Samuel B. Roberts I (DE-413)
Samuel Booker Roberts, Jr. -- born in San Francisco, Calif., on 12 May 1921 to Samuel B. and Ann [Wexler] Roberts -- enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve on 13 April 1939 at Portland, Ore., and underwent training from 19 August to 1 September 1939. Recalled to active duty as a seaman second class, Roberts reported on board the battleship California (BB-44) on 12 July 1940. After that tour of duty, he returned to Seattle, Wash., as a passenger in Maryland (BB-46) on 12 October, and was released from active duty.
Recalled on 2 December 1940, Roberts received assignment to the transport Heywood (AP-12), formerly the Panama-Pacific liner City of Baltimore, which had been acquired in late October and was undergoing conversion at Portland. Heywood, her crew composed of naval reservists – like Roberts – from Portland, and Chicago, Ill., was commissioned on 19 February 1941. Then, after conducting shakedown training off San Diego, Calif., and in Hawaiian waters, the transport embarked elements of the Sixth Marine Regiment, and departed San Diego on 31 May; she transited the Panama Canal on 5 June, en route to Charleston, S.C., which port she reached ten days later. Ultimately, Heywood sailed for Iceland, reaching Reykjavik on 7 July to disembark elements of the first U.S. Marines to be landed on Icelandic soil.
Within three months, Heywood made a second voyage to Iceland, and before the year  was out, conducted three passenger-carrying trips to Bermuda, Puerto Rico, and Trinidad. During that time, Roberts advanced in rate to seaman first class on 1 September. On the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, 7 December 1941, Roberts’ ship lay at Hampton Roads; soon thereafter, the transport took part in exercises in the waters of Chesapeake Bay, and later made her third voyage to Iceland. Ultimately departing the east coast of the U.S. on 10 April 1942, Heywood set course for the Pacific. Transiting the Panama Canal on 18-19 April, she reached Pago Pago, Samoa, on 10 May. Three days later, Roberts was transferred to await the next available transportation to join his next ship. Embarking in the cargo ship Fomalhaut (AK-22) on 21 June, Roberts reached Wellington, New Zealand, on 1 July.
Roberts’ next ship was, like Heywood, a troop transport -- the largely U.S. Coast Guard-manned Hunter Liggett (AP-27) -- and he arrived in Wellington to find her undergoing an availability during which workmen were installing new guns and the ship involved in training for an impending operation of no mean consequence. On 22 July, Hunter Liggett sailed, flying the broad pennant of Capt. Lawrence P. Reifsnider, commander of transport group X-Ray, of the South Pacific Amphibious Force, bound for Koro, in the center of the Fiji Islands, to rehearse for operation Watchtower, the invasion of Guadalcanal, in the British Solomon Islands. Ultimately, the practice landings behind them, the U.S. armada (with Australian participation) sailed for the Solomons, and the U.S.’ first major amphibious thrust of World War II.
On the day of the initial landings, 7 August 1942, Hunter Liggett dispatched many of her boats to aid in the unloading of other ships, since her own embarked marines were support, special weapons, and headquarters groups not committed to the first assault waves. Air attacks disrupted the landings, only briefly on 7-8 August, but the damage inflicted by the Japanese planes proved minimal, with only the transports George F. Elliott (AP-13), (a sister ship of Roberts’ old ship, Heywood) and Barnett (AP-11) being damaged, the former so severely, however, that she had to be scuttled.
On the afternoon of 8 August 1942, Lt. Cmdr. Dwight H. Dexter, USCG, was detached from Hunter Liggett to help in setting up the naval establishment on Guadalcanal. Twenty-five men, including Roberts, now a coxswain, accompanied him. The next morning, however, in the wake of the Battle of Savo Island, a disaster that saw an Allied force surprised and routed by a Japanese task group in a night surface action, resulted in the amphibious force ships -- Hunter Liggett among them -- weighing anchor (9 August) and clearing the area, her beach party left behind.
Roberts and his shipmates thus began to share the same privations as the marines whom they supported. The fighting continued, the marines constructing a defensive perimeter for the vital airstrip, called “Henderson Field,” and expanding their patrols to eject the tenacious Japanese, who continued to insert increments of troops to contest the Americans.
