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Paul Slater - 1942-1945:
Fulfilling the mission of a World War II destroyer escort ship
World War II destroyer escorts had a two-part mission. They traveled with and protected convoys of ships transporting military supplies to the European war theater, and they sought out German submarines (U-Boats)...
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Paul Slater, or "Slats", as his friends knew him, was stationed in the Atlantic Ocean on the USS Walter S. Brown, the Destroyer Escort which appears in the above photograph. World War II Destroyer Escorts had a two-part mission. They traveled with convoys of transport ships carrying military supplies across the Atlantic and protected them in case of attack by German submarines (U-Boats). They also formed hunter-killer groups which went on the offensive to locate and destroy German U-Boats. Slats explains that Destroyer Escorts are "sorta inexpensive versions of destroyers…they're faster to build, less expensive." Its hull, he explains, "was like a quarter of an inch thick or something. They called them tin cans and, by God, that's what they were."
Photograph courtesy of Paul Slater.
This convoy traversed the Atlantic Ocean in the autumn of 1942. It reached the coast of Africa in November and supported the American-led invasion of North Africa called Operation Torch.
As soon as the United States entered World War II, Germany began attacking American shipping using nimble, stealthy submarines known as U- Boats (untersee boots). Although Americans at the time were not generally informed about what Germany called Operation Drumbeat, we now know that five German U-Boats sank 25 allied ships off the east coast of the United States from December 1941 to early February 1942. Ships silhouetted against the brightly lit skylines of American urban ports were especially vulnerable. By the spring of 1942, German U-Boats attacked and sunk hundreds of ships off the coastal United States, taking thousands of lives. In contrast, Germany lost several hundred sailors and a handful of U-Boats over the same period. Only when the U.S. instituted large-scale blackouts and brownouts and began running protective convoys in May of 1942 did the attacks finally diminish.
Paul Slater, on board the USS Walter S. Brown, was in the convoy which participated in the May 1944 battle of UGS 40. UGS stands for the United States Gibraltar Convoy. Paul explains that the "S" indicates that it is a slow convoy which "means you are eating Spam and Vienna Sausage a lot…because the longer a slow convoy [takes], you start running out of food, the real stuff, so you're opening cans." The convoy went to the Mediterranean and consisted, according to Paul, "of about sixty-five ships and about fifteen escorts which is a pretty heavy escort. And as we proceeded into the Mediterranean, two free French destroyers joined us, okay. So we, we figured if they're really beefing it up, we're gonna be in for something. And we were. In fact, this action was so successful on our part, that it made the, the history books."
Horace Bristol, photographer, "United Nations Casablanca convoy moves eastward across Atlantic bound for Africa., ca. 11/1942," National Archives, Series: General Photographic File of the Department of Navy, compiled 1943-1958, documenting the period 1900-1958, ARC identifier, 520948.
Because its telegraphed messages were coded by the sender and decoded by the recipient using the intricate Enigma cipher machine, World War II Germany was confident that its military secrets were safe. Unbeknownst to Germany, however, by May 1941, Enigma machines, parts and key books began to be captured by the Allies. Further, Polish and British cryptographers began to decipher the key-systems used by the German operators who sent and received communiqués. This, of course, meant that now the Allies could intercept and understand many of the messages through which the German military maintained communication.
With the help of decoded messages sent to and from German U-Boats, Allied forces could anticipate the locations of German submarines. Paul remembers, "we did occasionally go on what they called 'hunter killer' groups…because we had broken many of the German codes, and so after a while we knew where we might find the subs. So they'd send out a hunter and killer group just to look for submarines." German U-Boats would be found using sonar or radar, both of which would rely upon pings which would bounce off the submarine and return to ship in the form of a sound or a picture. Once located, the destroyer escort would attempt to sink the U-Boat using depth charges which were bombs launched into the sea and set to explode at certain depths, and missiles launched using a device called a hedgehog.
Photograph Courtesy of Professor Tom Perera Ph. D. and the W1TP Telegraph and Scientific Instrument Museums (Copyright (c) 2009: Prof. Tom Perera Ph. D.) http://w1tp.com/enigma/u_063c.jpg.
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"Slats" was an engineer on board the USS Walter S. Brown. He was photographed in the engine room with Engineering Officer Mr. Wayne Hill and a sailor who is, according to Paul, "working on something below one of the four main engines." Paul explains his responsibilities: "I was a motor machinist's mate which was a rate that maintained mainly the big diesel engines, but almost all of the other machinery. Some of us were specialized.... I was primarily with the main engines, and my battle station was with the main engines, and my watch station was…I was the leading first class, and, I was strictly, almost strictly after a while, with the main engines, which were huge sixteen v sixteen diesels, and pretty impressive, especially when you…when you feel that...when you realize that most of the crew was a collection of kids, many of whom had never been to sea."
Photograph Courtesy of Paul Slater.
Story Clip #1:
Paul is assigned to a destroyer escort ship
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Q: Now, you joined the Navy in what year?
In...late in '42.
Q: Late in '42, and you could request being assigned to a destroyer escort. What does a destroyer escort do?
