Battle off Samar
|Battle off Samar|
|Part of Pacific War (World War II)|
The escort carrier Gambier Bay, burning from earlier gunfire damage, is bracketed by a salvo from a Japanese cruiser (faintly visible in the background, center-right) shortly before sinking during the Battle off Samar.
|United States||Empire of Japan|
|Commanders and leaders|
|Clifton Sprague||Takeo Kurita|
6 escort carriers,
4 destroyer escorts,
400 aircraft from Taffy 1, 2, 3
|Japanese Center Force
6 heavy cruisers,
2 light cruisers,
30 aircraft (in kamikaze attack)
|Casualties and losses|
|2 escort carriers
1 destroyer escort sunk
23 aircraft lost
3 escort carriers damaged
1 destroyer damaged
2 destroyer escorts damaged
1,583 killed and missing
3 heavy cruisers sunk
|“||In no engagement of its entire history has the United States Navy shown more gallantry, guts and gumption than in those two morning hours between 0730 and 0930 off Samar||”|
— Samuel Eliot Morison, History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, Volume XII, Leyte
The Battle off Samar was the centermost action of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, one of the largest naval battles in history, which took place in the Philippine Sea off Samar Island, in the Philippines on October 25, 1944. As the only major action in the larger battle where the Americans were largely unprepared against the opposing forces, it has been cited by historians as one of the greatest military mismatches in naval history.
Adm. William Halsey, Jr. was lured into taking his powerful 3rd Fleet after a decoy fleet, leaving only three escort carrier groups of the 7th Fleet. The escort carriers and destroyer escorts which had been designed to protect slow convoys from submarine attack had been repurposed to attack ground targets, and had few torpedoes as they could normally rely on Halsey's fleet to protect them from any threats from armored warships. A Japanese surface force of battleships and cruisers, battered earlier in the larger battle and thought to have been in retreat, instead turned around unobserved and stumbled upon the northernmost of the three groups, Task Unit 77.4.3 ("Taffy 3"), commanded by Rear Admiral Clifton Sprague. Taffy 3's few destroyers and slower destroyer escorts possessed neither the firepower nor armor to effectively oppose the Japanese force, but nevertheless desperately attacked with 5 in (127 mm)/38 cal guns and torpedoes to cover the retreat of their slow "jeep" carriers. Aircraft from the carriers of Taffy 1, 2, and 3, including FM-2 Wildcats, F6F Hellcats and TBM Avengers, strafed, bombed, torpedoed, rocketed, depth-charged, fired at least one .38 caliber handgun and made numerous "dry" runs at the attacking force when they ran out of ammunition.
Sprague's task unit lost two escort carriers, two destroyers, a destroyer escort and dozens of aircraft. Over a thousand Americans died, comparable to the combined losses of American men and ships at the better known Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway. But in exchange for the heavy losses for such a small force, they sank or disabled three Japanese cruisers and caused enough confusion to persuade the Japanese commander, Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita, to regroup and ultimately withdraw, rather than advancing to sink troop and supply ships at Leyte Gulf. In the combined Battle of Leyte Gulf, 10,000 Japanese sailors and 3,000 Americans died. Although the battleship Yamato and the remaining force returned to Japan, the battles marked the final defeat of the Japanese Navy, as the ships remained in port for most of the rest of the war and ceased to be an effective naval force.
- 1 Background
- 2 Battle summary
- 3 The forces
- 4 Battle
- 4.1 Taffy 3 comes under attack
- 4.2 American destroyer and destroyer escort counterattack
- 4.3 Carriers under attack
- 4.4 Battleship Yamato
- 4.5 Japanese cruiser Chōkai hit by White Plains
- 4.6 Japanese take further hits
- 4.7 Kurita withdraws
- 4.8 Seventh Fleet's calls for help
- 4.9 The survivors' ordeal
- 5 Oldendorf's task group
- 6 Aftermath
- 7 Criticism of Halsey
- 8 Presidential Unit Citation
- 9 Legacy
- 10 References
The overall Japanese strategy at Leyte Gulf—a plan known as Shō-Go 1—called for Vice-Admiral Jisaburō Ozawa's fleet—known as Northern Force—to lure the American 3rd Fleet away from the Allied landings on Leyte, using an apparently vulnerable force of Japanese carriers as bait. The landing forces—stripped of air cover by the 3rd Fleet—would then be attacked from the west and south by Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita's Center Force, which would sortie from Brunei, and Vice Admiral Shoji Nishimura's Southern Force. Kurita's force consisted of five battleships—including Yamato and Musashi, the largest battleships ever built—escorted by cruisers and destroyers. Nishimura's flotilla included two battleships and would be followed by Vice Admiral Kiyohide Shima with three cruisers.
On the night of October 23, two American submarines, Dace and Darter, detected Center Force entering the Palawan Passage. After alerting Halsey, the submarines torpedoed and sank two cruisers, while crippling a third and forcing it to withdraw. One of the cruisers lost was Admiral Kurita's flagship, but he was rescued and transferred his flag to Yamato.
Subsequently, the carriers of the 3rd Fleet launched a series of air strikes against Kurita's forces in the Sibuyan Sea, damaging several vessels and sinking Musashi and initially forcing Kurita to retreat. One wave of aircraft from the 3rd Fleet also struck Nishimura's Southern Force, causing minor damage. At the same time, Vice-Admiral Takijirō Ōnishi launched strikes from airfields on Luzon against Halsey's forces, with one bomber scoring a hit on the U.S. light carrier Princeton that ignited explosions that caused her to be scuttled.
That same night, Nishimura's Southern Force of two battleships, a heavy cruiser, and four destroyers was to approach from the south and coordinate with Kurita's force. The second element of the Southern Force, commanded by Vice Admiral Kiyohide Shima and consisting of three cruisers and seven destroyers, lagged behind Nishimura by 40 nmi (46 mi; 74 km). In the Battle of Surigao Strait, Nishimura's ships entered a deadly trap. Outmatched by the US Seventh Fleet Support Force, they were devastated, running a gauntlet of torpedoes from 28 PT boats and 28 destroyers before coming under accurate radar-directed gunfire from six battleships (five of them survivors of the Pearl Harbor attack) and eight cruisers. Afterward, as Shima's force encountered what was left of Nishimura's ships, it too came under attack, but managed to withdraw. Of Nishimura's force, only one destroyer survived.
In the Battle off Cape Engaño, Ozawa's Northern Force consisted of one fleet carrier and three light carriers fielding a total of 108 airplanes (the normal complement of a single large fleet carrier), two battleships, three light cruisers and nine destroyers. Admiral Halsey was convinced that the Northern Force was the main threat, and that the Center Force had been beaten into a retreat in the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea. Halsey took three groups of Task Force 38 (TF 38), overwhelmingly stronger than the Ozawa's Northern Force, with five aircraft carriers and five light fleet carriers with more than 600 aircraft between them, six fast battleships, eight cruisers, and over 40 destroyers. Halsey easily dispatched what was later revealed to be a decoy of no serious threat.
As a result of Halsey's decision, the door was left open to Kurita. When Kurita initially withdrew, the Americans assumed that the Japanese force was retreating from the battle. However, Kurita turned around and made his way through the San Bernardino Strait under cover of darkness. Only light forces equipped to attack ground troops and submarines stood in the path of battleships and cruisers intent on destroying the American landing forces.
In the battle a very powerful force of Japanese battleships, cruisers, and destroyers commanded by Admiral Kurita engaged a U.S. task unit of six escort carriers, three destroyers, and four destroyer escorts. The Americans were taken entirely by surprise because the 7th Fleet had firmly believed that its northern flank was being protected by Admiral Halsey's immensely powerful 3rd Fleet, which consisted of ten fleet carriers and six fast battleships.
