The Battle Off Samar

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Wednesday, October 25, 1944 —a gloomy overcast punctuated by rain squalls gave the predawn sky a dirty yellow-gray hue. Six small United States carriers and seven escort ships moved through the somber seas east of the Philippine island of Samar. From the gently swaying flight decks of the carriers, white-starred planes took oil on routine early-morning missions.

On the bridge of the flagship, U.S.S. Fanshaw Bay , Rear Admiral Clifton A. F. Sprague watched the Grumman aircraft rise into the northeasterly wind toward the broken ceiling of clouds. The day had all the earmarks of being another long, tiresome succession of reconnaissance, antisubmarine, and ground-support missions. Sprague, a forty-eight-year-old veteran, scanned his little Meet, called Tatty 3(its radio call sign). Merchant-ship hulls turned into baby Hattops to meet wartime needs, the thin-skinned escort carriers—designated CVE’s—were not even half the size of conventional aircraft carriers. Old hands claimed the CVE stood for “Combustible, Vulnerable, Expendable.” Three destroyer« and four destroyer escorts ringed the flotilla of CVE’s like watchful guard dogs. Somewhere to the soutli. Sprague knew, two other carrier groups, Taffies 1 and 2, were on similar missions in support of the American G.I.'s who had gone ashore at Leyte Gulf five days earlier. Together the three TafRes made up Estoit Carrier Task Group 77.4 of the United States Seventh Fleet.

The first warning of a break in the morning routine came shortly after six thirty as the ships’ crews sat clown to breakfast. Radio equipment in the Fanshaw Bay’s Combat Information Center picked up Japanese voices. Since the nearest enemy ships were supposedly over a hundred miles away, the American radiomen reasoned that the enemy chatter must be coming from one of the nearby Japanese-held islands. With the exception of the beachhead on Leyte and a few islands in the adjacent gulf, all of the Philippine archipelago was in Japanese hands.

Eleven minutes later, n message Hashed in from an American scout plane. The unbelievable words were hurriedly relayed to the bridge: “Enemy surface force … twenty miles northwest of your task group and closing at go knots.

Admiral Sprague, at this moment, was trying to make sense of two other odd reports. His lookouts had just seen antiaircraft fire on the northern horixon, and his radar had picked up an unidentified something in the same direction. Surely, Sprague was thinking, the cause of all the unexpected commotion must be Admiral William Halsey’s Third Fleet, the closest large naval unit to Tally 3. The pilot’s message stopped him short.

“Check that identification!” ordered Sprague, hoping with a growing feeling—of doubt thai some innotent mistake had been made by the scout plane. But confirmation came from another source—a lookout on one of Sprague’s other carriers, the Kitkitu Buy. Scanning the hori/on beneath the gradually clearing cumulus cloud canopy, the seaman could make out pagoclalike masts: Japanese battleships and cruisers.

Admiral Sprague’s voice boomed into the squawk box: “Come to course 090 degrees … launch all planes as soon as possible … speed 16.”

The little carriers swung due east, far enough into the wind to launch aircraft without bringing them closer to the enemy. Planes were soon soaring into the damp sky armed with whatever bombs and bullets they had when the alarm sounded. Gun crews settled expectantly behind the breeches of the carriers’ 5-inch guns—the biggest they had.

At 11:58 A.M. , bright flashes lit the hori/on seventeen miles north of the flotilla. Sixty seconds later, Japanese range-marker shells rattled into the sea to throw lowering geysers of colored water into the air behind the American carriers. The Rattle off Samar had begun.

The Battle oft Samar was a direct result of Japanese Higli Command plans. As the American 1'orces advanced relentlessly across the Southern Pacific: during the final months of World War II, four Sho (Conquer) plans were devised to blunt U.S. thrusts against the F.mphe’s inner defenses. At best, these were little more than delaying tac ties which might postpone the end of the war and give Japan a belter bargaining position at the peace table. Sho No. i was designed to counter any United States move against the Philippine Islands, and by the fall of 1944, with the Americans moving northwestward, it appeared that the time for putting it into ell’ect had arrived.

In mid-October the Imperial Japanese Navy began to move. Powerful naval forces steamed eastward from the Lingga Archipelago near Singapore, and southward from the home islands. On October 18, while the Japanese fleets were still at sea, the word flashed (Vom Combined Fleet commander Admiral Soeniu Toyoda in Tokyo: “Execute Sho Plan No. 1!” American landings had begun in Lcyte Cull, in the eastcentral Philippines.

Two U.S. fleets were covering the invasion beaches—the Third Fleet, under Admiral William F. Halsey, composed mainly of fast new battleships and big carriers; and the Seventh Fleet, commanded by Vice Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid. made up mostly of pre-Pearl Harbor battlewagons and cruisers. The Third Fleet was acting the role of roving watchdog, while the Seventh was directly overseeing the landing of Sixth Army G.I.’s on Leyte Island.