December 1966 | Volume 18, Issue 1
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?
Wednesday, October 25, 1944 —a gloomy overcast punctuated by rain squalls gave the predawn sky a dirty yellow-gray hue. Six small United States carriers and seven escort ships moved through the somber seas east of the Philippine island of Samar. From the gently swaying flight decks of the carriers, white-starred planes took oil on routine early-morning missions.
On the bridge of the flagship, U.S.S. Fanshaw Bay , Rear Admiral Clifton A. F. Sprague watched the Grumman aircraft rise into the northeasterly wind toward the broken ceiling of clouds. The day had all the earmarks of being another long, tiresome succession of reconnaissance, antisubmarine, and ground-support missions. Sprague, a forty-eight-year-old veteran, scanned his little Meet, called Tatty 3(its radio call sign). Merchant-ship hulls turned into baby Hattops to meet wartime needs, the thin-skinned escort carriers—designated CVE’s—were not even half the size of conventional aircraft carriers. Old hands claimed the CVE stood for “Combustible, Vulnerable, Expendable.” Three destroyer« and four destroyer escorts ringed the flotilla of CVE’s like watchful guard dogs. Somewhere to the soutli. Sprague knew, two other carrier groups, Taffies 1 and 2, were on similar missions in support of the American G.I.'s who had gone ashore at Leyte Gulf five days earlier. Together the three TafRes made up Estoit Carrier Task Group 77.4 of the United States Seventh Fleet.
The first warning of a break in the morning routine came shortly after six thirty as the ships’ crews sat clown to breakfast. Radio equipment in the Fanshaw Bay’s Combat Information Center picked up Japanese voices. Since the nearest enemy ships were supposedly over a hundred miles away, the American radiomen reasoned that the enemy chatter must be coming from one of the nearby Japanese-held islands. With the exception of the beachhead on Leyte and a few islands in the adjacent gulf, all of the Philippine archipelago was in Japanese hands.
Eleven minutes later, n message Hashed in from an American scout plane. The unbelievable words were hurriedly relayed to the bridge: “Enemy surface force … twenty miles northwest of your task group and closing at go knots.
Admiral Sprague, at this moment, was trying to make sense of two other odd reports. His lookouts had just seen antiaircraft fire on the northern horixon, and his radar had picked up an unidentified something in the same direction. Surely, Sprague was thinking, the cause of all the unexpected commotion must be Admiral William Halsey’s Third Fleet, the closest large naval unit to Tally 3. The pilot’s message stopped him short.
“Check that identification!” ordered Sprague, hoping with a growing feeling—of doubt thai some innotent mistake had been made by the scout plane. But confirmation came from another source—a lookout on one of Sprague’s other carriers, the Kitkitu Buy. Scanning the hori/on beneath the gradually clearing cumulus cloud canopy, the seaman could make out pagoclalike masts: Japanese battleships and cruisers.
Admiral Sprague’s voice boomed into the squawk box: “Come to course 090 degrees … launch all planes as soon as possible … speed 16.”
The little carriers swung due east, far enough into the wind to launch aircraft without bringing them closer to the enemy. Planes were soon soaring into the damp sky armed with whatever bombs and bullets they had when the alarm sounded. Gun crews settled expectantly behind the breeches of the carriers’ 5-inch guns—the biggest they had.
At 11:58 A.M. , bright flashes lit the hori/on seventeen miles north of the flotilla. Sixty seconds later, Japanese range-marker shells rattled into the sea to throw lowering geysers of colored water into the air behind the American carriers. The Rattle off Samar had begun.
The Battle oft Samar was a direct result of Japanese Higli Command plans. As the American 1'orces advanced relentlessly across the Southern Pacific: during the final months of World War II, four Sho (Conquer) plans were devised to blunt U.S. thrusts against the F.mphe’s inner defenses. At best, these were little more than delaying tac ties which might postpone the end of the war and give Japan a belter bargaining position at the peace table. Sho No. i was designed to counter any United States move against the Philippine Islands, and by the fall of 1944, with the Americans moving northwestward, it appeared that the time for putting it into ell’ect had arrived.
