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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
Despite the blows dealt to Kurita’s ships, there was precious little to keep his fleet from blasting its way through Taffy 3 to Leyte Gulf. Far to the north, off Cape Engaño, too distant to do any good, Halsey’s Third Fleet was only now reluctantly giving up its chase of Ozawa’s Northern Force and turning about in answer to urgent messages from Admiral Kinkaid and Pacific Fleet Headquarters at Pearl Harbor. To the south, Kinkaid’s Seventh Fleet was on the other side of Leyte Gulf. Its ships, low on fuel and ammunition, were still busy with mopping up what remained of the Japanese southern thrust.
Yet it takes no great stretch of the imagination to understand the indecision and uncertainty that marked Takeo Kurita’s actions at this point in the battle. He had been forced to swim for his life when the Atago was sunk on the twenty-third. The Center Force had been under repeated air assault since it first entered the Sibuyan Sea. He had received no news of Ozawa’s success in decoying Halsey, and was still under the impression that Taffy 3 was part of the U.S. Third Fleet. Discouraged by reports of the Surigao Strait action, he felt his ships were alone. Fatigued, his nerves strained, Kurita decided to disregard the order that called for his charging into Leyte Gulf. Instead, as a face-saving gesture, the Center Force would shift to a new target.
Earlier in the day, an American task force had been reported in the Philippine Sea to the northeast. Kurita would attack it. Several hours spent in search of the phantom U.S. force proved fruitless. Assisted in his decision by the nagging persuasion of U.S. Navy planes that continued to peck at his ships, the Center Force commander finally called off the hunt and ordered his fleet to head back where it came from.
Suffering the final indignity of being mistakenly attacked by two Japanese land-based aircraft, the Center Force slipped westward through San Bernardino Strait a few hours later. Fast warships from Halsey’s Third Fleet reached the strait soon afterward, too late to catch Kurita but in time to bag one lagging Japanese destroyer.
But despite Kurita’s departure, the ordeal of Taffy 3 was not quite over.
At 10:50 A.M. , soon after Admiral Sprague ordered Taffy 3’s pilots to return to their carriers, five Japanese planes had roared in just over the wave-tops. Soaring upward, they climbed a mile above the carriers and suddenly dived down. The Divine Wind—the newly organized Kamikaze suicide corps—was about to wreak its vengeance on Taffy 3.
A single-engined Zero fighter crashed on the port side of the Kitkun Bay and bounced into the sea. Its bomb, however, exploded and damaged the carrier. Tensely watching from the Fanshaw Bay , Clifton Sprague saw the ship’s 40- and ao-millimeter anti-aircraft fire chew apart two of the diving suicide planes. They fell into the ocean. The White Plains sent streams of tracer bullets into the remaining Kamikazes. One of the enemy exploded a few yards behind the flattop, injuring eleven Americans and spraying the deck with debris and pieces of the pilot. The other plane, its engine sputtering, swerved toward the St. Lo. With a grinding of metal and a shower of sparks, the Zero tore into the carrier. A ball of fire sent clouds of smoke boiling heavenward. One explosion followed the other as bombs and torpedoes stored inside the St. Lo were set off. Torn apart and burning from stem to stern, the little ship that had survived the Yamato ’s great shells sank in less than twenty minutes. She was the first major victim of the Divine Wind. Of her more than 800 men, 754 were saved by Taffy 3.
There was more to come. At 11:10 A.M. Admiral Sprague’s little fleet was attacked by enemy torpedo planes. Two were immediately shot down by U.S. interceptors near the Kitkun Bay . A third exploded almost on top of the carrier and showered the ship with flaming aircraft parts. The Kalinin Bay was severely damaged by planes making suicide runs. One smashed into her flight deck, the other caught her on the starboard side in the after exhaust pipe. Only the Fanshaw Bay escaped unscathed.
By 11:30 A.M. the attacks had ended. Admiral Sprague’s battered flotilla headed into Leyte Gulf for a much-needed rest. In an over-all battle where American naval forces far outnumbered the Japanese, Taffy 3 had been overwhelmed by almost 2-to-i odds and immeasurably greater fire power—yet Clifton Sprague and his men had made a fighting retreat and convinced Admiral Kurita that he was engaged with a full-fledged fleet.
Having dispatched the surviving Taffy 3 escort ships to pick up crewmen of the stricken Sf. Lo, Admiral Sprague asked Seventh Fleet Headquarters to handle the rescue of the survivors of the Gambier Bay , Johnston , Roberts , and Hoel . Unfortunately, poor co-ordination, a sudden flurry of Japanese suicide plane attacks, and erroneous position reports radioed in by aircraft delayed these rescue operations for almost two days.