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First Name: James

Last Name: Palermo

Birthplace: Staten Island, Richmond, NY, US

Gender: Male

Branch: Navy (present)

Rating: Fireman 2nd Class (Non Petty Officer)

Home of Record: NY
Middle Name: William

Date of Birth: 25 July 1919

Date of Death: 20 February 1943 (Presumed)

MIA Date: 19 February 1942

Rank or Rate: Fireman

Years Served: 1940-1943

•  World War II (1941 - 1945)


James William Palermo was born on 25 July 1919 in Staten Island, Richmond county, NY to John Anthony and Irene J. (Lee) Palermo who married 04 Aug 1913 in Manhattan, NYC, NY. James, the youngest child and the third son of four children had as siblings; John Michael, Irene Elizabeth and Nicholas Bernard Palermo. The three sons served in the US military during World War II; two survived.

James’ father, John, worked various jobs over his life time. He worked as a shipbuilder for the S.J. ship building company, on the steam railroad as a driller, and then he found work with the Richmond County’s Bureau of Public Works – a position he held during the 1920s – 1940s.

To help with family expenses and learn a trade himself, James’ older brother, Nicholas, enlisted in the US Navy in Brooklyn, NY on 2 Feb 1938 at the age of 20 setting an example not lost on his younger brother.

James completed two years of high school according to the 01 April 1940 US census and like so many youth of that era, he felt duty-bound to help his family with finances during the Great Depression. James was also lured to the trade and travel opportunities offered by the US military services. It was a chance to also find adventure. World War II in Europe had just begun, and he possibly felt the United States would eventually become involved so he decided to enlist sooner than later.

In the late summer of 1940, twenty-one year old James obtained a US Navy enlistment application at the Naval Recruiting Station (NRS) in NY City. He completed preliminary entrance examinations; submitted personal references, completed administrative paperwork, and passed background checks. James’ final requirement before enlistment was to pass physical and dental examinations administered at the NRS in NYC. Early on Tuesday morning, 08 Oct 1940 at NRS, NYC, James passed his physical and dental exams and was accepted for enlistment into the US Navy. He took the oath as an Apprentice Seaman (AS), US Navy (NSN: 223-88-16), with a service obligation of six years.

Later that day AS Palermo boarded the train for the nearly two hundred mile trip to the Naval Training Station (NTS), Newport, Rhode Island for approximately 6 weeks of recruit training. After he completed that training, Palermo was granted 10 days of “recruit leave” to return home to visit family and friends before being transferred to either a service school or to a ship of the US Fleet. At the expiration of his leave, James returned to NTS, Newport, RI where he received orders to report for duty to the aircraft carrier, USS Enterprise (CV-6). Traveling across the US to the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard (PSNY), AS Palermo boarded the battleship, USS Nevada (BB-36) to await the arrival of Enterprise at PSNY for degaussing and anti-aircraft installation (2-31 Dec 1940). AS Palermo reported on board Enterprise on 06 Dec 1940. Not long after he reported to Enterprise, Palermo applied to change his rating from Seaman to Fireman. His request was approved. On 08 Feb 1941, AS Palermo changed rate to Fireman Third Class (F3c). In the meantime, Enterprise had returned in early March to PSNY from Pearl Harbor for a short restricted availability. During the next six months Enterprise conducted training during numerous transits to and from San Diego and Pearl Harbor. On 01 July 1941, F3c Palermo advanced in rate to Fireman Second Class (F2).

Prelude to WAR!

As tensions between Japan and the United States heightened during 1940, the US Navy department began rapidly filling manpower shortages in the Asiatic Fleet. F2c Palermo was one of those sailors selected. On 13 Aug 41, F2c Palermo detached from Enterprise and transferred via USS Wright and USS Henderson to Asiatic Station in Manila for assignment. Palermo boarded as a passenger the sea plane tender, Wright (AV-1), in San Diego. She steamed to Pearl Harbor where Palermo disembarked on 21 Aug. Later that day he embarked on the transport ship, Henderson (AP-1) for his ride across the Pacific via Guam to his next duty station in Manila. Henderson arrived at Manila on 14 Sep 41 whereupon Palermo transferred to the destroyer, USS Peary (DD-226) for duty.

