U.S.S. Samuel B. Roberts, DE-413
The little Destroyer Escort that fought like a battleship
In our post about the “Jeep” Carriers and the Battle of Samar, we focused on the heroic role the “Jeep” Carriers played, a veritable David and Goliath battle. That post was part of our series on the “Jeep” Carriers that had grown from a companion series about industrialist Henry J. Kaiser and his efforts in the automobile industry. In the post about the Battle of Samar, while focusing on the “Jeep” Carriers, we also wrote of the equally heroic efforts of the Destroyers and Destroyer Escorts in that battle, considered by many Navy historians to be our Navy’s finest hour. Today we feature the story of the Samuel B. Roberts, the little Destroyer Escort that fought like a battleship.
We will begin with an outline of the Destroyer Escorts.
The Destroyer Escort (DE) came into existence as an ocean escort against the submarine threat less expensive and faster to build than the larger DD-type destroyers. When opportunity provided, the Destroyer Escort could itself fulfill the mission of the Destroyer by attacking surface ships with guns and torpedoes and serving as scout ships of the fleet. No better example of this attack capability can be given than that of the Battle of Samar. In 1975 all Destroyer Escorts then in commission were redesignated Frigates (FF) and the type name “DE” was discontinued by the US Navy.
The Samuel B. Roberts, DE-413, was a John C. Butler class Destroyer Escort. As such, her “vital statistics” were:
Displacement: 1811 tons (full load)
Speed: 24 knots
Range: 6,000 miles at 12 knots
Armament: 2 5″/38, 1×3 21″ torpedo tubes, 2×2 40mm, 10 20mm, 1
hedgehog, 2 depth charge tracks, 8 “K” gun projectors
Complement: 14 officers, 201 enlisted
Westinghouse Geared-turbine drive, 12,000 h.p
This particular Butler-class DE was named after a hero of Guadalcanal.
Coxswain Samuel B. Roberts, 1921 – 1942
Coxswain Samuel B. Roberts, Jr. was born in San Francisco on 12 May 1921. He enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve in 1939 and was called to active duty in 1940. Roberts served aboard the U.S.S. California (BB 44) and the U.S.S. Heywood (AD 12), before being transferred to the troop transport U.S.S. Bellatrix (AKA 20).
In 1942, Bellatrix was assigned to Task Group Four, part of the Guadalcanal Assault Force. As a Coxswain for the Bellatrix’s Assault (Higgins) boats, Roberts became extensively involved in the landing of supplies from ships at sea to what was a very tenuous beachhead. As a result of the heavy fighting at sea beginning 7 August 1942, Coxswain Roberts was transferred to the Beachmaster unit on the island of Guadalcanal to perform transport and medevac duties.
Early on the morning of 27 September 1942, Roberts volunteered for a rescue mission to save a company-size unit of Marines that had been surrounded by a numerically superior Japanese force. Initially, the rescue group of several Higgins boats was taken under heavy fire and was perilously close to failure. Realizing the state of the rescue mission, Roberts unselfishly volunteered to distract Japanese forces by passing directly in front of their lines drawing their fire.
Roberts performed this decoy act effectively until all Marines had been evacuated. As he was about to withdraw from the range of the Japanese guns, however, Roberts’ boat was hit and he was mortally wounded.
For his valor and courage in the face of the enemy fire, Coxswain Samuel Booker Roberts was awarded posthumously the Navy Cross. Coxswain Roberts’ Navy Cross was proudly displayed in the Wardroom of the U.S.S. Samuel B. Roberts (FFG 58), the third ship of the U.S. Navy to bear his name, the second being DD-823, a Gearing-class Destroyer in commission from 1946 until 1970.
The subject of today’s post, DE-413, the first ship named in his honor, was was laid down on 6 December, 1943 by Brown Shipbuilding Company, Houston, Texas. She was launched on 20 January, 1944, sponsored by Coxswain Roberts’ widow, and commissioned on 28 April, 1944, Lt-Cdr. R. W. Copeland in command.
Following shakedown off Bermuda from 21 May to 19 June, Roberts went first to Boston Navy Yard then to Norfolk, Virginia to await assignment. She departed from Norfolk on 22 July, 1944 and transited the Panama Canal on 27 July to join the Pacific Fleet.
She arrived at Pearl Harbor on 10 August and conducted training exercises until sailing on 21 August, escorting a convoy to Eniwetok, which she reached on 30 August. On 2 September she steamed back to Pearl Harbor, arriving there with a convoy on the 10th. Following further training, she got underway on the 21st, escorting another convoy to Eniwetok where she arrived on 30 September.
