The Battle Off Samar

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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.

Their torpedoes expended, the surviving escort ships fought their way back to cover the carriers. To the manmade maelstrom nature added her own effects, giving the scene an eerie quality. One moment the sun’s rays would clearly illuminate the opposing forces. A few seconds later, the whole tableau would be obscured by a curtain of rain or drifting smoke. And between the clouds and the sea was the incessant lightning and thunder of gunfire. Narrowly avoiding collisions as they zigzagged to escape the enemy shells, Admiral Sprague’s flotilla churned southward.

The Japanese pursuit had by now assumed a rough pattern. In an attempt to box in the carriers, which could barely reach eighteen knots, the swift Nipponese heavy cruisers raced across the wakes of the Americans to close in from the east at almost thirty knots. The Japanese destroyers and light cruisers, kept to the rear until now, pushed down along the starboard side of the baby flattops. And, at a greater distance, the Nagato and the huge Yamato were doing their best to aim straight down the back of the U.S. formation. In the meantime, the battleships Haruna and Kongo swung wide to outcruise the cruisers to the east.

For almost two and a half hours—between 6:58 and approximately 9:20—the little American carriers were under constant fire from Kurita’s Center Force. Only the Yamato and the Nagato , badgered by the U.S. destroyers into performing wild, evasive maneuvers that ultimately steered them out of range, were denied the honor of remaining in the slugfest. Admiral Kurita, aboard the Yamato , was thus out of touch with the action, a development that was to produce unhappy consequences for the Japanese.

As the battle unfolded, Admiral Sprague saw that the greatest immediate danger to his group were the four enemy heavy cruisers Chikuma , Chokai , Haguro , and Tone . Closer than the other Japanese ships, they were rapidly moving in from the northeast—their Sinch shells striking into, and in many cases through, the thin-hulled carriers. Sprague told his planes and ships to concentrate on them.

Although smoke screens and maneuvering threw Japanese marksmanship off, Admiral Sprague’s flagship, the Fanshaw Bay , received four direct hits and two near misses which killed three of her crew and wounded others. The White Plains , the Kitkun Bay, and the St. Lo got off lightly; but the Kalinin Bay took more than a dozen heavy projectiles, miraculously remaining afloat.

Shrewd guesswork and clever steering by her skipper saved the Gambier Bay , steaming on the exposed left rear corner of the U.S. formation, for a full twenty-five minutes. Then, at 8:10 A.M. , a shell from a Japanese cruiser hit the aft end of the carrier’s flight deck. Fire broke out in the ship’s hangar as the projectile sheared through the upper deck. More heavy-caliber shots slashed in. A gaping hole was torn in the Gambier Bay ’s forward port engine room, flooding it with cascading water. Less than half an hour after first being struck, the escort carrier slowed to eleven knots and dropped back. The heavy cruisers Chikuma , Chokai , and Haguro , the light cruiser Noshiro, and a Nipponese destroyer poured salvo after salvo into the blazing carrier’s hull. Steering and power aboard the Gambier Bay were shot out, the after engine room was flooded, and men cursed and died at their posts. Efforts by the destroyers Johnston and Heermann to draw attention away from the dying CVE failed.