USS Samuel B. Roberts (DE-413)
The USS Samuel B Roberts became known as The Destroyer Escort That Fought Like a Battleship for her time in World War 2.
Authored By: JR Potts, AUS 173d AB | Last Edited:
USS Samuel B. Roberts (DE-413) was a John C. Butler-class destroyer escort of the United States Navy. The hull of the Roberts was laid down in January of 1944 next to her sister ship, the USS Walter C. Wann. This method of construction was the accepted production schedule at Brown Ship Building, laying two ships side-by-side to utilize production advantages between the available shipwrights, pipefitters and electricians - all working on two ships at the same time. This construction approach ultimately led to the production of some sixty-one Butler-class destroyers by war's end. The "assembly line" mentality also made the American worker famous across the world for their ability to punch out ship-after-ship in support of the global war effort - an effort no other nation could match by 1945.
The Samuel B. Roberts destroyer escort came about in 1941 as a result of the Lend-lease Act that was passed into law by the United States government. The United States had done well to stay out of foreign affairs, especially those in Europe, since the close of World War 1 in 1918. However, as the Nazi scourge had enveloped Poland and the Low Countries in the late 1930s and now began pressing against the United Kingdom, this forced the hand of the American government to become "indirectly" involved. With the Lend-Lease Act in place, the United States could now supply material goods to those entities it deemed as allies and would ultimately include the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union receiving large supplies of weapons. As such, the British Royal Navy took deliveries of warships from the United States to help counter the German U-Boat submarine presence bent on sinking convoy ships traversing from the United States to England and from England to Arctic ports.
The destroyer escort design from the American Bureau of Shipping was developed by Captain E.L. Cochrane who took the British requirement for a small escort ship and developed the British Destroyer Escort (BDE). The design was accepted and fifty were built with the first six transferred to England. The balance were reclassified as Destroyer Escort (DE) and, on January 25th, 1943, the remaining vessels were assigned to the United States Navy. Out of every five destroyer escorts ultimately launched, four would be shipped to the inventory of the US Navy and one to the ranks of the British Royal Navy. In the long run, the little ship class proved itself quite an effective warfighter and were far cheaper to build than full-fledged dedicated destroyers.
These destroyer escorts were only 306 feet (93m) from bow-to-stern and her width (or "beam") was 36.8 feet (11.18m). She drew just 9.5 feet (2.87m) of water. "DE 417" displaced at 1,370 tons with war supplies onboard and could make 28.7 knots (33mph) if conditions were "clean". Such speed was possible thanks to her Westinghouse-built geared steam turbines and her two boilers producing 12,000 shaft horsepower and driving twin screws. The vessel was manned with 217 sailors and 11 officers.
To promote such performance came at a price. As such, these small ships were not heavily armored and were generally nicknamed "Tin Cans". Each was allotted only 3/8-inch steel decks and, in heavy seas, DE's would bob around like corks in a bath tub. Her modest armament was just 2 x 5-inch (127mm) main guns and three torpedoes to counter surface vessels. For air-defense and convoy protection, destroyer escorts were fitted with 4 x 40mm AA guns and up to 10 x 20mm AA guns. The main weapon suite was intended primarily for Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) as World War 2-era submarines still needed to rise close to the surface to attack surface vessels themselves. To fulfill the ASW role, 2 x depth charge tracks, 1 x hedgehog and 8 x depth charge projectors were installed.
The "Sammy B" was christened in posthumous honor of naval reservist Samuel Booker Roberts Jr. killed on Guadalcanal on September 28th, 1942. At the time of his death, Roberts was commanding a landing craft that he motored in to draw enemy attention away from ships picking up US Marines pinned down by a Japanese crossfire. When Mrs. Roberts learned of the naming of the ship after her son, she requested that her youngest son Jack Roberts - who himself had just finished naval basic training - be assigned to the ship. The Navy Department honored the request.
