The Battle Off Samar

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Then, at 8:10 that morning, an American scout plane sighted the Japanese armada. Two hours and sixteen minutes later, single-engined bombers and fighters from the carriers of Admiral Halsey’s Third Fleet pounced on the Center Force. Dodging the pink and purple bursts of antiaircraft fire, American Helldivers and Avengers pressed one attack after another against the wildly weaving ships. At the cost of eighteen dive bombers and torpedo planes, they sank the gargantuan Musashi , badly damaged a heavy cruiser, and slightly hurt the other battleships. Kurita wavered—lie actually had his fleet reverse course for several hours—but in the end he rallied and carried on toward San Bernardino Strait.

Admiral Halsey was very much pleased by his carrier pilots’ reports of their successes over the Sibnyan Sea. Unfortunately, these reports were somewhat exaggerated, and led him to the optimistic conclusion that Kurita’s Center Force “could no longer be considered a serious menace.” Meanwhile Admiral O/awa’s decoy Northern Force had been cruising the waters of the Philippine Sea off Luzon, hoping to be spotted by Halsey’s search planes. About 4 P.M. on October 24, one of the searchers made the contact, and by 8:30 that evening the whole U.S. Third Fleet was off in enthusiastic pursuit of the Japanese bait—sixty-five warships against seventeen.

It was a questionable action, and led to one of the hottest controversies about naval tactics in World War II. Halsey had enough ships and planes to handle both Ozawa and Kurita; but as it was, nobody was left to guard the exit of the San Bernardino Strait. Through that exit Kurita’s still very menacing force was steadily plowing in order to turn southward off the eastern coast of Samar and come in to Leyte Gulf on October 25—its role in Sho No. 1.

Steaming at twenty knots through the narrow strait between Luzon and Samar islands, Kurita’s Center Force debouched into the Philippine Sea at thirty-five minutes past midnight. In addition to the battleships Yamato , Haruna , Kongo , and Nagato , there were the heavy cruisers Chikuma , Chokai , Haguro , Kumano , Suzuya , and Tone , the smaller-gunned light cruisers Noshiro and Yahagi , and eleven destroyers.

Prepared to have to fight their way through to Leyte Gulf, the Japanese sailors were pleasantly’ surprised when dawn revealed nothing on the southern horizon but open water. Well beyond that horizon, below Leyte Gulf, Admiral Kinkaid’s Seventh Fleet had turned southward to encounter the Japanese Southern Force under Admirals Shima and Nishimura in a triumphant fight, later to be known as the Battle of Surigao Strait. Nothing but the three light Taffy forces now stood between the U.S. invasion troops on Leyte and possible disaster. Of the three, only Taffy 3 lay directly in Kurita’s path as his Center Force swept south.

This was the astonishing situation when, just after dawn on October 25, Admiral Kurita’s twenty-three warships, three hours north of Leyte Gulf, ran into Admiral Clifton Sprague’s small group—the 10,000-ton black-and-gray camouflaged escort carriers Fanshaw Bay, St. Lo, White Plains, Kalinin Bay, Kitkun Bay , and Gambier Bay ; the 2,050-ton destroyers Heermann, Hoel , and Johnston ; and the 1,275-ton destroyer escorts Dennis, John C. Butler, Raymond , and Samuel B. Roberts .

Kurita, thinking he must have stumbled onto Halsey’s Third Fleet, abruptly ordered his ships into pursuit formation. Since the Center Force had been in the process of switching over from its tight night formation to a dispersed daytime deployment, the new order spread confusion through the Japanese fleet. The result was a fierce but surprisingly unco-ordinated attack on the American ships.

At 6:58 A.M. , a salvo of j.aoo-pound shells, each some fifty per cent heavier than the largest U.S. warship projectile, spun out of the Yamato’s huge gun barrels. It was the first time the superbattleship had fired its 18.1-inch batteries at another ship. The Haruna’s 14-inch guns joined in three minutes later.

At 7:01 A.M. Admiral Sprague ordered the transmission of an urgent plea for help. The request was immediately picked up, and planes from Taffies i and 2 were ordered to the assistance of Taffy 3. Glancing away from the enemy, Sprague noted with pride that his little fleet was following orders with the precision of a well-trained team. Straddled by the red, yellow, blue, and green splashes of marker shells, Taffy 3 was laying heavy smoke screens, the white clouds pouring from chemical generators contrasting sharply with the oily black smoke from the ships’ funnels.