History of the USS Underhill, DE 682
A WW II Destroyer Escort
Editor's note: The Apple TV movie, "Greyhound" (2021), is an excellent example of the type of duty this ship performed.
The Destroyer Escort USS Underhill, DE 682, was named in honor of Ensign Samuel Jackson Underhill, USNR, who gave his life for his country in the Battle of the Coral Sea in 1942, and who was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross for his heroism during the battle.
Samuel Jackson Underhill was born on August 17, 1917, in Jericho, New York, the son of Henry Willets and Helen Wallower Underhill. He joined the U. S. Navy Reserve in 1940 and was commissioned to Ensign in 1941. He was assigned to the carrier USS Yorktown which took part in the battles of Tulagi Harbor on May 4, 1942, and the Coral Sea on May 7, 1942. Ensign Underhill was reported Missing in Action on May 8, 1942, and was later listed as Killed in Action.
Reprinted from the Twelfth Annual Memorial Service, USS Underhill, DE 682.
Ensign Underhill was awarded the Navy Cross for extraordinary heroism and supreme disregard for his personal safety as a Navy pilot participating in the Battle of Tulagi Harbor and in the Battle of the Coral Sea, in which he contributed, on the first day of the battle, to the sinking of the Japanese aircraft carrier Shoho. On the second day of the Battle of the Coral Sea, during which Navy Samuel J. Underhill and the Destroyer Escort Named After Him 14 pilots damaged the two remaining Japanese aircraft carriers despite heavy opposition from Japanese fighter aircraft, Ensign Underhill’s aircraft was among the large proportion of Navy aircraft which did not return to their aircraft carriers. Since losses of one-third of attacking aircraft were considered excessive in World War II, and since the force in which Ensign Underhill flew pressed home its attack on the Japanese despite losses of approximately one-third of its aircraft, the exceptional courage, and determination of these heroes are apparent.
The USS Underhill, Destroyer Escort 682, was named in honor of Ensign Samuel Underhill at its launching on October 15, 1943, when Mrs. Daniel Underhill was the sponsor. The USS Underhill, after distinguished service in the Pacific, was sunk off the island of Formosa on July 24, 1945, by a Japanese submarine, less than 30 days before VJ Day, August 14, 1945. Of the Underhill’s 238 officers and men, only 126 survived. The survivors later organized “The USS Underhill Memorial Committee” which holds a memorial service every year on July 24th at 3:15 PM (the date and time the ship was sunk) at the chapel at the U. S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. The Navy Department’s official record of the USS Underhill is a fascinating and dramatic story of heroism and duty.
A public park in Jericho, New York has been named “The Samuel Jackson Underhill Memorial Park” which was dedicated with the following words:
“In dedicating this plot of ground (as a memorial to the young men of Jericho who made the supreme sacrifice) it seemed fitting to name the park after one of the young men of Jericho, Ensign Samuel Jackson Underhill, a Navy pilot from the USS Yorktown, who was shot down by a Japanese Zero fighter aircraft at the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942.”
In reckoning our debt to Ensign Underhill, it is well to recall that at the time of the Battle of the Coral Sea, the United States was badly outnumbered by the Japanese in aircraft carriers which were proving themselves to be the decisive arm of naval warfare. An impartial British observer, Captain John Creswell who served in the Royal Navy’s Plans Division during World War II, has written that the Battle of the Coral Sea deprived the Japanese Navy of “two of their big aircraft carriers, a factor that was to have an important, perhaps decisive, effect in the next battle.” The next battle was, of course, the Battle of Midway Island, which is generally recognized as the turning point of the war in the Pacific.
Ensign Underhill, then, was of that handful of U. S. Navy pilots whose skill and devotion to duty enabled the Navy to offset superior enemy numbers at a time when the full mobilization of manpower and material had yet to take effect on our combat forces. He was among the few who prevented at least temporary Japanese domination of the Pacific, and in so doing helped turn the tide of war at an early date, thereby contributing to the shortening of the war and the saving of an inestimable number of lives.
Ensign Samuel Jackson Underhill, USNR, who “gave the last full measure of devotion” to his country, will live in our hearts as an Underhill of whom all Underhills may be justly proud.
The USS Underhill was built by the Bethlehem Steel Company, Fore River Shipyard, Quincy, MA. Her keel was laid on September 16, 1942, and she was launched on October 15, 1943, under the sponsorship of Mrs. Daniel Underhill, aunt of Ensign Underhill. She was 306’ overall, 37’ beam, and 1400 tons displacement.
The USS Underhill served in the Atlantic theatre of the war on convoy duty until 1945 when she was transferred to the Pacific theatre in the Philippines area. She came to her end in July 1945 off Luzon, in action against a Japanese submarine which she had rammed. There was a huge explosion and the Underhill broke in two. The remains were sunk by U. S. gunfire. But there had been the loss of 113 lives.
Thus ended the brief service of a ship named in honor of one of our family.
The preceding article was written by N. Robert Underhill and originally published in the 1989 issue of the Bulletin. Reprinted by permission of Mr. Underhill’s family.