From the USS SAMUEL B. ROBERTS (DE 413) Survivor's Association
PUBLISHED BY EMPLOYEES OF BROWN SHIPBUILDING COMPANY INC.
HOUSTON, TEXAS, SATURDAY, JANUARY 13, 1945
This is the story of one of our ships in action - the story of how the destroyer escort Samuel B. Roberts fought in the Second Battle of the Philippine Seas - as told by one of its crew, Chief Petty Officer Gene Wallace of Houston.
Coming to Brown to me is almost like coming home. I spent a month at your yard, waiting to take my place in the crew of one of the ships you built. My uncle, B. Machamehl, worked in this yard, and helped build the ship on which I sailed.
I lived on this ship for seven months, from the time she was commissioned right here to the day she went down off Samar Island in the Second Battle of the Philippines.
In fair weather and in storms, on submarine patrol and in convoy, and finally in battle, I got to know the destroyer escort Samuel B. Roberts very well, and I want to tell you men and women who built her that she was a great ship.
She died on October 25 in a battle between a small American task force and a great Japanese fleet of battleships, cruisers and destroyers which was trying to crash the gates to Leyte Gulf and destroy the Americans landing force there.
Thanks to the Roberts and a handful of other American ships, the Japs didn't break through, and after a long and vicious battle withdrew to lick their wounds.
I want to tell you about this ship of ours, for she belonged to us - to you, the people who built her so well, and we, the fellows who sailed and fought her against the Japs. It is a story in which you can take great pride.
After we took the Roberts from your yard, we put it through a shakedown in the North Atlantic, and later saw some convoy service before heading toward the Pacific. It was at the beginning of our trip to the Pacific that we destroyed our first underwater monster.
I was below decks when there was a great shock, then a grinding sensation along the keel and finally the stern of the Roberts shook violently. I rushed to the deck, and there on the sea was evidence that the Roberts had made her kill.
There was blood on the water and bits of flesh - positive evidence of a kill - OF A WHALE.
In October, we put into a South Pacific port to join a convoy for the invasion of the Philippines. It was there I saw the greatest bunch of ships I ever saw in my life. It's hard even to imagine so many ships. They were stretched as far as you could see in every direction.
There were battle wagons, cruisers, destroyers, DEs and just about every kind of ship you could think of.
We hit a storm on the way in to the Philippines, and ever since then I have wanted to shake hands with you welders and other workers who put the USS Roberts together.
At one time we recorded a 68 degree list.
I don't know how much that figure means to you, but inside the ship you could almost walk up the bulkheads that form the walls. Take it from me, that's quite a list.
But the Roberts plowed on through and we never cracked a seam or had any mechanical trouble, and we whipped our biggest storm because you men and women at Brown had done your job right. I want to thank you for that.
By October 18 the weather had cleared so the flat tops could get their planes off, and I watched them take off to shuttle bomb the Japs on Leyte every day.
We split up into task forces off Leyte and the Roberts was in a group of six baby flat tops, three destroyers and four DEs. Our job was to protect the flat tops against enemy submarines and planes and to pick up pilots of any of our planes that were shot down or forced down in the water. We were outside Leyte Gulf, off Samar Island.
On the night of October 24, one of the radio men told me, "Things are cracking." I asked what he meant, and he said, "There's fighting going on at sea and all hell may break loose before morning." Just before 7 a.m. next morning I heard the voice of the executive officer - very calm - over the public address system.
"Attention all hands," he said, "Anyone interested in taking a look at the Japanese fleet, come topside and look aft. It is clearly visible on the horizon." He sounded like he was getting a kind of a kick out of it and I lost no time going to my battle station, which was on the bridge.
When I got to the bridge, I could see a heck of a lot of ships in the distance. I turned to the signalman and said, "What's cooking?" and he said, "It looks bad to me." It looked plenty bad to me, too.
The American flat tops were grouped in the center of our force with destroyers and DEs picketed all around them. The Jap force was coming up fast from a direction that put the Roberts between them and the entire American force. We were the closest American ship to all those Japs.
"You've heard of the "hot corner" in baseball. That was the base we on the Roberts were playing.
The first salvo from the Japs hit between the Roberts and the closest American flat top.
We started making smoke. It was pouring out the funnel and from the smoke-makers on the stern. I thought we had by far the best smoke screen of anyone.
The Jap force split, with one column coming down the starboard and another down the port side of our group.
Then began a game of hide and seek. We would make the smoke. The Japs would try to cut out around the smoke, and would fire every time they would get clear where they could see us. We'd get over in the clear space and make some more smoke.
The Japs were traveling at a terrific clip, making much more speed than our flat tops could develop, and were closing the distance all the while. I soon could distinctly see two Jap battlewagons and four or five cruisers on our side.
We opened fire at approximately 12,500 yards and scored hits on a Tone class cruiser. I could see flashes from the explosions of our shells. But the Japs kept on coming.
Then the American group commander ordered a torpedo attack.
I could distinctly hear every word that was said.
"Who do you want to make the torpedo run?" our skipper spoke into the radio.
