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H-010-4: Samuel B. Roberts 

H-Gram 010, Attachment 4
Samuel J. Cox, Director NHHC
September 2017 

On 27 September 1942, three companies (A, B, and D) of the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines were landed by ten Higgins landing craft at a point west of the U.S. Marine forward lines on Guadalcanal that was supposed to be behind Japanese lines (1st Battalion, 7th Marines was under the command of the legendary Lieutenant Colonel Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller). The landing party itself was under the command of the battalion executive officer, Major Otho Rogers. The hastily conceived and planned operation was a debacle, as the Marines, without adequate pre-attack intelligence and hampered by tidal conditions, actually landed in the midst of a heavily fortified and dug-in Japanese position and quickly became pinned down. A Japanese air attack drove the USS Monssen (DD-436) , which been providing gunfire support, further out to sea to maneuver.  The landing beach was out of range to be supported by other elements of 1st Battalion and the 7th Marines engaged with Japanese forces along the Mantanikau River to the east. Major Rogers was killed almost immediately by a Japanese mortar round, and the Marines’ radio was destroyed (some accounts say the Marines failed to bring a radio ashore, but I find it being destroyed to be more plausible). Sixty Marines were killed and over 100 were wounded in the battle, one of the bloodiest for the Marines in the entire Guadalcanal campaign. The greatly outnumbered landing party had to resort to tying white T-shirts together to spell out “help.” The signal was spotted and reported by a Marine SBD Dauntless dive bomber. Lieutenant Colonel Puller personally boarded the Monssen, which led nine Higgins landing craft back to the beach to extract the Marines.

While Monssen provided gunfire support (after the Japanese air strike departed) that cleared a way for the trapped Marines to reach the beach, the landing craft were met by intense Japanese fire. One of the landing craft, with U.S. Naval Reserve coxswain Samuel B. Roberts embarked, acted as a diversion to draw enemy fire as other landing craft extracted the Marines. Roberts had previously volunteered to provide a diversion if one became necessary. However, exactly what happened remains unclear. According to Navy reports and his award citation, Roberts was mortally wounded at the very end of the operation and died while being airlifted out, and was subsequently awarded a posthumous Navy Cross.  However, according to U.S. Coast Guard records, Roberts was accompanied by Coast Guard Petty Officer Raymond J. Evans.  (After Rear Admiral Turner had withdrawn Navy surface forces from the close proximity of Guadalcanal after the disastrous U.S. Navy defeat at the Battle of Savo Island, about two dozen Navy and Coast Guard Sailors, including Roberts and Evans, had volunteered to stay behind and operate several Higgins landing craft to move supplies along the Marine’s beachhead on Guadalcanal.)

According to Evans’s account, after Roberts and Evans initially dropped the Marines off and the other nine landing craft headed back to U.S. lines, Roberts and Evans remained close to the beach in the event any wounded Marines needed evacuation. Neither appreciated the range of Japanese machine guns from the beach and their boat came under fire. Evans returned fire while Roberts maneuvered the boat, attempting to draw fire as it became apparent that the Marines did need to be withdrawn. It was at this time that Roberts was hit in the head and throat by a burst of machine-gun fire. Evans took the damaged boat back to Lunga Point with the mortally wounded Roberts, but when the Marine’s distress signal was reported, he took another boat back to the landing beach with U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Douglas Munro, who, according to Coast Guard records, led the rescue effort while repeatedly maneuvering his boat to shield others. Munro was hit by a bullet and killed while trying to tow the last landing craft that had grounded on the beach. His last words were, “Did they get off?” They did. Munro was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, the only Coast Guardsman to ever this award. At this point, there is no way of knowing which version is the most accurate. What is not in dispute is that in either version, Roberts voluntarily placed himself in a position of extreme danger and gave his life in support of brother Marines ashore.

(Based on my personal discussions with Captain Paul X. Rinn, Commanding Officer of USS Samuel B. Roberts [FFG-58]; on the book No Higher Honor: Saving the USS Samuel B. Roberts in the Persian Gulf by Bradley Peniston (especially for researching the U.S. Coast Guard version;) on Captain James Bloom’s, research; and the book Guadalcanal: The Definitive Account of the Landmark Battle by Richard B. Frank, which it is pretty definitive.)

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Published: Mon May 06 11:36:24 EDT 2019