood out of the yard on the last day of January and proceeded up the eastern seaboard to Newport, R.I. She engaged in gunnery exercises out of that port and upon conclusion of that first phase of her peacetime training program, returned to New York. She made five more short round trips between New York and Newport until 12 July, when she set out for Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
After operations in the British West Indies area, Willard Keith returned to Norfolk, Va., from whence she escorted the veteran battleships Washington (BB-56) and North Carolina (BB-55) to Culebra, Puerto Rico, for shore bombardment exercises. The destroyer then returned to Norfolk as part of the screen for the battlewagons, before she drew another escort assignment, this time with the aircraft carrier Philippine Sea (CV-47). Conducting exercises and maneuvers en route, the carrier and her consorts reached Guantanamo Bay for training before returning northward and putting into Newport.
Christmas and New Year's holidays came and went before the destroyer operated locally between Pensacola and Key West. During her time in those waters, she deviated from her routine once, when she sailed to Mobile, Ala., on 13 February 1947 to serve as one of the Navy's official representatives to the yearly Mardi Gras festivities. For the remainder of the spring months, Willard Keith cruised routinely between Newport and Key West, carrying out training duties off the eastern seaboard.
Arriving at Norfolk on 20 June 1947, Willard Keith was assigned to the Atlantic Reserve Fleet a short time later. "Mothballed" at Charleston (S.C.) Naval Shipyard, the destroyer remained inactive until the Fleet buildup brought about by the Korean War in 1950.
Recommissioned on 23 October 1950, Willard Keith was assigned to the Atlantic Fleet. After her activation was completed on 27 November, the ship departed Charleston, shaping course for Norfolk, Va. Subsequently pushing on to Guantanamo Bay planeguarding for the Fleet carrier Intrepid (CV-11) en route Willard Keith reached her destination on 13 January 1951 to commence her shakedown soon thereafter.
Completing that training phase on Washington's Birthday 1951, Willard Keith stopped briefly at Culebra for gunnery exercises before proceeding on to Norfolk and upkeep. After a three-month overhaul, the destroyer returned to the Guantanamo region for further refresher training. She then returned to Norfolk for a tender upkeep.
On 3 September 1951, Willard Keith departed the east coast, bound for the Mediterranean and duty with the 6th Fleet. Relieving Dennis J. Buckley (DD-808) as a unit of that force on the 22d of the month, Willard Keith spent the next six months in the "Med," making operational visits to such ports as Gibraltar; Naples and Trieste, Italy; Augusta Bay, Sicily; Istanbul, Turkey; Leros, Greece; and Suda Bay, Crete.
From November of 1951 to February of 1952, Willard Keith operated in company with John W. Weeks (DD-701) as a unit of the Northern European Force under the overall command of Real Admiral W. F. Boone. During that period of time, the destroyer visited Plymouth, England; Copenhagen and Bornholm, Denmark, Bremerhaven, Germany; Bordeaux, France, and Londonderry, Northern Ireland. While operating out of the last-named port, she conducted exercises jointly with British destroyers.
While in northern European waters, Willard Keith performed rescue and escort duties for a week, assisting the crippled SS Flying Enterprise before that ship broke apart and sank in heavy seas. That incident gained the United States Navy international attention at the time. The owners of the lost ship, the Isbrandtsen Lines, later presented a plaque to Willard Keith in appreciation for her assistance rendered to their vessel.
Completing her duty in European waters early in February 1952, Willard Keith shaped course for home, reaching Norfolk on 6 February for leave and upkeep. Once the needed voyage repairs had been accomplished and both officers and men refreshed after their deployment overseas, the destroyer headed north, departing Norfolk on 21 April 1952. She was bound for Argentia Newfoundland, with a party of observers from the United States Naval Underwater Sound School embarked on board. From 21 April to 12 May, the destroyer then conducted antisubmarine warfare (ASW) drills for the benefit of the observers.
Upon the ship's return to Norfolk, all hands began to make preparations for a scheduled midshipmen's cruise. In early June, the ship sailed to Annapolis, Md., and embarked 72 officers-to-be, taking them to Norfolk. Subsequently, Willard Keith sailed to European waters and then to Guantanamo Bay. Ports visited during the midshipmen's cruise included Torquay, England, and Le Havre, France.
Returning to Norfolk via Guantanamo, Willard Keith disembarked her passengers and resumed her routine of training. She conducted two weeks of hunter/ killer training in company with the escort carrier Block Island (CVE-106) a task group under the command of Rear Admiral D. V. Gallery.
Willard Keith put back into Norfolk at the end of November and spent the remainder of the year there. She departed her home port nine days into the new year, though, setting sail for Pensacola, Fla., assigned as plane guard for the light carrier Monterey (CVL-26). En route, however, an urgent message from Commandant, 6th Naval District, directed the ship to proceed to a rendezvous with an LST which had a Marine sergeant on board who was stricken with appendicitis. Willard Keith complied and transported the man to Charleston, S.C., where he received medical attention. The ship received a special commendation from the Commandant of the 6th Naval District for her fine work in helping to save the man.
