During the Battle off Samar, the men of the USS Samuel B. Roberts (DE-413) showed extraordinary fighting spirit against overwhelming odds. The crew went toe to toe and defeated two heavy cruisers and attempted to rescue their own ship during a barrage by four Japanese battleships. On October 25, 1944, the only thing stopping Japan’s last fleet of 23 heavy ships, including the super battleship Yamato, from intercepting the US landings in the Philippines were a few planes with no anti-ship armament, three destroyers, and the one tiny destroyer escort, USS Samuel B. Roberts (DE-413). Sammy B will be forever remembered as the destroyer escort “that fought like a battleship.”
The Tin Can Sailors
The Greeks had Thermopylae and the British had Rorke’s Drift. The US Navy will forever have the Battle off Samar. To understand how unlikely this victory was, we must understand the destroyer (DD) and the destroyer escort (DE). The DD was the smallest true warfighter in the fleet. They were fast, clocking in at 35 knots (about 40 mph), with 5 5” guns. The DE was 20% smaller than the DD, maxed out at 24 knots (28 mph), and bore only 2 5″ guns. They were intended to babysit slow supply ships and escort carriers, they were not supposed to see warfare. Neither DD’s nor DE’s were armored. In fact, they were known as “Tin Cans”. But at least DD’s were nimble enough to, in the words of Muhammed Ali, sting like a bee.
I had the opportunity a few weeks ago to speak with the last living survivor of the Sammy B, a Sailor named Adred Lenoir. His experience off Samar was fighting the ship, not the Japanese. When a 10 minute barrage of 1,000 lbs armor piercing shells struck the Sammy B, the rounds did not explode, they entered one side of the ship and exited the other. Imagine the effect of shooting soup cans with a 9mm. Adred recalled sitting in the crew’s mess, waiting to go fight fires stop flooding, or shore up ruptured bulkheads as massive rounds ripped through his ship, shredding men all around him as they passed through. He described trying to put out a fire in the magazine, a highly volatile place for a fire, when a shell shot straight through the firefighting equipment itself. Not long after that, he remembered the ship losing power altogether.
The Fleets at Leyte Gulf
The Battle of Leyte Gulf was the largest naval conflict in history. It was three separate battles: Surigao Strait, Samar, and Cape Engano. At Surigao, far south of Samar, Admiral Jesse Oldendorf commanded a massive US fleet that had devastated a smaller Japanese fleet the night before. Admiral William “Bull” Halsey commanded the lion’s share of American firepower at San Bernardino Strait in Task Force 34. He was supposed to remain in place there to guard the ships supporting the invasion of the Philippines. Had he followed the plan, Samar would have been just as one-sided as Surigao. But Halsey was lured to the north in a feint by a Japanese fleet of nearly worthless aircraft carriers; they were manned with a fraction of the necessary compliment of fighters and pilots. The Japanese successfully lured Halsey’s warfighting ships to the north, where he engaged them at Cape Engano. Halsey would be haunted by his mistake through a now infamous message sent by Admiral Nimitz’s staff at Pearl Harbor. They had intercepted the desperate messages from Taffy 3 and sent a scathing message to Halsey: “WHERE IS RPT [repeat] WHERE IS TASK FORCE THIRTY FOUR RR THE WORLD WONDERS”.
The Japanese center fleet that entered San Bernardino Strait consisted of the super battleship Yamato, a behemoth with 9 18″ guns, as well as 6″ and 5″ guns, and 16-26 inches of steel armor. Yamato’s guns were so massive, their 25 mile range reached further than her gunners’ optical targeting could even see. The fleet was further comprised of 3 other battleships, 6 heavy cruisers, 2 light cruisers, and 11 destroyers. 23 ships in total. In the tale of the tape, it was 322,350 tons of Japanese warships with a total of 283 guns ranging between 18″ and 5″ versus 9,245 tons in the American corner with just 17 5″ guns between the 4 vessels. These four ships were the screen for six slow and unarmored escort carriers.