In mid-October the Imperial Japanese Navy began to move. Powerful naval forces steamed eastward from the Lingga Archipelago near Singapore, and southward from the home islands. On October 18, while the Japanese fleets were still at sea, the word flashed (Vom Combined Fleet commander Admiral Soeniu Toyoda in Tokyo: “Execute Sho Plan No. 1!” American landings had begun in Lcyte Cull, in the eastcentral Philippines.
Two U.S. fleets were covering the invasion beaches—the Third Fleet, under Admiral William F. Halsey, composed mainly of fast new battleships and big carriers; and the Seventh Fleet, commanded by Vice Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid. made up mostly of pre-Pearl Harbor battlewagons and cruisers. The Third Fleet was acting the role of roving watchdog, while the Seventh was directly overseeing the landing of Sixth Army G.I.’s on Leyte Island.
Sho Plan No. 1 was to be a three-pronged maneuver supported by land-based aircraft. A Northern Force under Vice Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa would steam southward from Japan and attempt to decoy away the protecting American Third Fleet. This Japanese force was made up of four regular carriers, two converted battleship-carriers, and smaller screening vessels. The battleship-carriers—the Ise and the Hyuga —were merely old battleships with their two main aft turrets replaced by small flight decks. Designed to compensate for Japan’s shortage of aircraft carriers, the hybrid ships would never have a chance to prove themselves. There were not enough airplanes available in the fall of 1944 to give the Ise and the Hyuga even one of the twenty-four each was supposed to carry; and Ozawa’s other carriers were decidedly short of planes, too.
The second prong of Sho No. 1 was to swing in against the Americans in Ley te Gulf from the southwest, through Surigao Strait. The melange of battleships, cruisers, and destroyers in this Southern Force—seventeen ships in all—were commanded by Vice Admirals Kiyohide Shima and Shoji Nishimura.
The third prong, the Center Force, was the most potent of the Nipponese units, and was to deliver the knockout blow. Sailing from Lingga Roads during the early morning hours of October 18, it would stop at North Borneo for refueling and final preparations. Then, following a devious patli through the Sibuyan Sea and San Bernardino Strait north of Leyte, it would swing around and enter Leyte Gulf through “the back door"—from the east. In this key Center Force, under Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita, were the world’s two largest warships, the Yamato and the Musashi . Each displaced 68,000 tons and carried i8.i-inch guns, as compared to 45,000 tons and 16-inch guns for the largest U.S. warship. Also in this formidable fleet were the battleships Haruna , Kongo , and Nagato , twelve cruisers, and fifteen destroyers.
Once inside Leyte Gulf, Shima’s and Nishimura’s Southern Force and Kurita’s Center Force were to pool their firepower to disrupt the American invasion. Whatever lay in the gulf or blocked its approaches, warships and cargo vessels alike, was to be wiped out. The importance of Ozawa’s Northern Force as a decoy to draw oft the powerful U.S. Third Fleet was emphasized by the marked Japanese inferiority in aircraft and by the totaf number of Meet units involved—64 Nipponese vessels against a 16 American and 2 Australian warships.
In undertaking Sho Plan No. 1, the Japanese were placed in the unenviable position of the frantic poker player who, reduced to a lew chips after a losing streak, plays his hand all or nothing. Admiral Kurita said to his officers before the battle: “I know many of you are strongly opposed to this assignment. But the war situation is far more critical than any of you can possibly know. Would it not be a shame to have the fleet remain intact while our nation perishes? … You must all remember there are such things as miracles. What man can say there is no chance for our fleet to turn the title of war in a decisive battle?”
First blow in the Battle for Leyte Gulf was struck by the U.S. submarine Darter against the Center Force as Kurita’s ships steamed northeast along Palawan, the daggerlike island jutting southwest from the middle of the Philippine archipelago. The sub’s torpedoes slammed into two of the enemy cruisers just as the first light of October 23 was streaking the eastern sky. The force flagship, the heavy cruiser Atago , shuddered and sank in less than twenty minutes, sending Admiral Kurita and his staff for an unscheduled swim before they were rescued by a destroyer. The cruiser Takao , also hit, belched fire and smoke. The task force swung to starboard into the path of a second U.S. submarine. Torpedoes from the Dace scrubbed the cruiser Maya from the scene in four minutes. Kurita, shifting his command post to the huge Yamato , was badly shaken up. The enemy hadn’t even been sighted, and already five valuable warships (counting two destroyers detached to escort the damaged Takao to Borneo) were eliminated from the battle to come.