The brunt of the Japanese attack fell on the northernmost of the escort carrier units, Rear Admiral Clifton Sprague's Task Unit 77.4.3 (usually referred to by its radio call-sign "Taffy 3"). Ill-equipped to fight large-gunned warships, Taffy 3's escort carriers attempted to escape from the Japanese force, while its destroyers, destroyer escorts, and aircraft made sustained attacks on Kurita's ships. The destroyers and destroyer escorts only had torpedoes and guns of up to 5 in (130 mm) caliber; nonetheless, the destroyers (but not the DEs) had radar-assisted gun directors; the Japanese had heavy caliber weapons up to 18.1 in (460 mm), but they had less accurate optical rangefinders. The Americans also had large numbers of aircraft available which the Japanese lacked. The ordnance for the escort carriers' aircraft consisted mostly of high-explosive bombs used in ground support missions, and depth charges used in antisubmarine warfare, rather than the armor-piercing bombs and torpedoes which would have been more effective against heavily armored warships. Nevertheless, even when they were out of ammunition, the American aircraft continued to harass the enemy ships, making repeated mock attacks, which distracted their gunners and disrupted their formations.
In all, two U.S. destroyers, a destroyer escort, and an escort carrier were sunk by Japanese gunfire, and another U.S. escort carrier was hit and sunk by a kamikaze aircraft during the battle. Kurita's battleships were driven away from the engagement by torpedo attacks from American destroyers; they were unable to regroup in the chaos, while three cruisers were lost after attacks from U.S. destroyers and aircraft, with several other cruisers damaged. Due to the ferocity of the defense, Kurita was convinced that he was facing a far superior force and withdrew from the battle, ending the threat to the troop transports and supply ships.
The battle was one of the last major naval engagements between U.S. and Japanese surface forces in World War II. After this, the Philippines were recaptured by the U.S., which cut the Japanese off from their oil-producing colonies in Southeast Asia, while her major shipyards and repair facilities were in Japan. The Imperial Japanese Navy never again sailed to battle in such force; most ships returned to bases in Japan to remain largely inactive for the rest of the war.
This battle is often depicted as one of the major "what-ifs" in World War II. If Kurita had continued the attack instead of withdrawing, it is possible that the U.S. could have suffered heavy losses in troops and supplies, which would have delayed their capture of the Philippines. If Kurita's and Halsey's forces met, that would have been the long awaited "decisive battle" where both sides would have finally been able to pit their largest battleships against each other. However, Halsey's 3rd Fleet outnumbered Kurita's in ships of all types, particularly in the six American battleships versus four for the Japanese. Only Yamato had heavier armor and larger guns than the U.S. battleships; the other three Japanese battleships were of World War I design and were generally inferior in firepower and protection, whereas their 3rd Fleet counterparts were all recently built battleships, mounted 16 inch (406.4 mm) main guns and were equipped with radar-guided fire control systems.
The Japanese Center Force now consisted of the battleships Yamato, Nagato, Kongō, and Haruna; heavy cruisers Chōkai, Haguro, Kumano, Suzuya, Chikuma, Tone; light cruisers Yahagi, and Noshiro; and 11 Kagerō- and Yūgumo-class destroyers. The battleships and cruisers were fully armored against 5 in (130 mm) projectiles. They together had dozens of large caliber guns, including the Yamato 's 18.1 in (460 mm) guns, which could reach out to 25 mi (22 nmi; 40 km). Surface gunnery was controlled by optical sighting which fed computer-assisted fire control systems, though they were less sophisticated than the radar-controlled systems on U.S. destroyers.
Each of the three task units of the 7th Fleet's Task Group 77.4 had six small Casablanca-class or larger Sangamon-class escort carriers. The destroyers had five 5-inch guns, the destroyer escorts had two, and the carriers only a single 5-inch gun "stinger" at its tail. Most of the pilots and sailors were reservists with scant combat experience, and because of their tasking against ground troops and submarines, the carriers had been given only a few armour piercing bombs or torpedoes against the unlikely possibility that they might encounter attack by other ships Lacking any ships with any larger guns that could reach beyond 10 mi (8.7 nmi; 16 km), it appeared to be a hopeless mismatch against Japanese gunnery which emphasized long range and large guns. This battle did reveal that their partly automated fire control was largely ineffective against maneuvering ships at long range (though some ships such as the Kongō did hit their targets when they got closer). The Japanese warships with their heavier caliber offensive armament did not actually record shell hits on the carriers until they had closed within range of the carriers' own 5-inch protective armament. By contrast, even the American destroyers all had the Mark 37 fire-control system that aimed automatic, accurate fire against surface and air targets while maneuvering throughout the battle. The lack of a comparable system in Japanese ships also contributed to comments from American pilots of the ineffectiveness of the Japanese antiaircraft fire.
Rear Admiral Thomas L. Sprague's Task Unit 77.4.1 ("Taffy 1") consisted of the Carrier Division 22 escort carriers Sangamon, Suwannee, Santee, and Petrof Bay. (The remaining two escort carriers from Taffy 1, Rear Admiral George R. Henderson's COMCARDIV 28 Chenango and Saginaw Bay, had departed for Morotai, Indonesia on October 24, carrying "dud" aircraft from other carriers for transfer ashore. They returned with replacement aircraft after the battle.)
Rear Admiral Felix Stump's Task Unit 77.4.2 ("Taffy 2") Carrier Division 24 consisted of Natoma Bay and Manila Bay, and Rear Admiral William D. Sample's COMCARDIV 27 Marcus Island, Kadashan Bay, Savo Island, and Ommaney Bay.
Rear Admiral Clifton Sprague's Task Unit 77.4.3 ("Taffy 3") consisted of Carrier Division 25 Fanshaw Bay, St. Lo, White Plains, Kalinin Bay, and Rear Admiral Ralph A. Ofstie's COMCARDIV 26 Kitkun Bay and Gambier Bay. Screening for Taffy 3 were the destroyers Hoel, Heermann and Johnston, and destroyer escorts Dennis, John C. Butler, Raymond, and Samuel B. Roberts.
Though each escort carrier was small, and carried an average of about 28 planes, this gave the three "Taffies" a combined total of approximately 450 aircraft, equivalent to several large fleet carriers. However, while their top speed of 17.5 kn (20.1 mph; 32.4 km/h) was adequate for cargo convoys or ground support, they were too slow to keep up with or escape a fast task force. Since these aircraft were intended for ground-attack aircraft, for air defense fighter planes, and for antisubmarine warfare, the first flights from Taffy 3 were armed only with machine guns, depth charges, and high explosive and antipersonnel aerial bombs, that were effective against enemy troops, submarines, and destroyers, but not very effective against I.J.N. battleships and cruisers. Later sorties from the carriers of Taffy 2 had enough time to be rearmed with more deadly weapons against the enemy warships: some torpedoes and armor-piercing bombs.
Kurita's force passed through San Bernardino Strait at 03:00 on October 25, 1944 and steamed southwards along the coast of Samar, hoping that Halsey had taken the bait and moved most of his fleet away as he had in fact done. However, Kurita did not receive the transmission from the Northern Force that Halsey had been lured away. Through most of the battle Kurita would be haunted by doubts about Halsey's actual location.
Taffy 3 comes under attack
Steaming about 60 nmi (69 mi; 110 km) east of Samar before dawn on October 25, St. Lo launched a four-plane antisubmarine patrol while the remaining carriers of Taffy 3 prepared for the day's air strikes against the landing beaches. At 0637, Ensign William C. Brooks, flying a TBF Avenger from the St. Lo, sighted a number of ships expected to be from Halsey's 3rd Fleet, but they appeared to be Japanese. When he was notified, Admiral Sprague was incredulous, and he demanded positive identification. Flying in for an even closer look, Brooks reported, "I can see pagoda masts. I see the biggest meatball flag on the biggest battleship I ever saw!" The Yamato alone displaced as much as all units of Taffy 3 combined. Brooks had spotted the largest of the three attacking Japanese forces, consisting of four battleships, six heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and about ten destroyers. They were approaching from the west-northwest only 17 nmi (20 mi; 31 km) away, and they were already well-within gun and visual range of the closest task group, Taffy 3. Armed only with depth charges in case of an encounter with enemy submarines, the aviators nevertheless were determined to carry out the first attack of the battle, aggressively setting the tone of the battle by leaving a calling card of several depth charges which bounced off the bow of a cruiser.
