Eleven Sailors, Eleven Destroyer Escorts and the USS SAN FRANCISCO
By Eric Rivet
Upon reaching the SLATER’s wardroom, everyone who takes a guided tour of the ship sees a picture of a young man named Frank Slater. Visitors are told of Slater’s courageous actions on the USS SAN FRANCISCO in November 1942, actions that resulted in his death. They are told of how Slater remained at this post, a 20mm antiaircraft gun, and fired at an attacking plane right up until it crashed into his station. Everything about the story told to visitors about Frank Slater’s death is true, but it is not the whole story, for Frank Slater was not alone. He did not fight alone, nor did he die alone. In fact, there were ten other men on the SAN FRANCISCO’s after antiaircraft platform on 12 November 1942. Each of those men showed the same resolve as Slater, and each of them died in the air attack.
The USS SAN FRANCISCO CA38 was a NEW ORLEANS class heavy cruiser. She was laid down in September 1931 at the Mare Island Naval Yard in California. She was launched in March 1933 and commissioned 10 February 1934 with Captain Royal E. Ingersoll in command. Her shakedown cruise took her to both coasts of the United States, to British Columbia and to the Hawaiian Islands. After final improvements and modifications, the SAN FRANCISCO became a part of Cruiser Division 6 based out of San Diego, California.
USS SAN FRANCISCO in her peace time rigging
The ship’s first few years in service were spent primarily in training exercises and in “showing the flag” at various foreign ports in the Eastern Pacific. In January 1939, the SAN FRANCISCO became the flagship of Cruiser Division 7. Her first task as flagship was to embark upon a cruise to ports in South America. She left Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in April 1939 and sailed down the east coast of South America, stopping at numerous ports along the way. Upon reaching the southern tip of South America, the SAN FRANCISCO transited the Straits of Magellan and then began the return trip up the west coast of South America, stopping at more ports along the way. The cruiser completed her trek around South America by passing through the Panama Canal and returning to Cuba. Remarkably, she completed the entire trip in only two months.
The SAN FRANCISCO’s South American cruise marked the end of her happy times. Three months after her voyage, on 1 September 1939, Germany invaded Poland. SAN FRANCISCO was ordered to join America’s neutrality patrol to protect America’s interests in the Atlantic. After steaming around the Caribbean for the last months of 1939, the SAN FRANCISCO was relieved of her duties by the USS WICHITA CA45 and reassigned to her old squadron in the Pacific. Now part of the Pacific Fleet, the SAN FRANCISCO spent much of 1940 in the Puget Sound Navy Yard for overhaul and modernization. She rejoined Cruiser Squadron 6 in September 1940 and spent the next year steaming around the Eastern Pacific.
In late October 1941, as it became more and more apparent that the United States would become involved in World War II, the SAN FRANCISCO was ordered to a dry dock in Pearl Harbor for another overhaul and more modifications. The repairs were expected to last until late December. The Japanese attack on 7 December found the SAN FRANCISCO in sorry shape. Her engines had been broken down for overhaul, her 8-inch and 5-inch ammunition had been removed for storage, her 3-inch guns had been removed for quad 1.1-inch guns, which had not yet been installed, and her .50 machine guns were broken down for maintenance. All told, the SAN FRANCISCO met the Japanese attack with two .30 machine guns and what rifles could be broken out of small arms lockers.
The SAN FRANCISCO survived the attack on Pearl Harbor without damage and was immediately ordered out to sea. She spent the remainder of 1941 and the first months of 1942 as an escort to the early carrier raids against Rabaul and Japanese installations in the Gilbert and Marshall Island groups. In April 1942 she reported back to Pearl Harbor to serve as an escort for troop transports bound to the Western Pacific and Australia. It was at this time that Frank Slater reported aboard. The SAN FRANCISCO then headed west to support operations against Guadalcanal in the Solomons.
After the initial landings on 7 August 1942, the SAN FRANCISCO remained in the Solomons area as part of a covering force of cruisers and destroyers. She then returned briefly to her former role as a carrier escort for the WASP and HORNET. However, once it became apparent that the Japanese were sending ships to Guadalcanal at night to reinforce and resupply their forces there, the SAN FRANCISCO became part of a surface group tasked with patrolling the waters around Guadalcanal each night. Between September and November 1942, the SAN FRANCISCO participated in numerous clashes with the Japanese Navy around Guadalcanal, including the night battle of Cape Esperance on 11 October. Beginning in November, the SAN FRANCISCO was assigned to escort convoys of troop and supply ships headed for Guadalcanal.