The sun shone down from clear skies on whitecapped water and mountainous islands as the Center-Force moved into the Sibuyan Sea northwest of Leyte on Tuesday, October 24. Within twenty-four hours, if all went well, Kurita’s ships would be steaming into Leyte Gulf from the east. But their bad luck had not left them yet. Their antiaircraft batteries, nervously anticipating American air strikes, cut loose at a flight of fighter planes soon after dawn. It was a mistake, and a costly one for the Center Force. The planes were landbased Japanese Zeros ordered to provide air cover for Kurita. Faced with heavy antiaircraft fire from the very warships they were to protect, the fighters understandably returned to their island base.
Then, at 8:10 that morning, an American scout plane sighted the Japanese armada. Two hours and sixteen minutes later, single-engined bombers and fighters from the carriers of Admiral Halsey’s Third Fleet pounced on the Center Force. Dodging the pink and purple bursts of antiaircraft fire, American Helldivers and Avengers pressed one attack after another against the wildly weaving ships. At the cost of eighteen dive bombers and torpedo planes, they sank the gargantuan Musashi , badly damaged a heavy cruiser, and slightly hurt the other battleships. Kurita wavered—lie actually had his fleet reverse course for several hours—but in the end he rallied and carried on toward San Bernardino Strait.
Admiral Halsey was very much pleased by his carrier pilots’ reports of their successes over the Sibnyan Sea. Unfortunately, these reports were somewhat exaggerated, and led him to the optimistic conclusion that Kurita’s Center Force “could no longer be considered a serious menace.” Meanwhile Admiral O/awa’s decoy Northern Force had been cruising the waters of the Philippine Sea off Luzon, hoping to be spotted by Halsey’s search planes. About 4 P.M. on October 24, one of the searchers made the contact, and by 8:30 that evening the whole U.S. Third Fleet was off in enthusiastic pursuit of the Japanese bait—sixty-five warships against seventeen.
It was a questionable action, and led to one of the hottest controversies about naval tactics in World War II. Halsey had enough ships and planes to handle both Ozawa and Kurita; but as it was, nobody was left to guard the exit of the San Bernardino Strait. Through that exit Kurita’s still very menacing force was steadily plowing in order to turn southward off the eastern coast of Samar and come in to Leyte Gulf on October 25—its role in Sho No. 1.
Steaming at twenty knots through the narrow strait between Luzon and Samar islands, Kurita’s Center Force debouched into the Philippine Sea at thirty-five minutes past midnight. In addition to the battleships Yamato , Haruna , Kongo , and Nagato , there were the heavy cruisers Chikuma , Chokai , Haguro , Kumano , Suzuya , and Tone , the smaller-gunned light cruisers Noshiro and Yahagi , and eleven destroyers.
Prepared to have to fight their way through to Leyte Gulf, the Japanese sailors were pleasantly’ surprised when dawn revealed nothing on the southern horizon but open water. Well beyond that horizon, below Leyte Gulf, Admiral Kinkaid’s Seventh Fleet had turned southward to encounter the Japanese Southern Force under Admirals Shima and Nishimura in a triumphant fight, later to be known as the Battle of Surigao Strait. Nothing but the three light Taffy forces now stood between the U.S. invasion troops on Leyte and possible disaster. Of the three, only Taffy 3 lay directly in Kurita’s path as his Center Force swept south.
This was the astonishing situation when, just after dawn on October 25, Admiral Kurita’s twenty-three warships, three hours north of Leyte Gulf, ran into Admiral Clifton Sprague’s small group—the 10,000-ton black-and-gray camouflaged escort carriers Fanshaw Bay, St. Lo, White Plains, Kalinin Bay, Kitkun Bay , and Gambier Bay ; the 2,050-ton destroyers Heermann, Hoel , and Johnston ; and the 1,275-ton destroyer escorts Dennis, John C. Butler, Raymond , and Samuel B. Roberts .
Kurita, thinking he must have stumbled onto Halsey’s Third Fleet, abruptly ordered his ships into pursuit formation. Since the Center Force had been in the process of switching over from its tight night formation to a dispersed daytime deployment, the new order spread confusion through the Japanese fleet. The result was a fierce but surprisingly unco-ordinated attack on the American ships.