The lookouts of Taffy 3 spotted the antiaircraft fire to the north. The Japanese came upon Taffy 3 at 0645, achieving complete tactical surprise. At about the same time, others in Taffy 3 had picked up targets from surface radar and Japanese radio traffic. At about 0700, the Yamato opened fire at a range of 20 nmi (23 mi; 37 km). The Americans were soon astonished by the spectacle of colorful geysers of the first volleys of shellfire finding the range. Each Japanese ship used a different color of dye marker so they could spot their own shells. Not finding the silhouettes of the tiny escort carriers in his identification manuals, Kurita mistook them for larger fleet carriers and assumed that he had a task group of the 3rd Fleet under his guns. His first priority was to eliminate the carrier threat, ordering a "General Attack". Rather than a carefully orchestrated effort, each division in his task force was to attack separately. The Japanese had just changed to a circular antiaircraft formation, and the order caused some confusion, allowing Sprague to lead the Japanese into a tail chase, which restricted the Japanese to using only their forward guns, and restricted their anti-aircraft gunnery. Sprague's ships would not lose as much of their firepower in a tail chase as their rear firing weapons were more numerous than their forward guns, and his carriers would still be able to operate aircraft.
Immediately, Admiral Sprague directed his carriers to turn to launch their aircraft and then withdraw towards a squall to the east, hoping that bad visibility would reduce the accuracy of Japanese gunfire. He ordered his destroyers to generate smoke to mask the retreating carriers.
American destroyer and destroyer escort counterattack
Three destroyers and four smaller destroyer escorts had been tasked to protect the escort carriers from aircraft and submarines. The three Fletcher-class destroyers—affectionately nicknamed "tin cans" because they lacked armor—were fast enough to keep up with a fast carrier task force. They had five single 5 in (130 mm) and light antiaircraft guns which were not designed to take on armored warships. Only their ten 21 in (530 mm) Mark-15 torpedoes—housed in two swiveling five-tube launchers amidships—posed a serious threat to battleships and cruisers. Destroyer escorts like the Samuel B. Roberts were even smaller and slower, since they had been designed to protect slow freighter convoys against submarines. These destroyer escorts had two 5 in (130 mm) guns without automatic fire control, they carried only three torpedoes, and their crews were rarely trained for torpedo attacks. Since the torpedoes only had a range of about 5.5 nmi (6.3 mi; 10.2 km), they were best used at night. During daylight, an attacker would have to pass through a gauntlet of shellfire that could reach out to 25 nmi (29 mi; 46 km). In this battle, they would be launched against a fleet led by the largest battleship in history.
After laying down smoke to hide the carriers from Japanese gunners, they were soon making desperate torpedo runs. The ship profiles and aggressiveness caused the Japanese to think they were cruisers and full-sized destroyers. Their lack of armor tended to aid clean penetration of armor piercing rounds before Japanese gunners switched to high-explosive shells, which caused much more extensive damage. Their speed and agility enabled some ships to dodge shellfire completely before launching torpedoes. Effective damage control and redundancy in propulsion and power systems kept them running and fighting even after absorbing dozens of hits before sinking, although the decks would be littered with the dead and seriously wounded. Destroyers from Taffy 2 to the south also found themselves under shellfire, but as they were spotted by Gambier Bay, which had signaled for their assistance, they were ordered back to protect their own carriers.
At 0700, Commander Ernest E. Evans of the destroyer Johnston, in response to incoming shell fire bracketing carriers of the group he was escorting, began laying down a protective smokescreen and zigzagging. At about 0710, Gunnery Officer Robert Hagen began firing at the closest attackers, then at a range of 18,000 yards (16,000 m) and registered several hits on the leading heavy cruisers. The Japanese targeted the Johnston and soon shell splashes were bracketing the ship. In response and without consulting with his commanders, Evans ordered the Johnston to "flank speed, full left rudder", beginning an action that earned him the Medal of Honor.
Johnston, still making smoke and zigzagging, accelerated to flank speed towards the Japanese. Its crew looked on in disbelief - equally shocked at the appearance of the Japanese fleet and the fact that they were attacking it.
One gunnery advantage the Americans had was the radar-controlled Mark 37 Gun Fire Control System. The brains of the system was the Ford Mark I Fire Control Computer, which provided coordinated automatic firing solutions for her 5-inch guns merely by pointing the gun director at the target. Crude by comparison, the Japanese used optical range finders aided by splash color dye markers in each shell, color-coded to the firing ship. At this point, the Japanese were unable to find the range of their attacker.
At 0715, Hagen concentrated his fire on the leading cruiser squadron's flagship, the heavy cruiser Kumano. At the 5-inch gun's maximum range of 10 nmi (12 mi; 19 km), Johnston fired, scoring several hits on the Kumano's superstructure, which erupted into flame and smoke.
At 0716, Sprague ordered Commander William Dow Thomas aboard the Hoel, in charge of the small destroyer screen, to attack. Struggling to form an attack formation, their astonished crews reacting to the rapidly unfolding events, the three small ships (Hoel, Heermann, Samuel B. Roberts) began their long sprint to get into firing position for their torpedoes. The Johnston pressed its attack, firing more than two hundred shells as it followed an evasive course through moderate swells, making it a difficult target. The Johnston closed to within maximum torpedo range, and at 9,000 yards (8,200 m) she fired a full salvo of ten torpedoes. At 0724, two or three struck, blowing the bow off the Kumano. Minutes later, 0733, the Kongo was forced to turn away north to avoid four torpedoes. The heavy cruiser Suzuya, suffering damage from air attacks, was also taken out of the fight, as she stopped to assist. The effect of the Johnston's attack was to generate confusion in the minds of the Japanese commanders, who thought they were being engaged by American cruisers. Evans then reversed course and, under cover of his smoke screen, opened the range between his ship and the enemy.
At 0730, three 14 in (360 mm) shells from the battleship Kongo, at a range of 7 nmi (8.1 mi; 13 km), passed through the deck of the Johnston and into her portside engine room, cutting the destroyer's speed in half to 17 kn (20 mph; 31 km/h) and disrupting electric power to her aft gun turrets. Moments later three 6 in (150 mm) shells — possibly from the Yamato — struck Johnston's bridge, causing numerous casualties and severing the fingers of Commander Evans's left hand. The ship was mangled badly, with dead and dying sailors strewn across her bloody decks—but the Johnston did not sink. Her stores of fuel were seriously depleted before the battle, saving her from a catastrophic explosion. The ship found sanctuary in rain squalls where the crew had time to repair damage, restoring power to two of the three aft turrets. The Johnston's search radar was destroyed, toppled to the deck in a tangled mess. The fire control radar was damaged, but was quickly returned to service. Only a few minutes were required to bring the Johnston's main battery and radar online, and from its hidden position in the rain, Johnston fired several dozen rounds at a destroyer leader at 10,000 yards (9,100 m) (beginning approximately at 0735). Fire was then shifted to the cruisers approaching from the east. Several dozen more rounds were fired at the closest target at 11,000 yards (10,000 m).
At 0737, Commodore Thomas ordered a torpedo attack via voice radio. The Johnston and the Heermann acknowledged. As the Johnston continued its course away from the Japanese, it came upon the charging screening force, led by the damaged Hoel. Evans then had the Johnston rejoin the attack to provide support to Commander Thomas' small squadron. Attacking the Tone, the leading heavy cruiser to the east of the formation, the Johnston closed to 6,000 yards (5,500 m), now firing with reduced efficiency due to her lost SC radar, yet still registering many hits.
At 0750, the sea and sky above were aflame with burning ships, explosions, and whirling aircraft. All available fighters and bombers from the Taffys were overhead converging on the Japanese fleet. The attacking fleets were now a confused mob taking desperate evasive action to avoid what must have seemed to be a sea full of deadly torpedoes, exploding shells and charging ships. At 0810, moving erratically through the smoke and rain, the Johnston avoided the Heermann by the narrowest of margins. Heermann was "within potato range" at one point (between 0808-0825) of a Japanese destroyer for several minutes, before being separated by the smoke.
During the battle, Evans engaged in several duels with much larger Japanese opponents. At 0820, emerging through smoke and rain squalls, the Johnston was confronted by the Kongo, a 36,600-ton battleship. The Johnston fired at least 40 rounds, and more than 15 hits on the battleship's superstructure were observed. The Johnston reversed course and disappeared in the smoke, avoiding the Kongo's 14-inch return fire. At 0826 and again at 0834, Commander Thomas requested an attack on the heavy cruisers to the east of the carriers. Responding at 0830, the Johnston bore down on a huge cruiser firing at the helpless Gambier Bay, then closed to 6,000 yards (5,500 m) and fired for ten minutes at a heavier and better-armed opponent, possibly the Haguro, scoring numerous hits.