The Roberts was commissioned on March 31st, 1944. After receiving her crew, she left for her shakedown cruise in Bermuda waters until mid-June. Roberts collided with a whale and received damage to her propeller shaft requiring the ship to return to Norfolk for repairs. After repairs, she left for Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, via the Panama Canal and arrived on August 10th, 1944. She was assigned to the Third Fleet stationed in Hawaii and trained with the fleet in local waters. She was transferred to the Seventh Fleet and provided ASW protection for convoys steaming between Pearl and Eniwetok, a coral atoll used for staging ships before they were sent to forward battle areas.
On October 12, 1944 Sammy B's skipper, Bob Copland, was briefed along with many other captains on "Operation King Musketeer II" - the planned invasion of the Philippine Islands. The Roberts was now part of the battleship Task Group 77.2 under the command of Admiral Oldendorf and escort carrier Task group 77.4 commanded by Admiral Sprague. Roberts and the fleet steamed for Leyte under the call sign "Taffy 3".
During the war, no fleet was complete without air power and the Seventh had carrier escorts that were the smallest American aircraft carriers built and, themselves were protected by four of the smallest destroyers like the Roberts as well as two standard destroyers. The eighteen baby "flat tops" were divided into three battle groups of six ships each. The fleet maintained a total of 235 fighter aircraft and 143 torpedo planes. Their mission was to protect the Leyte Gulf invasion fleet. The pilots and sailors were reservists with no combat experience. The carriers were not provided with adequate armor piercing bombs and torpedoes because it was not expected that they would be needed. A heavy responsibility would be given to Taffy 3, the northern most carrier group covering the Leyte invasion.
Based on the battle plan, US Navy Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid felt that Fleet Admiral William Halsey's Third Fleet was on station based on their deployment order and that Task Force 34 (TF 34) guarded San Bernardino. To guard against a Japanese threat from the South, Kinkaid concentrated his battleships mainly to the south of the Leyte beachhead.
The Japanese Center Force, under the command of Admiral Kurita, had been bloodied up by American airmen and sailors up to this point and now consisted of the battleships IJN Yamato, Nagato, Kongo, and Haruna; heavy cruisers Chokai, Haguro, Kumano, Suzuya, Chikuma, Tone; light cruisers Yahagi, and Noshiro; and 11 Kagero and Asashio class destroyers. The battleships and cruiser armor could not be pierced by the American destroyer 5-inch (127 mm) shells. The Japanese capital ships had large caliber guns and IJN Yamato's 18.1 in (460 mm) rifles could lob 2,000lb shells some 25 miles (40 km) away.
On October 24th, Kurita turned his ships east toward Leyte Gulf. On the morning of October 25th Kurita's fleet, led by Yamato, steamed out of the San Bernardino Strait and proceeded south along the coast of Samar to bombard the landing force at Leyte. Shortly after dawn the Imperial Japanese Navy's Central Force sighted "Taffy 3" made up of her six escort carriers, three destroyers and four small destroyer escorts with Rear Admiral Clifton Sprague commanding. Kurita was sure he had found the carriers of the American 3rd Fleet guarding the landing force. The normal Japanese maneuver at night was to steam in line so now, at dawn, the order was given to change to an air defense formation. While the fleet was changing its formation, Kurita gave the order for the general attack. This released all ships to attack the enemy as each ship's captains saw fit. The unorthodox order by Admiral Kurita would lose his tactical control of the upcoming battle.
At 5:45am, two US Navy TBM Avengers bombers and two Grumman Wildcat fighters were launched from the USS St. Lo on a standard anti submarine mission to fan out over the four points of the compass. Some rain squalls were noted and CVE pilots were not instrument-rated so they would stick to the adage of "if the birds don't fly, neither do we". Onboard the Roberts, the crew was talking up Oldendorfs battleship victory the previous night over the Japanese Southern Force at Suragio Strait.
Ensign Brooks, flying a TBM from the St. Lo, spotted the Japanese Central Force. The initial thought was that the vessels were part of Admiral Lee's battleships steaming south. Coming under massive anti-aircraft fire, Brooks took inventory and, at 6:43am, called in the report of Japanese ships with a doubting Admiral Sprague demanding confirmation. If the confirmation proved true, all Sprague could muster was with his heaviest guns were 5-inchers. Nevertheless, Sprague ordered all ships to general quarters.
