Jacksonville, FL - For some time the Navy has been decommissioning Oliver Perry Hazard class guided missile frigates, with a newer class of ships entering service to replace them- many having served twenty years or more.
But while the flags will come down, the history of the ships will live on. Possibly none more so than the USS Samuel B Roberts, whose crew already takes immense pride in the history and legacy they carry.
“There’s something special about Sammy B, you can’t put your finger on it,” says Commanding Officer Erica Hoffmann.
The USS Samuel B Roberts- or Sammy B as Commander and crew of just over 200 say- is leaving for its final deployment Monday morning, serving six months in the Mediterranean under the guide of African Command. In the days leading up to this deployment, I walked through the ship with Hoffmann. It started as a journey to learn about her history in the Navy- now standing as one of only a few female CO’s- but soon become clear that she valued the journey of Sammy B as much, if not more, than that of herself.
The original namesake of this ship, and the two others that have come before, is Coxswain Samuel B. Roberts, Jr. During World War II, Roberts diverted fire from ships rescuing Marines off the shore. During this, he suffered a neck wound from which he died. He was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross for his efforts.
The first USS SBR, commissioned in 1944, was sunk during a battle off Samar Island. During that battle, however, Hoffmann says the crew fought so valiantly that the Japanese offensive turned back afterward. That prevented another ship serving with the USS SBR from getting attacked on multiple sides.
Every sailor who serves on the Sammy B knows this story, and more.
In fact, Hoffmann says they make sure of that unlike any other ship in the modern Navy. When a new sailor joins the crew, he traditionally meets with the CO, Executive Officer and Command Master Chief to get a few uniform pieces that identify service on the ship. On the Sammy B, at least one of those has to be earned, not just taken.
Instead of being handed their baseball cap, which bears the ship’s name, each sailor has to earn it by proving knowledge of the history of the ship and its namesake. Hoffmann says this tradition dates back to at least the last several COs.
“The heroic efforts of that crew [of the first USS Samuel B Roberts] are known to every crew member on this current Samuel B Roberts,” says Hoffmann.
The second USS SBR had a long service in the Navy before being decommissioned.
The current frigate was commissioned in 1986 and tested right out of the gate.
In 1988, the current USS SBR struck a mine in the Persian Gulf. The crew acted quickly, using ropes and wires to cross a split the strike left in the ship, battling for several hours to keep the frigate afloat.
“They saved the ship and they saved everyone on the crew,” Hoffmann says.
The ship was taken for repairs and returned to service, and remains in working condition through now.
We talked through this history right near the crew mess- in an area sailors are compelled to walk by and appreciate- where several walls are filled with the timeline dating back to the original Coxswain. Hoffmann says this is one more way they make sure the crew is consistently thinking about the frigate on which they serve.
Knowing and being a part of that history, Hoffmann says it’s bittersweet right now to see the frigate prepare for its final deployment.
“Nothing lasts forever, the ship really has done its service,” says Hoffmann.
She says this command was exactly what she hoped it would be.
“There’s a lot of support here for the ships in Mayport that you don’t necessarily get in some of the bigger bases around the country,” she says.
The support is significant for Hoffman, whose own career in the Navy started 18 years ago with roadblocks, originally not getting accepted to the Naval Academy. She continued to work hard, getting accepted the following year, and then studying the sciences along with humanities. She started focusing on nuclear capabilities, a specialty that took her to both sea and shore assignments including the USS George Washington carrier.
Hoffmann was the Executive Officer on the USS SBR before taking command July 2013. While she knows there are few women that have been in a position like hers, she views her role no differently than she believes a man would- with professionalism toward all.
Hoffman is next heading to the USS George HW Bush out of Norfolk to be Reactor Officer, the most senior officer in the Reactor Department. She says if the door were to open to surface command again, she would take it, but she will just “see what the cards have in store”.
I asked Hoffman what, if any, legacy she hopes to leave in the long history of Sammy B. She says she’s tried to create a workplace that sailors want to come to and be a part of, and just wants to be as strong as those who have come before her.
“When sailors leave the ship and they tell me how much their service on Sammy B has meant to them, that’s really what makes it worthwhile,” she says.
In the after-action report following the first USS SBR’s defense against the Japanese, the Commanding Officer wrote “The men zealously manned their stations wherever they might be, and fought and worked with such calmness, courage, and efficiency that no higher honor could be conceived than to command such a group of men.” Seeing this, the first CO of the current Sammy B knew “No Higher Honor” would be the ship’s motto.
Hoffman says she will reflect on that during this final deployment. She expects toward the end of the six month trip it will start to sink in that this is the final trip, but looks forward to the next step the Navy has to offer.