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The Battle Off Samar
American forces had returned to the Philippines, and the Japanese Navy was about to make its last, desperate attempt to stave off defeat. Suddenly, by miscalculation, nothing stood between its most powerful task force and the American beachhead at Leyte Gulf but a small group of U.S. escort carriers. Could little Taffy 3 hold off Admiral Kurita’s gigantic battleships?
December 1966 | Volume 18, Issue 1
The sun shone down from clear skies on whitecapped water and mountainous islands as the Center-Force moved into the Sibuyan Sea northwest of Leyte on Tuesday, October 24. Within twenty-four hours, if all went well, Kurita’s ships would be steaming into Leyte Gulf from the east. But their bad luck had not left them yet. Their antiaircraft batteries, nervously anticipating American air strikes, cut loose at a flight of fighter planes soon after dawn. It was a mistake, and a costly one for the Center Force. The planes were landbased Japanese Zeros ordered to provide air cover for Kurita. Faced with heavy antiaircraft fire from the very warships they were to protect, the fighters understandably returned to their island base.
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.