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U.S.S. Samuel B Roberts: The World’s Incredible Deepest Shipwreck

Written by Kevin Jennings

The average depth of the ocean is about 12,000 feet (3.7 kilometers). Most shipwrecks are found in shallower waters, as searching that deep can prove difficult. Even in shallow waters where we know approximately where a specific ship went down, the wrecks can still be difficult to locate. As it turns out, the ocean is massive and ships are tiny in comparison.

              Because only a small amount of the ocean, less than 2%, reaches depths beyond 19,685 feet (6 km), until very recently equipment didn’t exist that could explore below that depth. Roughly 80% of the ocean is unexplored, so it didn’t make sense to invest in technology that was only necessary to explore an extremely small portion of a mostly uncharted area. It is a marvel then that in the past 18 months, not one but two shipwrecks have been discovered deeper than 6 km.


Sammy B

              The U.S.S. Samuel B. Roberts, nicknamed the Sammy B, was a John C. Butler class destroyer that served in the US Navy during World War II. It was the first of three ships named after Samuel Booker Roberts Jr., a Navy coxswain who was killed at the Battle of Guadalcanal earlier in the war while acting as a decoy to draw Japanese fire during a dangerous rescue operation.

              The U.S.S. Roberts was laid down on December 6, 1943 and launched on January 20, 1944. It was commissioned on April 28 that year. There was the typical shakedown cruise and training exercises that newly commissioned ships went under before seeing combat, though the voyage to Hawaii was delayed by a few days as a propeller had become bent, presumably from striking a whale off the coast of Boston.

              Following the repairs, the U.S.S. Roberts made its way from Boston on July 11 to Pearl Harbor on August 10 to perform training exercises for ten days. On August 21, it began its incredibly short military career.

              There were a couple of convoys, a little more training, and an escort mission. Then, on October 25, just two months after joining its first convoy, the U.S.S. Roberts would take part in its first and only battle as a member of Task Unit 77.4.3, nicknamed “Taffy 3”.


The Battle off Samar

              The Battle off Samar was the centermost point of engagement in the larger Battle of Leyte Gulf, one of the largest naval battles in history. It took place off Samar Island in the Philippine Sea.

              Admiral William Halsey Jr. was lured into taking the powerful Third Fleet after a decoy fleet of what was left of the Imperial Navy’s carrier force, taking with him every ship in the area that he had the power to command. The remaining American forces in the area were three escort carrier groups: Taffy 1, 2, and 3. The escort carriers and destroyer escorts had been built to protect slow convoys from submarine attacks, but had been adapted to attack ground targets. They carried few torpedoes with them, as they normally relied on Halsey’s fleet to protect them from armored warships.

Shortly after dawn on October 25, the U.S.S. Roberts was protecting Taffy 3’s escort carriers whose aircraft were supporting the Army assault. The warships were heading off the eastern coast of Samar when the Japanese Center Force appeared over the horizon. It was a 23 ship task force consisting of four battleships, six heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and eleven destroyers. Included among them was the Yamato, the largest, heaviest, and most powerfully armed battleship ever constructed.

              By comparison, the combined American forces of Taffy 1, 2, and 3 only included three destroyers, four destroyer escorts, and six escort carriers. They had nearly half the ships of the Japanese, and their ships did not have the armor or firepower to go toe to toe with the Japanese Center Force.

              When a pilot first saw the Japanese forces just after 6:30 am, he mistook them for the Third Fleet. As he got closer, he realized they had Japanese flags, and that one of them was the largest ship he had ever seen. The Americans had believed that Yamato would be in retreat following damage it had taken elsewhere in the Battle of Leyte Gulf. The planes were only armed with depth charges in case of submarine attacks, but they chose to strike first. They dropped their depth charges, which bounced helplessly off the bow of one of the large cruisers.

              At around 7:00 am, the Yamato opened fire from a range of 20 miles (31 km). The real battle had begun, and the U.S.S. Roberts had a large role to play. Fortunately for the Americans, Japanese Admiral Kurita made a tactical mistake. He could not find the silhouettes of the tiny escort ships in his manual, so he mistakenly believed them to be large fleet carriers of the Third Fleet. He was also unsure of Admiral Halsey’s location and was wary that the full force of the Third Fleet could return at any moment.

              Utilizing a combination of smokescreens and periods of decreased visibility from intermittent rain, the ships of Taffy 3 were able to get close to the Japanese Center Force. The U.S.S. Robert got so close that the larger Japanese ships were not able to aim their main artillery low enough to target the small ship. Roberts fired three torpedoes at one of the heavy battle cruisers, blowing off its stern.

              It continued fighting and maneuvering at close range for another hour, setting fire to the deck of another heavy battle cruiser and destroying one of its gun turrets. They fought bravely and against impossible odds, but eventually the ship was struck. At 9:35 am, the order was given to abandon ship. Of the 210 crew aboard the Roberts, 90 perished while the remaining 120 clung to three life rafts for 50 hours before finally being rescued.

