Dstroyer Escorts in the Movies

By Heather Maron

Destroyer escorts are certainly no stranger to the silver screen, though they often go without credit. Theatrical films have included DEs in their plots since the ships debuted in World War II.  Although these ships were often central to the movie’s action, they were sadly too often considered life-sized props rather than characters in their own right.  Often, when considering a film from any period, even ship experts have been mistaken about what type of ship and which exact ship was used in production of various pieces; then there are other instances where the real debate lies in what really happened surrounding a ship’s history.


At the top of the list, at least in terms of notoriety, would undoubtedly be The Enemy Below. The story of the filming was written by Eric Rivet in the 2nd quarter 2008 edition of TRIM BUT DEADLY. Since its debut in 1957, the movie has brought the role of DEs to life through the interaction of Captain Murrell (Robert Mitchum) and Commander Von Stolberg (Curt Jurgens).  Fortunately, there has been no debate that it was the USS WHITEHURST DE634 used in the film as the ship over which Murrell had command, playing a vital role in seeking out the German submarine under Von Stolberg’s authority.


As the plot thickens, the crew is justifiably skeptical of the tactic being used when Murrell baits the Germans into firing a torpedo. The reaction is just as the Captain expected and the back and forth continues, with the German submarine retreating into the depths of the sea, literally creaking from the pressure, in an attempt to hide from the destroyer escort’s reach.  It is a dramatic reenactment of a scene many sailors endured; waiting for the next move on either part.  Finally, Von Stolberg orders a torpedo attack which causes the American ship to start to sink as a result from the heavy damage.  The action is brought back to the surface as Murrell hopes to lure the sub closer, feigning damage beyond repair.  Eventually, the DE is able to make the last attack, proving success over the German submarine after the extensive game of strategy has unfolded.  The film concludes with an act of unity; a greater message of overcoming the situation into which the sailors were thrown. With enough action to keep the audience enthralled, the film still manages to reach across a broader message, and for many it was the first time in which the German captain was portrayed as a humanistic character, rather than as solely the evil enemy. The film won the 1957 Academy Award for Best Special Effects.


Although not necessarily as central a player as the WHITEHURST was in The Enemy Below, the USS FINCH DER328 and USS NEWELL DER322 had time in the limelight in the film Tora! Tora! Tora!  Set in 1941, this plot focuses more on conflict with the Japanese.  In case diplomacy failed, the Japanese military was formulating a plan for a surprise air attack on the U.S. base at Pearl Harbor. The film’s title comes from the code words use by the lead Japanese pilot to indicate they had successfully used the element of surprise.


A key element in the story is the attack on a Japanese midget submarine by the World War I destroyer USS WARD two hours before enemy aircraft dropped the first bombs. As no vintage destroyers remained to portray the WARD, destroyer escorts were called upon to play the role. This film was released in 1970, using the radar picket DERs USS NEWELL for interior scenes and the USS FINCH for the exterior shots.  There is some confusion as to the certainty of this; the FINCH has received credit in some sources, the NEWELL in others, and rarely are both attributed.  The NEWELL had been stricken in 1969, and eventually sold for scrap in 1970 putting her in the correct time frame to be used in this cinematic affair.  The FINCH was decommissioned in 1969, stricken in 1974 and sold for scrap a few months later, which also puts it in an appropriate time frame.  One source does cite that the NEWELL was used as a battleship in the film; while this could be a misnomer, it might explain another way in which both ships participated in different ways in the same film.  Perhaps a former crew member, movie extra, or innocent bystander would be able to confirm which ship, or ships, served as a floating prop for the film.


The USS VAMMEN DE644 almost missed its claim to fame when an incident misidentified the fictional USS Kornblatt in Don’t Give Up the Ship as being played by the USS STEMBALL DD644.  Thankfully, it eventually was realized that the STEMBALL, a destroyer, was a different type of ship than the fictional destroyer escort, and the VAMMEN received its properly due credit.  Starring Jerry Lewis, this comedic film follows the search for a “lost” destroyer escort, and the subsequent capers that ensue.


