Cmdr. Paul Rinn, the first commanding officer of the third USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG 58), believed in the power of naval heritage to inspire a crew. He insisted that his sailors know about the previous U.S. warships that bore Roberts‘ name.
The first such ship, USS Samuel B. Roberts (DE 413) was a small, lightly armed escort ship of no particular note — until it helped win the world’s largest naval battle. In an action that eminent naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison called “the most valiant of the entire war,” DE 413 and its fellow “small boys” helped turn away a vastly more powerful Japanese force and ensure American victory in the Pacific.
DE 413, a Butler-class destroyer escort, photographed in 1944, probably circa June, while off Boston, Massachusetts. U.S. NAVAL HISTORICAL CENTER PHOTO; COURTESY OF ROBERT F. SUMRALL, 1980
DE 413 shown in naval camouflage not long before the Battle off Samar. U.S. NAVY PHOTO
DE 413 TIMELINE
6 December 1943: Keel laid for DE 413 at Brown Shipbuilding in Houston, Texas.
20 January 1944: DE 413 launched.
28 April 1944: DE 413 commissioned, Cmdr. Robert Copeland commanding.
7 July 1944: DE 413 sails from Boston’s Navy Yard. While workers gave the hull an undulating two-tone camouflage paint job and installed a raft of new equipment, Copeland had deftly used the wartime bustle to bulk up the ship’s roster. When his pharmacist’s mate took 40 crewmembers down to the naval hospital for tetanus boosters and the like, the skipper sent along a yeoman to perform the legal, if procedurally dubious, step of transferring them to the medical facility for the duration of their treatment. Meanwhile, the ship’s executive officer scooted off to the yard’s personnel office, where he brandished paperwork showing the ship to be short dozens of sailors — and slated to sail in four days! Soon, the Roberts welcomed aboard 50 extra seamen, plus the shipmates who had served a few hours of their careers formally attached to the hospital.
27 July 1944: DE 413 transits Panama Canal.
10 August 1944: Reaches Pearl Harbor.
21 August – 10 September 1944: Escorts convoy to Eniwetok and back.
21-30 September 1944: Escorts convoy to Eniwetok.
12 October 1944: Now part of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, the greatest armada ever assembled, DE 413 departs Seeadler Harbor, Manus, Admiralty Islands. The fleet’s destination is Leyte Gulf, there to invade the Philippines and cut off Japanese access to Indochinese oil.
19 October 1944: DE 413 screens troop transports and amphibious transport ships in landings on the Philippine island of Leyte.
25 October 1944: With the invasion still underway to the south, DE 413 and a light force of small aircraft carriers and small escorts take up station off the island of Samar. When Adm. Bull Halsey’s Third Fleet is lured northward after a decoy force of empty-decked aircraft carriers, the “Taffy 3” flotilla is the only thing standing between the U.S. troopships and the Japanese Center Force, a heavy squadron built around the most powerful battleship in the world,Yamato.
Japanese superbattleship Yamato leads the Center Force against Taffy 3. U.S. NAVY PHOTO
EVENTS OF 25 OCTOBER 1944
0645: Lookouts on the escort carrier Gambier Bay, the flagship of Taffy 3 leader Rear Adm. Clifton Sprague, spots antiaircraft fire from Adm. Kurita’s Center Force.
0648: The Center Force opens fire on Taffy 3.
0701: Sprague begs for help in a clear-text message giving the positions of his fleet and the oncoming enemy.
0705: DE 413 and the other “small boys” — four destroyers and two destroyer escorts — begin making smoke to hide Taffy 3’s escort carriers.
0706: Taffy 3 hides in a rain squall. But neither the weather nor the pinpricks from the ill-armed carrier planes deter the Japanese force, which bears in at up to 30 merciless knots, hounding the thin-skinned carriers with shells the size of tree trunks and the weight of small cars.
0716: Convinced his force could not survive such a bombardment for five more minutes, Sprague orders DE 413 and the other small boys to attack the Japanese battleships and cruisers. It was a suicide mission. None of the small boys mounted a gun that could pierce battleship armor, so their only weapon with a prayer of effectiveness was the torpedo. The DDs had ten apiece; the DEs merely three. DE 413 skipper Copeland tells his crew that they will soon enter “a fight against overwhelming odds from which survival could not be expected, during which time we would do what damage we could.”
0720: Destroyer Johnston (DD 557) opens 5-inch fire at nine miles.
0725: Johnston launches torpedoes at 10,000 yards, scores hit on heavy cruiser Kumano. Roberts opens 5-inch fire.
0730: Johnston takes hits from three 14-inch and three 6-inch shells, which knock out one engine and cut speed to 17 knots.
0741: Gambier Bay opens fire on pursuers with 5-inch stern gun.
0742: Sprague orders second torpedo attack. Roberts and two other DEs engage heavy cruisers.
0743: Taffy 3 carriers emerge from squall, run south at 17.5 knots.
0755: Roberts hit.
0810: Destroyer Hoel (DD 533) hit by Japanese shell, followed by 40 more in 20 minutes. Gambier Bay hit.
0830: Roberts launches torpedos. Hoel abandons ship.
0842: Roberts takes three 8-inch hits. For a time, the aft 5-inch gun kept firing, its 10-man crew laboriously cranking a powerless mount into position and manually pumping rounds into the ever-hotter breech. At last, a powder charge cooked off, shattering the mount and killing most of the men around it. The leader of the gun crew, Gunner’s Mate 3rd Class Paul Henry Carr, was ripped open from neck to groin, and died holding the magazine’s final shell, begging for someone to finish loading the gun. In 35 minutes of firing, with and without electrical power, Carr’s gun crew had pumped out 324 rounds.
0855: Hoel rolls over and sinks.
0907: Gambier Bay sunk by gunfire.
0910: Roberts abandons ship.
U.S. government map of the battle off Samar. U.S. GOVERNMENT DOCUMENT SCANNED FROM “REPORTS OF GENERAL MACARTHUR,” 1994 FACSIMILE PRINTING, VOL 1, PLATE #62. RETRIEVED FROM WIKIPEDIA.
0911: Kurita orders his force to retreat. Gambier Bay capsizes to port.
0950: Johnston abandons ship.
1000: Roberts’ boilers explode.
1010: Japanese destroyer gives coup de grace to Johnston, which rolls over and sinks.
1100: Roberts’ bow goes straight up, ship sinks.
Survivors of DE 413 are pulled from the water, several days after their ship was sunk. U.S. NAVY PHOTO