Northern Territory Government

Roll of Honour

HOWELL, Robert Lee

Peary and Manunda

Smoke from sinking USS Peary with Australian hospital ship Manunda on extreme right

Robert Lee Howell was the son of Thomas Eugene Howell of Quinlan, Texas. He enlisted on 13 July 1937 in Dallas, Texas and served on the USS Vaga from 28 February 1941, before transferring to the Naval Receiving Station, Cavite, Philippines.

Howell, Seaman 1st Class (355-75-11), joined the USS Peary in December 1941 and was on the Peary when it was attacked by Japanese bombers in the Philippines. Lieutenant Gustafson reported on the attack and stated:

"Machine gunners Howell, L.R., Sea1c, USN and Ford, E.A. Sea1c, USN were in a large measure responsible for the ship’s safety for they remained at their stations under fierce bombardment firing at the attackers and reporting their movements to the conning officer." 

The Peary endured a dramatic voyage to Australia in December 1941, after sustaining damage in the bombing attack on the Cavite Navy Yard in the Philippines. The crew camouflaged the ship with green paint borrowed from the Army, and took refuge during daylight by anchoring close to the islands and covering the ship with palm fronds. Many of the Peary’s crew contracted malaria on this journey and eight men eventually died from the disease. They were attacked on 26 and 27 December, but avoided damage by violent manoeuvring. The Peary arrived in Darwin on 3 January.

In January the Peary was operating on anti-submarine patrol, convoy and escort missions; while escorting troops from Darwin to Timor, the ship was again attacked. They returned to Darwin, refuelled and set off again with the cruiser USS Houston. A fruitless submarine chase exhausted the Peary’s fuel, and she returned to Darwin in the early hours of 19 February.

The Peary was hit early in the bombing of Darwin, and appears to have sunk within 40 minutes. The fifth bomb to hit the Peary caused the fatal damage that sent her to the bottom and it was said to be the last bomb dropped that day on the harbour. The Peary’s machine guns continued to fire at the Japanese planes even as she sank. Eighty-eight officers and men, including Captain Bermingham, were killed; twenty of the fifty-seven survivors were wounded.

In December 1942 the Peary was awarded one battle star for service in World War II.

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