Okay, I...tell ya...These are sort of inexpensive versions of destroyers, okay. They're faster to build, less expensive, and they do...they were designed basically to cope with the U-boat war in the Atlantic. And the battle of the Atlantic, actually-actually is the arguably the longest battle of the war because it went on from beginning to end. And uh, in fact the Atlantic is littered with the bodies of, of men and ships, you know. More than thirty thousand German sailors are down there, more than fifty thousand Allied sailors are down there, ... almost eight hundred submarines we sank. I mean they really put a tremendous effort into it. Anyhow, the destroyer escorts were designed to cope with submarines. It turned out that we also had to cope in the Mediterranean with aircraft, and so we were loaded up with additional aircraft, anti-aircraft weapons. But you know, they were very small...there's a World War II destroyer escort in Albany, which many classes come to visit to see what a...what a warship in those days looked like. And, you know, the hull was like a quarter of an inch thick or something. They called them tin cans and, by God, that's what they were.
Q So, even though they're called a destroyer escort, you're not actually escorting anything.
Oh, no! We escorted convoys. We took convoys across...
Q: Oh, I see!
And uh, that was almost exclusively our duty. We did occasionally go on what they called "hunter killer" groups where they just...because we had broken many of the German codes, and so after a while we knew where we might find the subs. So they'd send out a hunter and killer group just to look for submarines. But most of the time we were escorting convoys across the Atlantic to...into the Mediterranean to support the troops and so on, that were there. So, yeah, no, we were escorts.
Story Clip #2:
Paul's duties on board the Walter S. Brown
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Q: Now what was your job on that?
I was an engineer; I was a motor machinist's mate which was a rate that maintained mainly the big diesel engines, but almost all of the other machinery. Some of us were specialized; one of our men, he's in one of our pictures, was a refrigeration specialist. I was primarily with the main engines, and my battle station was with the main engines, and my watch station was...I was the leading first class, and, I was strictly, almost strictly after a while, with the main engines, which were huge sixteen v sixteen diesels, and pretty impressive, especially when you-when you feel that...when you realize that most of the crew was a collection of kids, many of whom had never been to sea. And everybody had to be a very quick study. There was always a few regular Navy people there to sorta break us in. But , ... almost everyone was learning on the job, including the officers. They you know, when I met the captain later, way after the war, and he talked about the first trip when the ship left the Boston Navy Yard on a, on a shakedown to go to Bermuda, and there was a storm. And he's on watch in the middle of the night, and he's the officer of the deck. The captain who put the ship into commission was actually a commander who was a mustang; he had risen from the ranks. And so he woke the captain and said, "Geez, you know the terrible storm da da da da da der." And the old man says, "Don't you ever wake me for that again. You're the officer of the deck and that's it." And he slams the phone down, and this, and this man who now I think of as the skipper, obviously, when he became the captain...he says to me, you know Slats, three months before, I was a lawyer, and now I'm on this[chuckling] warship in a storm and you can't see ten feet ahead of you, and so on, he said. But that's, that's the way it was, you know? There were more than just more than five hundred destroyer escorts, not to talk about the thousands of other ships that had to be manned. You know they ended up with millions of people.
Q: How many men were on a destroyer escort?
It varied. We had...it varied, but it was...it averaged probably about a hundred eighty-nine and ours was the, the prototype. There was...a newer version came out a little bit, little bit larger and had a few more men, but there were about fifteen officers. That also varied.
Story Clip #3:
The Battle of UGS 40
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Well, one of the, one of the convoys that we brought in this was in the Mediterranean, was about...consisted of about sixty-five ships and about fifteen escorts which is a pretty heavy escort. And as we proceeded into the Mediterranean, two free French destroyers joined us, okay. So we, we figured if they're really beefing it up, we're gonna be in for something. And we were. In fact, this action was so successful on our part, that it made the, the history books. The History of the United States Navy in World War II has the story of this battle and the names of the ships that took place.
Q: What was the name of the battle, or what was...
Well, it was just the battle of UGS 40. Uh, the United States Gibraltar Convoy. "S" is slow; it was a slow convoy. And uh, so that means you're eating SPAM and Vienna Sausage a lot. [laughs]
Q: So I don't understand the connection between what you're eating and the convoy.
Well, because the longer...a slow convoy, you start running out of food, the real stuff, so you're opening cans. And uh, I'm glad you had to clarify that. Anyhow, they -when this attack was imminent, we uh...our ship was assigned to what they call the coffin corner. Okay? And the coffin corner, depending on who on the ship you spoke to - because we always had these kinds of interpretations - some would say, well, we're in the coffin corner cause we're the best, and they always try...the air raids try to break in through that spot. Others would say, well we're the least worthy and they don't care if they get rid of us first. We're expendable, see? But the coffin corner was really a very important spot.
Q: What does that mean?
It, it was just the, the spot in, in the convoy where these mainly torpedo planes try to break in to attack the ships that you're protecting. And by then, of course, you've generated smoke screens and hopefully the entire convoy is, is covered, concealed in smoke, and the escorts are out there?you know, fighting off the uh...these kids that are flying around out there. And uh, we took no losses at all, which was astounding. And I think it was the first air raid that had been repelled without losses, and this was already spring of '44. So it was, it was quite an achievement. And of course, later on, you know, in light of what we talked about a little earlier, we describe where we shot down three planes. Many years later, I realized, yeah, we also shot down twelve men. You know, but, you don't think in those terms. And I'm sure that they didn't think that they were torpedoing people either. They were trying to torpedo ships. And uh, that's what happens these old guys send young guys to do this stuff. Uh, but basically we were there to protect those, those ships, and then if necessary, to go down fighting. And plenty did.
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