Ultimately completing her assigned duties in company with Monterey, Willard Keith returned to Norfolk to prepare for a scheduled three and one-half month overhaul. After repairs and alterations at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard from 11 February to 27 May, Willard Keith conducted refresher training out of Guantanamo Bay after first stopping at Norfolk en route. Returning to her home port on 4 August, the destroyer subsequently sailed for the Far East on 25 September in company with the other ships of Destroyer Division (DesDiv) 221.
The division reached Yokosuka, Japan on 10 November 1953, via Bermuda, Gibraltar Naples, Port Said Aden, Colombo, and Manila. Willard Keith and her sister ships operated with Naval Forces, Far East, under the overall command of Rear Admiral Robert P. Briscoe. Operating with the hunter/killer group for the initial part of her time in the Far East, the destroyer served with part of the United Nations Blockading and Escort Group. In company with James C. Owens (DD-776), Willard Keith performed plane guard services for two weeks with the Australian aircraft carrier, HMAS Sydney, as that ship conducted flight operations. During the course of the tour, Willard Keith visited the ports of Sasebo and Yokosuka, Japan Inchon, Korea; and Buckner Bay, Okinawa.
Completing her WestPac tour in March 1954, Willard Keith and her squadron mates returned to the United States via Midway, Hawaii, San Francisco; Long Beach, the Panama Canal, Havana, Cuba, and Key West, Fla., returning to Norfolk on 1 May and thus completing the ship's circumnavigation of the globe. For the remainder of the year 1954, Willard Keith operated from Labrador to the Caribbean, taking part in antisubmarine warfare (ASW) exercises and amphibious exercises interspersed with routine upkeep periods in port.
After spending Christmas, 1954, in her home port Willard Keith departed Norfolk five days into the new year, 1955, bound for the Mediterranean. She paid goodwill calls at the ports of Algiers, Naples, Genoa, and the Azores in the course of her extended deployment, before she returned to Norfolk on 15 March. Then, after a brief upkeep period, Willard Keith offloaded stores and ammunition and shifted to the Norfolk Naval Shipyard for a four-month overhaul. Emerging from the shipyard on 8 August, the destroyer conducted refresher training out of the familiar waters of Guantanamo Bay before conducting gunfire support exercises with the rest of her division at Culebra. Returning northward that autumn, she conducted amphibious warfare gunfire support exercises as a fire support unit during Marine Corps amphibious landing exercises off the coast of North Carolina.
For the next seven years, Willard Keith remained with DesRon 22, operating from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea and Persian Gulf. She participated in a variety of goodwill missions, midshipmen cruises and the usual training assignments in gunnery, ASW and the like.
1958-1960 Ports of call on the USS Willard Keith DD 775
03/21/1958 Gitmo Bay Cuba
03/21/1958 Kingston, Jamaica
06/27/1958 Montreal, Canada
08/15/1958 Underway to the Mediteranean.
09/17/1958 Bermuda Island.
09/281958 Naples Italy
10/01/1958 Catania, Sicily
10/10/1958 Augusta Bay, Sicily
10/13/1958 Golfe Juan, France
10/21/1958 Athens, Greece
10/24/1958 Port Said, Egypt
10/25/1958 Suez Canal
10/29/1958 Aden, Arabia
11/03/1958 Bahrain Island in the PersianGulf
11/13/1958 Das Island
11/24/1958 Djibouti French Somiland
11/27/1958 Massawa, Ethiopia
12/02/1958 Suez City, Egypt
01/23/1959 Iskenderun, Turkey
03/11/1959 Norfolk, Virginia. Total miles on cruise- 36,757
02/13/1960 Des Pamas, Spain
02/17/1960 Ropollo, Italy
03/05/1960 Patras, Greece
03/14/1960 Thessolonika, Greece
03/21/1960 Rhodes, Greece
03/30/1960 Pireaus, Greece
04/15/1960 Beirut, Lebanon
June of 1960 Port Said, Egypt, Port Suez, Massawa, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Iskenderun, Turkey,
07/01/1960 Barcelona, Spain
07/21/1960 Leghorn, Italy
07/30/1960 Trieste, Italy
08/08/1960 Ropollo, Italy
08/31/1960 Norfolk, Virginia. Total miles on cruise- 39,000
I kept this log while serving on the Keith, Larry Miller MM2
April of 1961, Written by Van Wells BMSN 59-61 Sent by Mike Heffernan (59 - 61 ) SN
The Keith was transferred, along with other DD’s and support ships to Key West Fla., to support the forces of Cuban Nationals in an effort to overthrow the Castro government. This was a clandestine operation, under the authority of a major USA government Department. After several days, the operation was terminated, and the Keith, and other ships were returned to the Atlantic Fleet.