On the morning of 12 November, the SAN FRANCISCO was covering a landing force at Lunga Point when she received word that an air attack was imminent and that a powerful Japanese surface force was headed towards them. Landing operations were completed quickly and all ships headed towards more open waters. About one hour after the initial warning, the convoy came under attack by thirty Mitsubishi G-4M “Betty” bombers. LTJG John Wallace, assigned to SAN FRANCISCO’s main battery control aft, just forward of Frank Slater’s battle station on the after antiaircraft platform, watched as the bombers dropped their torpedoes at the convoy.
Japanese air attack on Guadalcanal - 12 November 1942
As planes started to be shot down, Wallace watched as one dropped its torpedo at the SAN FRANCISCO’s starboard bow. The ship turned sharply to port, which then put the plane on her starboard quarter. Wallace reported, “About the time I expected that torpedo to hit, (it missed), our antiaircraft 20mm guns behind me, right outside my battle station started to really kick them out. I looked out toward the starboard quarter and what I saw was a Mitsubishi "Betty" bomber coming right at me with its starboard engine smoking. I just had time to duck inside the outer door when a tremendous explosion knocked me all the way up to the forward side of secondary conn and I lost consciousness.”
The plane hit the starboard edge of the antiaircraft platform, skidded across it, and then fell off the port side and into the sea. All eleven men on the platform were killed instantly. Eleven other men were killed in the attack and twenty-nine were wounded, including Wallace (who was awarded a Navy Cross for his efforts in rescuing wounded men from his battle station despite his own injuries). The men on the antiaircraft platform all received posthumous Navy Crosses for maintaining fire on the plane until it crashed on their position. They were: William F. Cates, George R. Eisele, George I. Falgout, Andrew J. Gandy, Eugene F. George, Albert T. Harris, Harry J. Lowe, Jackson K. Loy, William T. Powell, Frank O. Slater, and John L. Williamson. Each of these men had a destroyer escort named in his honor.
The SAN FRANCISCO’s crew began repairing the damage caused by the crash immediately after the air attack, but those efforts were abandoned that night when the ship and its fellow cruisers and destroyers steamed into the bar room brawl that was the Night Battle of Guadalcanal. The American force, consisting of two heavy cruisers, three light cruisers, and eight destroyers, attacked a Japanese force of two battleships and thirteen cruisers and destroyers at ranges of less than three miles. The wild melee lasted only minutes but resulted in the loss of thirteen of the twenty-eight ships engaged. The SAN FRANCISCO was struck more than forty times by heavy shells and suffered eighty-five killed and 105 wounded, but she survived the battle relatively intact. She returned to Pearl Harbor and spent the next four months being repaired.
Frank Slater's battle station on the 20mm guns of the USS SAN FRANCISCO's after control station
The SAN FRANCISCO resumed operations in March 1943 and served with distinction throughout the remainder of the war. She participated in nearly every major action of the war in 1944 and 1945 and had earned the Presidential Unit Citation and seventeen battle stars when the war ended. Her crew had earned four Medals of Honor, thirty-two Navy Crosses, twenty-one silver stars and one bronze star. The SAN FRANCISCO also had the distinction of having no less than fifteen ships named for her fallen crewmembers. None of these honors, however, could save the ship from the breakers. She was decommissioned in February 1946 and scrapped in 1959.
The SAN FRANCISCO returning to Mare Island for repairs on 11 December 1942
While the SAN FRANCISCO fought on, keels were laid for the destroyer escorts named for her antiaircraft gunners. These eleven young men came from all over the United States. The only thing they had in common was that they were young. Albert Harris, the lieutenant in charge of the 20mm guns, was the oldest at twenty-seven. Eugene George, the youngest, had turned eighteen in April 1942. Like the men, the ships named for them represented the full range of destroyer escort development during World War II. The ships included five of the six classes of DEs built, with only the RUDDEROW class left out. The LOY was converted to an APD and the LOWE and FALGOUT were converted to DERs. The FALGOUT also has the distinction of being the only ship manned by a Coast Guard crew. Although none of these ships saw as much action as the ship their namesakes died on, each served with distinction during World War II.
