Little Ship, Big War: The Saga of DE343
by Edward P. Stafford
William Morrow, 1984, 336 pages
The destroyer escort USS Abercrombie (DE343), commissioned in May 1944,
fought in the Philippines and Okinawa with no combat damage and no casualties
despite many close calls from both kamikaze and conventional aircraft. The other
five destroyer escorts in Escort Division 69 did not have such luck, with two
sunk and three hit and damaged. This book vividly describes battle action not
only of Abercrombie but also other destroyer escorts. This thoroughly researched
and well-written book with many personal stories from the author and other
crewmen stands out as one of the finest histories written about a US warship
that fought in WWII.
Edward P. Stafford served as Abercrombie's First Lieutenant (third in
command) from March 1944, when the ship was being built, and later as Executive
Officer (second in command) until May 1946, just before the ship was
decommissioned. He has authored several other books including The Big E: The
Story of the USS Enterprise (1962), Far and the Deep: The Submarine from U-Boat
to Polaris (1967), and Subchaser (1988). The Acknowledgments section in front
and the Biographical Notes section in back summarize his meticulous research,
which for Abercrombie's story included the Deck Log, official Action Reports and
War Diaries, his own journal, and interviews with about 30 men who had served
aboard the ship. He lists 77 names in the Crewmen Contributors section of those
men who assisted in some way with his writing of this book. The variety and depth
of the stories included in this history reflect Stafford's writing experience,
comprehensive research, and personal experiences aboard Abercrombie.
Little Ship, Big War has three main divisions: Book 1 up to the ship's
arrival in the Pacific war zone, Book 2 about the ship's battle history, and
Book 3 about postwar duties in Japan and Korea and the ship's trip back
home. Over half the book describes Abercrombie's participation in battles in the
Philippines and Okinawa. DE343 spent 68 days and nights off Okinawa, mainly at
the northwest corner of 39 patrol stations of the Outer Screen that protected
the main American fleet. The author skillfully weaves in background about
destroyer escorts, history of Abercrombie's crew, and accounts of significant
battle action by other destroyer escorts without digressing from the main
storyline about Abercrombie's exploits. The longest section about a ship other
than Abercrombie covers the gallant fighting of Samuel B. Roberts (DE413), one
of the six destroyer escorts in Escort Division 69. In the Battle off Samar on
October 25, 1945, Roberts fought against long odds and helped to defeat a
superior enemy force, but the ship sank with more than a third of the destroyer
escort's 10 officers and about 200 crewmen losing their lives.
Abercrombie fought several kamikaze aircraft and witnessed several suicide
attacks on other American ships even though DE343 came through unscathed. The
attack by a Zero (Zeke) fighter at 0300 on June 3, 1945, came closest to hitting
the ship as described in the following paragraph (pp. 270-1):
The night was dark and overcast, the first warning a fast-approaching
blip on the SL scope five miles on the port quarter. With flash red in
effect, all battle stations were manned. The guns trained out on the danger
bearing and waited, the gunners strained their eyes into the darkness for
that first glimpse that would let them fire, and listened tensely for what
seemed like the hundredth time as radar reported the rapidly closing ranges,
the steady bearing. The Zeke roared into sight three to four hundred yards
out, flat on the water, wings level, the hub at the center of the whirling
prop like a bull's-eye, and all guns opened fire at the same instant, the
tracers ripping the darkness to shreds. The sudden fountain of fire erupting
out of the night must have startled and disoriented the enemy pilot because
he banked sharply to the right, climbed, pursued by strings of tracers, and
disappeared in the direction from which he had come. In CIC they watched as
the little blip reappeared out of the disk of light in the center of the
scope which was the ship, saw the blip circle out to about four miles,
turn—and start another run. Back came the Zeke, this time from the port
beam, fast and straight in. Again the guns opened at four hundred yards and
hammered away steadily, lighting up the sea to port, the acid powder smoke
blowing across the decks, the tracer streams from fore and aft converging
ever more sharply as the kamikaze closed. This time the pilot did not turn
away. It was evident from his unwaveringly straight flight path at minimum
altitude that he had made up his mind to die for his Emperor on the deck of
this small ship, which put out such a surprising torrent of gunfire. At a
hundred yards, the twenties were chewing into his wings, but they couldn't
stop him. This was it. Yet no man ducked, jumped or took cover. At five
twenties and at both twin forties, the crews were like machines, loading and
firing now at point-blank range with steady precision, the onrushing
aircraft huge at the end of the barrels, the hot, empty brass cascading onto
the deck. At the final instant, when fiery death seemed certain, the Zeke
flashed overhead and was gone. He had simply missed.
Cover of 1985 paperback version
published by Jove Books
Stafford attributed the Zeke's miss to Abercrombie's low silhouette and to the
pilot's lack of experience and proficiency. The other four remaining destroyer
escorts in Escort Division 69 each got crashed directly by a kamikaze aircraft
or had a very near miss that showered the ship with shrapnel. Oberrender (DE344)
got damaged beyond repair when a kamikaze plane carrying a 500-lb bomb hit the
ship off Okinawa on May 9, 1945. Eight crewmen died in the attack, and
Oberrender was sunk was gunfire off Kerama Retto after being cannibalized for
parts for other ships.
Abercrombie crew's personal stories add color to this ship history. Memorable ones
include the boxing match of three 3-minute rounds fought to a draw between a
first class petty officer and an angry crewman, the search for the accordion
stolen by two Abercrombie crewmen at the dock of a port near the Panama Canal,
and the author's service as defense counsel in a Summary Court Martial of a
crewman accused of striking and injuring another crewman. The middle of the book
contains eight pages of photos, but the only ones directly related to
Abercrombie are the ship, her captain Bernard Katchinski, and the
ship's mascot, a dog named Butch, on deck with a crewman. The back of the book
contains an Index plus a four-page Itinerary and Chronology of Significant
Events. The many unfamiliar geographic locations mentioned in the book would
have been easier to follow if it had some maps.
Despite the author's thorough research in writing Abercrombie's history, the
book has a few errors related to Japan's kamikaze operations. On
October 24, 1944, the light carrier Princeton (CVL-23) did not get hit by a
kamikaze during the Battle of Leyte Gulf (p. 214) but rather got hit by a single
bomb from a Japanese dive bomber. Stafford also incorrectly states that the
carrier Franklin (CV-13) was kit by kamikazes on March 19, 1945 (p. 226), but the ship actually
got hit by two armor-piercing bombs from a single dive bomber. The author writes
that shortly after midnight on May 28, 1945, an Abercrombie gunner shot down a
rocket-propelled, high-explosive Baka (ohka) glider moving at 500 mph (pp.
Japanese sources  indicate that the Japanese Navy launched no ohka weapons
on that date.
The author states in the Epilogue, "the string of luck challenged belief,"
which allowed Abercrombie alone to escape any combat damage despite sharing
fully in every battle action of the six destroyer escorts of Escort Division 69.
1. Bungei Shunju 2005, 549-57; Osuo 2005, 181-94.
Bungei Shunju, ed. 2005. Ningen bakudan to yobarete: Shougen
- ouka tokkou (Called human bombs: Testimony - ohka special attacks).
Tokyo: Bungei Shunju.
Osuo, Kazuhiko. 2005. Tokubetsu kougekitai no kiroku (kaigun
hen) (Record of special attack corps (Navy)). Tokyo: Kojinsha.