Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1946 period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, Oct 23, 2019: No Greater Honor
Here we see the hard-charging John C. Butler-class destroyer escort USS Samuel B. Roberts (DE-413), photographed from sistership USS Walter C. Wann (DE-412), only a week or two before she was lost in off Samar on 25 October 1944, during the greater Battle of Leyte Gulf, which is 75 years ago this week.
At just 306-feet long overall, the 1,750-ton Butlers were not built to slug it out in surface actions, as they only mounted a pair of 5″/38 DP guns and a trio of 21-inch torpedo tubes, which was about half the anti-ship armament of contemporary U.S. Navy destroyer. Alternatively, they did come to war with an impressive anti-submarine armament for their size in the form of a Hedgehog device, two depth charge racks and eight K-gun projectors, making them popular in convoy escort in the Atlantic. Likewise, they had a serious AAA suite to include a mix of 15 to 20 40mm and 20mm cannons, which would come in handy in smoking attacking Japanese planes at low level.
Using a pair of “D” Express boilers and a matching set of two Westinghouse geared turbines, they had 12,000 shp installed, allowing the Butlers to run up to a theoretical maximum of 24-knots (more on this later). While not fast enough for fleet operations, this was enough for convoy and patrol work. It also allowed them to have a nice, long range of some 6,000 nm when poking along at 12 knots.
Capable of being produced rapidly, some 300 Butlers were on the drawing board at one time or another from no less than four shipyards, with many constructed in fewer than six months apiece. However, “just” 83 were completed, ranging from USS John C. Butler (DE-339), which was laid down 5 October 1943 to USS Vandivier (DER-540) which, although laid down only a month later, languished on the builder’s ways until she was finally commissioned in 1955.
Our spotlight vessel, DE-413, was named in honor of then-recently deceased Samuel Booker Roberts Jr. The double son of a sailor– his mother was a Great War Yeoman (F) and his father was a Machinist’s Mate in the same conflict– he joined the peacetime Navy Reserve in 1939 at age 18 and soon served on the battleship USS California (BB 44) and destroyer tender USS Heywood (AP 12) before being assigned to the combat transport USS Bellatrix (AK 20). In charge of one of the amphibious ship’s Higgins LCVPs, Coxswain Roberts was soon running Marines and precious cargo ashore on Guadalcanal, where he was killed on 27 September 1942, at age 21, after volunteering to use his boat as a decoy to draw Japanese fire during a combat evacuation of a trapped group of Marines (companies A and B of 1/7). His parents were later presented with his Navy Cross.
USS Samuel B. Roberts (DE-413) was laid down on 6 December 1943, at Houston, Texas, by Brown Shipbuilding Co. and was launched just six weeks later with the sponsor being his mother, Anna.
The Navy’s newest destroyer escort then commissioned on 28 April 1944, LCDR Robert W. Copeland, USNR, in command. Commissioned as a Naval Reserve officer in 1935, Copeland was a lawyer from Tacoma, Washington who had been called back to the fleet in 1940. Since then, he had commanded the tug Pawtucket (YT-7), patrol craft Black Douglas (PYc-45), and Evarts-class destroyer escort Wyman (DE-38) — seeing action in the Pacific on the latter.
Soon, Roberts was headed to the Far East after workups on the East Coast, via a convoy through the Panama Canal.
On 21 August 1944, she got underway from Pearl Harbor for Eniwetok and points West. By October, she was part of the armada prepping for the 7th Fleet’s upcoming invasion of the Philippines.
During that campaign, the last huzzah of the Japanese Combined Fleet, Halsey’s 3rd fleet was drawn north by a Japanese carrier task force while Kinkaid’s 7th Fleet was tied up to the south, leaving three escort carrier task forces, Taffy 1, 2, and 3, to cover the Leyte amphibious landings themselves.
This group of jeep carriers was confronted with a Japanese surface action group under VADM Takeo Kurita including four battleships — including Yamato–, six cruisers, and a dozen destroyers. To this RADM Clifton A. F. Sprague’s Taffy 3 could muster five escort carriers, the destroyers Heermann (DD-532), Hoel (DD-533), and Johnston (DD-557) and the four escorts Dennis (DE-405), John C. Butler (DE-339), Raymond (DE-341) and Roberts.