At 6:58 A.M. , a salvo of j.aoo-pound shells, each some fifty per cent heavier than the largest U.S. warship projectile, spun out of the Yamato’s huge gun barrels. It was the first time the superbattleship had fired its 18.1-inch batteries at another ship. The Haruna’s 14-inch guns joined in three minutes later.
At 7:01 A.M. Admiral Sprague ordered the transmission of an urgent plea for help. The request was immediately picked up, and planes from Taffies i and 2 were ordered to the assistance of Taffy 3. Glancing away from the enemy, Sprague noted with pride that his little fleet was following orders with the precision of a well-trained team. Straddled by the red, yellow, blue, and green splashes of marker shells, Taffy 3 was laying heavy smoke screens, the white clouds pouring from chemical generators contrasting sharply with the oily black smoke from the ships’ funnels.
Launching her planes as rapidly as possible, the White Plains trembled violently as the mere concussion of the big enemy shells caused minor damage. Water spray from a shellburst that threw a geyser high above the carrier rained over the ship’s bridge. One plane preparing to take off from the flight deck was bounced forward by the concussion of explosions pummelling the sea. Its spinning propeller bit a chunk out of the wing of another fighter. The St. Lo , ebony clouds pouring from her four small exhaust stacks, was also buffeted by the Japanese barrage.
Although the enemy ships had closed to within fifteen miles of their prey, they were still beyond the range of the puny U.S. 5-inch guns. If only he could keep his ships swinging in a wide circle around to the southwest without being overtaken or cut off, Sprague thought, he could hope to lead the Japanese fleet into the guns of the now-alerted battleships of the Seventh Fleet. Then, even though Kinkaid’s ships were not in top shape for battle after their heavy night action in Surigao Strait against the Japanese Southern Force, the Americans would have some chance of stopping the enemy.
Deployed in a formation of two concentric circles—the six carriers forming the inner circle—the U.S. flotilla was rapidly being overtaken by the speedier enemy ships. Then, at 7:06 A.M. , Taffy 3 dipped its nose into a welcome rain squall. Hindered by ineffective radar, enemy fire fell off in volume and accuracy. During the fifteen-minute respite afforded by the rain, Sprague made a decision. He would order a torpedo attack by his destroyers.
In the meantime, the first desperate strikes by the U.S. carrier planes had been made on the pursuing enemy. Dropping the small bombs and depth charges with which they had been loaded in expectation of routine missions, the Navy planes harassed the Japanese ships for twenty minutes. Bombs soon gone, they strafed with machine-gun fire. And even when their ammunition was exhausted, the pilots continued to buzz the enemy, hoping to bluff the Nipponese ships off course and give Taffy 3 a chance to escape. Only when their fuel ran low did they leave. Unable to land on their own carriers because the ships were heading downwind, the Taffy 3 planes were forced to rearm and refuel at an airstrip on the Leyte beachhead to the west, and on the flattops of Taffy 2 to the southeast. Joined by other Wildcat fighters and Avenger torpedo bombers from Taffy 2, they soon returned to the attack.
First blood for the airmen was drawn when a bomb pierced the deck of the heavy cruiser Suzuya . Shuddering under the detonation, the i4,ooo-ton warship slowed to twenty knots and fell behind the Japanese formation. The bold American planes, delaying the pursuers by forcing them into time-consuming evasive maneuvers, also inflicted minor damage on a few of the other Japanese ships.
The two-funnelled Johnston , which had already opened fire with her five 5-inch guns, was the first destroyer to respond to Sprague’s order for a torpedo attack. As the helmsman swung the wheel hard to port, the outgunned Johnston sliced bravely through the gray sea at twenty-five knots toward the Japanese heavy cruiser Kumano . At 9,000 yards the destroyer heeled steeply over, her ten torpedoes splashing into the sea. One of the missiles reached the sleek cruiser, blowing off its bow in a thunderous eruption of flame, smoke, and debris. Its blunted nose dipping deep into the low swells, the limping Kumano dropped astern and joined its damaged sister ship Suzuya . The battle was already over for the two badly hit cruisers.