Jackson Loy of Effingham, Illinois, was the first of the eleven to have his ship commissioned. The Buckley-class USS LOY DE160 was commissioned on 12 September 1943. Between November 1943 and April 1944 the LOY escorted two convoys to North Africa and one along the Eastern US. In April she was assigned to a hunter killer group built around the USS CORE CVE13. She spent the next six months conducting antisubmarine patrols in the Atlantic before being ordered to Boston in October for conversion to a high-speed transport. With conversion completed, the newly designated USS LOY APD56 transferred to the Pacific, where she landed Underwater Demolition Team 4 at Okinawa. The LOY saw considerable action off Okinawa and came under numerous air attacks. She shot down seven kamikazes, one of which landed so close that fragments of the plane damaged the ship and wounded eighteen crewmen. Nevertheless, the LOY survived the war intact and returned home in 1946, where she was decommissioned and eventually scrapped in 1966.
The second SAN FRANCISCO gunner to have his ship commissioned was George Eisele of Gillette, Wyoming. The USS EISELE DE34, an EVARTS class, was placed into service on 18 October 1943. The ship was originally earmarked for transfer to Great Britain, but the expanding needs of the US Navy caused the EISELE to remain in American service. She spent her entire career in the Pacific escorting convoys of merchant ships first between the Marshalls and Gilberts, then Guam and the Marianas, then the Carolines and Palaus, and then the Philippines. The EISELE then followed the advancing wave of US forces to Okinawa, where she screened escort carriers until June 1945, when she was ordered home. She was decommissioned in November 1945 and scrapped two months later.
November 1943 saw three of the eleven DEs commissioned. The first, the USS FALGOUT DE324, named for George Falgout of Raceland, Louisiana, was commissioned on 15 November 1943. One week later, on 22 November, the USS LOWE DE325, named for Harry Lowe of Paducah, Kentucky, was commissioned. These two ships served together in Escort Division 46. They operated exclusively in the Atlantic Theater, especially in the Mediterranean Sea. Throughout 1944, the FALGOUT and LOWE escorted convoys to ports in the Mediterranean. In April, on their second convoy run, the FALGOUT, LOWE, and ten other DEs fought off a large German air attack off the coast of North Africa. An ammunition ship and destroyer were lost, but the DEs shot down several of the attackers. Once the remainder of the convoy reached port, the DEs started the return trip. The FALGOUT was near the USS MENGES DE320 when she was torpedoed days later, and she was also with the USS FECHTELER DE157 when she was torpedoed and sunk on 5 May. Despite the losses, the FALGOUT and the remaining DEs brought the convoy back to the US without any merchant losses. The FALGOUT spent the remainder of the war on escort duty, while the USS LOWE was assigned to a hunter killer group operating out of Newfoundland. On 18 March 1945, while on an antisubmarine sweep, the LOWE attacked a sound contact with hedgehogs resulting in a large oil slick. Postwar investigation confirmed that the LOWE had destroyed U-866. Both FALGOUT and LOWE were converted to radar picket ships after WWII. The FALGOUT served in this capacity until 1962. The LOWE was one of the last DEs to see active duty, remaining on picket duty and other assignments until 1968.
The USS GEORGE DE697, named for Eugene George of Grand Rapids, Michigan, was the third DE to be commissioned in November 1943, on the 20th. The GEORGE served exclusively in the Pacific, where one of her first actions was one of the most memorable events involving DEs in the war. The GEORGE served as part of a hunter killer group with the USS ENGLAND DE635 and USS RABY DE698, which sank six Japanese submarines in twelve days. The GEORGE went on to escort convoys and conduct antisubmarine patrols in the Solomons, New Hebrides, Marshalls, and the Philippines. She performed similar duty during the invasion of Iwo Jima where, 18 April 1945, she rescued the crew of a B-29 bomber that ditched near the island. She then escorted two convoys to Okinawa and, after the Japanese surrender, she delivered news of the end of war and terms for surrendering to the bypassed Japanese garrison at Truk in the Caroline Islands. Like the FALGOUT and LOWE, the GEORGE remained active long after the end of WWII. She remained in the Pacific as an escort, patrol, and training vessel until October 1958.
