Last month, a truly unique piece of history found a new home in the collection of the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC). The 48 star battle ensign of the destroyer escort USS Samuel B. Roberts (DE 413) was transferred from a private collection to the Material Section at NHHC.
For those who aren’t familiar with the story of the “Sammy B,” it is one of the truly legendary stories in the U.S. Navy’s history. In October 1944, as Allied landing forces swarmed the beaches of Leyte, in the Philippines, the Japanese Navy rallied their remaining forces for one last desperate naval battle. A series of far-ranging engagements covering hundreds of miles around the Philippine Islands, which came to be known as the Battle of Leyte Gulf, saw this massive Japanese force defeated in stunning fashion. But they came perilously close to inflicting major damage to the Allied landing forces, if not for the heroic efforts of “Taffy III,” a small, overmatched American force of escort carriers, destroyers, and destroyer escorts. During this engagement on 25 October, which came to be known as the Battle Off Samar, the deadly Japanese Center Force, comprised of destroyers, cruisers, and battleships – including the superbattleship Yamato – slipped through to the eastern side of the Philippines, and was bearing down on the lightly defended Allied landing forces. The only thing stopping the Center Force from raining destruction on the landing beach was Taffy III. In what amounted to a suicidal charge, the American destroyers and destroyer escorts turned and steamed directly into the face of the Japanese battle line. Pounding away with torpedoes and 5″ gunfire, and supported by aircraft, the ships of Taffy III achieved the impossible, as the Japanese armada turned and headed home before reaching their target.
In achieving this victory, the U.S. Navy suffered terrible casualties. An escort carrier and two destroyers were lost, as was the Roberts. The story of this lightly armed and armored destroyer escort, steaming straight into a force of Japanese battleships, cruisers, and destroyers, has come to epitomize the highest ideals of the U.S. Navy. Along with the larger destroyers of Taffy III, the Sammy B. inflicted heavy damage on the Japanese force, firing hundreds of 5″ shells and scoring hits with her torpedoes. But in a toe-to-toe slugging match with larger ships, the little DE was doomed, and was soon afire and dead in the water. As her crew abandoned ship, Chief Torpedoman Rudy Skau retrieved her battle ensign, and tucked it safely away. The ship went down, and her crew floated for nearly 3 days awaiting rescue, with many survivors perishing from wounds and shark attacks.
Years later, Skau passed along the tattered flag to his employer, James Massick, a 1954 graduate of the University of Washington. Massick had his own personal connection to the Roberts. While a student at the University of Washington, he met Captain Robert Copeland, who had commanded the Sammy B. during the battle, and was awarded the Navy Cross for his inspirational leadership. Copeland was a 1935 graduate of the University of Washington’s Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps, and he encouraged Massick to apply for the program, which he did. Massick eventually graduated and was commissioned as an Ensign. Early in 2013, Massick contacted Captain David Melin, Commanding Officer of the school’s NROTC unit, and offered to return the priceless battle ensign to the Navy. Captain Melin contacted the Naval Historical Foundation, and we arranged to have the flag officially donated to the Navy’s collection at the Washington Navy Yard. It is currently in the possession of NHHC, for preservation and framing. It will be loaned back to the NROTC unit for display on the University of Washington campus later this year. We were pleased to play a very small role in finding the best home for this symbol of the U.S. Navy’s finest hour.