At 0840, a much more pressing target appeared astern. A formation of seven Japanese destroyers in two columns was closing in to attack the carriers. Reversing course to intercept, Evans maneuvered the Johnston in an attempt to pass in front of the formation, crossing the "T", a classical naval maneuver which put the force being "crossed" at a great disadvantage. Evans ordered the Johnston 's guns to fire on this new threat. The Japanese destroyers returned fire, striking the Johnston several times. Perhaps seeing his disadvantage, the commander of the lead destroyer turned away to the west. From as close as 7,000 yards (6,400 m), Hagen fired and scored a dozen hits on the destroyer leader before it turned away. He shifted fire to the next destroyer in line, scoring five hits before it too turned away. Amazingly, the entire squadron turned away west to avoid the Johnston's fire. At 0920, these destroyers finally managed to fire their torpedoes from extreme range, 10,500 yd (9,600 m). Several torpedoes were detonated by strafing aircraft or defensive fire from the carriers, and the rest failed to strike a target.
Now the Japanese and American ships were intertwined in a confused jumble. Gambier Bay and Hoel were sinking. Finding targets was not difficult. After 0900, with Hoel and Roberts out of the fight, the crippled Johnston was an easy target. Fighting with all she had, she exchanged fire with a swarm of enemy ships, four cruisers and numerous destroyers.
The Johnston continued to take hits from the Japanese, which knocked out the number one gun turret, killing many men. By 0920, forced from the bridge by exploding ammunition, Evans was commanding the ship from the stern by shouting orders down to men manually operating the rudder. Shell fire knocked out the remaining engine, leaving the Johnston dead in the water at 0940. As her attackers gathered around the vulnerable ship, they concentrated fire on her rather than the fleeing carriers. The Johnston was hit so many times that one survivor recalled "they couldn't patch holes fast enough to keep her afloat."
At 0945, Evans finally gave the order to abandon ship. The Johnston sank 25 minutes later with 186 of her crew. Evans abandoned ship with his crew, but was never seen again. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. However, it was the Japanese themselves that first recognized the Johnston 's incredible actions that day: As a destroyer from the opposing fleet cruised slowly by, Robert Billie and several other crewmen watched as the Japanese captain saluted the sinking Johnston.
USS Samuel B. Roberts
Although destroyer escorts were conceived as the most inexpensive small ships which could protect slow cargo convoys against submarines, they had retained a basic anti-ship capability with torpedoes and 5 in guns. In this battle, the USS Samuel B. Roberts (DE-413) would distinguish itself as the "destroyer escort that fought like a battleship" when thrown into the fray against armored cruisers which were designed to withstand 5 in gun fire. Sometime around 07:40, Lieutenant Commander Robert W. Copeland maneuvered his small ship to evade the charging Heermann and, as he watched the destroyer receding towards the enemy, sized up the situation, which he passed to his crew over the 1MC public-address circuit: "This will be a fight against overwhelming odds from which survival cannot be expected. We will do what damage we can." He realized that at his current heading and location his small ship would be in a textbook position to launch a torpedo attack at the leading heavy cruiser. Without orders, and indeed against orders, he proceeded at full speed and set course to follow the Heermann in to attack the cruisers. Under the cover of the smoke screen from the destroyers, the Roberts escaped detection. Not wanting to draw attention to his small ship, he repeatedly denied his gun captain permission to open fire with the 5 in guns; even though targets were clearly visible and in range, he intended to launch torpedoes at 5,000 yards (4,600 m). A stray shell, probably intended for one of the nearby destroyers, hit the Roberts ' mast which fell and jammed the torpedo mount at 0800. Finally recovering, at 4,000 yards (3,700 m), the Roberts launched her torpedoes at the Chokai without being fired upon. Quickly reversing course, the Roberts disappeared into the smoke. A lookout reported at least one torpedo hit and the crippled Chokai, losing speed, fell to the rear of the column at 0823.
By 0810, Roberts was nearing the carrier formation. Through the smoke and rain, the heavy cruiser Chikuma appeared, firing broadsides at the carriers. Copeland changed course to attack and informed his gun captain, "Mr Burton, you may open fire."
In a scene that must have resembled battles from the wind and sail days of the U.S. Navy, the Roberts and Chikuma began to trade broadsides. The Chikuma now divided her fire between the carriers and the Roberts. Hampered by the closing range and slow rate of fire, Chikuma fired with difficulty at her small, fast opponent. (Early in the battle, when it became apparent that Roberts would have to defend the escort carriers against a surface attack, chief engineer Lt. "Lucky" Trowbridge bypassed all the engine's safety mechanisms, enabling the Roberts to go as fast as 28 knots.)
The Roberts didn't share Chikuma 's problem of slow rate of fire. For the next 35 minutes, from as close as 5,300 yards (4,800 m), her guns would fire almost the entire supply of 5-inch ammunition on board, over 600 rounds.
Despite the improbability of the seemingly unequal contest, the Chikuma was raked along its entire length. However, unknown to the crew of the Roberts, shortly after the Roberts engaged the Chikuma, the Heermann also aimed her guns at the cruiser, putting her in a deadly crossfire. Chikuma's superstructure was ripped by salvo after salvo of armor-piercing shells, high-explosive shells, anti-aircraft shells, and even star shells that created chemical fires even in metal plates. The bridge of the Chikuma was devastated, fires could be seen along her superstructure, and her number three gun turret was no longer in action.
But the Chikuma was not alone, and soon the Japanese fleet's multi-colored salvos were bracketing the Roberts, indicating that she was under fire from Yamato, Nagato, and Haruna. In a desperate bid to avoid approaching shells, Copeland ordered full back, causing the salvo to miss. Now, however, his small ship was an easy target, and at 0851, cruiser shells found their mark, damaging one of her boilers. At 17 knots, the Roberts began to receive hits regularly. Credit is given to Kongo for striking the final decisive blows at 0900, which knocked out her remaining engine. Dead in the water and sinking, the Robert 's battle was finished.
Gunner's mate Paul H. Carr was in charge of the aft 5 in gun mount, which had fired nearly all of its 325 stored rounds in 35 minutes before a breech explosion caused by the gun's barrel overheating. Carr was found dying at his station, begging for help loading the last round he was holding into the breech. He was awarded a Silver Star, and a guided missile frigate was later named for him. The Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58) and Copeland (FFG-25) guided missile frigates were named for the ship and its captain.
Companion destroyer escorts Raymond, Dennis, and John C. Butler also launched torpedoes. While they missed, it helped slow the Japanese chase. Dennis was struck by a pair of cruiser shells. John C. Butler ceased fire after expending her ammo an hour into the engagement.
The fast destroyer Hoel—captained by Commander Leon S. Kintberger— was flagship of the small destroyer and destroyer escort screen of Taffy 3. (0700) As towering splashes from Japanese shells began bracketing the ships of the task group, Hoel began zig-zagging and laying smoke to help defend the now fleeing CVE's. When the Japanese had closed to 18,000 yards Kintberger opened fire. Having revealed its true nature and being targeted by Japanese, Yamato's 6.1 in (150 mm) guns scored a hit on her bridge, knocking out all voice radio communication, killing four men, wounding Kintberger and Screen Flag Officer Commander William Dow Thomas.
Admiral Sprague then ordered Thomas to attack the Japanese with torpedoes. From his position on the damaged Hoel he formed up the three destroyers of his command as best he could and at 0740 ordered "Line up and let's go."
Through rain showers and smoke the Hoel zig-zagged toward the Japanese fleet, followed by the Heerman and Samuel B. Roberts. Lurking in the rain, the Johnston was targeting unsuspecting Japanese cruisers with her radar.
Kintberger now had to quickly choose a target. Time to do so was rapidly running out as the distance between the two fleets closed rapidly. In CIC Executive Officer Fred Green quickly looked at the plotted data before him and suggested a course that would put Hoel in a position to attack the leading "battleship", probably the heavy cruiser Haguro. Without hesitation Kintberger ordered Hoel in. No consideration was given to the fact that the course chosen would put the small ship in the middle of the charging Center Force.