As Japanese aggression continued to rise in East Asia in 1940, many foreign governments began withdrawing all of their ground based forces and the majority of the naval forces, as well as, evacuating military and civilian expatriates from China. By autumn of 1940, the temper of the times and the persistent Japanese aggression made Shanghai untenable, so Adm. Thomas C. Hart, the Commander in Chief, U.S. Asiatic Fleet, ordered the withdrawal of all major Navy blue-water ships from China on 21 October 1940, leaving only the gunboats on the Yangtze. He also issued orders to evacuate all the families of US military personnel from China and the Philippines.

At first, there was push-back from the resentful spouses who initially declined to leave their husbands. It was only a threat to indefinitely restrict their spouses to their ships without leave that finally convinced the families; it was time to comply with orders and return to the continental United States (CONUS). Many traveled home on the President’s Steam Ship Line. Admiral Hart's directive probably saved many family members from internment by the Japanese or worse. For many of the married sailors whose families were sent home, it was the last time they would ever see them.

As the Asiatic Fleet reduced its presence in China, Peary’s operations indefinitely shifted to the Philippine Archipelago. During 1941, the bulk of her activities included training and patrols around the Philippine Islands.

In July 41, as Japanese aggression intensified with their move south into lower Indo-China, Admiral Hart warned his officers that he had no doubt that war would come although he didn't know how or when it would start. Hart trained his destroyer crews hard keeping them on a war-footing for extended periods and away from Cavite naval base as much as possible exercising his "defensive deployment."

Ordered to comply with the Adm. Hart’s “defensive deployment” well south of Manila, units of the Asiatic Fleet including destroyer tender USS Blackhawk (AD-9), USS Stewart (DD-224) and other ships of Destroyer Squadron Twenty-Nine (DesRon) 29, got underway on 25 Nov 1941, and arrived on the morning of 29 Nov 1941 in Balikpapan, a major oil port on the eastern coast of Borneo. Peary was not among the group of ships proceeding south.

Govern Yourself Accordingly!

On 7 December 1941 [8 December east of the International date Line], when the Japanese onslaught began across a wide area, from the Far East to Pearl Harbor, Peary was tied up at the Cavite Navy yard in Manila Bay. A number of other navy ship were also in the vicinity. When word was received that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. Adm Hart direct his forces to “Govern Yourself Accordingly.” Several days later all hell broke loose at Manila Bay.

Despite his best efforts, Admiral Hart was still caught by surprise by the Japanese attacks on 10 Dec 1941. Four of the Destroyer Division Fifty Nine (DesDiv 59) ships remained in the Manila Bay area during the first week of December 1941 for overhaul and repairs and two others to provide escort services for shipping. Pillsbury and Peary were in the navy yard at Cavite for repairs following a collision during night training exercises in late October. Peary was also there for a yard overhaul.

She was still pier-side at Cavite’s Central wharf on the morning of 10 Dec 1941 in a “cold iron” state. Peary was non-operational. Her engines disassembled, bow open awaiting a patch and, she was receiving “hotel” services (water, electricity and steam) from the pier (some reports indicate Peary was at the shipyard for routine maintenance). Many of her crew had moved ashore to continue repairs from base maintenance shops. Suddenly, about 1300, two flights of more than 50 Japanese twin-engine, land-based, medium bombers appeared over the naval installations and commenced to obliterate everything in sight.

About 1350, Peary sustained a direct hit with an estimated 250 pound bomb which contained a combination of shrapnel and incendiary explosives. The bomb struck her mast spraying shrapnel in every direction killing or wounding almost everyone on the fire-control platform, bridge, and other areas and starting fires. Eight sailors were killed outright and five officers, including the Commanding Officer, Lcdr Keith, were wounded. The executive officer, Lt Albert Eugene Gates, Jr., was found unconscious on the bridge mortally wounded. They were evacuated to Sternberg hospital in Manila where Lt Gates probably died (exact location of death unknown but presumed at the hospital.). According to Peary’s deck log of 10 Dec 1942, F2c Palermo was on board during the attack, but not wounded.

