WWII was, arguably, the last war with a distinct enemy and humanity at stake. A generation of young enlisted men rose to save the world, and far too many paid with their lives. Personally, one grandfather came home to share Navy stories, while Army stories from the other lay silent beneath a simple white cross on a field of white crosses in Belgium. A recent tour of the Destroyer Escort USS Slater (DE-766) in Albany, NY gave perspective of how my Navy grandfather spent the last of his teenage years aboard the USS Thomas J. Gary (DE-326), a sister ship to the Slater. I count myself incredibly lucky I can share my pictures with Grandpa and hear more of life aboard a DE!
Over 500 Destroyer Escorts were built between 1943-44. Intended to be built quickly, they were often crewed for shakedown cruises in just over a month. Affectionately nicknamed “tin cans” for their “lightweight” construction, the ships and crews were extremely tough and effective. Decks bristled with guns to protect fleets against aircraft and ships, but the primary mission of a DE was antisubmarine warfare. Tight turning, Sonar-equipped DEs used K-gun launched depth charges and forward-firing hedgehog mortars to deadly effect against enemy subs. As the war and mission parameters changed, DEs were modified for added roles as they continued to safely screen convoys around the globe.
The Slater has been beautifully restored and maintained by a dedicated group of volunteers (they’re always accepting more!). She’s been recently re-hulled and painted in “dazzle camouflage”, looking ready to sail at her berth on the Hudson River. At 306’ long and just over 36’ wide, it’s striking just how narrow a DE is. Touring through her hatches, ladders and passageways, it’s difficult to imagine 220 men living and working aboard 24/7- and even harder to imagine all those men in action under combat conditions!
Touring the Slater begins in the galley, restored to fully operational condition. A working galley and accommodations are necessary, as the Slater hosts several youth and educational groups to live aboard throughout the year. The galley on this DE is about the size of an average home kitchen- yet provided for over 200 men! Grandpa tells me ship’s cooks made amazing meals in that tiny space (his cook regularly had fresh donuts for the men!), and rumor has it the veteran cooks on the Slater are still as good. A story of my grandfather’s came up as we toured, and I promised our guide I’d find out details of the mythical ice cream machine aboard the Gary.
Seems the Chief on the Thomas J. Gary had knowledge of an ice cream maker at the depot on Key West. My grandfather was charged with trading off a bit of “product” from the Gary stores for the ice cream machine and ingredients while on a restocking run. Being aboard a new ship meant inspection by upper brass however, and an Admiral was on the way. Needing to hide a non-spec item, it was decided obvious would be easiest. The ice cream machine was immediately welded to the deck in the mess to make it look “factory”, and ingredients were tucked away beneath a bilge hatch. Fortunately, no questions were asked by the Admiral or staff, and ice cream became a regular treat for the sailors underway. To further the story, it seems word got around and the US Navy thought ice cream would be useful in maintaining morale- and ice cream machines were slowly added to other ships! As Grandpa says, war wasn’t all bad.
Continuing our tour, it was fascinating to see such efficient use of space. Everything has a place, and every place has a purpose. Hanging racks (bunks) line walls clear of travel, with sailor’s storage close by. Quarters are close to duty stations, and only ranking officers had actual cabins. There was no privacy to be had for enlisted men aboard a DE, made obvious by the communal crapper in the head (restroom)- apparently one adapted quickly! Climbing the many ladders on the Slater, every area we entered showed a high level of care in her restoration. Peeling lead-based(!) paint was carefully removed for new coatings, stainless steel shined, pipes and valves are polished, wiring replaced, and lights returned to working condition. One can almost feel the Slater crewed and combat ready.
There was no A/C on WWII ships and on this warm day it was easy to see how hot it could be below decks. Fans forced air throughout, approximating sea breezes and forward motion underway, but duty somewhere like the South Pacific would have still been HOT. Giant diesels engines and large, finicky electronics in WWII would have added to the heat below decks – though that heat may have been welcome when sailing the North Atlantic. 24-hour deck watch stations were still necessary in WWII, and many sailors braved the elements as they watched for threats to the ship. It was slightly eerie to stand on the bow where my grandfather stood watch at the No. 1 gun on his ship. We had the opportunity to sit in the Slater’s forward gun targeting seats. Amazing how quickly and easily the big guns moved around their axis, likely even quicker with the added charge of adrenaline! One of the few stories Grandpa shares when he was genuinely scared took place on a night watch at his gun, just off Gibraltar.
Their DE was cruising about 20 knots when the lookout behind him shouted “torpedo dead ahead”. In the shimmer of the moonlight a silver streak in the water was obvious, and it was straight on target. For reasons never understood by the sailors, the Captain ordered “Maintain course.” Sailors held their collective breath waiting for the inevitable, when the “torpedo” suddenly peeled off and surfaced, chittering as it went- leading a school of dolphins that played in the wake of the ship before moving on! The life of a sailor still: days of busy boredom broken by moments of sheer terror.
Thank you to the volunteers of the USS Slater for the chance to walk the decks of my grandfather’s stories. Stepping aboard the museum is a chance to walk a piece of US Navy history. Brave men on “expendable” ships have a tale too easily overshadowed by the battleships, carriers, and destroyers of the war. The crews of the Destroyer Escorts had a dangerous job, and they did it well. The volunteers of the USS Slater are doing their part to honor those sailors and keep their history alive- and doing a first-rate job of it.
To learn more about the USS Slater and Destroyer Escorts of WWII, start at www.ussslater.org. Pick up a copy of The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors by James D. Hornfischer to learn about a small fleet of overmatched US ships against the mightiest of the Japanese fleet. This brutal naval victory off Samar perfectly characterizes the sailors and Destroyer Escorts at their finest and deadliest. Then plan your visit to Albany, NY and the USS Slater Museum- you won’t be disappointed!
Keep Riding Local, Dreaming Global, and rolling safe. See you on the road!