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.
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.
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.
Photo Credit: Alan Lessig/Staff
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.