A reminder of the courage and sacrifice displayed by U.S. Navy sailors in combat now hangs in a place of honor at the University of Washington.
Lt. Cmdr. Robert W. Copeland was born in Tacoma, Wash., and graduated from the University of Washington's (UW) Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC) in 1935. By Oct. 25, 1944, he commanded the destroyer escort USS Samuel B. Roberts (DE 413).
On that fateful day, USS Samuel B. Roberts and Allied ships came under attack from the Imperial Japanese Navy in the Leyte Gulf. Largely outmatched in number, armament and armor by Japanese ships, the Battle off Samar would end up as the centermost action.
Over the ships intercom, Copeland told the sailors under his command what they were up against. "We are about to go into a fight against overwhelming odds from which survival cannot be expected," he called out to them.
Copeland proceeded to do the unthinkable, and charged head-on into the attacking battleships, cruisers and destroyers. Samuel B. Roberts was able to inflict damage to enemy ships with her torpedoes and 5-inch guns, but was outmatched by the larger ships.
"By zigzagging we were able to keep from being hit by enemy torpedoes," one sailor aboard Samuel B. Roberts wrote in a personal journal. "Finally their shells found their mark. First, gun 2 aft was hit killing all but three of a crew of twenty-seven," Archie Killough wrote.
After a courageous fight, Samuel B. Roberts was dead in the water. Copeland gave the order for the crew to abandon ship. Chief Torpedoman Rudy Skau managed to retrieve the ship's battle ensign and hold onto it for nearly three days as the crew floated awaiting rescue. During this time many of the survivors passed away due to their wounds and shark attacks.
"After spending fifty-two hours in the water we were rescued by PC623," wrote Killough. "We were about dead when they picked us up."
Copeland, who went on to rise to the rank of Rear Admiral, received the Navy Cross, America's second highest military decoration for valor, for his actions in the Battle off Samar. The seventh Oliver Hazard Perry Class frigate was eventually named in his honor.
Years later the battle ensign that Skau recovered in the water made its way into the hands of James Massick. Massick was a graduate of the UW NROTC program in 1954. Earlier this year, Massick saw a request for memorabilia related to former members of the unit for use in the rededication of the NRTOC's Clark Hall at UW.
Massick donated the flag, folded neatly in a box, along with a letter describing the story behind it to the Naval History and Heritage Command, or NHHC, through the UW NROTC unit.
"The reaction when I got the flag from the Samuel B. Roberts in March of this year... it sent chills down my spine when I saw the flag and read Mr. Massick's letter," said Capt. David Melin, commanding officer of the UW NROTC unit . "It exudes naval history, and we love to teach our midshipmen about naval history so they have some role models for what they want to become."
NHHC framed the flag using materials that would allow it to maintain its integrity over time and sent it back to UW NROTC. The flag is now on official loan to the UW NROTC unit and hangs in Clark Hall next to the new NROTC Alumni Wall of Fame. Copeland was among the first five inductees to be listed on the wall of fame.
"It's a tangible reminder of what our alumni, in this particular case Copeland did in his service to the country, and I think it serves as an inspiration to the current crop of midshipmen and battalion midshipmen on what they're capable of becoming as leaders." said Melin.