"Little boys follow big boys," came the reply. Each class ship is known in battle by a nickname, because the Japs can hear our orders too, and we don't want to give away our signals. In this action, destroyers were known as "big boys" and DEs as "little boys."
By that time the Japs had closed to approximately 8,000 yards. It was squally and rainy and smoke was heavy on the water. Two destroyers proceeded us to the attack through the smoke and rain.
We all held our breath as we rushed straight at those big Jap ships, but because of the smoke and rain we never were detected by the Japs. We closed to 4,000 yards, and I could see the tubes go out.
They went, "whist," "whist," "whist."
I couldn't see where they went, but a boy from the destroyer Johnston later signed a statement that he saw one of our tubes hit a Jap heavy cruiser. It went dead in the water.
We whirled to come back out and I heard the skipper say to the engineering officer: "Give it all you have - we probably won't be afloat another fifteen minutes."
At one time I saw us register 28 knots. A DE is not suspose to make anything like that speed, and I later heard the skipper remark they'd never believe him in Washington when he reported it.
Then the soundman reported to the skipper that torpedoes had been fired at us. Crews on the 40mms were ordered to be on the lookout. A torpedo travels 150 feet ahead of its wake and it's hard to hit one with a 40mm but it has been done and we always try and hope.
Suddenly we saw the wake of a torpedo headed directly for the bridge. Man, my hair stood straight up and it has hardly come down yet. But the torpedo was set too deep and went right under the Roberts. About that time another crossed
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the bow. A little farther on, we passed one running alongside, almost spent. It was on the surface and its propellers were barely turning over.
When we came out of the smoke, the Japs began shooting at us and were coming pretty close. Then two or three shells went through the chief's quarters without exploding. I guess they were armor piercing shells and the skin of the Roberts was so then they scooted right through without popping.
You may wonder what it feels like to be under fire. Well, frankly, I was scared. I was scared from the first shot right on through to the last. And I think all the other fellows were too. It gives you a creepy feeling to be shot at.
Finally the Japs hit the No. 1 fire room, killing a number of men and putting the boilers out of action.
We switched over to No. 2 and could still make goo speed. But about that time the flat top Gambier Bay was getting pretty well ripped up. They slowed down and we dropped behind to give them whatever protection we could.
The Japs wanted the flat top and wanted it bad. They were concentrating on her. Every once in a while we would sting the dickens out of them with a five-inch shell and they would fire at us, but mostly they were shooting at the carrier. They closed to about 4,000 yards and blasted the Gambier Bay out of the water. I saw her roll completely over and she soon went down.
We were the closest ship then and they concentrated on us. I think it was a battleship that finished us. I saw her guns blaze and a few seconds later we were hit. There was a terrific explosion that shoved me back against the compass. I don't remember going down but the next thing I knew I was flat on the deck. My back was a little sore, but I thought it was from hitting the compass.
It wasn't until later when I saw blood all over my clothes that I found out I had been hit by shrapnel. I still have a slug under my shoulder blade.
We took about 20 heavy hits in all, 14-inch and 8-inch shells. Almost all our ammunition was gone. Our five-inch guns had been firing constantly - bam, bam, bam. There were only four shells left for the No. 1 gun and two for the No. 2 when the skipper gave orders to cease firing - and shortly after to abandon ship. We had fired almost 700 rounds of five-inch projectiles in a little less than two hours.
I'm surprised the guns weren't completely burned out. They must have been well-made and you must have done a good job of putting them in place.
I hopped over the side and swam out as far as I could in case our depth bombs should go off when the ship went down.
The Roberts was badly battered. She had been hit from stem to stern. A destroyer escort is not built to take hits from such heavy shells, and those big Jap guns had literally pounded her to pieces. Yet the ship did not want to go down. The portions that had not been absolutely destroyed by the explosions held together well, and it was an hour and a half before her nose stuck straight up and she slid under the water.
I wound up with about 50 others of the crew on a raft and life net that had been secured together with a painter. The more seriously wounded were placed on the raft, where they could be more comfortable. We on the net finally settled down on our backs with our feet propped against the outside rope and just our chests and heads out of the water.
It was warm in the sun but at night it was bitterly cold. We were in an oil slick all the time we were in the water. There was oil all over us, but in a way, it helped. It kept us from being blistered when the sun was out.
Four men died on the raft during the period of more than 48 hours we were adrift. We on the net were too far away to participate in services for them, but could hear the splash when they were buried in the sea.
There were supplies on the net and raft - enough for me to get one sip of water, a spoonful of spam and a hard tack cookie during the entire time we were adrift. It showered frequently and by lying back with my mouth open I could catch enough water to keep my throat from parching.
It was about noon two days after the battle when a LCI chugged into view. Some people make fun of the LCI and say she's clumsy-looking and ugly, but to us on the raft and net this was the most beautiful sight we had ever seen.
MANY OF US WHO GOT BACK, GOT BACK BECAUSE SOMEBODY BUILT THAT LCI.
If we had been forced to stay in the water another day, or longer, there would have been more burials at sea.
I don't know what the job of building that LCI meant to the men and women who put her together. It may have been just a job - just a check every pay day. It may have meant more to them. But to us out there in the water two whole days after a terrible battle, it meant a chance to live.