We abruptly left Key West late in the afternoon of Tuesday April 19. We were accompanied by four other destroyers, I do not remember their names but my recollection is that they were not other DesRon 22 ships. Also in my memory bank is that just prior to casting off a Navy car drove onto the pier and an Admiral got out and boarded one of the other destroyers, an incident I thought odd even at the time. I can only assume he became the Senior Officer of our provisional destroyer squadron normally a Captain’s (rank) job, not an Admiral’s. My letter says ‘we went into Condition III”. Condition III is considered normal wartime cruising and something the Keith probably had not done for ‘real’ since World War II. While Condition III is a level below ‘General Quarters Battle Stations” the guns are manned with ammunition available for immediate loading and firing. My memory is that we steamed in column all night, scuttlebutt right or wrong, was that we were off the Northern coast of Cuba. At daybreak we suddenly turned north, picked up speed and headed toward Key West. Before we made port the Old Man issued specific orders that we were not to talk to any reporters….easy for me I had no idea where we had been or what we were doing. No reporters asked me anything anyway.
Later on the afternoon of the 21st or 22nd we once again departed Key West on short notice. My recollection is that I was in a bar on Liberty when a Navy truck equipped with a bull-horn came through town (Key West was not a large place in 1961) ordering sailors to immediately return to their ships. We pulled out, alone this time I believe; as soon as we were out of lands sight we stopped and put sailors on stages over the sides to paint over the numbers and name of the ship. We also took down the American flag. Under way again we steamed at Condition Three. In the middle of the night we rendezvoused with another U.S. destroyer, while maintaining a good clip, we (under my supervision) rigged a highline and received a single box about three feet square from the other ship. (name unknown). As soon as the box was on deck it was taken forward, I assume to the Bridge, CIC or the Radio Shack. What was in it I have no idea. My best guess, some type of radio. To my limited knowledge nothing else unusual occurred that night. About daylight we stopped again in the open sea, painted the numbers / name back on the ship. We ran the flag back up and returned to Key West. My recollection is that Liberty was cancelled and the crew restricted to the ship.
On the afternoon of the 22nd or 23rd once again with little notice we depart Key West, and once again as soon as we are out of sight of land we stop, put sailors over the sides, and paint over the ship’s name and number and pull down the flag. We steam steady all night and at first light pull within a half mile or less to a point on the Cuban coast. I have absolutely no idea where we were but best guess is Western part of the North Coast. What I could see was thick forest, almost jungle like, and what looked like the mouth of a small river. Within a few minutes three’ Landing Craft, Vehicle Personnel’ better known as LCVP’s came chugging out of the river headed in our direction. It was oblivious they had been waiting on us. LCVP’s were primarily designed to carry troops ashore during an invasion in WWII; by 1960 they were predominantly used as general utility boats. Under any use they were not designed to sail the open seas. A destroyer has neither the space on deck or equipment to hoist 35 foot boats aboard. We soon learned the Keith had been assigned to ‘escort’ the three boats back to Key West.
I honestly do not remember how long it took us to get back to Key West. My recall was that it was late the same day, but my memory here is not strong. The boats were slow, at best probably 4-5 knots (5-6 mph). More than likely we were at least 90 miles from Key West. Doing the math makes for most of a day.
What I do remember is making two trips in the motor whaleboat to the LCVP’s. The first trip was to transport one of the Keith’s officers to each boat. The second trip was to deliver fresh water.
A curious fact about the officers; they wore enlisted men’s dungaree uniforms. When we first arrived in Key West several reservist’s doing their annual two-week training tours reported aboard. One was an officer, about my size; he wore one of my uniforms.
I do not to this day know why the three officers wore EM uniforms. I do not know what their purpose was once on the boats…navigation? Communication? Take command?
I do not for sure (we were not told) who was in the boats. They spoke English and at the time I assumed they were US Marines. Each of the boats was loaded with boxes that appeared not to have been open. They were in olive drab ‘utilities’. I do not remember seeing any insignia.
As we neared land we lay to, painted the numbers back on the ship and escorted our three boats into Key West. The three boats tied up about 100 yards away, within minutes the men aboard were loaded into a waiting bus and whisked away.
CREW MEMBERS WERE, AND STILL ARE ELGIBLE FOR THE NAVY EXPEDITIONARY MEDAL.
Mike Heffernan (59 - 61 ) SN
She also participated in the "quarantine" operations in the Autumn of 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis. One of the more pleasant highlights of that period occurred during the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959 during which time Willard Keith escorted the Royal yacht, HMS Britannia, the latter having Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, embarked on board.
On 1 October 1963, Willard Keith began a new phase of her career. Reporting to DesRon 34 for duty, the warship soon commenced operating as a Naval Reserve training (NRT) ship. For the next nine years, Willard Keith operated in that capacity, accomplishing reserve training with monthly drill weekend cruises for the reservists permanently assigned to the ship's reserve crew and undertaking two-week active duty training cruises for reservists getting their annual active sea duty training. She ranged from the eastern seaboard to Guantanamo Bay as an NRT destroyer, providing the platform for training necessary to maintain a skilled pool of reservists ready for any eventuality.
Ultimately considered to have capabilities that were not up to modern Fleet standards Willard Keith was chosen for inactivation and transfer. Decommissioned on 1 July 1972 at Norfolk, Va., Willard Keith was transferred to the Navy of the Republic of Colombia. Simultaneously stricken from the Navy list, the destroyer was renamed Caldes (DD-02). She served the Colombian Navy until disposed of in 1977.
Willard Keith (DD-775) earned two battle stars for her World War II service.