Dragon 1/350 USS Laffey
KIT #: 10262
PRICE: 3,900 yen at HobbyLink Japan  ($50.00 SRP in US)
DECALS: One option
REVIEWER: Tom Cleaver


            My favorite ships are destroyers. Their very name - “destroyer” - beats the emotional daylights out of “fighter,” “bomber,” or “battleship.” I have always been a fan of World War II American destroyers. To me, they are the “fighter planes” of ships.  So far as I am concerned, there is nothing more pugnacious than a Fletcher, Sumner or Gearing class American destroyer.  My time in the Navy included the final years of these great ships, and I always got a rush to see them coming in and out of harbor, or doing unreps with the old USS “Rustbucket” off the coast of South Vietnam on Operation Market Time operations, though I knew that with my proclivity for sea-sickness, I would never be a “tin can sailor” (I got seasick going aboard to see a buddy on his Gearing DD that was tied up to the mole in Hong Kong).  While I love the flush-deck Fletchers, Sumners and Gearings, to me the most elegant American destroyer is the fo’c’sle-deck Benson class.  Did you know that in the movie “On The Town” (1949), Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra leave a Benson-class DD that’s still in measure 5 camouflage on the way to their 24 hours in New York?

            In 1958, I got my parents to cut loose of the incredible sum of $25 whole American dollars to get me the hardbound first edition of “History of United States Destroyer Operations in World War II,” which is still the definitive history, for my birthday.  The book is 24 inches by 18 inches by 3 inches thick - I still have it, and have probably read it through 20 times, with time spent on references to specific actions too many to number. It’s still the biggest book in my library other than the Random House Unabridged Dictionary. If you too are a Destroyer Fan, the original first edition is still available from the US Naval Institute, for a price that is not much more than I paid (with inflation factored in).

            So far as I am concerned, there are no war stories more stirring than those of the American destroyers that went toe-to-toe with Japanese battleships and cruisers in the waters off Guadalcanal between August 1942 and February 1943, which is probably the bloodiest period in American naval history.

USS “Laffey”:

            USS “Laffey” (DD‑459) was laid down January 13, 1941 by Bethlehem Shipbuilding Co. in San Francisco California.  She was launched October 30, 1941, sponsored by Miss Eleanor G. Forgerty, the granddaughter of Seaman Bartlett Laffey, an Irish‑born US Navy seaman and Medal of Honor recipient. Born in Ireland, Laffey enlisted in the United States Navy on March 17, 1862 and was assigned to the stern wheel gunboat USS “Marmora,” operating on the Mississippi River. On March 5, 1864, the Confederates launched a heavy attack on Union positions at Yazoo City, Mississippi. In the midst of the heated battle, Laffey landed a 12‑pound howitzer and her crew. Despite enemy rifle fire which cut up the gun carriage and severed the rammer, Laffey bravely stood by his gun and contributed to turning back the fierce Confederate assault, being was awarded the Medal of Honor for his courageous stand. USS “Laffey” would more than live up to the inspiration of her namesake.

            USS “Laffey” was commissioned March 31, 1942, at Mare Island, with LCDR William E. Hank in command.  The war was going against the United States, and after a very short shakedown cruise, “Laffey” proceeded to Pearl Harbor, where she was ordered to Efate on August 28, 1942.  She joined Task Force 18 on September 6 and was immediately plunged into combat.  On September 15, 1942, USS “Wasp,” (CV‑7) was sunk.  Laffey” rescued survivors and returned them to Espiritu Santo, where she was assigned to  Task Force 64 on September 18, 1942, under the command of Admiral Norman Scott, operating in what was becoming known as “Iron Bottom Sound” for all the sunken ships lost there.

            Laffey” participated in her first fleet action in the Battle off Cape Esperance on the night of October 11-12, 1942.  In the action, “Laffey” raked the Japanese heavy cruiser “Aoba” with a broadside from her 5-inch guns delivered from a range of less than 1,00 yards.  At dawn, the USS “Duncan” was sinking, while USS “Farenholt  was badly damaged, while the  cruiser USS “Boise”, though hard hit, had survived several hits. Japanese losses were greater, with the light cruiser “Furutaka” sinking, the heavy cruiser “Aoba” badly damaged, and the destroyer “Fubaki” sunk.

            During the course of the next several weeks, the Japanese attempted to destroy Henderson Field, as a preliminary to landing major reinforcements on the island to drive the Americans off.  Three days after the battle off Cape Esperance, the Japanese battleships “Hiei” and “Kirishima” shelled the airfield so badly that over 75 percent of the aircraft there were unserviceable.  My former father-in-law, a Marine on the island, recalled to me 30 years later that it was the worst night of his life and the one time in his 20-year career he was certain he was going to die (and he was later a member of the “Frozen Chosen”).

            The battle for the island was reaching its peak.  For the Japanese, it was “do or die,” while the Americans were hanging on by the skin of their teeth.

