Review by Ralph Echtinaw
As a reader of World War II military history since 1965, I couldn’t recommend a better book about a young and green but well-trained and brave crew than this book by John Wukovits.
The USS Samuel B. Roberts, DE-413, was one of 83 Butler-class destroyer escorts in World War II and the only one lost in a gunfight with other ships. She was built in Houston and commissioned on April 28, 1944. The ship’s namesake was a Navy landing craft coxswain killed in the Solomon Islands. Her crew was 90 percent green with only one officer who attended the Naval Academy (the executive officer) and a handful of men who had seen combat. The Roberts traveled to Bermuda for training in May 1944, then went to Boston, where the crew had leave for the last time in the continental US. Coming aboard there was the brother of Samuel B. Roberts, who requested duty on the ship. His relationship to the namesake was kept secret for a while to make fitting in easier.
The ship’s captain was Robert Copeland, 34, a Tacoma, Washington attorney and Naval Reserve officer who was called to active duty in 1940. The Roberts was Copeland’s third command, but where combat was concerned he was as green as 90 percent of his crew.
After leaving Boston the Sammy B, as the crew called her, struck a whale. Or vice versa. The whale slammed into the side, then was cut open and killed by the starboard screw. Capt. Copeland made sure to collect samples of whale flesh to prove what happened. She ship was drydocked, and one damaged screw was replaced.
The ship then proceeded to Panama Canal and transit to the Pacific Ocean. Copeland drilled his crew assiduously, and a strong camaraderie developed, with one old salt saying the Roberts was the best duty he had in the Navy.
After reporting to Pearl Harbor, the ship made two escort cruises to western Pacific before being assigned to Taffy 3, a unit of the Philippine invasion fleet. Taffy 3 was composed of six small “jeep” carriers three destroyers and four destroyer escorts.
The invasion of Leyte (an island in the central Philippines) took place in October 1944, just six months after the Roberts’ commissioning. Taffy 3, along with Taffy 1 and Taffy 2 were assigned air support duties for Army troops ashore on Leyte.
All was going well until Admiral William F. Halsey, jonesing for a carrier vs. carrier action, took off after a Japanese decoy force that was sighted to the north. In doing so, Halsey acted exactly as Japanese planners had hoped. They sacrificed their remaining carriers (which only held 40 planes) in hope that Halsey would leave the Leyte landing force undefended, which he did.
With Halsey out of the picture, the Japanese central force under Admiral Kurita emerged from the San Bernardino Strait near Taffy 3. This force comprised four battleships, eight cruisers and 11 destroyers.
That set the stage for what became known as the “Battle off Samar. The Roberts and USS Johnston were nearest to the Japanese fleet. They laid down smoke screens while the carriers fled. Taffy 3 commander Admiral Clifton Sprague, knowing he couldn’t outrun the Japanese ships, ordered his destroyers and destroyer escorts to attack. The bigger destroyers were supposed to go in first, followed by the destroyer escorts. Copeland waited five minutes for the senior destroyer escort commander to organize an attack, then ordered his ship to go in with the destroyers.
The Sammy B closed to within 4,000 yards of a cruiser and fired three torpedoes, one of which hit and exploded. Although two of the other destroyer escorts of Taffy 3 launched torpedo attacks, too, neither scored a hit, as they fired from 8,000 yards or more.
Copeland then ordered his engine room to remove all safeties and give him all the speed it could.
From the book: “The twin propeller shafts rotated at 477 rpm, beyond their maximum of 420, while watertenders in the firerooms secured safety valves to allow steam pressure to rise to 670 pounds in boilers designed to sustain no more than 440 pounds.”
That produced a speed of 28 knots from a ship designed to top out at 24. For 50 minutes the Roberts’ two 5-inch guns fired on Japanese ships while Copeland dodged salvoes from eight- and 14-inch guns. Gun 51 on the bow fired 284 shells, one every five to ten seconds. Impressive as that was, the crew of Gun 52 beat it, firing 324 shells in a little more than half an hour.
The Japanese started scoring hits on the Roberts at 8:51 a.m. Between that time and 9:07 Japanese gunners pumped at least 20 shells into the ship.
Paul Carr, the gunner’s mate in charge of the aft 5-inch gun, continued to fire the gun after the failure of the air injection system that blew compressed air into the breech to clear it of hot gas and powder particles. Carr knew this was dangerous, as a powder charge could cook off and blow up gun and crew. He got away with it until the second to last shell in his magazine. The gun exploded, killing all but one of the crew.
Machinist Mate Chalmer Goheen rushed to the gun turret to find Carr holding the last shell, his body ripped from neck to groin, trying to load the gun once more. Goheen took the 54-pound shell from Carr, sat him down and started checking the other wounded men. A minute later Carr was trying again to load the last shell. Goheen carried Carr to the deck where five minutes later he died.
Paul Henry Carr was 21 years old. He was awarded the Silver Star posthumously. The Navy named a ship after him in 1981. The USS Carr’s hull number was 52, another tribute to the captain of Gun 52 on the Roberts. The Roberts herself was honored six ships later in the same line, as FFG-58, the USS Samuel B. Roberts, was commissioned in 1984.
Lieutenant Commander Copeland ordered the ship abandoned at 9:10 a.m. Fifty-five minutes later the Sammy B slid beneath the waves. “Boys, take off your hats, said one crewman. “There goes a good ship.”
Ironically, the Japanese ships began turning around to go home ten minutes after Copeland ordered abandon ship. Fortunately for the Americans, Admiral Kurita didn’t appreciate the extent to which he had caught the US fleet with its pants down. Harried by air attacks and assailed by destroyers and destroyer escorts, Kurita ordered a retreat back through the San Bernardino Strait and home to Japan
But the ordeal wasn’t over for the crews of the Roberts and that of four other American ships that sunk. The men, some with horrible wounds, were in the water for three days and two nights.
Due to a divided command structure and an inaccurate sighting report by a search plane, a number of the men who went into the water died of wounds or were killed by sharks. One man, Signalman Charles Natter, a former lifeguard, made at least five trips from one group of Roberts survivors to another group, pulling a weaker crewman from one group to the other. This despite shrapnel wounds of his own. A shark got him before he could complete his last trip.
A patrol craft picked up one group of Roberts survivors, and the image of the American flag on the PC stayed with Sonarman Whitney Felt the rest of his life. “To this day when I go to a ball game or see the American flag I flash back to that time in the water. It brings tears to my eyes.”
Chief Radioman Tullio Serafini, at age 44, was the oldest man in the crew. He had served in World War I, and because of his age could have easily sat out World War II but joined the Navy anyway. Severely wounded in the fight, Serafini survived the ordeal in the water only to die shortly after being rescued.
All told, 90 of the Roberts 224 officers and men died in the battle or from exposure in the ocean.