A Tale of Two Ships: The USS Samuel B. Roberts of World War II and the Persian Gulf

Terry Lloyd
Updated onMar 22, 2023
4 minute read
USS Samuel B. Roberts at sea

Samuel B. Roberts at sea, c. October 1944.


The naming of a Navy ship can be a bit of a mystery to non-Navy types. Some are named for states, cities, or presidents, while some are named for abstract…

The naming of a Navy ship can be a bit of a mystery to non-Navy types. Some are named for states, cities, or presidents, while some are named for abstract concepts such as Enterprise or Constitution or for past battles. One of the naming conventions that is more easily understood is naming a ship for a Navy or Marine Corps hero. Often an honored name is passed down to successive new ships over time. One ship that meets the last two cases is the USS Samuel B. Roberts, and the ship and crews of two of the three ships to bear that name faced grave danger and displayed undaunted heroism and perseverance in harm’s way.

The first Samuel B. Roberts, DE-413 was a World War II destroyer escort, commissioned in early 1944. The ship was named for a Navy coxswain who died in 1942 while rescuing Marines from a surrounded beachhead on the island of Guadalcanal and posthumously received the Navy Cross for valor.

Destroyer escorts, referred to as frigates in many other navies, were fairly small warships, just over 300 feet long and 37 feet wide, and equipped with two five-inch guns and various other armaments for use against submarines and antiaircraft defense. The crew consisted of 183 enlisted sailors led by 15 officers. The primary mission of the destroyer escorts was to provide submarine and antiaircraft protection of convoys and battle formations of other warships.

In October of 1944, the “Sammy B”, her crew's nickname for their ship, was operating in the Leyte Gulf, off the coast of the island of Samar during the invasion of the Philippines. The Roberts was assigned to a group of small escort carriers, destroyers, and other destroyer escorts providing close air support to the invasion’s ground forces, under the designation “Taffy 3”.

By this time in the war, the Imperial Japanese Navy, or IJN, had been devastated by successive losses in large naval engagements with the ever-growing American Pacific fleet, constant submarine attacks, and lack of vital parts and fuel. The invasion of the Philippines, which the Japanese had conquered in early 1942, prompted the IJN to muster its remaining fleet of surface ships and few carriers to attack the U.S. Navy supporting the invasion. The IJN conceived a bold plan using three separate formations to deceive and attack the U.S. fleet. Soon, Taffy 3 and the Samuel B. Roberts would be facing off against Japanese cruisers, destroyers and battleships, including the Yamato, at the time the largest battleship in the world.

Taffy 3’s three destroyers, four destroyer escorts, and aircraft configured for ground attacks were the escort carriers only defense. Gamely attacking the vastly more powerful Japanese force, the destroyers Hoel, Johnson and the Roberts were sunk by devastating large caliber hits from the large IJN ships, which were miraculously driven off by the aggressive, determined U.S. ships. The Roberts had scored one torpedo hit and several shell hits on larger enemy ships before going down with 90 of her crew killed. Unfortunately, her 120 survivors would not be rescued for several days, adding further misery to their ordeal.

The name USS Samuel B. Roberts quickly reappeared on the Navy rolls when DD-823, a Gearing-class destroyer, was commissioned in 1946. Serving during the Cold War, her crews' experiences were thankfully largely uneventful until the ship was decommissioned in 1970. The next “Sammy B. “was an Oliver Hazard Perry-class guided missile frigate, FFG-58, commissioned in 1986 and the ship and crew soon found themselves in harm’s way.

USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58), navigates in the Caribbean Sea during an exercise, 9 April 2007.

In April 1988, the third “Roberts” was on patrol in the Persian Gulf. Iran had been harassing commercial shipping in the international waters of the Gulf, including laying minefields. The Roberts struck a mine despite sailing in a main shipping channel and keeping a sharp lookout. The blast broke the keel of the ship and much of the power was knocked out, making fire hoses and pumps inoperable- the ship was both on fire and sinking. The crew valiantly fought fire and flooding for over five hours in the face of losing their ship and facing capture. At one point, thinking the ship was defenseless, Iranian Navy boats approached but were backed off by radio calls and visible tracking of Sammy Bs weapons. The captain and crew were well versed in, and in no doubt inspired by the heroic story of the first Sammy B.

Eventually, assistance arrived, and the ship was towed to a friendly port, and after extensive repairs continued to serve until 2015. In June 2022, the wreck of the WWII Roberts was found at a depth of over 22,000 feet and is the deepest known wreck to date.