TULSA, Okla. (AP) — Although happy to have escaped it, Glenn Huffman couldn’t watch what was happening to his ship without feeling his heart sink.
“I heard someone say ‘there she goes’ and we all looked,” he told the Tulsa World .
From where they were in the water, survivors of the USS Samuel B. Roberts had a good view as the destroyer escort disappeared beneath the Pacific, he said.
“I thought, ‘Well, there goes our home,'” said Huffman of the ship, which had been torpedoed by the Japanese. “All summer and fall it had been our home. And now it was gone.”
Most Read Nation & World Stories
- 'I didn't really learn anything': COVID grads face college
- Trump did flush ripped-up papers down toilets, photos in upcoming book reveal
- Simmering threat of violence comes to fore with search of Trump property
- If Trump illegally removed official records, would he be barred from office?
- Florida man filming sunrise killed when sand dune collapses
But Huffman, just 18 at the time, didn’t have the luxury of dwelling on what they had lost.
Clinging to a life raft at sea — and with no help in sight — he had to focus on the situation at hand.
If Huffman thought about it, he might have taken comfort in one fact, though.
Since the day he was born, in one way or another, life had been trying to sink him.
It hadn’t been successful yet.
A native of Hickory, North Carolina, and third of four children, Huffman had just turned 5 when his family suffered two big setbacks.
First, his mother died.
Then, shortly after that, his father lost his job.
No longer able to provide for his children, Huffman’s father, an illiterate laborer, had to send them away.
For Huffman, it was to a Lutheran orphanage in Virginia.
“It was hard,” said Huffman, 91, during a recent interview at his Tulsa retirement community. “But it was the Depression, and there were a lot of other kids at that time going through the same thing. I tried to be positive.”
When they weren’t in school, as part of their room and board, the kids did chores on an adjacent farm.
“We had 24 cows that had to be milked twice a day,” Huffman said. “We raised corn, wheat, barley and oats, and hay for the horses. We plowed the fields with mules, pulled weeds.”
He said the experience taught him to work hard.
After 11 years at the orphanage, Huffman left at age 16. For the next two years, he would continue to work farm jobs.
Then, in January 1944 — right after he turned 18 — Huffman was drafted. He joined the Navy.
It wouldn’t be long before he got his first glimpse of his soon-to-be ship.
Docked in Galveston, the recently christened USS Samuel B. Roberts — or “Sammy B.” as its sailors would dub it — was so new, “it was still black. It hadn’t been painted yet,” Huffman said.
The Roberts would carry around 215 men. Its main job would be to accompany convoys of merchant vessels and warships, helping provide protection from enemy ships and submarines.
Beginning Oct. 17, 1944, the invasion of Leyte marked the start of the Allied campaign under Gen. Douglas MacArthur to recapture the Philippines from the Japanese.
The Roberts would be called to join in.
But that participation was destined to be short-lived.
Early on Oct. 25 off the island of Samar, the Roberts found itself — along with a handful of destroyers, escorts and carriers — facing off with a much superior Japanese force.
Boasting not only heavily armed cruisers, destroyers and battleships, the enemy force even included what is believed to be the largest battleship ever built — the Yamoto.
The Yamoto “weighed more than all 13 of our ships” said Huffman, who served in the radar and sonar division.
“It was 23 ships against our 13,” Huffman said. “They really laid into us.”
Despite the dramatic difference in numbers, size and firepower, however, it would be anything but a mismatch.
At his battle station, Huffman stood next to the ship’s captain and the gunnery officer.
As the gunnery officer surveyed the battle through his binoculars, he would advise Huffman, who then relayed his instructions by phone to the ship’s two 5-inch gun mounts.
In spite of everything going on, Huffman felt calm, he said.
“I was looking straight at the gunnery officer,” he said. “He was concentrating on where the last shell went.”
The Roberts was able to score one torpedo hit and numerous gunfire hits on enemy vessels.
But it took its share of hits, too.
Huffman knew the ship was seriously damaged. However, focused on the job at hand, he didn’t realize the extent — not until he heard the captain’s words: “Abandon ship.”
Huffman phoned that final message to the gun mounts. Then he proceeded to follow the order.
During previous night watches, he had imagined this very scenario and what he would do. He already had figured out a good route to climb from his station down to the deck.
Following that route, he arrived quickly. From there — after securing his “Mae West,” as life vests were called — there was nothing left to do but jump.
“So I did,” Huffman said.
Once he was in the water, Huffman wasted no time.
He began to swim for his life.
“If you have to abandon ship, you get the heck away from it. Or it will pull you down with it,” he said.
The ship had three pre-inflated life rafts. Huffman made his way to one of these, where other survivors were starting to gather.
Placing the seriously wounded into the raft’s bed, everyone else floated alongside, clinging to the raft.
Designed to hold 16 men each, the rafts were going to be pushed to their limits. Between them, Huffman’s and another one kept 78 men afloat.
“We hung on for dear life,” he said.
It was from that vantage point that Huffman would see the Sammy B. for the last time.