One destroyer escort in particular has been widely dramatized for also being momentarily lost, but in an entirely different sense, while sitting in Philadelphia Harbor. Legends, rumor, and conspiracy theorists agree that the USS ELDRIDGE DE173, along with its crew, became invisible and then returned to sight moments later.  This incident is portrayed in the 1984 film, The Philadelphia Experiment as well as all other aspects of popular culture, including television shows, books, and even video games.  Many theories are based around a misunderstanding of what research was actually going on, while popular culture seems to revel in the idea of a disappearing ship and devastatingly affected crew.  In the film, the museum destroyer USS LAFFEY DD724, part of the Patriots Point Naval Museum, was used to portray the ELDRIDGE; interesting that on screen destroyers and destroyer escorts are so often interchangeable.


USS PETERSON DE152 had a brief moment in the spotlight in the movie that detailed John F. Kennedy’s wartime service.  While serving as a training ship for students of the U.S. Fleet Sonar School, Key West, during the second half of 1962, PETERSON was a movie star, playing the role of the Japanese destroyer AMAGIRI, the ship that rammed and sank PT-109. 


The Frogmen is a 1951 film based on operations by U.S. Navy Underwater Demolition Teams, popularly known as "frogmen," against the Japanese Army and naval forces in World War II. The frogmen forces are considered the forerunners of the Navy SEALs.  The U.S. Navy was completely amenable to the filming of The Frogmen and it was that support and cooperation that allowed for Twentieth Century Fox to be responsible for the sole film about the Underwater Demolition Teams, despite interest among several studios.  The shipboard scenes were filmed aboard USS KLEINSMITH APD134 (formerly DE718) while off Key West, and much of the boat and high-speed transport scenes were shot from KLEINSMITH while off St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands.  This high profile film of bravery in a new division of the Navy was a great use of an old DE.


USS SLATER has made three feature film appearances; the first was in a 1961 Greek musical comedy   Alice in the Navy  or  I Aliki sto Naftiko (the original Greek title). Starring Aliki Vougiouklaki and Dimitris Papamichael, the film is about an admiral's daughter who is in love with a sailor serving aboard the AETOS. Wanting to see him, Aliki disguises herself as a sailor and sneaks aboard her boyfriend's ship. Things get more complicated when her father makes a cruise aboard the ship with her. This lighthearted film is a departure from the action based films for which DEs are typically used.


That same year AETOS had a bit part in the epic adventure The Guns of Navarone, which puts us back into the expected action genre for destroyer escorts. The film starred Gregory Peck, David Niven, and Anthony Quinn depicting the efforts of a group of commandos to destroy a seemingly impregnable Nazi gun battery that threatened Allied shipping in the Aegean Sea. AETOS appeared near the end, as the destroyer that rescues the surviving commandos as the gun batteries are destroyed.


 It wasn’t until 2008, well after SLATER came back home to America, that the ship starred in its next feature.  Japanese film company, Orion Productions, used her in the film Last Operations Under the Orion or Manatsu no Orion. SLATER was used to portray an American destroyer escort, USS PERCIVAL, in a life or death engagement with a Japanese submarine in the closing days of World War II. The film was produced by Shohai Kotaki who said he chose USS SLATER because of the authenticity of her restoration. The movie was directed by Tetsuo Shinohara and starred Hiroshi Tamaki, Keiko Kitagawa, Yoshikuni Dochin, Yuta Hiraoka, David Winning and Joe Rayome. The American unit filmed aboard SLATER for two weeks, creating some very realistic scenes. Unfortunately, the film was never released in the United States, but is available on DVD through online overseas sources.


The USS SLATER has had the fortune of appearing on television shows as well as in films; having appeared in two History Channel productions, one examination of the Philadelphia Experiment in which she portrayed USS ELDRIDGE, and another “History's Mysteries” documentary in which she portrayed the destroyer MURPHY.


Whether standing in for destroyers or playing their true role as destroyer escorts, these small ships have certainly held their own on the silver screen.  Films can be a way to keep history alive, to make it more than dates and facts by expressing the nature of its components and the experience of surviving.  Much like movies, SLATER stays afloat to bring the WWII experience to life for so many visitors each year, whom might otherwise have a difficult time finding a tangible way to connect.  We hope to keep this ship in a condition which reminds veterans of their experience and younger generations of what they’ve only seen in the movies.