The Battle Off Samar

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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.”

One gun crew, courageously ignoring flame and smoke, continued firing its weapon by hand after the ammunition hoist went out of action. Suddenly, one of the charges ignited in the hot breech before the 5-inch gun could be fired. Demolishing the cannon, the blast sent the gun crew tumbling in all directions like so many rag dolls. The first man to enter the gun mount after the shattering detonation found the gun captain, his body blown open, holding a cannon shell in his scorched hands. He was begging for help to get the fifty-four-pound projectile into the cannon. Minutes later, he was dead.

In all, the Roberts —the runt that fought like a champion—fired 608 shells from its 5-inch guns before the end came. She had inflicted serious damage on an enemy cruiser and had incurred almost two dozen Japanese hits. Five minutes after ten that morning, the second of the “little boys” went down off Samar. Killed in the action were 3 of her 8 officers and 86 of her 170 men.