The next three destroyer escorts commissioned had a great deal in common. The USS CATES DE763, named for William Cates of Drummonds, Tennessee, the USS GANDY DE764, named for Andrew Gandy of Chattanooga, Tennessee, and the USS SLATER DE766, named for Frank Slater of Fyffe, Alabama, were all CANNON class DEs built at Tampa Shipbuilding in Florida. The three ships were assigned to Escort Division 35, which served in both the Atlantic and Pacific Theaters. Of the three ships, the GANDY was the only one to come into close combat with a submarine when, on 16 April 1944, she helped the USS JOYCE DE317 and USS PETERSON DE152 in the attack on U-550. GANDY rammed the sub and hit her with shells before it sank. After that excitement, the remainder of the war was more mundane for the CATES, GANDY and SLATER. They escorted several convoys to Europe before VE Day, and then transferred to the Pacific where they escorted more convoys and served on occupation duty in Japan. After the war, all three ships were transferred to foreign navies under the Truman Doctrine: the CATES to France as the SOUDANAIS, the GANDY to Italy as the ALTAIR, and the SLATER to Greece as the AETOS.
USS GANDY in her measure 32/3D camoouflage
On 28 March 1944, the USS WILLIAM T. POWELL DE213 was commissioned in honor of Gunner’s Mate Powell of Cincinnati, Ohio. His ship, a BUCKLEY class, served as the flagship of Escort Division 66. While on one of her first convoy runs to North Africa in August 1944, the POWELL and her division mates helped to fend off a night attack by many German planes. The convoy and escorts reached port unscathed, but due to the darkness and the DEs’ smoke screens, it was impossible to tell if any of the attackers had been shot down. The POWELL spent the rest of 1944 alternating between assignments to convoys and a hunter killer group. The end of the war in Europe found the POWELL based out of Londonderry, where she then had the pleasant duty of accepting the surrender of German subs, and then escorting them to ports in the British Isles. Like many DEs, the POWELL was then ordered to the Pacific, but she went into a shipyard first for an overhaul. She was still in the yard when Japan surrendered. The POWELL then underwent conversion to a radar picket ship and was reclassified as DER213. She spent most of the 1950s sailing along the eastern US and the Caribbean as a reserve training vessel before being decommissioned in January 1958. The POWELL was broken up for scrap in 1966.
The USS JOHN L. WILLIAMSON DE370, named for John Williamson of Ash, North Carolina, was the tenth of the DEs to be commissioned. After entering service on 31 October 1944, the WILLIAMSON completed her training and then headed to the Pacific to escort a convoy to Iwo Jima. She spent the next few months engaged in antisubmarine patrols and convoy escorts between Iwo Jima, Eniwetok and the Marshall Islands. Beginning in April 1945, the WILLIAMSON sailed to many of the Japanese garrisons in the Marshalls that had been bypassed. Through combinations of air attacks and shelling, many of the garrisons were compelled to surrender to the WILLIAMSON and her companions. The ship was then sent into the meat grinder of Okinawa, but she arrived at the closing stages of the battle and saw no action there. When the war ended, the WILLIAMSON joined many other DEs in occupation duties in and around Japan before being ordered back to the US in January 1946. She was decommissioned in June and remained as part of the reserve fleet until finally being sold for scrap in 1973.
The last of the SAN FRANCISCO’s gunners to be honored was the officer in charge of the platform, Albert Harris of Madison, Georgia. His ship, the JOHN C. BUTLER class USS ALBERT T. HARRIS DE447, was commissioned on 29 November 1944. After her shakedown cruise in the Caribbean, the HARRIS transferred to the Pacific Fleet, where she screened operations against Morotai, Mindanao, and Borneo. She then spent the majority of her time escorting convoys around the Philippines. After Japan surrendered, the HARRIS became part of the Allied occupation forces, visiting such ports as Shanghai, Hong Kong, and the island of Formosa. She was decommissioned in 1946, but like many DEs she was reactivated during the Korean War. The HARRIS served as a training ship on both coasts throughout the 1950s. Her last assignment began in 1957, when she was ordered to New York City to serve as a reserve training vessel, which she did for the next eleven years. Finally worn out after more than two decades of service, the USS ALBERT T. HARRIS was decommissioned in 1968 and sunk as a target the following year.
These eleven destroyer escorts performed admirably during their service careers. Some of them saw more action than others, and none of them came close to the SAN FRANCISCO’s combat record, but all of them performed their assigned roles skillfully. Most importantly, the ships all lived up to the high standards set by the eleven young men who sacrificed themselves for the good of their shipmates on 12 November 1942 aboard the SAN FRANCISCO. Certainly the same can be said for all other DEs and their crews.
**All images courtesy of NAVSOURCE.ORG**