Spotting the massively outgunned ships of Taffy 3 just after dawn on 25 October, Kurita immediately ordered his battleships to open fire, in what could have quickly turned into an absolute slaughter. The jeep carriers, based on merchant freighter hulls, could only make 16 or 17 knots, meaning they had no hope of outrunning the Japanese without a head start.
That’s when the greyhounds of Taffy 3 leaped to the task force’s defense, largely replicating the effort made by Coxswain Roberts on Guadalcanal.
At 0655, Samuel B. Roberts went to general quarters. Three minutes later, lookouts reported “splashes from heavy caliber [sic] shells” with both green and purple dye markings falling close aboard, between Samuel B. Roberts and Johnston. At 0700, Samuel B. Roberts and her sister ships laid down heavy black funnel smoke to cover the run-and-gun-style fighting typical of a fierce surface battle.
Over the 1MC, Cmdr. Copeland calmly told his men they would be entering “a fight against overwhelming odds from which survival could not be expected, during which time we would do what damage we could.” Most of the crew prepared for the worst. RM3c Dick Rohde claimed, “He was telling us we were going to die, but he was telling the others guys that, not me. I kept thinking that somehow I’m going to make it.”
The smokescreen caused a slackening of enemy fire, and at 0716, Samuel B. Roberts entered a rain squall, further hiding her from the Japanese, for the next 11 minutes. After splitting his force into three separate groups to give chase, Adm. Kurita planned to surround Taffy 3 and destroy them. The rain squall provided the concealment Adm. Sprague needed, and intuitively he reversed course, causing the Japanese plan to fail. At 0735, Adm. Sprague hoped to scatter the enemy ships by ordering a torpedo attack, providing the escort carriers time to turn and flee. Ordered to make the first torpedo run against the enemy, the crews of destroyers Johnston, Hoel, and Heermann, prepared for battle. Dennis, Raymond, John C. Butler, and Samuel B. Roberts readied for the second torpedo attack.
Cmdr. Copeland acknowledged the order and later admitted being frightened, claiming, “My hands were ice cold from fear.” Waiting to fall in after the other destroyer escorts, whose skippers were all senior to him, Copeland realized none moved towards the enemy. Deciding to lead the charge himself, the skipper had just finished calculations needed to make a torpedo attack on the nearest enemy ship, a cruiser, when a near collision with destroyer Heermann temporarily threw Samuel B. Roberts off her attack run. Copeland fell in on a course 3,000 yards astern of Heermann and resumed the offensive, the first of the destroyer escorts to begin a torpedo run. Hoel valiantly led the charge, followed by Heermann and Samuel B. Roberts.
After a failed torpedo attack run on heavy cruiser Chōkai, Cmdr. Copeland dodged incoming fire from the enemy cruiser’s 8-inch forward guns. Salvos from several Japanese vessels splashed near the lead American warships, including Samuel B. Roberts. Cmdr. Copeland turned his attention on the enemy cruiser Chikuma, ordering his gunners to open fire on her at 0805. The two 5-inch guns on board Samuel B. Roberts, Mt. 51 and Mt. 52, “beat a regular tattoo on the Jap cruiser’s upper works,” Cmdr. Copeland wrote. The gun captains fired 608 of 650 shells, the entire capacity of the destroyer escorts’ magazine. Firing star shells and anti-aircraft rounds, the Japanese believed the attack came from a much larger force.
