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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
Launching her planes as rapidly as possible, the White Plains trembled violently as the mere concussion of the big enemy shells caused minor damage. Water spray from a shellburst that threw a geyser high above the carrier rained over the ship’s bridge. One plane preparing to take off from the flight deck was bounced forward by the concussion of explosions pummelling the sea. Its spinning propeller bit a chunk out of the wing of another fighter. The St. Lo , ebony clouds pouring from her four small exhaust stacks, was also buffeted by the Japanese barrage.
Although the enemy ships had closed to within fifteen miles of their prey, they were still beyond the range of the puny U.S. 5-inch guns. If only he could keep his ships swinging in a wide circle around to the southwest without being overtaken or cut off, Sprague thought, he could hope to lead the Japanese fleet into the guns of the now-alerted battleships of the Seventh Fleet. Then, even though Kinkaid’s ships were not in top shape for battle after their heavy night action in Surigao Strait against the Japanese Southern Force, the Americans would have some chance of stopping the enemy.
Deployed in a formation of two concentric circles—the six carriers forming the inner circle—the U.S. flotilla was rapidly being overtaken by the speedier enemy ships. Then, at 7:06 A.M. , Taffy 3 dipped its nose into a welcome rain squall. Hindered by ineffective radar, enemy fire fell off in volume and accuracy. During the fifteen-minute respite afforded by the rain, Sprague made a decision. He would order a torpedo attack by his destroyers.
In the meantime, the first desperate strikes by the U.S. carrier planes had been made on the pursuing enemy. Dropping the small bombs and depth charges with which they had been loaded in expectation of routine missions, the Navy planes harassed the Japanese ships for twenty minutes. Bombs soon gone, they strafed with machine-gun fire. And even when their ammunition was exhausted, the pilots continued to buzz the enemy, hoping to bluff the Nipponese ships off course and give Taffy 3 a chance to escape. Only when their fuel ran low did they leave. Unable to land on their own carriers because the ships were heading downwind, the Taffy 3 planes were forced to rearm and refuel at an airstrip on the Leyte beachhead to the west, and on the flattops of Taffy 2 to the southeast. Joined by other Wildcat fighters and Avenger torpedo bombers from Taffy 2, they soon returned to the attack.
First blood for the airmen was drawn when a bomb pierced the deck of the heavy cruiser Suzuya . Shuddering under the detonation, the i4,ooo-ton warship slowed to twenty knots and fell behind the Japanese formation. The bold American planes, delaying the pursuers by forcing them into time-consuming evasive maneuvers, also inflicted minor damage on a few of the other Japanese ships.
The two-funnelled Johnston , which had already opened fire with her five 5-inch guns, was the first destroyer to respond to Sprague’s order for a torpedo attack. As the helmsman swung the wheel hard to port, the outgunned Johnston sliced bravely through the gray sea at twenty-five knots toward the Japanese heavy cruiser Kumano . At 9,000 yards the destroyer heeled steeply over, her ten torpedoes splashing into the sea. One of the missiles reached the sleek cruiser, blowing off its bow in a thunderous eruption of flame, smoke, and debris. Its blunted nose dipping deep into the low swells, the limping Kumano dropped astern and joined its damaged sister ship Suzuya . The battle was already over for the two badly hit cruisers.
Then luck ran out for the plucky Johnston . As she turned about, three 14-inch and three 6-inch shells slammed into her thin hull. “Like a puppy being smacked by a truck,” as one of her officers put it, the ship dipped into the boiling sea and bobbed back up, her steering gear severely damaged, and many men dead and wounded both above and below decks. Commander Ernest E. Evans, who had a very short time to live, emerged from the salvo with half of his clothes blown off and minus two fingers of his left hand.
The destroyers Heerman and Hoel swept past the stricken ship toward the enemy. Although smoking and slowed to sixteen or seventeen knots, the Johnston swung awkwardly in behind the other destroyers to support them with her guns. Further back, the slower destroyer escorts formed a second attack wave. It was the story of David and Goliath in a terrifying modern context.
With guns banging and torpedoes knifing toward the Japanese ships, the Heermann and the Hoel won much-needed time for the fleeing escort carriers. But while the Heermann received reparable damage as she darted nimbly in and out of the Japanese salvos, the Hoel was less fortunate.