Samuel Booker Roberts Jr. was born in San Francisco in 1921 to a pair of Navy veterans. His father served as a machinist’s mate during World War I and later became a civil engineer in the War Department, while his mother served as a Yeoman (F), one of the thousands of women brought into the naval service to type and file and perform a hundred other largely clerical duties during and immediately after the Great War. All three Roberts sons joined the Navy when they became of age; only one would survive his service.
A good-looking kid with a cockeyed smile, Roberts Jr. enlisted in the Navy Reserve in 1939 in Portland, Oregon, was called up the following year, and was trained as a coxswain: a master of small boats.
After tours aboard the battleship California (BB 44) and destroyer tender Heywood (AP 12), Roberts was assigned to the 8,000-ton amphibious cargo ship amphibious cargo ship Bellatrix (AK 20) and given charge of one of its eight LCVP transport craft. A wooden vessel whose bow-mounted loading ramp belied its remarkable agility, the 36-foot LCVP could punch through surf to get a platoon or a Jeep from ship to shore. Better known as Higgins boats after their inventor, the sturdy craft had turned the concept of beachhead assault into reality.
The U.S. Navy’s June 1942 victory at Midway had stopped the Japanese advance; to keep them on their heels, U.S. commanders planned their first major offensive of the Pacific War: the invasion of Guadalcanal. Such a strike, on the periphery of Japan’s empire in the southern Solomon Islands was intended to stretch Japanese forces — and once victory was won, to allow U.S. aircraft to strike the enemy stronghold at Rabaul, from whose airstrips Japanese planes raided the entire region.
Bellatrix joined the 82-ship invasion force, and disgorged her share of the 19,000-strong First Marine Division onto the beach near Lunga Point on 7 August 1942. For two days, Roberts and the rest of the Higgins coxswains ferried troops and equipment from ship to shore, supporting the Marines as they drove inland. Then came a Japanese counterstrike, which sank four U.S. cruisers in a night battle just 20 miles to the northwest off Savo Island. Bellatrix and the rest of the cargo ships retreated, a good portion of their supplies still in the holds, leaving the troops ashore with four days’ ammunition, little food, and no heavy construction equipment to improve their captured airstrip. Roberts stayed behind with the Marines, joining a group of about two dozen Navy and Coast Guard sailors based in a former coconut plantation near Lunga Point.
For the next seven weeks, they piloted their Higgins boats along the coast, delivering fresh men and supplies and moving wounded troops to safety. Like the rest of the Americans, Roberts slogged through the miserable climate by day and hunkered down by night, when the Japanese warships would come sailing down The Slot to reinforce their own troops.
Early on 27 September, Roberts volunteered to help land a several hundred Marines a few miles north of Lunga Point; the legendary combat leader Lt. Col. Chesty Puller was aiming to outflank a Japanese strongpoint. The Marines piled into a dozen of the wooden boats and headed up to a beach near the Matanikau River. But the troops met resistance, and as the Marines withdrew from the beach later that day, Roberts was struck in the neck with a Japanese machine gun bullet. He was evacuated but died in the night.
Roberts received the Navy Cross, and eventually, an honor far rarer: three U.S. Navy ships were named for him: DE 413, a destroyer escort that helped win the battle of Leyte Gulf; DD 823, a destroyer that took part in the first air strikes from a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier; and USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG 58), the frigate that hit a mine during 1988’s Operation Earnest Will.