To keep the enemy off balance, however, Lt. Col. Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller USMC’s First Battalion, Seventh Marines (1/7) planned an operation to advance along the northern slopes of Mount Austen (the highest elevation on Guadalcanal) and thence to the west of the Matanikau River “to investigate the territory.” The first probe, begun on 23 September, inflicted proportionately heavier losses on the Japanese on 24 September but, at the same time, resulted in enough casualties among Puller’s men to call for the Second Battalion, Fifth Marines (2/5) to reinforce 1/7. While Companies A and B of the latter returned with the wounded, Puller, with Headquarters (HQ) and C Companies, and 2/5, pressed on. A Japanese force, however, subjected the marines to heavy mortar fire on the afternoon of the 26th, as Puller’s men worked their way down the east bank of the Matanikau and G Company, 2/5, attempted twice to cross the waterway at its mouth without success. Later that same day, the First Raider Battalion joined Puller.
A third assault across the Matanikau was planned for the next morning (27 September 1942), with 2/5 to again attempt to cross the river – this time, however, further upstream. 1/7 (less Company C) would embark in landing boats drawn from the boat pool at Lunga Point, to land at the enemy’s rear, west of Point Cruz. Cox. Roberts volunteered for the operation, serving in the crew of one of the Higgins Boats used for the landing. Supported by the destroyer Monssen (DD-436), with Lt. Col. Puller embarked, the little flotilla set out for its objective, with the marines splashing ashore at 1300 on the 27th.
Stout resistance from the Japanese, however, soon developed, as the enemy stiffly contested the landing and forced the marines of 1/7 into a defensive position. To extract the embattled companies A and B of 1/7, Lt. Col. Puller re-embarked in Monssen to direct the evacuation personally and the destroyer proceeded back to the area where the marines had gone ashore earlier that day, accompanied by the Higgins Boats. While Monssen’s five-inch guns blasted a path for companies A and B (the Japanese having interposed themselves between the marines and the beach), enemy artillery began registering among the retiring leathernecks. Heavy small arms fire hampered the withdrawal, but the dauntless sailors in the Higgins Boats (“defenseless but persistent” one observer noted in admiration) persevered in bringing off the marines.
Roberts’ boat served as a decoy, to draw fire away from the others, but in so doing received some of that heavy volume of gunfire, the gallant coxswain being mortally wounded as he stood at his exposed position in his boat. For his valor and devotion to duty in the desperate, but ultimately successful, extraction of Companies A and B, 1/7, Roberts was awarded the Navy Cross, posthumously.
(DE-413: displacement 1,745 tons; length 306'0"; beam 36'7"; draft 13'4"; speed 24 knots; complement 222; armament 2 5-inch, 4 40-millimeter, 10 20-millimeter, 3 21-inch torpedo tubes, 2 depth charge projectors, 2 depth charge tracks, 1 depth charge projector (hedgehog); class John C. Butler)
The first Samuel B. Roberts (DE-413) was laid down on 6 December 1943, at Houston, Texas, by Brown Shipbuilding Co.; launched on 20 January 1944; and sponsored by Anna [Wexler] Roberts, mother of Cox. Samuel B. Roberts, Jr.
Commissioned on 28 April 1944, Lt. Cmdr. Robert W. Copeland, USNR, in command, Samuel B. Roberts fitted out at the Houston Ship Channel, Houston, Texas (30 April–2 May 1944). She got underway at 1259 on 3 May for the San Jacinto Ordnance Depot, San Jacinto, Texas, and at 1455 commenced loading ammunition. Completing her ammo onload on 5 May, she got underway at 1231 for Galveston, Texas, mooring there at 1653. From 5-14 May, the destroyer escort completed fitting out and conducted various trials and tests at the Todd Galveston Dry Dock Yards. On 11 May, she conducted structural firing tests.
On 15 May 1944, Samuel B. Roberts fueled and at 1302, departed Galveston for Bermuda, joined en route by destroyer escort Cronin (DE-704). Proceeding in company to Bermuda, the ships conducted various drills and exercises, including passing of mail, towing, gun training, and tactical formation steaming.
