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Unknown Heroics

When destroyer escorts first went into production during World War II, Navy personnel from deck hands to admirals considered them to be a waste of money. Though at $5 million apiece they cost half as much as a carrier, Navy brass thought their small size and unusual configurations (for speed and maneuverability) would add little to the war effort. It was the determination of Franklin D. Roosevelt (an experienced seaman), with the support of Winston Churchill that pushed through a go-ahead for them to be built; in early 1943, 563 destroyer escorts entered the Battle of the Atlantic. And not a moment too soon, says maritime author Robert F. Cross. “We were losing the battle,” he explains. “America had very little experience with submarine warfare, and the Nazis were very good at it. Nazi U-boats were targeting convoy ships—they sank over a thousand merchant ships—and they were cutting off commerce between the United States and England.

They were so stealthy, Cross continues, that U-boats prowled the coast of New Jersey and used the lights of American cities, even the lights of the Coney Island Ferris wheel, to see the silhouettes of ships and torpedo them. As the author describes in his new book, Shepherds of the Sea: Destroyer Escorts in World War II, these untested vessels, designed by a man with no formal ship training and manned by teenage sailors, turned the tide of the war by shepherding convoys across the Atlantic and sinking some seventy U-boats.

The “nearly-forgotten story” of destroyer escorts and their heroic crews hasn’t been forgotten in Albany, where the USS Slater (DE 766) is docked on the Hudson River. Meticulously restored as a museum and a World War II memorial, the Slater is the only destroyer escort still afloat. On Monday, Cross will give the keynote Memorial Day speech aboard the Slater, followed by a book signing. Copies of Shepherds of the Sea are available at the Slater gift shop, and book purchases include free admission.

A former award–winning newspaper correspondent, Cross is the water commissioner for the Port of Albany, which is where he had his first experience with a DE. “When I saw the Slater being towed to the port, it was just a rusted-out war relic,” he says cheerfully. Cross joined the Slater’s board of trustees shortly after, but it wasn’t his idea to write a book about destroyer escorts. After he finished his first book, Sailor in the White House: The Seafaring Life of FDR, a DE book was suggested to him by board president Frank Lasch. Cross wasn’t sure if there was enough material for a full-length book, but after he started research, he says, he realized he had one of the great untold stories of World War II. What’s most extraordinary about the escorts, he says, is that they were manned by inexperienced sailors, mostly 16 and 17 years old, and commanded by officers who were not much older and who were more accustomed to yachts than warships. They were the Naval reserves the Navy didn’t want. And yet only 16 escorts were lost in battle, despite their express purpose of taking the brunt of sub attacks and, in the Pacific, fending off Kamikaze aircraft.

Cross interviewed 91 crew members from 56 ships for Shepherds of the Sea. “The thing is, these people never talked about what they did in the war,” he says. “What a humble group of men. I would hear their stories, and say, ‘You’re a hero,’ and they would say ‘No, I was just doing my job,’ or ‘No, I had a lot of help.’” Slater staff members were instrumental in tracking down the veterans, says Cross, and he was especially lucky to have been put in contact with the grandson of a ship’s pharmacist mate. After the mate died, his grandson found a cache of photographs his grandfather had taken, a rare archive since photography usually wasn’t allowed aboard ship. These photographs, along with first-person accounts, give the book a you-are-there immediacy.

The forward is by Christopher Roosevelt. “His father, Franklin Jr., was a skipper aboard a DE that saw a lot of action in the Pacific,” Cross says. Among the book’s “moving and thrilling” exploits is the only capture of a Nazi U-boat, the barrier-breaking efforts of the African-American crew of the USS Mason, and eye-witness reports of Kamikaze planes dive-bombing close enough for shipmates to see the pilots. As for the Slater, it was entrusted with the retrieval of the captured U-boat’s Enigma machine, torpedo, and top-secret documents—on the eve of the Normandy invasion. “It was a goldmine for the Allies,” says Cross. “We’re extremely fortunate to have this ship in Albany,” he adds. “It’s a daily testament to that ‘greatest generation’ of Navy veterans.”

Cross will speak briefly about the book and the veterans who contributed to it during his appearance at the Slater’s Memorial Day Commemoration at 9 am. A book signing will follow.

—Ann Morrow

The USS Slater (Broadway, Albany) will be open for tours on Memorial Day (Monday, May 31), 10 AM to 4 PM. Admission is $7 adults, $5 children over 5. Admission is free with a purchase of Shepherds of the Sea. For more information, call 431-1943 or visit ussslater.org

 

ONCE MORE FOR TESS Comedian Greg Aidala (pictured) is one of the many local artists who made Tess’ Lark Tavern a showcase for his talents—and, through his Brew Ha-Ha professional comedy showcases, the talents of other funny people. On Wednesday (June 2), Aidala will present the fundraiser Laughs for the Lark Tavern from 7-10 PM at The Linda (WAMC’s Performing Arts Studio, 339 Central Ave., Albany). Aidala will host, with performances by Bernadette Pauley (seen on Comedy Central), Clayton Fletcher, the Knuckleheads, Dave Cox, and with special appearances by WNYT’s Benita Zahn and Channel 103.1-FM’s Jason Keller. Tickets are $15 at the door, with no presales available; cash bar with beer, wine and soda. Aidala wants you to know that “all ticket proceeds will benefit Tess Collins and the Lark Tavern.” For more info, visit gregaidala.com or wamcarts.org.

TANGO TIME This year, the Musicians of Ma’alwyck season fundraiser is called Tango Magnifico. This gala entertainment, to be held on June 5th from 7-11 PM at the Polish Community Center (225 Washington Ave. Ext., Albany) will feature music by the well-loved chamber ensemble and performance by professional dance instructors from the Latham branch of the Fred Astaire Dance Studios. The deadline for buying tickets is Monday (May 31); tickets are $80 each, or $150 for two. Please call 377-3623 for tickets and information.

—Shawn Stone

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