As some of you know, my grandfather served on PT 127 in WWII. 80′ of fighting fury. PT boats were fast, with speeds of 40 knots or more. I had the honor and privilege of riding one with him close to 15 years ago when one of the few remaining operating ones in the world was on the Hudson River. After that, my family and I had the privilege of boarding PT 617, an 80′ Elco at Battleship Cove. As a “splinter” we were able go on board and below decks and get essentially a private tour. One of the items I hoped to see was the map table, where my grandfather claimed he slept, rather than his bunk. He had the privilege because he was the oldest on board and this allowed him to get a nice cross-breeze in the tropical heat of the Philippines.
I was thinking of him this past weekend as my wife and I visited another WWII ship, the Destroyer Escort Slater (DE-766). Everyone loves the battleships, from the USS Massachusetts at Battleship Cove to the famous Iowa class battleships that were brought back into service in the 1980s. And yes, I have to say, there is something to be said for the “big guns”. The ability to hurl a shell the mass of a Volkswagen Beetle over 15 miles and to hit ones target is impressive.
But very often the workhorses of the fleet are overlooked, the Destroyers and their little brothers, Destroyer Escorts. They guarded the conveys bringing much needed supplies to Europe to fight Hitler. They guarded the fleets in the Pacific. Literally 100s were built. The first Destroyer Escort rolled off ways in 1943. This means in the space of approximately 24 months, more than 20 a month were built. Destroyer escorts were built quickly and without the luxuries their large siblings might have, such as air conditioning or even a simple thing like an ice-cream maker. And fast, they were knot. Top speed was closer to 20knots, with them often operating slower than that. For their primary role however, anti-submarine warfare while escorting conveys, this was sufficient. Their size also allowed them to turn more tightly and gave them more maneuverability than their bigger brothers.
But this did not mean they weren’t critical to the war effort. However, at the end of the war, like much of the US arsenal many were tossed on the scrap heap. There was little need for so many of the ships often called tin cans because of their lack of armor compared to the fleet carriers and battleships. Some were transferred to other navies. This was the fate of the USS Slater. It was transferred to the Hellenic Navy and was decommissioned in 1991 when it was brought back to the US.
It eventually made its way to Albany NY where it’s a floating, living museum. I say living because you’re actually allowed to touch and operate some items and they encourage sleepovers and the like.
The tour is impressive and well worth it. If you’re ever in the Albany area, I do recommend stopping by the USS Slater and then perhaps a flight of beers at the Albany Pump Station.
While waiting for our tour guide, we walked around the tour shop a bit. Two things jumped out at me. The sodas and snacks were only 93 cents a piece (with tax that comes to an even $1.) That’s a bargain as far as tour shop snacks go. But the real find was a copy of “The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors”. This had been on my reading list for a few years and I decided I’d pick up a copy on the way out. (The additional bonus of this, was any profit from the sale of the book would go to the museum and not to a large nameless company shipping it to me.)
For those not familiar with it, it details the exploits of “Taffy 3” at the Battle off Samar, where 3 destroyers and 4 destroyer escorts, combined with the aircraft off of the withdrawing “jeep” carriers (CVE) took on a major Japanese fleet, including the battleship Yamato, ultimately causing the Japanese fleet to withdraw.
To give you an idea of the mismatch here, the combined weight of the destroyers and destroyer escorts was about 1/5th of the weight of the Yamato alone. Even if you add in the weight of the CVEs and their planes, it wouldn’t have added up to the weight of the Yamato. And the Yamato, the largest warship afloat, was just a part of the Japanese fleet heading their way.
The largest guns Taffy 3 had were 5″ guns. These were no where nearly powerful enough to penetrate the armor of the Yamato or other Japanese cruisers. On the other hand, the 18.1″ guns on the Yamato were designed to penetrate the armor of American battleships. The armor on a tin can wouldn’t even slow down such a shell.
And yet, the American sailors, knowing how important it was to stop the Japanese fleet turned towards the Japanese and engaged them head on. And ultimately, the Japanese withdrew, thinking they were facing the fleet carriers and that the larger cruisers and battleships were probably on the way.
The battle of Midway is often considered the turning point of the war in the Pacific, and in many ways it is, with the Japanese losing a majority of their fleet carriers. But I think the Battle off Samar has a special place with David defeating Goliath.
Sometimes the smallest can do the mightiest things.