Unable to get underway and with little help on board or from ashore, Peary’s fate seemed sealed. Suddenly, the small Asiatic Fleet minesweeper, USS Whippoorwill (AM-35), braved the flames, smoke and exploding warheads from a torpedo shop on the pier to render assistance (with help from Pillsbury) to the severely damaged Peary. After much effort, Whippoorwill was able to tow Peary to a buoy some distance away. She moored alongside Peary and within a brief period began sending over damage control parties, water and food to the beleaguered Peary (Whippoorwill’s commanding officer received the Navy Cross for his actions that day.).

With the wounding of Peary’s CO and death of her XO, the ship’s temporary captaincy was assumed by Lt Martin M. Koivisto, who had sustained several shrapnel wounds himself during the attack. Lt John M. Bermingham, who had recently been the executive officer of the destroyer, USS Stewart (DD-224), was chosen for command of Peary based upon Lt Bermingham’s chance encounter with the Asiatic Fleet’s personnel commander on 10 Dec. In accordance with CINC, Asiatic Fleet orders dated 11 Dec 1941, Lt Bermingham assumed command of Peary as noted in Peary’s deck log entry of Thursday, 11 Dec 1941 and signed by M.M. Koivisto, LT, USN.

After the 10 Dec attack, the crew set to work making Peary ready for sea. It was a Herculean effort performed by the crew in conjunction with the facilities of Atlantic Gulf and Pacific Company to effect the minimum repairs in order to make Peary sea-worthy.

On 23-24 Dec 1941, Peary got underway on her first war mission; an antisubmarine patrol assignment in the Verde Island Passage between Luzon and the Philippine island of Mindoro. The day after Christmas 1941, the CO’s of Pillsbury and Peary were ashore at a conference with the Commandant, Sixteenth Naval District, Admiral Rockwell, to discuss releasing the ships to join other US forces in the Netherlands East Indies when enemy bombers suddenly appeared overhead. Peary was attacked by five flights of Japanese high level bombers. Each flight consisted of between 6 to 9 planes.

Lt Bermingham watched from shore as his new executive officer, Lt Martin M. Koivisto (he was also the gunnery officer), deftly maneuvered Peary around Manila Bay dodging bomb after bomb for several hours. Though she suffered a few near misses, Peary emerged virtually unscathed. Later that evening, Peary and Pillsbury were ordered to put to sea and proceed south by the best route and join Task Force 5 at Soerabaja, Java. For safety, each ship was to proceed independently.

Peary’s voyage south was eventful and dangerous as the Japanese held mastery of the air and sea. Intelligence information provided to Peary just after her departure from Manila indicated that Japanese warships probably lurked along his intended route to Surabaja. Lt Bermingham changed his track and destination to Darwin, Australia. Birmingham traveled only by night and during the day he brought his ship close to shore and tied up to trees and covered the ship with palm fronds and green paint in order to blend with the flora of the various islands. Several times, Japanese bombers flew overhead but did not detect the ship. At about 0800, 28 Dec, Peary sighted a large Japanese four-engine seaplane shadowing her. It was a Kawanishi HK6 “Mavis” flying boat. About 1400, three more Mavis’ joined and the attacks began with each plane making two runs dropping a single bomb estimated at 500 pounds. During the attacks Kovisto's gun crews kept up continuous fire at the enemy planes. Peary maneuvered successfully avoiding the bombs.

Finally, after the flying boats completed their attacks, two twin engine, single wing torpedo planes appeared and commenced an attack on Peary dropping two torpedoes off the port bow and two off the port quarter. Again, the skipper maneuvered the ship out of danger. However, after dropping their ordnance, the enemy torpedo planes fired several strafing bursts which struck the stacks. They were driven off by heavy shipboard machine gun fire from Lt Kovisto's angry gunners.

About 1800, off Kema Island in the Bangka Strait, three Australian Lockheed Hudson patrol bombers were sighted approaching from astern. The aircraft challenged Peary via signal light and she responded. The pilot was seen to wave his arm. However, one of the planes assumed a glide bombing profile. Peary’s anti-aircraft batteries opened fire and began maneuvering radically. One of Peary’s crewman lost his balance and fell overboard (he was picked up by a fisherman, but was turned over to the Japanese. He worked in a mine in Japan and was repatriated at the end of the war.).

