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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
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.
By 8:45 A.M. , the carrier was entirely without headway and was settling. Five minutes later, the 750 living of the Gambier Bay ’s 854-man crew began going over the side. Still the enemy shells came, killing some men in the water. Seven minutes after 9 A.M. , their ship turned turtle and sank. Fighting the suction of the plunging io,ooo-ton flattop, the survivors struggled to keep afloat until help came. It would come—almost forty hours later.
Meanwhile Taffy 3 aircraft pounced like hawks on the enemy cruisers. Bomb bursts erupted on the ships as the Japanese paid for their lack of air power. The Chokai , mortally wounded by the sea-and-air blows it received, turned away. Moments later, struck by a torpedo dropped by one of the American bombers, the Chikuma also pulled out of the battle. But the Haguro and the Tone , the remaining enemy heavy cruisers on the port side of the American formation, pressed closer.