              The Battle off Samar should have been impossible for the Americans to win. They suffered more casualties and lost more ships and planes than the Japanese, if we exclude the 30 kamikaze planes that had no intention of returning to their ships. However, the powerful Japanese fleet had lost three heavy cruisers, with three more heavy cruisers and a destroyer seriously damaged, and those losses were at the hands of a bunch of escort ships that they outnumbered nearly two to one. Add in the fact that Admiral Kurita was still unsure of the location of the Third Fleet, and he had no choice but to order a retreat.

U.S.S. Johnston


              At 7:00 am, the Johnston began zigzagging and laying down a smoke screen. By 7:10, without waiting for orders, the captain ordered the ship to charge at the Japanese at full speed. The Johnston’s main goal was to create confusion amongst the Japanese, but it succeeded in doing serious damage as well.

              Johnston blew the bow off one heavy cruiser and set fire to the superstructure of another. It continued to lay down smoke and gunfire until just before 7:30 am, at which point it was struck by the main battery of the Yamato. The Yamato reported sinking an enemy cruiser at 7:28, however the ship was not sunk.

              The ship was able to hide amidst the rain while the crew performed repairs. For about five minutes. It launched torpedoes then began a course of retreat, until it was passed by another damaged ship from Taffy 3 making its charge towards the Japanese to provide more smokescreen. The Johnston followed suit, and engaged in close range duels with the much larger Japanese ships for nearly two more hours.

              By 9 am, both the Roberts and one of the other ships from Taffy 3 were out of the battle as the crews evacuated their sinking ships. This left the already damaged Johnston an easy target for the Japanese. By 9:40 the ship was dead in the water, and at 9:45 the captain finally made the call to evacuate. The ship went down with 186 of its crew, including the captain, while 141 survivors joined the survivors of the Roberts in their 50 hour wait for a rescue.

Discovery of the U.S.S. Johnston


            On October 30, 2019, just five days after the 75 anniversary of the Battle off Samar, the wreck of a Fletcher-class destroyer was located on the edge of an undersea cliff by the VulcanC Corporation research vessel Petrel. Vulcan had spent years searching for World War II shipwrecks, and this was by no means the first attempt to find the remains of ships from that battle. However, they only used remote operated vehicles that were unable to go deeper than 6 km before being destroyed by the immense pressure.

              Although wreckage was found, it could not be identified. They tried to push the Petrel deeper, risking its destruction by going another 656 feet (200 meters) down, but they couldn’t see the majority of the wreck. They believed it was likely the Johnston, but it just couldn’t be confirmed.

              Enter Victor Vescovo, a private equity investor, retired navy officer, and undersea explorer. He personally financed a deep-submersible vehicle named Limiting Factor to attempt to locate the remainder of the wreckage. Vulcan had never said where they made their discovery, but Vescovo was confident that he could figure it out from the publicly available information.

              The first two dives yielded no results, so for the third dive on March 21, 2021, they decided to try a new location. Upon reaching 6 km beneath the sea, they found the debris field that Petrel had previously seen. There was a large V gouged into a hillside from the sinking ship, so Limiting Factor followed it down and found the remaining two thirds of the Johnston, complete with its naval identification number to verify its identity.

              The Johnston currently resides 21,180 feet (6.5 km) underwater, and it held the distinction of the deepest shipwreck ever discovered. For just over a year.

Discovery of the U.S.S. Samuel B Roberts


            Once again, Vescovo is responsible for the discovery of this sunken ship. However, even he was surprised he was able to find it. Unlike with the Johnston, where there was a field of debris and other evidence of the ship’s presence to point them in the right direction, the Roberts had almost no debris at all. It is also the smallest of the ships that Vescovo was searching for, two factors that combined for an incredible shocking discovery.

              The wreck was found on June 17, 2022, and was surveyed during a series of six dives over the course of the next week. Vescovo and his team determined that the Roberts actually reached the sea floor in a single piece, but that it landed bow first with enough first to result in some buckling and to separate the stern from the rest of the ship by about 16 feet (5 meters), leaving it in two pieces on the seabed. Unsurprisingly, they also reported that there was evidence of damage to the ship inflicted by Japanese battleship shells. We already knew that’s why it sank, so it would be weird if there wasn’t.

              At the incredible depths these two ships sunk to, there is virtually no oxygen. As a result, there is very little biological growth. Often shipwrecks will be covered in plant life and the wood will be damaged from organisms that find it delicious, but that just isn’t present at the depths leaving the ships almost perfectly preserved. With the exception of the damage done by colliding with the sea floor, both ships should look almost exactly as they did at the end of their battles back in 1944.

              The final resting place of the Roberts is 22,621 feet (6.9 km) beneath the sea, making it currently the deepest known shipwreck in the world. However, there are more undiscovered ships from the Battle off Samar, including more members of Taffy 3. Vescovo seems determined to find these ships, so perhaps it won’t be long before another alumna of the Battle off Samar is found at even greater depths.

The Philippine Trench is the third deepest part of the ocean, so it’s possible there could be more shipwrecks, eight, nine, or even ten kilometers beneath the water’s surface. Only time will tell.

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