Gunnery Officer Lt. Bill Sanders directed Hoel's main battery of five 5"/38 guns in a rapid fire barrage at a nearby cruiser and scored many hits. Having the attention of a substantial portion of the Japanese fleet, soon shells of all calibers were straddling the attacking destroyer.
Sometime near 0750, at a range of 9,000 yd (8,200 m) Hoel fired a half salvo of torpedoes and reversed course. Although they failed to strike their target, Haguro was forced to turn sharply away from the torpedo attack and dropped out of the lead to behind Tone.
Moments after Hoel loosed her first half salvo, a devastating series of multi-caliber shells struck Hoel in rapid succession which disabled all the primary and secondary battery weapons aft of the second stack, stopped her port engine, and deprived her of her Mark-37 fire control director, FD radar, and bridge steering control. His ship slowing to 17 knots, the rudder jammed in a slow right turn, Kintberger realized he would have to fire his remaining torpedoes quickly before his ship was shot out from under him.
Just before 0800 looking out at an approaching line of ships he coordinated the attack with the chief on the number two torpedo mount and as his chosen target was in the hoped for position he gave the order to fire. This time, they were rewarded by the sight of large columns of water which rose from the target. The surviving crew would be disappointed later on when the torpedo hits could not be confirmed.
Hoel was now crippled and surrounded by the enemy, speed reduced to 17 knots. Within a few minutes steerage had been restored from the aft steering room. Kintberger ordered a course south towards Taffy 3. In the process of fishtailing and zig-zagging, she peppered the closest enemy ships with her two remaining guns. Finally at roughly 0830, after withstanding over 40 hits from 5–16 in (130–410 mm) guns, an 8 in (200 mm) shell disabled her remaining engine. With her engine room under water and No. 1 magazine ablaze, the ship began listing to port, settling by the stern. Abandon ship was ordered (0840) and many of her surviving crew swam away from the destroyed ship.
A Japanese cruiser and several destroyers closed to within 2,000 yards, giving the two forward gun crews, under Gun Captain Chester Fay, a large, close target. For about ten minutes they traded salvos with the Tone-class cruiser. When the destroyers slowed and approached to about 1,000 yards they were also fired upon.
The Japanese fire only stopped at 08:55 when Hoel rolled over and sank in 8,000 yd (7,300 m) of water, after enduring 90 minutes of punishment.
Hoel was the first of Taffy 3's ships to sink, and suffered the heaviest proportional losses: only 86 of her complement survived; 253 officers and men died with their ship. Commander Kintberger described the courageous devotion to duty of the men of Hoel in a seaman's epitaph: "Fully cognizant of the inevitable result of engaging such vastly superior forces, these men performed their assigned duties coolly and efficiently until their ship was shot from under them."
Heermann—captained by Commander Amos T. Hathaway—was on the disengaged side of the carriers at the start of the fight when at 07:37 he received an order from Commodore Thomas to take the lead position in a column of "small boys" to attack the approaching enemy fleet. Steaming into the action at flank speed through the formation of "baby flattops" through smoke and intermittent rain squalls that had reduced visibility at times to less than 100 yd (91 m), twice Heermann had to back emergency full to avoid collisions with friendly ships. First, with Samuel B. Roberts, and at 07:49, Hoel as she tried to take her assigned position at the head of the column in preparation for a torpedo attack.
At 0750 the Heermann engaged the heavy cruiser Haguro with her 5 in (130 mm) guns while hurriedly preparing a half-salvo torpedo attack. In the confusion of battle the torpedoman on the second torpedo mount mistakenly fired two extra torpedoes at the same time as the number one mount before he was stopped by the mount captain. After firing seven torpedoes, Heermann changed course to engage a column of three battleships that had commenced firing upon her.
Hathaway would now be responsible for causing a series of events that would have a decisive influence on the outcome of the battle. He directed 5-inch gunfire on the battleship Haruna, the column's leader. Then he quickly closed to a mere 4,400 yd (4,000 m) and fired his last three torpedoes. Haruna evaded all of them, but Yamato was bracketed between two of Heermann 's torpedoes on parallel courses, and for 10 minutes was forced to head north away from the action. Admiral Kurita and his best weapon were temporarily out of the battle. The Japanese had now lost the initiative. The stubborn American defense had completely taken the wind out of the Japanese attack.
08:03 Believing that one of the torpedoes had hit the battleship, Hathaway set course for the carrier formation, zig-zagging and under the cover of smoke. Still undamaged the Heermann enjoyed the ability to fire through the smoke and rain at nearby targets. Now under continuous fire Heermann began an unequal duel with the Nagato whose salvos were beginning to land uncomfortably close.
At 08:26 Commander Thomas requested covering fire be placed on the cruisers firing on the CVEs from the east. Hathaway responded but first had to pass through the formation of carriers and escorts. This task proved hazardous. Travelling at flank speed Heermann again had two near misses, this time with the Fanshaw Bay and Johnston.
Finally on course for the enemy cruisers the Heermann came upon the heavily damaged Gambier Bay which was being pummelled at point blank range. At 12,000 yd (11,000 m) Heermann engaged Chikuma as her guns cleared the Gambier Bay. Now the Chikuma was in a crossfire between the Heermann and the Roberts and was taking a tremendous drubbing. During this phase of battle the Heermann came under fire from the bulk of the Japanese fleet. Colored splashes of red, yellow, and green (probably Kongo, Nagato, and Yamato) indicated that at least three of the enemy battleships had her targeted. Many uncolored splashes were also observed, likely from the line of heavy cruisers being led by Chikuma. 08:45 A hit on the Heermann struck the wheelhouse killing three men and fatally wounding another. A series of 8 in (200 mm) shell hits flooded the forward part of the U.S. destroyer, pulling her bow down so far that her anchors were dragging in the water, while one of her guns was knocked out.
At 08:50 aircraft from VC-10 approached the scene and were vectored via VHF by Taffy 3 to the cruisers to the east. By 08:53 Chikuma and the rest of the four heavy cruisers were under heavy air attack. 09:02 Under the combined effort of Heermann, Roberts, and the bombs, torpedoes, and strafing from carrier-based planes, Chikuma finally disengaged, but sank during her withdrawal.
09:07 The heavy cruiser Tone exchanged fire with Heermann until she too turned away at 09:10. By 09:17 Sprague ordered Hathaway to lay smoke on the port quarter of the CVEs and by 09:30 the group had reformed its normal formation and was headed southward.
Convinced he was facing a much larger force due to the ferocity of the American resistance, Admiral Kurita gave a "cease action" order at 09:00 with instructions to rendezvous north. Thus, unexpectedly, the Japanese began to disengage and turned away.
Though damaged extensively, Heermann was the only destroyer from the screen to survive.
Carriers under attack
The aircraft carriers of Taffy 3 turned south and withdrew through shellfire at their top speed of 17.5 kn (20.1 mph; 32.4 km/h). The six carriers dodged in and out of rain squalls and they launched all available Grumman F4F Wildcat fighter planes and TBF Avenger torpedo bombers with whatever armament they were already loaded with. Some had rockets, machine guns, depth charges, or nothing at all. Very few carried antiship bombs or aerial torpedoes which enabled aircraft to sink heavy armored warships. The Wildcats were deemed a better fit such small aircraft carriers instead of the faster and heavier F6F Hellcats that were flown from the larger U.S. Navy carriers. Their pilots were ordered "to attack the Japanese task force and proceed to Tacloban airstrip, Leyte, to rearm and refuel". Many of the planes continued to make "dry runs" after expending their ammunition and ordnance to distract the enemy.
After one hour, the Japanese had closed the chase to within ten miles of the carriers. That the carriers had managed to evade destruction reinforced the Japanese belief that they were attacking fast fleet carriers. At 08:00, Sprague ordered the carriers to "open fire with pea-shooters when the range is clear". The tail chase was also advantageous for the sole anti-ship armament of small carriers that was a single manually controlled stern-mounted 5 in (130 mm) as a stinger, though they were loaded with anti-aircraft shells. As anti-aircraft gunners observed helplessly, an officer cheered them by exclaiming, "just wait a little longer, boys, we're suckering them into 40-mm range."