“A Bar-Room Brawl After The Lights Were Shot Out”

            If the Battle of Midway stopped further Japanese expansion, it was the Battle of Guadalcanal that broke the back of the Japanese armed forces.  Between August 2, 1942 and February 12, 1943, the U.S. Navy fought the most difficult campaign it ever fought. The height of this came on the nights of November 12/13 and November 13/14, 1942, with the bloodiest surface actions in U.S. Naval history, known as The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal.

            Knowing that the Japanese planned a major assault in November to retake Guadalcanal, Task Force 67 - a large reinforcement and resupply convoy commanded by RADM Richmond K. Turner - arrived in “Ironbottom Sound” on November 11. The supply ships were protected by two task groups, commanded by RADM Daniel J. Callaghan and RADM Norman Scott, with cover by  aircraft from Henderson Field. The convoy was attacked twice on November 11 by Japanese aircraft based at Bougainville.  Overnight, most ships were unloaded, but the convoy would not be able to complete unloading before the evening of November 13.  Throughout the day of November 13, the fleet was at battle stations as waves of Japanese airplanes swept in to attack.  That afternoon, the cruiser San Francisco and destroyer Buchanan were both hit, with 30 deaths and 50 wounded.  In the two days the fleet was there, 12 Japanese aircraft were shot down by anti-aircraft fire from the ships or by fighters from Henderson Field.

            Late that afternoon, ComSoPac warned of the sighting of a large Japanese task force headed down the Slot, which would arrive that night.  RADM Turner combined his heavy surface forces into Task Group 67.4 under the command of RADM Daniel J. Callaghan.  This was unfortunate, since it was RADM Norman Scott who had been the victor at the Battle of Cape Esperance in October and had the experience to command such a fight as was foreseen.  However, Callaghan was senior in rank by two days, though inexperienced in combat.  Task Group 67.4 was composed of Callaghan’s flagship the heavy cruiser San Francisco with Portland, the light cruisers Helena, Atlanta, and Juneau (which was Scott’s flagship), covered by the  destroyers Aaron Ward, Barton, Cushing, Fletcher, Laffey, Monssen, O'Bannon, and Sterett.

            Allied intelligence knew this was the opening move of the major Japanese operation to retake Guadalcanal.  If Henderson was knocked out this time, they might just do it. Task Group 67.4 was ordered to stop the Japanese at all costs.

            The oncoming Japanese force was centered around Battleship Division 11, with the battleships Hiei and Kirishima, supported by the light cruiser Nagara, and the destroyers Inazuma, Ikazuchi, and Akatsuki, under the command of VADM Hiroshi Abe.  Following behind Abe’s force was a Japanese convoy carrying 7,000 troops of the 38th Division, which were to be landed on Guadalcanal the morning of November 14, following the successful neutralization of Henderson Field.

            The night of November 12/13 was perfect for what the Japanese planned, being the dark of the moon with rain squalls in all quadrants. Unfortunately, the inexperienced Callaghan put the two ships of the task group with the newest SG radar - Helena and Fletcher - at the rear of the formation. The oldest destroyers led the formation, while San Francisco led Portland, followed by Norman Scott’s two anti-aircraft light cruisers, Juneau and Atlanta; all were equipped with the temperamental SC radar.

            At 0124, US radar picked up the Japanese fleet. At 0130, Callaghan's force intercepted Abe's bombardment group between Guadalcanal and Savo Island.

            Callaghan ordered a turn north to cross the Japanese “T” as Scott had done at Cape Esperance.  Both formations stumbled into rain squalls, which kept Callaghan from being certain of his fleet’s positions when Cushing confirmed the radar contacts as Japanese.  Cushing requested permission to open fire, but Callaghan delayed due to uncertainty.

            Suddenly both formations emerged from the squalls, with Admiral Abe surprised to find an unexpected American fleet practically within point blank range.

            Fortunately for the Americans, the Japanese were even less prepared for a surface engagement.  Their mission was to shell Henderson Field, and thus the battleships were armed with HE shells full of sub-munitions, rather than the AP, while the ships were not in battle formation.  Unfortunately for the Americans, the thirteen Japanese destroyers were all armed with the Long Lance torpedo and all the Japanese ships were better-versed in night fighting than were the Americans.  Almost all the American losses in the battle would come from this weapon.

            The Japanese illuminated the Americans with searchlights that were quickly shot out.  Realizing his force was nearly surrounded by the Japanese, Callaghan ordered, "Odd ships fire to starboard, even ships fire to port."

            What happened next was described by one of the surviving officers on Monssen as "a barroom brawl after the lights had been shot out".

            Laffey passed 20 feet to starboard of Hiei, narrowly missing collision. The Japanese battleship couldn’t depress her batteries low enough to hit Laffey, while the destroyer raked Hiei’s superstructure with 5-inch and machine gun fire, damaging Hiei’s bridge, wounding Admiral Abe, and killing his chief of staff, which cut off the leadership of the Japanese force.  Laffey” also fired all five of her torpedoes at “Hiei”, though without effect.  With “Hiei” on her port beam and “Kirishima” coming up on her starboard beam, “Laffey” used her five 20mm and 1.1 mount to shoot out the Japanese searchlights, to escape into the darkness.