“The tail end went down first,” he said. “Then it rolled to the port side.”
Huffman wouldn’t find out until later, but 90 of the ship’s 220 sailors went down with it.
One of them, an Oklahoman, may have been the biggest hero of the battle. For his actions as a gun mount captain, Checotah native Paul Carr, who was killed in action, was awarded a posthumous Silver Star. As he was dying, he was found at his battle station, gripping one last unfired round.
The efforts of Carr and the others did not go in vain.
After an hour-long engagement with its scrappy foes, the Japanese force gave up and withdrew. Of the 13 American ships, only four were sunk.
The battle would go down in naval lore, with the men of the Roberts remembered with honor.
Not only would the ship receive a Presidential Unit Citation, a concourse at the U.S. Naval Academy’s Alumni Hall in Annapolis, Maryland, is dedicated to the Roberts — the “destroyer escort that fought like a battleship.”
As he tells his story, Huffman shows a range of emotions, mixing tears and laughter with sober reflection.
He was “just a kid” and in over his head, he notes frequently.
That was never more the case, he added, than during his three days and two nights in the water.
After the ship was gone, the grim reality of the situation sank in.
“I was doing a hell of a lot of praying. Praying for God to save us all,” said Huffman.
Clinging to the raft with Huffman and the other sailors was an old boatswain’s mate who had survived two previous sinkings in the Atlantic.
“He knew what to do,” Huffman said. “He told us to pair up — keep one hand on your partner, one hand on the raft. You would watch your partner while he slept, then he watched you.”
There were other things to watch for.
In his mind, Huffman can still see the fin that passed by him once just a few yards away. It was a normal-size shark, he said, but to his eyes then “it looked like it was about 50 feet long.”
Comparing memories years later at reunions, “we think the sharks got two of our guys,” he said. “But we could never be sure.”
By day three in the water — after two cold nights of just floating along, sleeping when he could — Huffman was close to despair.
Severely dehydrated, “I knew I would not make it through another night. I’d really had it,” he said. “I was praying more than ever.”
Thankfully, help would arrive before another nightfall. Pulling alongside the raft, an American patrol boat paused to survey the occupants.
“They thought at first we might be Japanese, because there were a lot of Japanese in the water, too, from the battle,” Huffman said. “So they called out, ‘Who won the World Series?’ One of our guys yelled, ‘St. Louis!’?”
Satisfied, they began bringing the survivors on board.
In his weakened condition from no food or water, “I didn’t have the strength to pull myself up the rope ladder,” Huffman said. “Two guys had to help me — they reached behind me and pulled me up by my britches.”
From there Huffman said he lay on the deck and passed out. How long he was out, Huffman doesn’t know. But by the time he woke he had been moved to the hospital ward of a troop ship.
After some 52 hours in the ocean, Huffman was down to 96 pounds — about 30 pounds lighter than his enlistment weight.
“You lose a lot of weight in the water,” he explained.
Also lost to the water was about everything he owned.
The only personal items that didn’t go down with the ship, Huffman said, were his Social Security card — “I got that when I was 16” — and his ship boarding pass.
“They were with me in the water,” he said of the items, which despite getting soaked are still holding up well in an old scrapbook.
Huffman also has a Purple Heart, which he received for shrapnel wounds he suffered.
After he recovered, Huffman was granted 30 days of “survivor’s leave,” and went back to the U.S. to visit family.
When he arrived, his father had just two days earlier received word that his son was missing in action. Because he couldn’t read, he had to take the telegram to a family member’s house to have them read it to him.
Huffman, who still had to finish his service, would eventually be assigned to an escort carrier — the USS Bairoko.
That’s where he was in August 1945 when news of the Japanese surrender was announced. En route to Hawaii, from where they would have been part of the expected invasion of Japan, sailors on the Bairoko celebrated the news of the war’s end.
“You can imagine what kind of whooping was going on,” Huffman said.
Since the sinking of the Roberts in 1944, two other Navy ships have proudly borne that name.
When the third and final one — a guided missile frigate — was decommissioned in 2015, the Navy invited a special guest to the ceremony. As a survivor of the original Sammy B., Glenn Huffman was glad to accept. He spoke at the event and was presented a commemorative flag.
Today, Huffman is believed to be one of only two survivors still living.
Which makes him feel “damn lucky,” he said.
Huffman has been battling cancer. But as long as his luck holds out, he said, he is proud to represent his former ship.
For years after the war he didn’t talk about his service. He finally opened up after being around fellow Sammy B. survivors.
He attended his first survivors’ reunion in the 1990s.
“I just got a sense of — OK, I should be talking about this,” he said. “If we don’t tell our stories, how else are our kids going to know the cost? … We were people — all the veterans — that cared about our country, and still care about our country. We cared about our flag. We’re proud of it.”
And as long as the flag’s still waving, he added, those who’ve sacrificed for it should be remembered well.
“What we did, we had to do it,” he said. “You accepted it. We didn’t try to run away from it. We went together.”
Information from: Tulsa World, http://www.tulsaworld.com