The ships had been battered by near-misses, but at 08:05 Kalinin Bay was struck by an 8 in (200 mm) shell. During the early phase of the action, the enemy ships were firing armor-piercing (AP) shells, which often carried right through or skipped off the flight decks of the unarmored escort carriers without detonating. Though CVEs were popularly known as "Combustible Vulnerable Expendable", they would ultimately prove durable in first dodging and then absorbing heavy shell fire, and in downing attacking kamikaze planes. Although Gambier Bay was sunk, fire from the CVE's stingers would be credited with hitting and contributing to the sinking of capital ships that ventured within gun range.
USS Gambier Bay
As Japanese gunners concentrated on the closest target, Gambier Bay effectively was a sacrifice that diverted attention from the other fleeing carriers. It was 08:10 that Chikuma closed within 5 nmi (5.8 mi; 9.3 km) to finally land hits on the flight deck of Gambier Bay, which was the most exposed. Subsequent hits and near misses as the Japanese switched to high explosive (HE) shells first reduced her speed, and Gambier Bay was soon dead in the water. Three cruisers closed to point-blank range as destroyers such as Johnston were unsuccessful in trying to draw fire away from the doomed carrier. Fires raged through the riddled escort carrier. She capsized and sank at 09:07 with the majority of her nearly 800 survivors rescued two days later by landing and patrol craft dispatched from Leyte Gulf. Gambier Bay would be the first and only U.S. carrier sunk by naval gunfire in World War II.
USS St. Lo
By 07:38, the Japanese cruisers, approaching from St. Lo's port quarter, had closed to within 14,000 yd (13,000 m). St. Lo responded to their salvos with rapid fire from her single 5 in (130 mm) gun, claiming three hits on a Tone-class cruiser. For the next 90 minutes, Admiral Kurita's ships closed in on Taffy 3, with his nearest destroyers and cruisers firing from as close as 10,000 yd (9,100 m) on the port and starboard quarters of St. Lo. Throughout the running gun battle, the carriers and their escorts were laying a particularly effective smoke screen that Admiral Sprague credited with greatly degrading Japanese gunfire accuracy. Even more effective were the attacks by the destroyers and destroyer escorts at point-blank range against the Japanese destroyers and cruisers. All the while, Kurita's force was under incessant attack by aircraft from Taffy 3 and the two other American carrier units to the south. At 10:47, a kamikaze attack against the surviving carriers began. Minutes later, one of Lt. Yukio Seki's Shikishima squadron crashed into St. Lo 's flight deck; although the aircraft itself was stopped there, its bomb penetrated the deck, inflicting a fatal blow. The escort carrier went down stern first and 114 men were killed.
USS Kalinin Bay
Kalinin Bay accelerated to flank speed and, despite fire from three enemy cruisers, launched her planes, which inflicted heavy damage on the closing ships. As the trailing ship in the escort carrier van, Kalinin Bay came under intense enemy fire. Though partially protected by chemical smoke, a timely rain squall, and counterattacks by the screening destroyers and destroyer escorts, she took the first of fifteen direct hits at 07:50. Fired from an enemy battleship, the large caliber shell (14 in (360 mm) or 16 in (410 mm)) struck the starboard side of the hangar deck just aft of the forward elevator.
By 08:00, the Japanese cruisers, which were steaming off her port quarter, closed to within 18,000 yd (16,000 m). Kalinin Bay responded to their straddling salvos with her 5 in (130 mm) gun. Three 8 in (200 mm) AP projectiles struck her within minutes. At 08:25, the carrier scored a direct hit from 16,000 yd (15,000 m) on the No. 2 turret of a Nachi-class heavy cruiser, and a second hit shortly thereafter forced the Japanese ship to withdraw temporarily from formation.
At 08:30, five Japanese destroyers steamed over the horizon off her starboard quarter. They opened fire from about 14,500 yd (13,300 m). As screening ships engaged the cruisers and laid down concealing smoke, Kalinin Bay shifted her fire and for the next hour traded shots with Destroyer Squadron 10. No destroyer hit Kalinin Bay, but she took ten more 8 inch hits from the now obscured cruisers. One shell passed through the flight deck and into the communications area, where it destroyed all the radar and radio equipment.
At 09:15, an Avenger from St. Lo—piloted by LTJG Waldrop—strafed and exploded two torpedoes in Kalinin Bay 's wake about 100 yd (91 m) astern of her. A shell from the latter's 5 in (130 mm) gun deflected a third from a collision course with her stern. At about 09:30, as the Japanese ships fired parting salvos and reversed course northward, Kalinin Bay scored a direct hit amidships on a retreating destroyer. Five minutes later, she ceased fire and retired southward with the other survivors of Taffy 3.
Around 10:50, the task unit came under a concentrated air attack. During the 40-minute battle, the first attack from a kamikaze unit in World War II, all escort carriers but Fanshaw Bay were damaged. Four diving planes attacked Kalinin Bay from astern and the starboard quarter. Two were shot down close aboard, while a third plane crashed into the port side of the flight deck, damaging it severely. The fourth destroyed the aft port stack. Kalinin Bay suffered extensive structural damage during the morning's intense action, as well as five dead among her sixty casualties. Twelve direct hits were later confirmed by damage plus two large-caliber near misses. Ironically, it was the two near misses that exploded under her counter that threatened the ship's survival.
Throughout the surface phase of the action, the carriers White Plains and Kitkun Bay, in the lead position, escaped hits from gunfire. During kamikaze attacks, the carrier Fanshaw Bay splashed among others a plane just about to crash into Kitkun Bay and landed planes from her sunk or damaged sisters. Fanshaw Bay lost four men killed, and four wounded.
Yamato had already been struck by aircraft during the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea with three armor-piercing bombs, while her sister-ship Musashi had been sunk. In this battle, Yamato engaged enemy surface forces for the first and only time with main and secondary batteries. At 07:51, Yamato fired and hit a "cruiser" from over 10 nmi (12 mi; 19 km) which was actually the destroyer Hoel. Yamato 's F1M2 "Pete" floatplane confirmed primary battery hits on the carrier Gambier Bay before the ship steered to avoid torpedoes. Yamato would close to within 2,400 yd (2,200 m) of the American ships when it was attacked by American aircraft. Lieutenant Richard W. Roby in his fighter attacked destroyers before raking the decks and then bridge of Yamato with his .50 in (12.7 mm) machine guns, further discouraging her. Kurita reported that his force had sunk two carriers, two cruisers, and some destroyers. Yamato had confirmed hits that contributed to the sinking of a lightly armed escort carrier, a destroyer, and a destroyer escort.
Japanese cruiser Chōkai hit by White Plains
Targeted by 5 in (130 mm) gunfire by the destroyers and destroyer escorts, the Japanese cruiser Chōkai was hit amidships, starboard side, most likely by the sole 5 in (130 mm) gun of the carrier White Plains. While the shell could not pierce the hull, the 7 pounds (3.2 kg) bursting charge it contained set off the eight deck-mounted Japanese Type 93 "Long Lance" torpedoes, which were especially volatile because they contained pure oxygen, in addition to their 1,080 lb (490 kg) warheads. The explosion resulted in such severe damage that it knocked out the rudder and engines, causing Chōkai to drop out of formation. Within minutes, an American aircraft dropped a 500 lb (230 kg) bomb on her forward machinery room. Fires began to rage and she went dead in the water. Later that day, she was scuttled by torpedoes from the destroyer Fujinami.
Japanese take further hits
After Johnston blew off the bow of Kumano with a Mark 15 torpedo, the Japanese ship retired towards the San Bernardino Strait, where she suffered minor damage from an aerial attack.
Chikuma engaged the US escort carriers, helping to sink Gambier Bay, but came under fire from Heermann and under a heavy air attack. It is generally thought that destroyer Nowaki took off survivors from Chikuma, and then scuttled her at Coordinates: in the late morning of on October 25, 1944, but a more recent study suggests Chikuma sank from the effect of the air attack, and Nowaki only arrived in time to pick up survivors from the water. While withdrawing from the battle area, Nowaki was herself sunk, with the loss of all but one of Chikuma 's surviving crewmen.