Arriving at Bermuda at 1039 on 21 May 1944, Samuel B. Roberts moored starboard side to destroyer tender Hamul (AD-20), and reported to Capt. Dashiell L. Madeira, Commander, Task Group (TG) 23.1, for duty in the U.S. Atlantic Fleet. From 23 May–19 June, Samuel B. Roberts operated at sea, fulfilling her shakedown training requirements. Completing those evolutions on 19 June, she detached from TG 23.1 and provided escort for the Moran Towing & Transportation Co. tug Point Sur and her tow, the freighter Berkshire (ex-Eastern Tempest) to Point X-ray Sugar, off Norfolk, Virginia. Upon reaching Norfolk, Samuel B. Roberts received orders to proceed independently to Boston (Mass.) Navy Yard for post-shakedown availability.
On 25 June 1944, Samuel B. Roberts conducted full power trials from 0900-1300. She also practiced dropping depth charges in a pattern while simultaneously cruising at 15 knots and doing smoke prevention runs. After arriving at the Boston Navy Yard at 0952 on 26 June, she had a 10-day availability, and half the crew received leave.
Her availability terminated at 0000 on 7 July 1944, Samuel B. Roberts got underway for Norfolk at 0732. At 1840, two “very strong jars were felt throughout the ship.” The jolt experienced by the crew was a collision with something large, “presumably a whale.” Upon investigation, a large amount of blood appeared “to be about thirty yards in diameter and thirty feet deep. In its midst a large fish was floundering in the water.”
After putting his vessel through various speed and maneuverability tests, Cmdr. Copeland realized she handled well until reaching 20 knots. Any attempt to go above that speed resulted in severe vibrations. The ship maintained a speed of 15 knots to Norfolk, arriving on 9 July. An inspection revealed a bent starboard propeller, damaged sound projector head, scraping along her starboard side, and “pieces of fish still clinging to the stem and underwater projections.”
Shipyard workers immediately began installing a new starboard propeller and sound dome for the underwater sonar. A short investigation conducted while at Norfolk revealed Cmdr. Copeland did nothing improper. The captain committed early on to having men on board he completely trusted to do their jobs. On 11 July 1944, Samuel B. Roberts sortied from Hampton Roads with Task Group (TG) 27.1 composed of the aircraft carrier Ranger (CV-4), escort vessel McCoy Reynolds (DE-440), and the destroyers De Haven (DD-727), and Blue (DD-744). She returned to Norfolk later that day, and remained in port awaiting orders from 12-21 July.
Assigned to Task Unit (TU) 29.6.2, Samuel B. Roberts got underway for Cristobal, Canal Zone, on 22 July 1944. Her convoy consisted of the vehicle landing ship Monitor (LSV-5), attack cargo ship Chara (AKA-58), and sister ship Melvin R. Nawman (DE-416). The next day, at 1024, Melvin R. Nawman reported a failure with her sonar equipment and the ship was detached from the task unit at 1245. Arriving at Balboa, Samuel B. Roberts received fuel and got underway for Pearl Harbor on 28 July. In company with TG 12.9, she accompanied Monitor, Chara, and Melvin R. Nawman for Hawaii.
On 7 August 1944, Samuel B. Roberts made two separate contacts with merchant vessels. At 0200, a contact appeared on her SL-radar. Steaming to investigate, Samuel B. Roberts challenged the unidentified vessel by flashing out “OE.” The other ship responded with a “K.” Several more “OE’s” only brought forth more “K’s,” and Cmdr. Copeland, convinced the vessel was American due to her appearance, position, and heading, sent in plain language the message: “Identify yourself or I shall open fire.” The reply was “Wait.” Changing course, the steamer came back minutes later with the proper merchant ship replay, identifying herself as the U.S. freighter [Liberty Ship] William B. Allison.
Later that morning, Samuel B. Roberts again intercepted an unidentified ship, shortly revealing themselves a tug and her two tows. Again, the challenge “OE” went out, and the reply came back “K.” Challenged again, the reply remained the same as before. In plain language, Cmdr. Copeland sent the same message as previous: “Identify yourself or I shall open fire.” During the transmission from the tug, the “light was evidently trained off several times because he interrupted with “W.” At the end, he replied with “R” and “AS.” A few minutes later, with the proper reply relayed, the tug revealed herself as Bald Head. The war diary entry from the incident reflected Cmdr. Copeland’s frustrations, noting: “It would seem that after almost three years of war our merchant marine would realize the significance of a challenge, and would devote more time to training their watch officers and signalmen in the method of reply.”
