All aboard the USS Slater
By Katy Koontz
Like many other young men of his time, my father enlisted in the Navy right after graduating from high school in 1944. He became a sonar operator onboard the USS Wesson, a destroyer escort serving in the Pacific during World War II. These ships both escorted supply convoys and conducted anti-submarine sweeps—dangerous missions.
Dad’s best story was about a time when he thought he was tracking a Japanese submarine that thankfully turned out to be a whale. He talked of sleeping in a canvas hammock, eating chipped beef on toast, and hearing tales of a kamikaze hitting the ship—before he joined the crew.
The Wesson was scrapped soon after the war, but decades later, another destroyer escort named the USS Slater, an almost exact duplicate of the Wesson, was opened as a museum in Albany, NY. After Dad toured it with a group of his Navy buddies (all then in their 70s and 80s), he could talk of little else.
Of the 563 destroyer escorts built during World War II, he learned, only eight have survived. Four serve in foreign fleets (in Vietnam, Tunisia, the Philippines and Thailand), while the other four are now ship museums. Two of those museums are in foreign countries, while one is on dry land in Texas, leaving the Slater as the only destroyer escort still afloat in the U.S.
After the Slater was decommissioned, it went to Greece in 1951 to serve in the Hellenic Navy. When an association of destroyer escort veterans looking for a ship to restore found the Slater, Greece gifted the ship to the group in 1991. The vets chipped in more than $250,000 to pay a Russian tugboat to tow the Slater from Crete to New York City. Volunteers then began a painstaking restoration. After four years, the Slater went to Albany. Considered one of the best-restored, most historically accurate World War II ships in the world, the Slater was included on the National Register of Historic Places the following year.
Before my father died in 2015, I promised him I would visit the Slater. When I did, I got a fascinating tour from volunteer guide (and Navy vet) Bob Dawson. As Bob showed me around, I imagined my dad at 18, serving aboard a 1,500-ton, 308-foot-long ship just like this one.
The tour began with a short video for background before Bob took me across the gangway and onboard the ship. On the main deck, he showed me the torpedo tubes, depth charge tracks, and the anti-aircraft gun stations (where visitors can sit in the gunner’s seat, spin around and aim the guns). I got to examine three sizes of munition casings (three-inch, 40 mm, and 20mm), and received a lesson in using signal lights and signal flags. Bob even invited me to ring the Slater’s gleaming brass bell.
On the bridge, I visited the pilot house (momentarily manning the ship’s wheel) and the combat information center with its radar and plotting table. Navigating steep stairways that were really more like ladders, Bob also showed me the galley, the mess hall, the captain’s cabin, the officers’ quarters, the sailors’ bunk room, the washroom, and the officer’s dining room (where the table is cleverly designed to be used for surgery, when necessary).
Bob shared so many of his own stories that I couldn’t help but feel my dad was somehow tagging along with us.
If you go: Hour-long guided tours of the Slater are available from Wednesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., through Thanksgiving. Tours resume in April. For more information, visit ussslater.org.
Travel Writer Katy Koontz wins award
Congratulations to our travel writer, Katy Koontz! Her article, “Petra: The Jewel of Jordan,” which ran in the April 2019 edition of The Connection, won first place for the Best Newspaper Travel Article on an International Destination in the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW) Central States writing contest. Judges commented: “A great introduction to the fascinating Jewel of Jordan. There’s definitely more to it than just being a setting for an Indiana Jones movie and the writer made it really stand out.” SATW is an organization of travel writers, photographers, editors, and PR reps; the Central States Chapter is a regional chapter within the group.
For more details see page A11 in the Lifestyle section.