Destroyer escorts played an equally vital, if less well known, role in the Pacific Theater. The ships escorted American supply convoys over vast distances between Pacific islands. Destroyer escorts conducted anti-submarine sweeps, including one of the most important of the war carried out by the USS ENGLAND DE635. The ships provided defense for fleets of US warships. Destroyer escorts that had been converted to high speed transports carried out shore bombardments and amphibious assaults. Destroyer escorts also served as radar picket ships during the Okinawa campaign, which was the costliest battle of the Pacific war.
Destroyer escorts in the Pacific carried out the same escort assignments as their Atlantic counterparts, but over even greater distances. The vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean forced American forces to establish bases in several places. These various bases were connected by lifelines of supply ships, which in turn were escorted by destroyer escorts. These long patrols were often not as dangerous as those in the Atlantic because the Japanese submarine force was much smaller than the German U-boat fleet. Nevertheless, destroyer escorts frequently fought off Japanese attacks by aircraft, especially after the Japanese began kamikaze attacks late in the war.
Pacific Theater destroyer escorts also carried out hunter killer anti-submarine sweeps. These ships, working off of intelligence reports gained from radio interception and decryption as well as Huff Duff triangulation, roamed the Pacific searching for Japanese submarines. The most famous anti-submarine sweep of the war was carried out in May 1944 by the USS ENGLAND DE635, in company with the USS SPANGLER DE696, USS GEORGE DE697 and USS RABY DE698. Acting on an intercepted Japanese transmission, the ENGLAND set out to stop a group of six Japanese submarines that were attempting to resupply a garrison and scout out the American fleet. The ENGLAND sank all six submarines over a period of twelve days, a feat of anti-submarine prowess unrivaled in naval history. The ENGLAND's actions also allowed the undetected American fleet to carry out a series of devastating attacks on Japanese forces.1
Fleet defense was another important role carried out by destroyer escorts in the Pacific. Since destroyer escorts lacked the speed to escort large capital ships such as battleships and aircraft carriers, they were relegated to escorting smaller escort carriers assigned to supply and amphibious fleets. Nevertheless, these destroyer escorts took on the vital role of protecting their charges from Japanese attacks. It was in this capacity that four destroyer escorts, the USS JOHN C. BUTLER DE339, USS RAYMOND DE341, USS DENNIS DE405, and USS SAMUEL B. ROBERTS DE413 found themselves in one of the most famous battles of naval history.
The Battle of Samar took place in October 1944. A poor decision by Admiral Halsey left the American amphibious fleet at Leyte Gulf virtually undefended, save for small groups of escort carriers, destroyers and destroyer escorts. One such group, composed of six escort carriers, three destroyers and the four destroyer escorts above, suddenly came under attack by a massive Japanese fleet. This force included several destroyers, cruisers and battleships, including the YAMATO, the largest battleship in the world. The escort vessels and carrier planes immediately attacked the Japanese forces in an attempt to save the carriers and the amphibious forces beyond. What should have been a hopeless and quick American defeat became a victory due to the stunning courage displayed by the American ships and planes. After a severe struggle that cost both sides several ships, the Japanese broke off the attack and left the area. The SAMUEL B. ROBERTS was the only destroyer escort lost in a battle that has become one of the most celebrated in the history of the United States Navy.2
Destroyer escorts also contributed to victory in the Pacific through amphibious operations. The ninety-four destroyer escorts that had been converted into high speed transports known as APDs performed dangerous amphibious assaults on islands throughout the Pacific. These small transports carried Marine raider forces, Army engineering detachments, and Navy Underwater Demolition Teams to islands in the Philippines, Okinawa, and other Japanese-held islands. These teams would then carry out missions to prepare the way for Army and Marine ground forces that followed close behind. The APDs would cover their forces with gunfire support before retrieving the teams from the beach and carrying them to another assignment.
The invasion of Okinawa in April 1945 initiated a new and deadly facet of destroyer escort service in the Pacific. By this time, the Japanese were relying heavily on suicide aircraft known as kamikazes. These planes had been inflicting severe damage on the American fleet since the invasion of the Philippines in 1944. Kamikazes became more and more dangerous as American forces neared the Japanese home islands. Once US forces landed on Okinawa, the Japanese unleashed the full fury of their kamikaze forces. In an attempt to minimize the losses to its capital ships and amphibious fleet, the Navy sent destroyers and destroyer escorts out to picket stations around Okinawa. From these stations, the small combatants would use their radar to detect incoming kamikazes and then warn the fleet at Okinawa, which would send fighter planes out to shoot down in the incoming planes.
Once the Japanese realized what the destroyers and destroyer escorts were doing, they began targeting the ships to remove their early warning. Radar picket duty then became the deadliest job in the Navy's history. Over the next few months, more than 300 ships were hit by kamikazes at Okinawa, most of them destroyers and destroyer escorts. More than 5,000 sailors were killed during the battle, or more than the Navy had lost in every other battle in its history combined. Nevertheless, the destroyer escorts remained on station with the larger destroyers and continued to provide the early warning throughout the campaign.3
Destroyer escorts were indeed a vital component of the US Navy's success during World War II. Everywhere the fleet went and everywhere it fought, destroyer escorts were there. The ships carried out most of the mundane escort assignments and sailed thousands of miles waiting for attacks that never came. But destroyer escorts also fought in some of the most dangerous battles of the war, including Samar and Okinawa. Ships like the USS ENGLAND, the USS SAMUEL B. ROBERTS, and the destroyer escorts that captured the U-505 performed feats that were much greater than their diminutive size would seem to allow. These ships, and the hundreds of destroyer escorts like them, contributed materially to the Allied victory during World War II.
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|1 Roscoe, Destroyer Operations, 398-401; Andrews, Tempest, 153-8.
2 See Hornfischer, James D. The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors. New York: Bantam Dell, 2004.
3 See Sholin, Bill. The Sacrificial Lambs. Bonny Lake, Washington: Mountain View Publishing, 1989.