Samuel B. Roberts next proceeded to Manus where she joined Rear Admiral C.A.F. “Ziggy” Sprague’s Carrier Division 25 which consisted of Escort Carriers Fanshaw Bay (flagship), Saint Lô, White Plains, and Kalinin Bay. COMCARDIV 25 was screened by DESPAC ’44 veteran Fletcher-Class destroyers Hoel, Heerman, and Johnston, and Butler-Class Destroyer Escorts Raymond and Samuel B. Roberts. They were soon joined by Rear Admiral Ralph A. Ofstie’s Carrier Division 26, consisting of Casablanca-Class Escort Carriers Kitkun Bay (flagship) and Gambier Bay. COMCARDIV 26 was screened by two Butler-Class Destroyer Escorts, John C. Butler and Dennis. Rear Admiral Sprague became its overall commander and the unit was designated as Task Unit 77.4.3, radio call sign “Taffy 3”.
During the period 17 through 24 October, Samuel B. Roberts and the other six screening ships of Taffy 3 were kept busy alternating as “secondary air guard” and carrying out the duty of “plane guard.” During the night of October 24, Roberts‘ commanding officer, Lt-Cdr. R. W. Copeland, stayed close to the radio in the Combat Information Center, listening to the events unfolding in Surigao Strait to the south. The subsequent American victory in Surigao Strait gave Lt-Cdr. Copeland “…a false sense of security….”
Awake all night, on the morning of 25 October, Lt-Cdr. Copeland was attempting to get a cup of coffee when he was informed by CIC that “…surface radar reports that they have a contact bearing about three-zero-zero approximately thirty to forty miles away …” Shortly thereafter, “object on the horizon” was announced.
Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita’s IJN Centre Force comprised of four battleships, six heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and two squadrons of destroyers was bearing down on Taffy 3 at 30 knots. Roberts then came under fire and the Battle Of Samar began.
After several of the Escort Carriers took an initial heavy pounding of near-misses, the task force entered a rain squall at 0706, about 8 minutes after the Japanese began firing their heavy guns. This sanctuary provided the task unit with one of several “God given” breaks which ultimately saved most of the ships. Ten minutes later while still under fire, but perhaps not as severe as earlier due to the decreased visibility, RADM Sprague ordered the three Fletcher-Class destroyers to engage the Japanese warships with torpedoes. Roberts stayed with the Escort Carriers during this period and laid protective smoke.
Upon exiting the rain squall at about 0730, the entire task unit once again came under heavy enemy fire. Sensing the danger, RADM Sprague once again ordered a torpedo attack at 0742. The attack order was given to all seven escorts and Lt-Cdr. Copeland subsequently asked “Do you want little fellows to go in with big?” The small Destroyer Escorts were then ordered to make their attack separate from that of the larger destroyers. In Lt-Cdr. Copeland’s own words, “As I waited (for the torpedo attack) I thought, “My God, how are we going to work this? The destroyers were on their way making a torpedo run. I knew that the skipper of the Dennis was the senior DE skipper. Since nobody designated exactly how the DEs would make their torpedo attack nothing happened.”
When Copeland saw that the other DE’s failed to act, he turned the Roberts around and followed the last destroyer at about 3,000 yards astern. Lieutenant Commander Copeland surveyed the situation. “My Executive Officer was down in CIC and I just took a look at the general situation and where the cruiser column was and estimated the course to put me sixty degrees on the bow of the cruiser column. By seaman’s eye I estimated my course change to the left to bring me to what I estimated the course would be and at the same time I reached over and grabbed the handle on the squawk box. I said “Well, sis on you, pister. Let’s go!” and added, “give me a course to put me sixty degrees on the bow of the leading ship in that cruiser column. In less than thirty seconds I was given a course that was about six degrees to the left of the one I had picked. I came to it and we were on our way and committed to go in on a torpedo attack …”
In they went! “We started on the torpedo attack. I reached over and picked up the JV telephone and called No. 1 engine room where the chief engineer’s battle station was. That was Lieutenant Trowbridge. In formal conversation while on a strictly duty status I always called the officers Mister. In the privacy of the wardroom, however, we called him “Lucky.” He answered my call and I said, ‘Lucky, this is the Captain. We are going on a torpedo attack and I have rung up full speed; we are going in at 20 knots. As soon as we fire our fish, I will ring up flank speed and I want you to hook on everything you’ve got. Don’t worry about your reduction gears or your boilers or anything, because there’s all hell being thrown at us up here, and we are just fortunate we haven’t been hit yet, so don’t worry about it.’ That was the last time I ever talked to Mr. Trowbridge because he was lost with the ship.”
Roberts charged the heavy cruiser HIJMS Chokai at 24 knots, approached to within 4,000 yards and emptied her three torpedo tubes. A short while later Chokai was hit by at least one torpedo from the only Destroyer Escort of Taffy 3 to score hits with her main armament. After releasing her torpedoes, Roberts turned about and headed back towards the fleeing Escort Carriers. Propulsion limits in the engineering plant were ignored and steam pressure was allowed to rise to 670 pounds in a plant designed for a maximum of 440. Shaft RPM reached 477 on shafts designed for 420. This added push enabled Samuel B. Roberts to obtain a speed of over 28 knots.
