William Lewis Herndon, one of the Navy's outstanding explorers and seamen, was born 15 October 1813 in Fredericksburg, Va. Appointed Midshipman 1 November 1828, he cruised in Pacific, South American, Mediterranean, and Gulf waters from then until 1842. From 1842 to 1846 Herndon served in the Depot of Charts and Instruments (to become the U.S. Naval Observatory) with his cousin and brother-in-law, Matthew Fontaine Maury, preparing oceanographic charts and performing other scientific work invaluable to the safe and accurate navigation of the seas. During the Mexican War, Herndon commanded brig Iris with distinction.
In 1851 Herndon headed an expedition exploring the Valley of the Amazon, a vast area as uncharted as the wildest part of central Africa. Departing Lima, Peru, 21 May 1851, Herndon and his small party of six men pressed into the wild and treacherously beautiful jungles. After a remarkable journey of 4,366 dangerous miles, which took him through wilderness from sea level to heights of 16,199 feet, Herndon reached the city of Para 11 April 1852. On 26 January 1853 Herndon submitted an encyclopedic and profusely illustrated 414-page report to Secretary of the Navy, John P. Kennedy.
After 2 years of active service in Potomac and San Jaointo, Herndon, now a commander, was given leave in 1855 to command the Pacific Mail steamer George Law, renamed Central America, 20 June 1857, on the New York to Aspinwall run. Making his way up the coast from Aspin-wall with $2,000,000 in gold and 474 passengers, as well as 101 crew members, Herndon encountered a heavy gale off Cape Hatteras 7 September 1857. The gale steadily increased in savagery until the 12th, and Central America was shipping water through several leaks. As the ship pitched and rolled through the pounding seas, water in her hold put out her boiler fires. Commander Herndon reluctantly admitted that, despite the valiant efforts of crew and passengers alike, his ship was doomed and summoned aid by firing the ship's minute guns. At 2 p.m., West Indian brig Marine arrived to aid the stricken steamer. Disregarding his own life, Commander Herndon supervised the loading of women and children into lifeboats and watched them pull to safety in Marine. Herndon's bravery and his concern for his passengers and crew helped save 152 of the 575 people on board. Commander Herndon was last seen in full uniform, standing by the wheelhouse with his hand on the rail, as the ship gave a lurch and went down. A monument at Annapolis commemorates this intrepid explorer and gallant seaman.
(DD-198: dp. 1,190; l. 314'5" ; b. 31'9"; dr. 9'4" ; s. 35 k.; cpl. 122; a. 4 4", 3 3", 12 21" tt.; cl. Clemson)
The first Herndon (DD-198) was launched 31 May 1919 by the Newport News Shipbuilding & Drydock Co., Newport News, Va.; sponsored by Miss Lucy Taylor Herndon, niece of Commander Herndon; and commissioned 14 September 1920 at Norfolk, Lt. Comdr. L. H. Thebaud in command.
After shakedown in New England waters, Herndon was placed in reserve in Charleston 3 November 1920. She served in reserve for training exercises and maneuvers along the East Coast until she decommissioned at Philadelphia 6 June 1922. Herndon, after serving in the Coast Guard from 1930 to 1934, recommissioned in the Navy 4 December 1939. Following trials and shakedown, she reached Guantanamo Bay 23 January 1940 to join the Caribbean Neutrality Patrol. In July and August she operated out of the Canal Zone in connection with tactical and antisubmarine maneuvers so valuable in the long naval struggle to come.
Herndon decommissioned and was turned over to Great Britain under the lend-lease program at Halifax, Nova Scotia 9 September 1940. As HMS Churchill, she served as leader of the first "Town"-class flotilla in transatlantic convoys and patrol duty off the western approaches to the British Isles. High points in her career in the Royal Navy include participation in the search for Bismarck after the German superbattleship had sunk Hood, and a visit by her namesake, the redoubtable Prime Minister, on his way home from the momentous Atlantic Conference with President Roosevelt in August 1941. Churchill also served as an escort for the pre- and post-invasion buildup for Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa. Transferred to the Russian Navy 16 July 1944, the destroyer was renamed Delatelnyi (Active) and was sunk by a U-boat 16 January 1945 40 miles east of Cape Tereberski while escorting a convoy over the treacherous route from Kola Inlet to the White Sea.