The battleship Kongō redirected her guns at Samuel B. Roberts and using high-explosive shells fired three from her 14-inch guns at the hapless destroyer escort. Kongo’s salvo found their mark, with one Samuel B. Roberts crewmember comparing “the impact to that of two trains colliding head-on.” The first shell struck near Samuel B. Roberts’s waterline, in the communications and gyro room. Destroying the radar, the shell extinguished all lights on board (except for the battle lanterns), knocking out communications between the skipper and crew. The second shell tore through the lower handling room of Gun 51, knocking many of the gun crew down or up against the bulkhead. Flooding began almost immediately, and the repair party quickly started moving ammunition topside. The third and final shell entered the main deck, crushing two sailors on its trajectory, before tearing a 4-foot-wide hole just aft of the hatch leading to Fireroom No. 1. The third projectile, failing to detonate until it cut through Samuel B. Roberts, also ruptured the main steam valve in several places. “All but two men…were instantly scalded to death in temperatures that soared to more than 800° or, half baked, begged for death as steam rose from their bodies.” Engine Room Number 2 was demolished while fuel and oil burned on the fantail and several smaller fires broke out below decks. Several other sailors on the 20-millimeter gun died, struck by flying shrapnel. Suddenly dead in the water, Samuel B. Roberts could not outrun her pursuers or mount a proper defense. The Japanese continued firing at her, and several destroyers rushed in for the kill.
The third shell also caused the escort vessel to dip in speed from 28.5 knots down to 17.5. Losing her two greatest assets, speed and maneuverability caused Cmdr. Copeland to realize, “we were then what you might call a ‘sitting duck in a shooting gallery.’” The aft 40-millimeter gun crew to no avail fired upon three torpedoes streaming towards Samuel B. Roberts. As several sailors braced for impact, they were relieved to discover the Type 93 torpedoes had passed harmlessly underneath. The Japanese, assuming the fighting would involve larger American warships, set the torpedoes to run too shallow. Just after breathing a sigh of relief, Cmdr. Copeland suddenly felt the bow of his ship lurch into the air.
The captain later noted Samuel B. Roberts “was simply shot to pieces the last 15 minutes she was in action.” Just after 0900, the second salvo of three 8-inch shells struck, one entering the engine room and exploding (several Japanese vessels switched from armor-piercing rounds to high-explosive shells). The second shell struck one of her 40-millimeter gun mounts, killing the entire gun crew. Shrapnel sprayed across the signal bridge, striking down more men. Only the 5-inch gun captained by GM3c Paul H. Carr remained in action, despite the likelihood of it overheating and exploding from the rapid rate of fire Carr’s crew put out.
While attempting to load the last of her 325 remaining shells, an overheated powder charge sparked a breech explosion destroying Samuel B. Roberts’s only remaining 5-inch gun, killing or mortally wounding every member of the aft gun crew. The only eventual survivor, S1c Sam Blue, was blown overboard and knocked unconscious. He later regained consciousness in the water, saved only by his automatically inflatable life belt. MM2c Chalmer Goheen found Petty Officer Carr grievously wounded, defiantly clutching the last shell. Torn open from the neck down to his groin, the dying gunner begged his shipmate to help him load and fire the final shot. Petty Officer Goheen took the shell from Carr and helped him to the deck before checking on other wounded and dead men lying about them.
Petty Officer Goheen carried a wounded man missing a leg to safety and returned to find Petty Officer Carr again attempting to load the gun with the last round. Once more taking the shell from the determined gunner, Goheen helped bring him from the gun mount, where the 21-year-old gun captain died five minutes later. For his heroic actions during the battle, GM3c Paul Carr received the Silver Star posthumously.
After sending his officers around the dying vessel to conduct damage assessments, Cmdr. Copeland realized Samuel B. Roberts was no longer in any condition to fight. Looking around his battered vessel, the skipper “could see dead and wounded men everywhere. From where I stood it was obvious that she was mortally wounded,” he later wrote. At 0910, Copeland gave the order to abandon ship. After crewmembers destroyed all important equipment and secret documents, they began abandoning the only home they had known for the past six months.
Leaving the sinking destroyer escort proved difficult for many sailors, even those not suffering wounds or burns. The majority of the crew abandoned ship on the less damaged starboard side. The dog Sammy, Samuel B. Roberts’s small mascot, had run terrified around the decks throughout the battle. After the order to abandon ship, she was last spotted leaping into the water, never to be seen again. One of the escort vessels’ human survivors, jumping into the sea without a life vest, later found Sammy’s floating nearby. Unfortunately, it proved too small for him to put on.
At 1007, Samuel B. Roberts sank stern first. Her survivors watched sadly, as she slipped beneath the waves. Several clung to three life rafts (including the one launched out the portside shell hole), and two net tenders for over 50 hours before being rescued.