Heavy cruiser Suzuya, which had also engaged the carriers, received fatal damage from the air, ironically without suffering any direct hits. Early in the battle Suzuya was attacked by ten Avengers from Taffy 3. One of the TBMs, armed with a HE bomb, near-missed close astern to port, carrying away one of Suzuya's propellers, reducing her maximum speed to 20 knots. At 10:50, she was attacked by 30 more carrier aircraft. Another near-miss by a bomb, this time starboard amidships, set off the Long Lance torpedoes loaded in one of her starboard tube mounts. The fires started by this explosion soon propagated to other torpedoes nearby and beyond, the subsequent explosions damaging one of the boilers and the starboard engine rooms. Abandon Ship was ordered at 11:50; none too soon, as the fires set off the remaining torpedoes and her main magazines just ten minutes later. Suzuya rolled over and sank at 13:22, with 401 officers and crew rescued by destroyer Okinami, followed by further rescues by American ships later.
Though Kurita's battleships had not been seriously damaged, the air and destroyer attacks had broken up his formations, and he had lost tactical control. His flagship Yamato had been forced to turn north in order to avoid torpedoes, causing him to lose contact with much of his task force. The ferocity of the determined, concentrated sea and air attack from Taffy 3 had already sunk or crippled the heavy cruisers Chōkai, Kumano, and Chikuma, confirming to the Japanese that they were engaging major fleet units rather than escort carriers and destroyers. Kurita was at first not aware that Halsey had already taken the bait and that his battleships and carriers were far out of range. The ferocity of the air attacks further contributed to his confusion, for he assumed that such devastating strikes could only come from major fleet units rather than escort carriers. Signals from Ozawa eventually convinced Kurita that he was not engaging the entirety of 3rd fleet, and that remaining elements of Halsey's forces might close in and destroy him if he lingered too long in the area.
Finally, Kurita received word that the Southern Force that he was to meet up with had been destroyed the previous night. Calculating that the fight was not worth further losses, and believing he had already sunk or damaged several American carriers, Kurita broke off the engagement at 09:20 with the order: "all ships, my course north, speed 20". He set a course for Leyte Gulf, but became distracted by reports of another American carrier group to the north. Preferring to expend his ships against capital ships rather than transports, he turned north after the non-existent enemy fleet, and ultimately withdrew back through San Bernardino Strait.
As he retreated north and then west through the San Bernardino Strait, the smaller and heavily damaged American force continued to press the battle. While watching the Japanese retreat, Admiral Sprague heard a nearby sailor exclaim: "Damn it, boys, they're getting away!"
Seventh Fleet's calls for help
Shortly after 08:00, desperate messages calling for assistance began to come in from 7th Fleet. One from Vice Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid, sent in plain language, read, "My situation is critical. Fast battleships and support by airstrikes may be able to keep enemy from destroying CVEs and entering Leyte."
At 08:22, Kinkaid radioed: "Fast Battleships are Urgently Needed Immediately at Leyte Gulf".
At 09:05: "Need Fast Battleships and Air Support".
At 09:07, Kinkaid broadcast what his mismatched fleet is up against: "4 Battleships, 8 Cruisers Attack Our Escort Carriers".
From 3,000 nmi (3,500 mi; 5,600 km) away in Pearl Harbor, Adm. Nimitz had monitored the desperate calls from Taffy 3, and sent Halsey a terse message, "Where is TF 34?". The encrypted message was prefixed "Turkey trots to water" and suffixed with "The world wonders" to foil decryption. A radioman on Nimitz's staff repeated the "where is" section of this message and then during decryption by Halsey's staff the trailing phrase "the world wonders" was left in. So a simple query by a distant supervisor had, through the random actions of three sailors, become a stinging rebuke.
Halsey was infuriated (not recognizing the final phrase as padding, possibly chosen for the anniversary of the Charge of the Light Brigade). He threw his hat to the deck and began to curse in anger.
Halsey sent Task Group 38.1 (TG 38.1)—commanded by Vice Admiral John S. McCain—to assist. Halsey recalled he did not receive this vital message from Kinkaid until around 10:00, and later claimed that he knew Kinkaid was in trouble, but had not dreamed of the seriousness of this crisis. McCain, by contrast, had monitored Sprague's messages and turned TG 58[clarification needed] to aid Sprague even before Halsey's orders arrived (after prodding from Nimitz), putting Halsey's defense in question.
At 10:05, Kinkaid complained: "Who is guarding the San Bernardino Strait?"
McCain raced towards the battle, briefly turning into the wind to recover returning planes. At 10:30, a force of Helldivers, Avengers, and Hellcats was launched from Hornet, Hancock, and Wasp at the extreme range of 330 nmi (380 mi; 610 km). Though the attack did little damage, it strengthened Kurita's decision to retire.
At 11:15, more than two hours after the first distress messages had been received by his flagship, Halsey ordered TF 34 to turn around and head south to pursue Kurita, but the Japanese forces had already escaped.
Just hours after his chastisement by Nimitz, Admiral Halsey's forces did destroy all four enemy aircraft carriers he had pursued. But despite the complete absence of 3rd Fleet against the main Japanese force, the desperate efforts of Taffy 3 and assisting task forces had driven back the Japanese. A relieved Halsey sent the following message to Nimitz, Kinkaid and General Douglas MacArthur at 12:26:
"It can be announced with assurance that the Japanese Navy has been beaten, routed and broken by the Third and Seventh Fleets."
The survivors' ordeal
Partly as a result of disastrous communication errors within 7th Fleet and a reluctance to expose search ships to submarine attack, a very large number of survivors from Taffy, including those from Gambier Bay, Hoel, Johnston and Roberts, were not rescued until October 27, after two days adrift. A plane had spotted the survivors, but the location radioed back was incorrect. By that time, many had died as a result of exposure, thirst and shark attacks. Finally, when a Landing Craft Infantry of Task Group 78.12 arrived, its captain used what is almost a standard method of distinguishing friend from foe, i.e., asking a topical question about a national sport—as one survivor, Jack Yusen, relates:
We saw this ship come up, it was circling around us, and a guy was standing up on the bridge with a megaphone. And he called out 'Who are you? Who are you?' and we all yelled out 'Samuel B. Roberts!' He's still circling, so now we're cursing at him. He came back and yelled 'Who won the World Series?' and we all yelled 'St. Louis Cardinals!' And then we could hear the engines stop, and cargo nets were thrown over the side. That's how we were rescued.
Oldendorf's task group
It has been speculated that even if Center Force had quickly annihilated the escort carrier units, Kurita would still have had to contend with Jesse Oldendorf's task group—which contained six well armed and armoured battleships and eight large, powerful cruisers. After the Surigao Strait action, 7th Fleet's battleships had much less armor-piercing ammunition than battleships would normally be expected to have on entering an action. But, as Morison observes, they had enough for what would have been required of them in defending the entrance to the Gulf, although not enough for a running fight. The same probably was true for the heavy cruisers. The light cruisers—with their much higher rate of fire—had used most of their armor-piercing ammunition, but still had plenty of HC (or "HE") rounds available. Oldendorf's destroyers had expended almost all of their torpedoes, but still had plenty of ammunition for their 5 in (130 mm) guns (and Samar demonstrates how effective such guns could be even against heavy cruisers). Even though unable to make torpedo attacks, these 28 or so destroyers would have been able to provide an effective defense against the Japanese destroyers.
Oldendorf's formation was in fact roughly comparable in strength with Center Force after the latter's losses (on October 23 in Palawan Passage and on October 24 in the Sibuyan Sea), and Kurita would have had to dispose of—or at least fight his way through—Oldendorf's task group before he could fall on the invasion shipping in the Gulf. If, instead of annihilating the Taffy units, he had managed to get through to the Gulf without having neutralized the escort carriers, he would then have had to engage Oldendorf while under sustained assault from the air—and (as the Battle off Samar also demonstrates) it is an extremely difficult task for warships to fight a surface action while simultaneously defending themselves against air attack. It is therefore debatable whether Kurita had a realistic prospect of causing serious damage to the invasion force off Leyte, let alone of inflicting a major reverse on the Allies.
The Japanese had succeeded in luring Halsey's 3rd Fleet away from its role of covering the invasion fleet, but seemingly light forces proved to be a very considerable obstacle. What Halsey had unwittingly left behind still packed the air power of 4 carriers, even if they were inexpensive, slow, lightly armed, and equipped with older-type combat aircraft. With an available air force of over 400 aircraft, they were the numeric if not quite qualitative equivalent of four of Halsey's five large fleet carriers. Naval aircraft, whether properly armed or not, did much to offset the mismatch in sheer tonnage and surface firepower (and would ultimately sink Yamato later in the war). The breakdown in Japanese communications resulted in Kurita being unaware of the opportunity that Ozawa's decoy plan had offered him. Kurita's mishandling of his forces during the surface engagement further compounded his losses.