After the incidents with the merchantmen, Samuel B. Roberts continued steaming for Pearl Harbor, arriving on 10 August 1944. Getting underway for operational training exercises with TG 19.1 the next day, Samuel B. Roberts received an assignment to Commander, Naval Air Pacific (ComNavAirPac). Beginning at 0930, she fired her anti-aircraft batteries against a towed sleeve, expending 13 rounds of 5-inch ammunition, 131 rounds of 40-millimeter shells, and 721 rounds of 20-milllimeter ammunition. After another day of anti-aircraft gunnery practice, she returned to Oahu on 15 August.
Six days later, on 21 August 1944, Samuel B. Roberts got underway at 1315 for Eniwetok, Marshall Islands. Steaming out to conduct escort duties with Melvin R. Nawman and William C. Cole (DE-641), the three destroyer escorts covered convoy PD-64-T. On 22 August, the troop transport Exchange joined the convoy while the freighter Cape Poge and oiler Mascoma (AO-83) were detached. The next day, William C. Cole stood out to find Cape Poge and after finding the straggler, William C. Cole and Cape Poge both returned to the convoy at 1833.
Arriving at Deep Passage, Eniwetok, at 0840 on 30 August 1944, the crew of Samuel B. Roberts prepared for a well-earned day of liberty ashore the next day. Twenty-two men from the destroyer escort competed in an island softball game. S2c Leonard S. “Goldie” Goldstein’s Goons handily beat BM1c John E. “Red” Harrington’s All Stars 11-4. The crew also enjoyed an allotted two cans of beer, taken from the island’s “big refrigerator” filled with frosty brews. As evening arrived, the destroyer escort went alongside Cahaba (AO-82) at 1900 to refuel.
Getting underway on 2 September 1944, alongside TU 57.5.2 for Pearl Harbor, Samuel B. Roberts, and the minesweepers Impeccable (AM-320) and Gladiator (AM-319), escorted convoy EP-9. After covering the convoy through the Wide Passage, Eniwetok, the task unit formed an anti-submarine screen ahead of the ten-vessel convoy. At 1915, Samuel B. Roberts investigated a sonar contact, determined to be “non-sub.” At 0100 on the morning of 4 September, a second sonar contact was also determined a “non-sub.” The following day, a radar contact at 2330 turned out to be nothing. On 8 September, at 1425 in the afternoon, she investigated a fourth sonar contact quickly labeled a “non-sub.” Arriving at Pearl Harbor on 10 September, Samuel B. Roberts was assigned buoy upkeep, expiring on 19 September.
Put on 24-hours sailing notice on 19 September 1944, Samuel B. Roberts steamed alongside Walter C. Wann (DE-412), Stafford (DE-411), and Oberrender (DE-344). The task unit, minus Stafford, got underway at 1300 on 21 September. The other destroyer escorts formed an anti-submarine screen for convoy PD-101-T. At 2325 on 22 September, Samuel B. Roberts picked up a target on her radar, proving to be a friendly convoy.
The next day, Oberrender reported a radar contact, and at 0715, Walter C. Wann left the screen to investigate a ship sighted by a lookout. The vessel, identified as the T2-S-E1 tanker Nickajack Trail, fell in with the convoy, which arrived at Eniwetok at 0100, and TU 33.1.1 received Samuel B. Roberts, Richard W. Suesens (DE-342), Walter C. Wann, Oberrender, Leray Wilson (DE-414), Chowanoc (ATF-100), and Preserver (ARS-8). The task unit arrived at Eniwetok at 0100 on 30 September 1944. Shortly after arrival, Cmdr. Copeland received orders to steam 1,800 miles to Manus Island in the Admiralties. The next day, Samuel B. Roberts steamed for Manus, closer to the frontlines of the Pacific War.
From 5-6 October 1944, Samuel B. Roberts crossed the Equator and engaged in the time-honored nautical tradition of turning pollywogs into shellbacks while paying homage to King Neptune. At dawn on 6 October, Samuel B. Roberts arrived at Seeadler Harbor, Manus. While there, Cmdr. Copeland received word of plans for the upcoming invasion of the Philippines. Samuel B. Roberts, operating with Adm. Thomas C. Kinkaid’s Seventh Fleet under General Douglas MacArthur’s overall command, prepared for the upcoming mission, with MacArthur’s force set to go ashore on Leyte Island on 20 October. Departing Manus on 12 October 1944, she joined other destroyer escorts formed around an escort carrier task unit which included Rear Adm. Ralph A. Oftsie’s escort carriers Kitkun Bay (CVE-71) and Gambier Bay (CVE-73), guarded by Samuel B. Roberts, John C. Butler (DE-339), Dennis (DE-405), and Raymond (DE-341).
