Surface Warfare Magazine
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Homeward Bound
Historic Battle Ensign Finds Home at University of Washington ROTC Unit
By Mass Communication Specialist Seaman William Blees,
Navy Public Affairs Support Element West, Det. Northwest
"We are about to go into a fight against overwhelming odds from which survival cannot be expected," announced Lt. Cmdr. Robert W. Copeland, commanding officer of the John C. Butler-class destroyer escort USS Samuel B. Roberts (DE 413), over the 1MC on Oct. 25, 1944.

On that fateful day, USS Samuel B. Roberts and Allied ships came under attack from the Imperial Japanese Navy in the Leyte Gulf. Largely outmatched in number, armament and armor by Japanese ships, one of the largest battles in naval history occurred, the Battle off Samar.

Copeland proceeded to do the unthinkable, and charged head-on into the attacking battleships, cruisers and destroyers. Samuel B. Roberts was able to inflict damage to enemy ships with her torpedoes and 5-inch guns, but was outmatched by the larger ships.

"By zigzagging we were able to keep from being hit by enemy torpedoes," stated from Archie Killough's personal journal, a Sailor aboard Samuel B. Roberts. "Finally their shells found their mark. First, gun 2 aft was hit killing all but three of a crew of twenty-seven."

After a courageous bout, Samuel B. Roberts was dead in the water, but not all was lost, the crew abandoned ship.

Chief Torpedoman Rudy Skau managed to retrieve the ship's battle ensign and hold onto it for nearly three days as the crew floated awaiting rescue. During this time many of the survivors passed away due to their wounds and shark attacks.

"After spending fifty-two hours in the water we were rescued by PC623," wrote Killough. "We were about dead when they picked us up."

Copeland, who went on to make Rear Admiral, received the second highest military decoration for valor, the Navy Cross, for his actions in the Battle off Samar. The seventh Oliver Hazard Perry Class frigate was eventually named for Copeland.

Copeland was born in Tacoma, Wash., and was a graduate of the University of Washington's (UW) Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC) in 1935.

Samuel B. Roberts

Years later the battle ensign that Skau recovered in the water made its way into the hands of James Massick. Massick was a graduate of the UW NROTC program in 1954.

Earlier this year after reading a past issue of the Husky Navy News, Massick saw a request for memorabilia related to former members of the unit to be used in the rededication of the NRTOC's Clark Hall at UW.

Massick donated the flag, folded neatly in a box, along with a letter describing the story behind it to the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) through the UW NROTC unit.

"The reaction when I got the flag from the Samuel B. Roberts in March of this year... it sent chills down my spine when I saw the flag and read Mr. Massick's letter," said Capt. David Melin, UW NROTC unit commanding officer. "It exudes naval history, and we love to teach our midshipmen about naval history so they have some role models for what they want to become."

NHHC framed the flag using materials that would allow it to maintain its integrity over time and sent it back to UW NROTC.

"They beautifully framed it in such a way that it will maintain its condition," said Melin.

The flag is now on official loan to the UW NROTC unit and hangs in Clark Hall next to the new NROTC Alumni Wall of Fame. Copeland was among the first five inductees to be listed on the wall of fame.

"It's important for us to learn from our past, and there are some good lessons in leadership, particularly on the Samuel B. Roberts, as commanded by Copeland at the time, that are immediately applicable to our midshipman today," said Melin.

"It's a tangible reminder of what our alumni, in this particular case Copeland did in his service to the country, and I think it serves as an inspiration to the current crop of midshipmen and battalion midshipmen on what they're capable of becoming as leaders."

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