Then luck ran out for the plucky Johnston . As she turned about, three 14-inch and three 6-inch shells slammed into her thin hull. “Like a puppy being smacked by a truck,” as one of her officers put it, the ship dipped into the boiling sea and bobbed back up, her steering gear severely damaged, and many men dead and wounded both above and below decks. Commander Ernest E. Evans, who had a very short time to live, emerged from the salvo with half of his clothes blown off and minus two fingers of his left hand.
The destroyers Heerman and Hoel swept past the stricken ship toward the enemy. Although smoking and slowed to sixteen or seventeen knots, the Johnston swung awkwardly in behind the other destroyers to support them with her guns. Further back, the slower destroyer escorts formed a second attack wave. It was the story of David and Goliath in a terrifying modern context.
With guns banging and torpedoes knifing toward the Japanese ships, the Heermann and the Hoel won much-needed time for the fleeing escort carriers. But while the Heermann received reparable damage as she darted nimbly in and out of the Japanese salvos, the Hoel was less fortunate.
The first hit smashed high on the Hoel’s forward superstructure, sending hot pieces of steel whistling through her radar antennas and falling on her decks. Seeking out her target through blotting rain and clouds of black and white smoke, the destroyer dashed to within 9,000 yards of the giant Kongo and released a spread of five torpedoes. Not sixty seconds later, one of the battleship’s 14-inch projectiles screeched into the Hoel’s side behind the funnels. Detonating in the after engine room, it hammered one of the ship’s two engines into junk. A second i4-incher plowed into the ship’s tail, knocking out guns, damaging the electric steering gear, and bouncing men limply off bulkheads.
Steaming on one engine and maneuvering on emergency steering apparatus, with three of her 5-inch cannons out of commission, the Hoel made another run on the enemy. The target this time was the heavy cruiser Haguro . The destroyer’s five remaining torpedoes swooshed from their tubes. Then, as one of her officers later stated, the Hoel tried to “get the hell out of there.” But this was easier said than done.
Barely able to keep ahead of the onrushing enemy, much less get out of the line of fire, the Hoel absorbed over forty hits as she fought back with her two remaining guns. The big battleships passing to port and the heavy cruisers steaming by to starboard deluged the quivering destroyer with heavy shells. Flames erupted from the Hoel’s aft section, explosions shredded her superstructure, and an inferno raged inside her hull. And still the dying ship’s remaining guns fired stubbornly at the thundering enemy. Then, punched full of holes, the ship finally gave up the uneven struggle. She was dead in the water, her stern almost submerged and her forward magazine ablaze, when the “abandon ship” order was given. Only a handful of the warship’s crew was able to respond. At 8:55 A.M. , an hour and a half after she was first hit, the Hoel rolled over and sank to the bottom of the Philippine Sea. Of her crew of more than 300, 253 went down with her. Fifteen of her wounded later died.
The first torpedo run was over. Despite the destruction of the Hoel , the skipper of the shell-peppered Heermann calmly radioed a modest report to Admiral Sprague: “Exercise completed.”
At a quarter of eight, meanwhile, the destroyer escorts had sailed in under the cover of rain and smoke. Intended primarily for antisubmarine patrols, the lightweight escorts were no match for some of the world’s most powerful ships. Yet, running to within 4,000 yards of the enemy with their 5-inch guns blazing, the American escorts managed to throw the Japanese off stride.
Dashing ahead of the pack, the little Roberts traded blows with the enemy heavies for forty-five minutes before she was hit. At 8:51, a heavy shell thumped into the water alongside the veering ship and plowed into her side, opening a hole below the waterline. One hit followed another, turning her into a shambles. That the heroic escort managed to go on fighting for three-quarters of an hour is an amazing tribute to her captain and crew. Answering the 14- and 8-inch shells of the Japanese cruisers with her inadequate 5-inchers, the Roberts was raked at point-blank range.
At approximately 9 A.M. , minutes after the Hoel went down, two or three 14-inch shells from the Kongo slammed into the Roberts’ port side. Like some gigantic can opener, the monstrous explosion tore a jagged hole over thirty feet long and seven to ten feet high in the escort’s hull. The area aft of the tossing ship’s funnel became what one survivor called an “inert mass of battered metal.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”