After screening transports and amphibious ships safely off Leyte on 19 October 1944, Samuel B. Roberts and her escort carrier unit joined Rear Adm. Thomas L. Sprague’s Escort Carrier TG 77.4. This task group comprised three escort carrier task units, known from their radio voice call signals as “Taffy 1,” “Taffy 2,” and “Taffy 3.” Each group operated 30-50 miles apart. Taffy 1, comprising four escort carriers and seven escorts under Rear Adm. Thomas L. Sprague, took station off northern Mindanao. Taffy 2 included six escort carriers and seven escorts under Rear Adm. Felix B. Stump, and guarded the entrance to Leyte Gulf. Samuel B. Roberts, assigned to Taffy 3, maintained station northward off the island of Samar. Led by Rear Adm. Clifton A. F. Sprague (no relation to Thomas), Taffy 3 included six escort carriers and seven escorts.
Taffy 3 began operating independently as the Northern Air Support Group east of Samar to support the landings on Leyte while the fast carriers of the Third Fleet struck enemy bases. The sixteen escort carriers of the three Taffy units maintained air supremacy over eastern Leyte and the Gulf, sweeping the Japanese off local airfields, giving friendly troops direct support on the landing beaches, and even destroying vehicle transport and supply convoys on the roads of Leyte itself.
Realizing an American invasion of Leyte would cut off their fuel supplies to the East Indies, the Japanese Combined Fleet steamed towards Leyte in one last desperate attempt to wipe out the U.S. invasion force. The Japanese planned to converge on the Philippines at three points: a Center Force of battleships, cruisers and destroyers were set to sweep through San Bernardino Strait. Converging with the Southern Force of battleships, cruisers, and destroyers already passing through Surigao Strait to the south, the Northern Force of heavy attack carriers from Japan would deliberately draw attention to themselves off Cape Engano, luring away the heavy warships and fast carriers of Adm. William F. Halsey, Jr.’s Third Fleet. The Northern Force, commanded by Adm. Ozawa Jisaburō, had barely any aircraft or pilots on board the carriers, due to incredible Japanese losses earlier in 1944.
Admiral Halsey took Adm. Ozawa’s bait on 24 October 1944, taking TF 38 and her escort ships north in a desperate attempt to strike the Japanese, leaving Taffy 3 to guard the American invasion fleet. While Taffy 1 launched aircraft to strike the remainder of the Japanese Southern Force (commanded by Vice Adm. Nishimura Shoji) fleeing the Battle of Surigao Strait, Taffy 2 positioned itself in the central spot off Samar. Taffy 3, the northernmost escort carrier unit off Samar had launched combat air patrols (CAP) and anti-submarine patrols to cover shipping in Leyte Gulf.
Unknown to the Americans, the powerful Japanese Center Force of 23 warships (commanded by Adm. Kurita Takeo), erroneously thought annihilated and thus posing no threat, had transited San Bernardino Strait under cover of night. Steaming along the fog-shrouded coast of Samar towards Leyte Gulf, the battleship Yamato, three other battleships, six heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and eleven destroyers, closed on the U.S. transport and amphibious assault ships heading for Leyte. The Japanese were shadowed the entire time by two U.S. submarines, Darter (SS-227) and Dace (SS-247). The submarines attacked Kurita’s force on 24 October 1944, striking the heavy cruisers Takao and Adm. Kurita’s flagship, Atago. Forced to jump overboard, the exhausted admiral swam until a nearby destroyer rescued him and other survivors. Atago sank in 18 minutes with 360 of her crew, forcing Kurita to shift his flag to Yamato.
