The Battle Off Samar

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Pounding in behind the cruisers for the kill, the closest of the Japanese battleships—the Haruna —suddenly veered to the southeast. The big ship’s observers could see, about twenty miles away, the northernmost ships of Admiral Felix B. Stump’s Taffy 2. With the Imperial Navy’s penchant for dividing its forces, the Haruna swung her heavy two-gun turrets toward the new target. Although the ag.soo-ton leviathan lobbed 14-inch shells at the Taffy 2 ships for almost half an hour, it failed to score a hit.

Nipponese destroyers were now also closing in on Taffy 3. Led by the light cruiser Yahagi , four of them streaked in from the west for a torpedo attack on the crippled Johnston . Her decks littered with wreckage tinted by blood and the dye of enemy marker shells, the Johnston challenged the Japanese attack with her two operational guns. Trading blows with five undamaged ships, the limping destroyer scored a number of hits on the 6,000-ton Yahagi . A U.S. plane joined the fray with chattering 5o-caliber machine guns. Twenty minutes after starting their attack, the enemy ships released their torpedoes and turned about. But the Japanese had been tricked into releasing their missiles prematurely. Losing their aim and speed because of the extreme range, the torpedoes failed to score.

Now the cruisers Haguro and Tone swept by on the opposite side of the Johnston . The American destroyer rolled under the rain of shells for another thirty minutes. Fires raged through the beaten ship, cremating the wounded and dead huddled in the wreckage, trapping the living in the steel coffin of her hull. Her ammunition blew up in a series of blasts, adding to the carnage. Her engines gone, her communication system obliterated, the wallowing destroyer still barked pugnaciously at the enemy with her remaining cannon. Then, at 9:45 A.M. , Commander Evans ordered the surviving crewmen off the doomed ship.

Like Indians in a western movie, the Japanese destroyers steamed around the settling Johnston in a circle until the riddled vessel turned over and sank at 10:10 A.M.

The survivors in the water watched their blazing ship disappear. One of them reported that as it went down a Japanese destroyer captain saluted. Most, swimming or clinging to life rafts and debris, were numbed and shocked. One moment they had been going about their daily routine; the next they were racing to their battle stations. And then, after hours of brain-pounding battle that demanded automatic response, they had been cast into a tropical sea shadowed by the haze of gunsmoke and burning ships. There was now only the slapping of waves and the gasping of hoarse voices. A torpedoman, with a casualness produced by shock, remarked to a fellow survivor that they’d gotten off all torpedoes.

In a sea alive with activity, the fate of the Johnston ’s crew was to be a harsh one. Only 141 of her crew of 327 would be saved—49 were killed during the action, 45 died of their wounds after abandoning ship, and 92 (including Commander Evans) perished while awaiting rescue. Sharks got at least one man; the others succumbed to exposure.

As the battle raged, the ultimate weaknesses of the Japanese attack finally made themselves felt. Hampered by a combination of rain squalls, smoke screens, stubborn American resistance, poor communications, lack of co-ordination, and, above all, the lack of air strength, the enemy attack fell apart. The Yamato and the Nagato had let themselves wander off; the Haruna was in pursuit of Taffy 2.

Expecting at any moment to be swimming for his life, Clifton Sprague had been grimly sizing up the situation as the enemy salvos boomed into the midst of Taffy 3. His ships had arced into their southwesterly course as ordered. Ahead and a bit to the right he could make out the dark outline of Samar some thirty miles away. Then, at 9:25, as he concentrated on evading the torpedoes launched minutes before by the Yahagi and her destroyers, the skipper of Taffy 3 was treated to the sweetest words he could ever hope to hear.

“Goddamit, boys, they’re getting awayl” called out a signalman on the bridge of the Fanshaw Bay .

Unable to keep in touch with his fleet because of bad radio communication, Admiral Kurita had launched the Yamato ’s two reconnaissance planes less than an hour apart to survey the situation. Both were shot down some fifteen minutes after they were catapulted from the stern of the battleship. Unaware that his ships were finally closing in on their prey—with victory off Samar still possible—the confused Japanese admiral had decided to regroup his fleet before a fuel shortage and the relentless American air attacks put it out of action. At 9:11 A.M. Kurita had ordered all his units to take a northerly course.