Each Hudson made two attacks dropping a single 250 pound shrapnel bomb. There were no direct hits but near misses caused extensive damage. Peary was hit in various places topside and in the engineering spaces. The shrapnel hit in the engineering spaces and knocked one of Peary’s two main engines out of commission. It was great fortune that MM2 Hunter was not injured. One crewman was killed when he was struck by shrapnel (S1c Kenneth E. Quinaux, a machine gunner, was buried at sea during services at 2000 on 29 Dec 1941.). Prior to departing, each Hudson made a strafing run on the ship.

Peary anchored at Port Darwin at 0840, 03 Jan 1942 after a 2100 mile plus transit from Manila, Philippines to Darwin, Australia. Within a week of arriving at Darwin, twenty-eight enlisted men and officers became ill with a virulent form of Malaria or Dengue Fever, contracted when the ship anchored off remote Maitara Island near Ternate in the Halmakeras. It was necessary to stop there to make repairs after being attacked by Australian aircraft. Eventually eight men would die.

Peary received tender availability services from USS Black Hawk (AD-9) to affect temporary repairs and make Peary seaworthy. Those repairs were completed on 22 Jan 1942. Peary assumed submarine escort duties on numerous occasions. She was an anti-submarine escort for USS Langley (AV-3) from Darwin to Fremantle, Australia between 08-13 Feb 1942 and she steamed with USS Houston escorting a Darwin- Koepang convoy from 14 to 18 Feb 1942.

Peary returned to Port Darwin and anchored about 0100, 19 Feb 1942. About 1045, Port Darwin was attacked by a combined Japanese carrier and land base force of over 200 fighters and bombers. Peary was hit by five bombs. The fifth bomb, an incendiary, exploded in the after engine room opening the ship to the sea. Peary sank, stern first with her anti-aircraft guns still firing until the last enemy plane left the area.

Eighty-eight officers and men including the commanding officer were killed in her sinking; 57 survived, 20 of whom were wounded. F2c Palermo did not survive. He was listed as missing in action on 19 Feb 1942. His remains were unrecoverable. He was presumed dead on 20 Feb 1943.

F2c Palermo was posthumously awarded a Purple Heart, American Defense Service Medal w/Fleet Clasp (bronze star in lieu of clasp), Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal w/Fleet Clasp and two bronze stars (one bronze star in lieu of clasp), Philippine Defense Medal with a bronze service star, and the WWII Victory Medal. He may be eligible for the Combat Action Ribbon.


F2c Palermo’s family received a personal commemoration from President Franklin D. Roosevelt. It reads:

In grateful memory of James William PALERMO, who died in the service of his country at SEA, Asiatic Area, ATTACHED U.S.S. PEARY, 20 February 1943 (presumed). He stands in the unbroken line of patriots who have dared to die that freedom might live and grow and increase its blessings. Freedom lives, and through it, he lives -- in a way that humbles the undertakings of most men.

(Signed) Franklin D. Roosevelt,

President of the United States


Primary Sources:

1) Cox, Jeffery R., Rising Sun, Falling Skies, Osprey Publishing, UK, 2015.

2) Kehn, Donald M. Jr., In the Highest Degree Tragic, The Sacrifice of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet in the East Indies During World War II, Potomac Books, 2017.

3) Various Newspaper articles

4) Deck logs USS Peary retrieved 15 November 2021.

5) Northern Territory Library Roll of Honour: Browse location. www.ntlexhibit.nt.gov.au. Retrieved 20 November 2021.

6) Wikipedia page, USS Peary (DD-226), Retrieved 12 November 2021.

7) Wilde, E. Andrew Jr. (Ed). U.S.S. Peary (DD-226) in World War II, Manila to Darwin, 12/10/41-2/19/42 : Needham, Mass. : The Editor, 2007. http://destroyerhistory.org/assets/pdf/wilde/226peary_wilde.pdf

8) Kehn, Donald M. Jr., A Blue Sea of Blood: deciphering the mysterious fate of the USS Edsall, Zenith Press, 2008.

9) Fold3 by Ancestry Navy Muster reports and Change reports

10) Ancestry.com Navy WWII muster and Change reports


Link to USS Peary memorial in Darwin, Australia with list of names of those lost in the sinking of the ship. It’s a cenotaph.



Bio#368 compiled by Gerry Lawton (G47/GML470)

Military Hall of Honor #155511

Find A Grave Memorial #237630347

Honoree ID: 155511   Created by: MHOH




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