Samuel B. Roberts and the Battle off Samar
When the 23-ship Japanese fleet surprised the Americans of Task Group 77.4.3, (Taffy 3 for short), three DD’s and the Samuel B. Roberts were the only ones in place to put up a fight. Their mission was simple: sacrifice themselves to give the escort carriers time to escape and for Admiral Halsey to intervene.Admiral Clifton Sprague, the commander of Taffy 3, was unaware that Halsey had completely abandoned his ships.
The DD’s Johnston, Hoel, Heermann, and DE Samuel B. Roberts raced in against the Japanese fleet. Though radar guided for better accuracy than Japanese gunnery, the enemy had a reach nearly three times the effective range of the DD”s and DE’s. For several minutes, American guns were silent as they zigzagged through smokescreens to avoid Japanese shells.
Samuel B. Roberts even had its own “whites of their eyes” moment. When the Japanese ships were finally in range, Commanding Officer LCDR Bob Copeland ordered the gunners to hold their fire. He wanted a torpedo run at 4000 yards, and that meant not making themselves noticed. The DE was so inconsequential that it had yet to be fired on by the Japanese, even though Johnston, Hoel, and Heermann were being viciously pummeled a few thousand yards off. Finally in torpedo range, Sammy B launched her spread of three torpedoes against the heavy cruiser Chokai, destroying her aft end.
Having made their greeting in battle at 0823, Sammy B was suddenly noticed. Bob Copeland ordered the ship’s guns to life with one simple instruction: “Mr. Burton, you may open fire.” The heavy cruiser Chikuma was the second target as Chokai fell wounded out of battle. For the next 30 minutes, Sammy B fired an unrelenting 600+ rounds on the Japanese ships. Armor piercing, high explosive, anti-air, star shells, if it fit in a barrel, it was fired. She was so close to the enemy that the Japanese turrets struggled to aim low enough to hit her. But when they finally did, Hell opened inside the Samuel B. Roberts.
The Last Stand of Samuel B. Roberts
This was Adred’s battle. As shells tore the ship to pieces, they sent hot shrapnel bouncing through narrow passageways. Nearly every Sailor aboard was wounded in battle. Adred himself received pieces of his own ship throughout one leg. Sailors in engine rooms were literally cooked alive when steam pipes burst in enclosed spaces. In one of the guns, an explosion sent crew members flying into the water.
When a shell ripped off the radar mast, Sammy B’s crew was forced to manually fire. Gunner’s Mate 2nd Class Paul H. Carr was manually loading rounds into the aft gun breech, a dangerous method when the barrels aren’t already red hot. Near the end of Sammy B’s part in the battle, there was an explosion in the aft gun. A round had cooked off in the superheated breech. When crewmembers came to the gunners’ rescue, they found Paul Carr, nearly dead on his feet with a massive intestinal wound, still attempting to load the gun’s very last round. He spoke his final words begging for help to load that round, #325 of 325 into the gun. Paul Carr was posthumously awarded the Silver Star.
Eventually Samuel B. Roberts’ luck had run out completely. She was being hit by cruisers till that point, but at 0851, the battleships Yamato, Nagato, Kongo, and Haruna, had all targeted the Tin Can and fired their shells down on her. At 0900 a shell from Kongo blasted a 40 foot hole into Sammy B’s aft engine room, leaving the ship dying in the water. After 0910, it seemed like the Japanese ships were satisfied with the kill and readjusted their fire against the remaining destroyers, Heermann and Johnston, and the escort carriers.
The Samuel B. Roberts Abandons Her Crew
For 30 minutes, Adred and the rest of the surviving crew fought their ship as she sank around them. After the ship lost power altogether and was flooding uncontrollably, Bob Copeland ordered abandon ship at 0935. Only two life rafts, intended for 20 men each, remained for nearly 120 Sailors. In the ship’s last minutes, Bob Copeland and a few others wandered through the shredded, lifeless structure, saying their farewell while searching for wounded Sailors, before abandoning her. Just after 1000, Sammy B’s aft flooding lifted her bow momentarily up out of the water before she sank over 20,000 feet to the ocean floor, taking dozens of dead and mortally wounded Sailors down with her.