Captain Copeland, onboard the Roberts, was receiving fire from fifteen miles away and subsequently went on the intercom to address the crew: "A large Japanese force has been contacted and are fifteen miles away consisting of 4 battleships, 8 cruisers and a number of destroyers". "This will be a fight against overwhelming odds of which survival cannot be expected". "We will do what damage we can." - the destroyers knew their job was to sacrifice themselves for the carriers.
Without orders they sortied, closing in against the enemy ships with guns that could sink the destroyers with a single direct hit. Copeland ordered flank speed, knowing speed and torpedoes was a destroyer's best offensive weapon. Admiral Sprague was heard to order "little fellows, make a torpedo attack". The targets were therefore left up to the individual destroyer captains as there was no time and too few ships to develop a coordinated attack of consequence. The aircraft of the CVE's attacked the ships with all they had, even making strafing attacks when all of the bombs were exhausted. The Roberts was closest to the Japanese cruiser line, however, Copeland was the junior commander and protocol was to standby for orders. Regardless, Copeland decided to not wait and proceeded with an attack.
Copeland saw the lead Japanese cruiser and ordered the executive officer, Bob Roberts, to give him course six degrees off of the enemy cruiser's bow. He ordered 20 knots for the torpedo run and told the engine room that, when the "fish" were fired, to make flank speed plus whatever else they could get out of the boilers. As the Roberts closed distance to the cruiser line, her 5-inch gun crews wanted to open fire but they were still 13,000 yards from the target and Copeland did not want to waste the valuable ammunition. At this range, the 5-inch had little "punching power" against cruiser armor so getting closer was a requirement. Additionally, the enemy cruiser had not opened fire against the Roberts for the Roberts provided such a small forward silhouette at distance and the battlefield smoke masked her approach.
The Roberts' plan was to launch the three torpedoes at 45 knots when they were 5,000 yards from the cruiser. At that speed, the Japanese ship would have a hard time to avoid the incoming spread of torpedoes. The cruiser IJN Chokais was firing her 8 inch batteries against the American escort carriers behind the Roberts. At 4,000 yards - about 2 miles - the torpedoes of the Roberts were away towards the enemy cruiser. Copeland ordered a hard left rudder and the Roberts strained under the extra boiler power in trying to motor back towards the friendly carrier escorts. A cheer went up when flame was seen on the Japanese cruiser - a direct hit had blown off the Chokais bow. The Roberts continued to attack for another hour, maneuvering close enough to use 600 rounds of the 5-inch guns and her 40mm and 20mm AA guns against the Chokai. Soon before 9:00am, Roberts was hit twice, the resulting damage taking out her aft 5-inch main gun. She continued to fire on the cruiser and managed to set fire to the bridge and knock out turret Number Three. The battleship Kongo turned her 14-inch battery on the Roberts and hit her with three shells. The projectiles opened up a 40-by-10-foot hole along her portside. She went dead in the water and, at 9:35am, the order to abandon ship was given. The Roberts sank at 10:05am with 89 men still onboard. 120 men went into the water with just three life rafts and spent the next 50 hours at sea before they were rescued. On November 27th, 1944 the Roberts was struck from the naval register and awarded 1 Battle Star for her actions.
The battle ended with two American destroyers, a destroyer escort, and an escort carrier sunk by Japanese gunfire and another escort carrier sunk by a kamikaze bomber. Kurita's battleships and the surviving ships of Central Force were stopped from destroying the Leyte force by combined torpedo attacks from American destroyers and aircraft of Taffy 3. Due to the intensity of the defense of the American forces of Taffy 3, Kurita was convinced that he was facing a far superior force and subsequently withdrew from the battle.
After the battle, the USS Samuel B. Roberts was adorned with the tagline "The Destroyer Escort That Fought Like a Battleship".