During her torpedo run at the Japanese Center Force with the destroyers, Roberts made an estimated 28.7 knots by raising pressure on her boilers past the safe limit and diverting steam to the turbines. She earned the reputation that day as a brawler ready to take on battleships.
Copeland, who would receive the Navy Cross, later wrote that there was “no higher honor” than the privilege to lead such a gallant crew. After the war, he resumed his law career in Tacoma while switching back a reservist, eventually making Rear Admiral. He died in 1973 while an Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate, USS Copeland (FFG-25) was named for him.
As for Robert’s memory, she was quickly remembered by the Navy in the Gearing-class destroyer USS Samuel B. Roberts (DD-823), which would remain with the fleet until 1970
In 1986, an OHP, FFG-58, was given the name of the storied destroyer escort, which had earned a single battle star as well as a Presidential Unit Citation.
On her was placed a commemorative plaque of her namesake, the USS Samuel B Roberts (DE-413)
While escorting reflagged tankers during the Iran-Iraq War Operation Earnest Will, FFG-58 was struck by a mine on 14 April 1988 in the Persian Gulf, an incident that led to Operation Preying Mantis. The mine blew a 21-foot hole in the vessel and broke the keel of the ship, which post-incident analysis argued should have sent her to the bottom.
Nonetheless, the battered frigate’s crew leaped to her defense, going far and beyond standard damage control procedures in an epic five-hour battle to save her. Reportedly, men rushing forward into flooding and damaged spaced touched the original Roberts‘ plaque and drew inspiration from it.
Rear Adm. Anthony A. Less, Commander Joint Task Force Middle East/Middle East Force radioed Rinn several times from his flagship, Coronado (AGF-11), and at one point asked him to evaluate the possibility of losing Samuel B. Roberts. “No higher honor,” the captain replied, a reference to when the Japanese sank the first Samuel B. Roberts (DE-413) during the Battle of Leyte Gulf on 25 October 1944. That ship’s survivors had pulled Cmdr. Robert W. Copeland, their commanding officer, from the water and Copeland said he could think of “no higher honor than to have served with these men.”
Roberts was saved and eventually returned to the fleet after extensive reconstruction. Sadly, she was decommissioned in 2015 and is slated to be sold for scrap in the coming months.
As for the original 1944 destroyer escort, that vessel, along with fellow torpedo run destroyers USS Hoel and USS Johnston, are remembered at a large granite memorial dedicated in 1995 at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, California.
Another memorial to Roberts is located in the Memorial Courtyard at the National Museum of the Pacific War, formerly the Nimitz Museum, in Fredericksburg, Texas. Further, the USS Samuel B. Roberts Survivors Association is very active, although dwindling. A number of books have been written about Taffy 3 and that terrible day off Samar.
The charge of the tin cans that fateful day was remembered in maritime art.
In 2013, Roberts‘ 48-star national ensign, hauled down from the sinking ship by Chief Torpedoman Rudy Skau in 1944, was presented back to the Navy by a newly minted ensign who had been given the flag by Copeland before his death. It is housed at the University of Washington’s (UW) Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps program in Clark Hall, Copeland’s alma matter.
This month, as the Navy celebrates its 244th birthday and the Fleet remembers the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the largest naval battle of the modern era, Roberts was mentioned directly in the Presidential Message.
Aboard USS Leyte Gulf (CG-55), the battle and Roberts were also remembered, her action now ethos.
Displacement:1,350 long tons
Length: 306 ft
Beam: 36 ft 8 in
Draft: 9 ft 5 in
Installed power: 12,000 shp
2 × WGT geared steam turbines
2 × boilers
2 × shafts
Speed: 24 knots, designed
Range: 6,000 nm @ 12 knots
Complement:14 officers, 201 enlisted
Sensors: SF multi-purpose radar
2 × single 5″/38 DP (127 mm) guns
2 × twin 40 mm Bofors (1.6 in) AA guns
10 × single 20 mm (0.79 in) AA guns
1 × triple 21 in (533 mm) torpedo tubes
8 × Mk 6 depth charge throwers
1 × Mk 10Hedgehog ASW mortar
2 × Mk 9depth charge racks
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