            Sterett and O'Bannon also hit Hiei from close range. San Francisco then passed 2,500 yards away and Hiei, along with Kirishima, Inazuma, and Ikazuchi concentrated their fire on San Francisco. In a matter of minutes, San Francisco took 15 major shell hits and 25 lesser, disabling her steering and killing Admiral Callaghan, Captain Cassin Young, and most of the bridge staff. Fortunately, the first salvos from Hiei and Kirishima were the special fragmentation bombardment shells, which have saved San Francisco being sunk outright.

            As all this was happening, “Laffey” passed out of range of “Hiei” and engaged four Japanese destroyers at point-blank range.  A sudden barrage of 14-inch shells from “Hiei” swamped the crippled “Laffey” just as a Long-Lance torpedo fired by one the Japanese destroyer “Teruzuki” hit her just under her after 5-inch mounts.  As the order was passed to abandon ship was passed, a violent explosion in her after magazine ripped “Laffey” apart and she sank immediately, taking 59 of her crew down with their ship.  3 of her5 officers were killed and 8 were wounded, while 108 enlisted crewmen were wounded.

            In the resulting melée, Abe's warships sunk or severely damaged all but one cruiser and one destroyer in Callaghan's force and both Callaghan and Scott were killed. Two Japanese destroyers were sunk and another destroyer and “Hiei” heavily damaged. In spite of his defeat of Callaghan's force, Abe ordered his warships to retire without bombarding Henderson Field. “Hiei” sank later that day after repeated air attacks by CAF aircraft and aircraft from the U.S. carrier “Enterprise.”

            USS “Laffey” was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for her gallant performance in the battle.

            In 1992, the forward portion of USS “Laffey” was discovered by Robert Ballard, resting upright on the floor of Ironbottom Sound in 2,600ft of water, her bow guns still trained to port where they had last fired at the “Hiei” during the violent night battle which sank her.

            In April 2006, the cruise ship “Clipper Odyssey” came to a stop over the position of Laffey. Mrs. Cary Webb Sears, daughter of LCDR Hank, addressed the passengers and crew before leading a wreath ceremony.

            A second USS “Laffey,” DD 724, was also awarded a Presidential Unit Citation for action off Okinawa when attacked and hit by kamikazes while on radar picket duty; her story is told in the book “The Ship That Couldn’t Sink.”  The Sumner‑class destroyer USS “Hank,” DD 702, was named for LCDR Hank.


            USS “Laffey” is the second “Benson”-class DD released by Dragon, the first being USS “Buchanan.”  Dragon provides different detail parts, including a different forward superstructure and different stacks, so that a modeler could make any of the “Bensons” with suitable reference material, though the after 1.1 inch “pom-pom” would need to be replaced on those ships serving from 1943 onwards.  The kit is beautifully molded with a wealth of very small detail.  As is usual, the hull comes in upper and lower halves, and has very good fit.  Some photoetch detail is provided, but the modeler will have to obtain aftermarket sets (which have been released by both White Ensign Models and Gold Medal Models) for such things as rails, radar antennas, etc. For more on the kit itself, visit the preview.


            For me, construction starts with the hull, since it has been my experience that being able to work both inside and outside on that attachment ensures the best fit.  I followed that by attaching the deck.


            Since “Laffey” was painted in overall Measure 5 Dark Sea Blue, I didn’t have to pre-paint parts in different colors, and could proceed directly to assembly of the superstructure.  Dragon’s instructions are clear, and I followed them.  For this model, I closed up all the hatches.  Once I had the main superstructure complete, I proceeded to paint the model, starting with Hull Red, then masking for the black divider, and finishing with a color mixed to a paint chip for the Dark Sea Blue.  I also painted all the small parts on their sprues, and the left-over photo-etch I would be using for railings and radar.

            Before proceeding further, I applied the walkway decals, and the hull numbers, which went down easily under a coat of Micro-Sol.


            As noted above, the kit has a wealth of tiny detail.  I am glad that Dragon supplies an extra for each of these smaller parts, since one is bound to make at least one sacrifice to the carpet monster through the process.  For me, I started on the upper decks and worked my way to the lower decks, attaching bits and pieces according to the instructions.  I found no problems - other than having to work under the magnifier lamp so I could see everything, 1/350 scale being about as small as my eyes can deal with nowadays.

            I attached the armament aimed to port, the position they were in when “Laffey” was last seen in this world as she attacked “Hiei” in the Battle of Guadalcanal.

            When all was attached, I proceeded to attach the photoetch railing.  Fortunately, this isn’t on the scale of a “Hood” or “Prinz Eugen,” and the process was completed in bout 90 minutes. I then gave the model an overall coat of Xtracrylix Flat Varnish and attached the props, finishing off by attaching the model to the stand. 


            I have always liked the Bensons ever since seeing photos of them so long ago when I first opened that big book, “History of U.S. Destroyer Operations.”  Dragon’s kit doesn’t disappoint for creating a delicate yet purposeful little ship, one that in the case of USS “Laffey” came equipped with a very big heart indeed.  The model is recommended to anyone who has had experience of building a ship model.

Thanks to HobbyLink Japan for the review copy.  Get yours at www.hlj.com 

Tom Cleaver

October 2009

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