It was during the time of her brave torpedo attack that Roberts got a first-hand look at how the gallant destroyers of Taffy 3 were fairing. “About the time of the torpedo attack, the destroyer Johnston came by us and I saw her for the last time. That picture is engraved in my memory. She had taken a terrific beating. Her bridge was battered and had been abandoned. Her foremast, a steel tubular mast had been split from shellfire and then bent down over itself. The mast was doubled over on itself and dangling down with its radar swinging just like a pendulum. It gave me a hurt feeling to look at it. Her searchlights had been knocked off. One torpedo mount was gone and her No. 3 gun had completely disappeared. As she went by, she was limping along at a pretty slow speed. I saw her Captain. He was a very big man with coal black hair. He was standing on the fantail conning his ship by calling down through an open scuttle hatch into the steering engine room. I can see him now. He was stripped to the waist and was covered with blood. His left hand was wrapped in a handkerchief. He wasn’t over one hundred feet from us as he passed us on our starboard side. He turned a little and waved his hand at me. That’s the last time I saw him because Johnston was sunk, too, a few minutes after we were.”
From about 0800 onward, Roberts fought the Japanese warships with her only remaining weapons, two five-inch guns. It was during this time that the Gambier Bay became disabled and floundered. Shortly after 0841 Roberts slugged it out with HIJMS Chikuma and knocked out her #3 8-inch turret. Impressed by the performance of his gun crews, Lt-Cdr. Copeland later wrote “… these two guns, No. 1 and No. 2, beat a regular tattoo on the Jap cruiser’s upper works. The boys took the ammunition just the way it came up the hoist, nobody cared what it was. They just took it as it came. Five-inch blind loaded and plugged, 5-inch AA, 5-inch common, 5-inch AP, 5-inch starshells, 5-inch proximity fuse: just whatever came up the ammunition hoist. It was fodder for the guns. They threw it in as fast as they could get it. It was very odd to see those starshells banging off over there in the daylight. The boys set up a terrifically rapid rate of fire. We carried 325 rounds per gun. From the time those guns received word to commence firing till the time they ceased firing, it was a period of only thirty-five minutes. Gun No. 2 had put out 324 rounds of 5-inch ammunition.” The man responsible for the impressive performance of Gun No. 2 was it’s Gun Captain, Gunner’s Mate Third Class Paul Henry Carr, USNR. Carr was killed in action that morning after his gun exploded. He was posthumously awarded the Silver Star Medal.
The valiant performance of “The Destroyer Escort that fought like a Battleship” off Samar was soon to come to an end. Back to Lt-Cdr. Copeland: “One of my lookouts yelled up at me, ‘Captain, there’s 14-inch splashes coming up on our stern.’ I turned and looked just in time to see 14-inch splashes, great big ones, off our fantail. For the moment, those shells seemed to be a greater hazard than the 8-inch shells from the cruiser. So I yelled, “All engines back full … this was an emergency … I didn’t even give them a stop bell. That was one time the ship really shuddered and shivered and quaked. She just kind of lay down and pretty nearly backed her stern under water. About the time we were starting to back down, directly over us and right ahead about 100 yards, whoosh, were three or four 14-inch shell splashes. The instant those things hit I yelled, ‘All engines ahead flank.’ We had just barely started moving when we were no longer dodging and chasing salvos. We had walked right into an 8-inch salvo.”
At 0851 three 8-inch armor piercing shells struck Roberts, one below the water line, one in the IC room knocking out communications and electrical power, and one in the forward engine room rupturing a steam line. From this point on Roberts became the focal point of Japanese gunfire. Unable to match her previous speed, Roberts was hit by three 14-inch shells from battleship HIJMS Kongo. A 40-foot hole was ripped in her port side near the water line. The end for Roberts drew near. Shortly after 0910 Lt-Cdr. Copeland ordered “abandon ship.”
In Lt-Cdr. Copeland’s words, “I went on down the deck. Nothing about the ship portrayed her condition as much as the view I had when I turned from looking at those boys (the dead) and saw our motor whaleboat hanging in the davits with the boat gripes having been shot away. Shrapnel had come and ripped the bottom of the boat out and the boat gripes away so that she was dangling. She was still two-blocked up there at the davited heads, but she was dangling nevertheless. Lieutenant Gurnett and I went forward up to the eyes of the ship, right up to the very bow. It was about twenty-five feet to the water because the bow was starting to come up. It was a good thing we went up there because we were able to spot a life raft more quickly than some of the men who left the ship fifteen minutes before we did because we knew where we were going. Then we jumped.”
Roberts continued to take a pounding right up onto the time she sank. By 0920 while the men were carrying out abandon ship orders, she was under fire by at least one Japanese destroyer. At 0930 the last man had left the ship. U.S.S. Samuel B. Roberts, DE 413, reduced to a twisted wreck, rolled over and sank at 1007, the third ship of Taffy 3 to succumb to the IJN Centre Force.
U.S.S. Samuel B. Roberts, DE 413 received one Battle Star for her service in World War II.
Lt-Cdr. Copeland received the Navy Cross for his leadership in the Battle of Samar. He retired from the Navy with the rank of Rear Admiral.
Sources include DE-413 Survivors’ Association and BOSAMAR.com