The surviving crew of the Samuel Roberts spent over 50 hours stranded at sea. In the naval orders, these men were dubbed “Sea Squatters”, or an exclusive fraternity of those stranded at sea for over 24 hours. The two life rafts had separated in the current. One crew with Commander Copeland in charge, the other led by a downed pilot, Ensign Moore that Sammy B had rescued days before. 50 hours at sea is dehumanizing. Adred Lenoir remembered never actually sleeping, just resting a moment before a wave rolled over his face. His place was on a rescue netting, not a raft.
When the Sammy B sank, 16 Sailors jumped into the water and got separated by the waves. They clung to some wreckage several hundred yards from Copeland’s group. Signalman 3rd Class Charles Natter, a former lifeguard, could not ignore their distant pleas for help. He decided to swim between raft and wreckage, bringing Sailors to safety. He and two others retrieved Sailors, but Natter, though wounded had the endurance to return over and over again. Up to eight times according to some accounts, he returned to the wreckage to rescue his shipmates. On his last trip, Bob Copeland asked him not to go, he was clearly exhausted. But Natter kept going. At the wreckage, the remaining Sailors became too scared to make the return when a shark killed one of the men before their eyes. Natter pleaded with the men until another shark came and killed him as well. For his efforts, Charles Natter was posthumously awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, an honor given strictly for saving lives.
Over time, the crew, many coated in oil that had pooled around them as they abandoned ship, suffered scorching days, cold nights, shark and barracuda attacks, and the mental effects of ingesting seawater. Men endured stages of psychosis and hysteria. Some would randomly scream into the night, others had hallucinations of ships, planes, or even that they were back aboard the Sammy B. One Sailor asked Captain Roberts for permission to go below, which the weary CO obliged, before he saw the Sailor just fall into the water and drown. Another Sailor thought he could just swim to shore some 30 miles away and disappeared into the night. It was brutalizing as wounded, sleep deprived, and starving men drifted aimlessly in periods of respite between shark attacks.
The Men of Samuel B. Roberts After Samar
Even when they were finally rescued, they suffered. When the men of the two rafts were finally found, their skin was so saturated that it peeled and opened new wounds as they climbed aboard the landing ship and patrol boats that found them. They received their first meals when the landing ship came under aerial attack by four Japanese Zeros. While the ship’s crew fought them off, the men of the Sammy B were just too tired to care. Adred Lenoir slept through the short battle altogether.
The tin cans fighter planes from the escort carriers at Samar successfully fended off the Japanese fleet. Admiral Kurita, its commander, was certain that these small ships and the fighter planes were just a vanguard caught by surprise. He thought the American center force was on its way. He was wrong. If he had pressed on, he would have devastated the American landing forces to the south. It would have delayed the American advance and certainly have cost tens of thousands of lives.
The Legacy of Samuel B. Roberts
For his leadership, Bob Copeland was awarded the Navy Cross. He always saw himself indebted to his crew for their valor at Samar, so when he was awarded the medal, he gave all credit to the fighting men of the Sammy B. The ship’s crew was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation and memorialized when Navy Secretaries named later ships after Samuel Roberts (DD-823 and FFG-58), Bob Copeland (FFG-25), and Paul Carr (FFG-52).
When USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58) struck an Iranian mine in 1988, the CO noted that Sailors rushing down a passageway bearing a memorial plaque of the original Sammy B would tap their hand on the bronze. Not just one, not a couple, he claimed that every time he saw a Sailor pass the plaque while fighting to save their small ship, they would put their hand on it. It was as if they were channeling the fighting spirit of the bluejackets who bore the name first, or promising to make their forebears from the Sammy B proud.
USS Samuel B. Roberts remains a legend in Navy history. She was the DE that fought like a battleship. The battle itself was recorded in James Hornfischer’s book Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors; Sammy B’s life from construction to sinking was memorialized in For Crew and Country by John Wukovits. But the Sammy B’s brutal story is just one among so many other tales of valor. The Sailor’s Creed declares “I represent the fighting spirit of the Navy and those who have gone before me to defend freedom and democracy around the world.” We should never forget the heroism and sacrifices of the service members who stepped up before us.
Featured Photo: Destroyer escort USS Samuel B Roberts (DE-413)
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