- Historic Sites
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
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.
Finally, at 10:29 on tne light of October 26, a seven-ship detail personally ordered out by Admiral Kinkaid obtained results. Guided by flares fired high above the rough black sea, the vessels under Lieutenant Commander J. A. Baxter picked up more than 700 survivors from the Gambier Bay . Suffering from exposure, hunger, and fatigue, the carrier survivors had clung to life rafts for some thirty-nine hours and drifted almost to the coast of Samar before being sighted. Many had drowned. With the coming of dawn, survivors from the Johnston , Roberts , and Hoel were found.
The last raft, containing fifteen men from the Johnston, was spotted at 9:30 A.M. on the twenty-seventh—forty-eight hours after the sinking of the destroyer. By early the following morning, the 1,150 survivors of the Taffy 3 ships sunk by the Center Force had been transferred from Baxter’s seven vessels to hospital ships and transports in Leyte Gulf.
The over-all Battle for Leyte Gulf, spread across a total area twice the size of Texas, was the greatest sea fight in history. Every element of naval warfare, from submarine to aircraft, was involved. And when it was over, the Imperial Japanese Navy had ceased to exist as a fighting unit. The United States and her allies had undisputed control of the Pacific Ocean.
Between October 23 and 26, Japan’s Sho Plan No. 1 cost her three battleships, four carriers, ten cruisers, and almost a dozen other fighting ships. Scores of aircraft and some 10,000 Japanese seamen were also lost by the Empire. The U.S. losses added up to 2,800 lives, about two hundred aircraft, and six warships. Taffy 3, bearing the brunt of the punishment, had lost the escort carriers Gambier Bay and St. Lo , the destroyers Johnston and Hoel , the destroyer escort Samuel B. Roberts , 128 planes, and 1,583 men killed and missing.
“In no engagement of its entire history,” Samuel Eliot Morison has written, “has the United States Navy shown more gallantry, guts and gumption than in those two morning hours between 0730 and 0930 off Samar.”
Rear Admiral Clifton Sprague had his own observation on the battle: “The failure of the enemy … to completely wipe out all vessels of this task unit can be attributed to our successful smoke screen, our torpedo counterattack, continuous harassment of enemy by bomb, torpedo and strafing air attacks, timely maneuvers, and the definite partiality of Almighty God.”