At 0637 on 25 October 1944, a Taffy 3 anti-submarine patrol pilot from escort carrier Fanshaw Bay (CVE-70) sighted the Japanese Center Force off Samar. After sending a report by radio, the pilot nosed his aircraft over and dropped two depth charges on an enemy cruiser. Moments later, the pagoda-like masts of the Japanese fleet seemed to fill the horizon. A message for help from Taffy 3 went out in clear, and the six escort carriers launched all available planes. The men on board the seven supporting destroyer and destroyer escorts made ready to battle the Japanese, realizing they were all that stood between them and the invasion forces in Leyte Gulf. 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 smoke screen 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 starshells 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. Kongō’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, a 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. The survivors of Samuel B. Roberts, often miles from one another throughout the ocean, began the difficult attempt to survive at sea. The long ordeal, marked by sporadic shark attacks and lack of food and water, lasted for 18 hours. Nearly every survivor was covered head-to-toe in thick black oil. Rubbing one’s eyes only made them burn more and many accidentally ingesting it began retching and vomiting. One sailor removed his oil-smeared clothes in order to help him swim easier, but in doing so, exposed the lower portion of his pale white skin not covered with oil. An attentive shark swam up to the naked survivor and nudged the exposed portion. The man quickly put his clothes back on.
Several survivors also accidentally ingested seawater, which caused severe stomach pains, hallucinations, and psychosis. Cmdr. Copeland, who remained mentally steady all through the battle and the sinking of Samuel B. Roberts, succumbed to physical exhaustion on the second night. “I gave out. I just folded up,” he later recalled of the experience, in which he seemed to have lost muscle function throughout his body. The survivors in his group helped him into the raft, where several of them held him up throughout the night.
Five hours after Samuel B. Roberts’s sinking, a rescue group of six ships including the 173-foot submarine chasers PC-623 and PC-1119, and infantry landing craft LCI(L)-74, LCI(L)-337, LCI(L)-340 and LCI(L)-341, and the prepared to begin the difficult search for survivors. Delayed two hours, the unit, under the command of Rear Adm. Daniel E. Barbey, waited for approval from Adm. Kinkaid. Task Group 78.12, consisting of the six rescue ships, departed San Pedro Bay shortly after 1700 and steamed north. With approval by Kinkaid finally granted, the group, led by Lt. Cmdr. James A. Baxter in PC-623, began searching at 0621 on 26 October, a full 21 hours after Samuel B. Roberts sank. The group extended the formation between ships from a line three-and-a-half miles long to seven, and changed course from north to the west and south, unaware the survivors were much further north.
At 0745 on 27 October 1944, an enlisted man yelled out to Cmdr. Copeland that he spotted a vessel flying the stars and stripes. Believing the man might be hallucinating, Copeland asked Lt. Cmdr. Roberts if he saw anything. Roberts claimed he could see a flag with a field of blue in the corner; other survivors began peering into the distance. Shortly after, several others spotted the ship as it crested the horizon, and some began waving frantically in order to get the lookouts attention. Suddenly, an LCI of TG 78.12 fired her 20-millimeter guns, signaling she could see them. Minutes and finally hours went by before the LCI approached, lay-to suddenly 50 yards from the raft. Several on board the LCI worried the men in the water might actually be Japanese, known to play possum before attempting to kill any U.S. sailors trying to rescue them from the sea.
Warily, the LCI approached the survivors. The sailors on board, with guns drawn, were ready to fire. One of the rescuers yelled out, “Who won the World Series?” Several survivors shouted back, “The St. Louis Cardinals!” The answer was correct. The Cardinals played their cross-town rival St. Louis Browns, winning the pennant in six games only 16 days before Samuel B. Roberts sank. Orders to conduct a larger sweep of the area finally came through. In total, Baxter’s unit rescued 1,150 survivors from the four U.S. warships lost off Samar.
In all, 120 men of Samuel B. Roberts survived the sinking. From Leyte, some of the more seriously wounded, taken on board the hospital ship Comfort (AH-6) arrived at Hollandia on 1 November. In mid-November, the troop transport Lurline departed Hollandia with all of the Samuel B. Roberts’s survivors, steaming for Australia before making the 10,000-mile voyage to San Francisco, arriving on 4 December. The families of the 90 missing and dead Samuel B. Roberts’s sailors received word of their loved ones’ status by telegram only a few days before the Thanksgiving holiday.
Samuel B. Roberts, “the destroyer escort that fought like a battleship,” was included in the Presidential Unit Citation awarded to TU 77.4.3 "for extraordinary heroism in action" as well as one battle star for her World War II service.
Samuel B. Roberts was stricken from the Navy Register on 27 November 1944.
|Commanding Officers||Dates of Command|
|Lt. Cmdr. Robert W. Copeland, USNR||28 April 1944–25 October 1944|
Guy J. Nasuti (Ship History) and Robert J. Cressman (Biography)
17 June 2019