- Historic Sites
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 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.
The first hit smashed high on the Hoel’s forward superstructure, sending hot pieces of steel whistling through her radar antennas and falling on her decks. Seeking out her target through blotting rain and clouds of black and white smoke, the destroyer dashed to within 9,000 yards of the giant Kongo and released a spread of five torpedoes. Not sixty seconds later, one of the battleship’s 14-inch projectiles screeched into the Hoel’s side behind the funnels. Detonating in the after engine room, it hammered one of the ship’s two engines into junk. A second i4-incher plowed into the ship’s tail, knocking out guns, damaging the electric steering gear, and bouncing men limply off bulkheads.
Steaming on one engine and maneuvering on emergency steering apparatus, with three of her 5-inch cannons out of commission, the Hoel made another run on the enemy. The target this time was the heavy cruiser Haguro . The destroyer’s five remaining torpedoes swooshed from their tubes. Then, as one of her officers later stated, the Hoel tried to “get the hell out of there.” But this was easier said than done.
Barely able to keep ahead of the onrushing enemy, much less get out of the line of fire, the Hoel absorbed over forty hits as she fought back with her two remaining guns. The big battleships passing to port and the heavy cruisers steaming by to starboard deluged the quivering destroyer with heavy shells. Flames erupted from the Hoel’s aft section, explosions shredded her superstructure, and an inferno raged inside her hull. And still the dying ship’s remaining guns fired stubbornly at the thundering enemy. Then, punched full of holes, the ship finally gave up the uneven struggle. She was dead in the water, her stern almost submerged and her forward magazine ablaze, when the “abandon ship” order was given. Only a handful of the warship’s crew was able to respond. At 8:55 A.M. , an hour and a half after she was first hit, the Hoel rolled over and sank to the bottom of the Philippine Sea. Of her crew of more than 300, 253 went down with her. Fifteen of her wounded later died.
The first torpedo run was over. Despite the destruction of the Hoel , the skipper of the shell-peppered Heermann calmly radioed a modest report to Admiral Sprague: “Exercise completed.”
At a quarter of eight, meanwhile, the destroyer escorts had sailed in under the cover of rain and smoke. Intended primarily for antisubmarine patrols, the lightweight escorts were no match for some of the world’s most powerful ships. Yet, running to within 4,000 yards of the enemy with their 5-inch guns blazing, the American escorts managed to throw the Japanese off stride.
Dashing ahead of the pack, the little Roberts traded blows with the enemy heavies for forty-five minutes before she was hit. At 8:51, a heavy shell thumped into the water alongside the veering ship and plowed into her side, opening a hole below the waterline. One hit followed another, turning her into a shambles. That the heroic escort managed to go on fighting for three-quarters of an hour is an amazing tribute to her captain and crew. Answering the 14- and 8-inch shells of the Japanese cruisers with her inadequate 5-inchers, the Roberts was raked at point-blank range.
At approximately 9 A.M. , minutes after the Hoel went down, two or three 14-inch shells from the Kongo slammed into the Roberts’ port side. Like some gigantic can opener, the monstrous explosion tore a jagged hole over thirty feet long and seven to ten feet high in the escort’s hull. The area aft of the tossing ship’s funnel became what one survivor called an “inert mass of battered metal.”