The naming of a Navy warship is never a simple thing. There are grand traditions to follow, not-so-grand ones to consider, and an occasional willingness to disregard the rules altogether. But at its best, a warship's name inspires its crew, lifts heritage off the page and into the heart, and provides a slate upon which to write a new chapter of naval history.
Such a name is Samuel B. Roberts, and it will leave the fleet upon the May 22 decommissioning of FFG 58 in Mayport. If the Navy values its heritage, the absence should last only as long as it takes to pick a new ship to bear the name.
It belonged first to Samuel Booker Roberts Jr., a Navy coxswain who in 1942 helped land Marines on Guadalcanal and then stayed behind to run supplies up the coast after the fleet withdrew. When a foray led by legendary Marine Lt. Col. Chesty Puller went bad, Roberts and his fellow coxswains drove their boats through fire to pull the Marines off the beach. Roberts wheeled his craft around, distracting the Japanese gunners long enough to get the others clear — and exposed himself to a fatal bullet. For his valor and sacrifice, he received a posthumous Navy Cross.
Within months, the Navy bestowed upon him an even rarer honor, giving his name to a new warship. A pocket-size destroyer escort, DE 413 would play an outsized role in one of naval history's most valiant actions. In 1944, the Samuel B. Roberts was sent to Leyte Gulf as part of the largest fleet the world has ever seen. Assigned to guard a flotilla of escort carriers, the thin-skinned Roberts wasn't meant to see action. That changed when a Japanese stratagem lured away Adm. Halsey's powerful Third Fleet, leaving the Roberts and its flotilla the only thing left between an enemy battleship squadron and defenseless American troopships.
With no hope for survival, DE 413 and its fellow small boys plunged into battle against pagoda-topped behemoths. The fury of their attack confused the Japanese commander, who eventually withdrew in the face of what he concluded were cruisers and fleet carriers. The Roberts, pummeled beyond saving by 8-inch shells, slipped beneath the waves — taking with her the last Japanese hope of changing the war's outcome. "In no engagement of its entire history," wrote Navy historian Samuel Eliot Morison, "has the United States Navy shown more gallantry, guts and gumption than in those two morning hours between 0730 and 0930 off Samar."
The U.S. Navy commemorates valiant ships as well as valiant sailors, and so it commissioned a second Samuel B. Roberts in 1946. A full-fledged destroyer this time, DD 823 crafted a fine service record of its own. It helped turn back Soviet ships bearing missiles to Cuba, and later earned two battle stars in the Vietnam War. The "Steaming Sammy B" served for 24 years, and was sunk for target practice in deep water.
In 1986, the Navy named a third Samuel B. Roberts, one of the final Perry-class frigates. Sent to escort tanker ships through the hellish seas of the Iran-Iraq War, FFG 58 performed brilliantly in dangerous and tight waters. Then an Iranian mine blew a truck-size hole in the ship's engineroom, leaving it dead in the water off a hostile coast. Well-trained and well-led, the crew fought fire and flood into the night, and saved their ship to fight another day. Like its predecessors, the third Roberts leaves behind a legacy befitting the highest traditions of the naval service — and in particular its unofficial motto, "Don't give up the ship."
Three ships have borne the name of an exceptional sailor, and each has only deepened its luster. Instead of letting Samuel B. Roberts slip into history, the Navy should name a fourth warship for the World War II coxswain, and allow the name's rich heritage to inspire a new generation of sailors.
Peniston, a former reporter for Navy Times and editor for sister publications Defense News, C4ISR and Armed Forces journal, is deputy editor at Defense One.