Despite Halsey's failure to protect the northern flank of the 7th Fleet, Taffy 3 and assisting aircraft turned back the most powerful surface fleet Japan had sent to sea since the Battle of Midway. Domination of the skies, prudent and timely maneuvers by the U.S. ships, tactical errors by the Japanese admiral, and perhaps superior American radar technology, gunnery and seamanship, all contributed to this outcome. The Japanese had invested much in expensive guns that outranged US weapons. But their guns lacked a blind fire capability and were thwarted by smoke laid by screening destroyers and rain squalls. Their manually intensive fire control system computed solutions for targets on a constant course. But the destroyers would constantly alter course, to run a zig zag. A 40 ft (12 m)-wide destroyer at 30 kn (35 mph; 56 km/h) can travel up to 0.41 nmi (0.47 mi; 0.76 km) away in the 49 seconds it takes for a 18.1 inch APC shell to cover 15 nmi (17 mi; 28 km).
The Japanese only landed hits when the large Japanese ships, which could not maneuver while firing, came within range of guns as small as the 5 in (130 mm) carrier-mounted guns. These small guns would prove their value - they found an Achilles' heel in a cruiser's torpedo mount. The attacking Japanese force initially used armor-piercing shells, which proved largely ineffective against unarmored ships as they passed through and out without exploding. Even the small destroyer escorts were engineered with enough redundancy to survive dozens of hits without or before sinking. The Americans could put the MK-37 radar-directed fire control system and its computer in ships as small as destroyers. This allowed them to land accurate hits while maneuvering. The freedom to maneuver was exploited by the American units, as they could predict the fall of Japanese shells. The Japanese visual-aiming system produced "bracketing" multiple shots. Ships captains would see sets of shells fall, and notice that subsequent shells would be predictably placed. The ship would be able to maneuver away from a bracket that was closing in. Excellent U.S. 5 in (130 mm) and 40 mm anti-aircraft fire directed by radar and computer control downed several kamikazes, while the lack of comparable systems made the Japanese ships vulnerable to American fliers.
In summary, the Japanese had built the largest battleships but the fleet was largely unrefined, and had numerous technical limitations and weaknesses, and the commanding officers made mistakes and failed to take into account their weaknesses nor make best use of their strengths. The American Navy had superior technology, and while the commanding officers would make some mistakes, they were of limited nature, and the Americans had sufficient numbers of all types of ships and weapons to compensate for these mistakes. After all, neither the important capital ships of the American Navy, nor the invasion units, were damaged by even this surprise attack.
It may be argued that, of all of the battles in the Pacific War, Samar best demonstrates the effectiveness of air attack and destroyer-launched torpedoes against larger surface vessels. Cautious Japanese tactics were hampered by the belief they were fighting a much more powerful force. Conversely, the Americans accurately sensed the gravity of their predicament, and quickly improvised a strategy based on harassment and delay which did not hesitate to throw inadequately armed planes and ships directly against battleships if that was what was available.
|“||Well, I think it was really just determination that really meant something. I can't believe that they didn't just go in and wipe us out. We confused the Japanese so much. I think it deterred them. It was a great experience.||”|
—Interview by Hornfischer of Tom Stevensen, Survivor Samuel B. Roberts
Clifton Sprague's task unit lost two escort carriers: (Gambier Bay, to surface attack and St. Lo, to kamikaze attack). Of the seven screening ships, fewer than half, two destroyers (Hoel and Johnston) and a destroyer escort (Samuel B. Roberts) were lost, as were dozens of aircraft. The other four U.S. destroyers and escorts were damaged. For such a small task unit, well over a thousand Americans died, comparable to the losses suffered at the Allied defeat of the Battle of Savo Island off Guadalcanal when four cruisers were sunk. It was also comparable to the combined losses of the 543 men and three ships at the Battle of the Coral Sea, and 307 men and two ships at the Battle of Midway.
On the other side of the balance sheet, the Japanese were forced to scuttle three heavy cruisers, and a fourth limped back to base seriously damaged, having lost its bow. All of Kurita's battleships except Yamato suffered considerable damage, and apart from Yamato, all of the heavy ships stayed inactive in their bases, and the Japanese navy as a whole had been rendered ineffective for the remainder of the war. At Leyte Gulf, relatively tiny Taffy 3 bore the brunt of losses, sacrificing five of the six U.S. ships of 37,000 long tons (38,000 t) that were lost. By comparison, the Japanese lost twenty-six ships of 306,000 long tons (311,000 t).
The battle took place above the Philippine Trench, with most of the hull losses occurring in waters of over 7000 m (23,000 ft) deep. Though none of the wreckage has yet been located and the sinking locations are approximate, the battle produced some of the deepest shipwrecks on record.
Criticism of Halsey
Halsey was criticized for his decision to take TF 34 north in pursuit of Ozawa, and for failing to detach it when Kinkaid first appealed for help. A piece of U.S. Navy slang for Halsey's actions is 'Bull's Run', a phrase combining Halsey's newspaper nickname "Bull" (in the U.S. Navy, he was known as "Bill" Halsey) with an allusion to the Battle of Bull Run in the American Civil War.
In his dispatch after the battle, Halsey attempted to justify his decision as follows:
- "Searches by my carrier planes revealed the presence of the Northern carrier force on the afternoon of October 24, which completed the picture of all enemy naval forces. As it seemed childish to me to guard statically San Bernardino Strait, I concentrated TF 38 during the night and steamed north to attack the Northern Force at dawn.
- I believed that the Center Force had been so heavily damaged in the Sibuyan Sea that it could no longer be considered a serious menace to Seventh Fleet."
Halsey also tried to argue that he had feared that leaving TF 34 to defend the strait without carrier support would have left it vulnerable to attack from land-based aircraft, while leaving one of the fast carrier groups behind to cover the battleships would have significantly reduced the concentration of air power going north to strike Ozawa.
However, Morison stated in a footnote "Admiral Lee, however, said after the battle that he would have been only too glad to have been ordered to cover San Bernardino Strait without air cover."
Moreover, if Halsey had been in proper communication with 7th Fleet it would have been entirely practicable for the escort carriers of TF 77 to provide adequate air cover for TF 34 —- a much easier matter than it would be for those escort carriers to defend themselves against the onslaught of Kurita's heavy ships.
It may be argued that the fact that Halsey was aboard one of the battleships, and "would have had to remain behind" with TF 34 (while the bulk of his fleet charged northwards to attack the Japanese carriers) may have contributed to this decision. However, it would have been perfectly feasible (and logical) to have taken one or both of 3rd Fleet's two fastest battleships (USS Iowa and/or New Jersey) with the carriers in the pursuit of Ozawa, while leaving the rest of the Battle Line off San Bernardino Strait. (Indeed, Halsey's original plan for the composition of TF 34 was that it would contain only four, not all six, of the 3rd Fleet's battleships). Therefore, to guard San Bernardino Strait with a powerful battleship force would not have been incompatible with Halsey's personally going north aboard the New Jersey.
It does seem likely that Halsey was strongly influenced by his Chief of Staff, Rear Admiral Robert "Mick" Carney, who was also wholeheartedly in favor of taking all Third Fleet's available forces northwards to attack the Japanese carrier force.
Clifton Sprague—commander of Task Unit 77.4.3 in the battle off Samar—was later bitterly critical of Halsey's decision, and of his failure to clearly inform Kinkaid and the 7th Fleet that their northern flank was no longer protected:
|“||In the absence of any information that this exit [of the San Bernardino Strait] was no longer blocked, it was logical to assume that our northern flank could not be exposed without ample warning.||”|
Regarding Halsey's failure to turn TF 34 southwards when 7th Fleet's first calls for assistance off Samar were received, Morison writes:
|“||If TF 34 had been detached a few hours earlier, after Kinkaid's first urgent request for help, and had left the destroyers behind, since their fueling caused a delay of over two hours and a half, a powerful battle line of six modern battleships under the command of Admiral Lee, the most experienced battle squadron commander in the Navy, would have arrived off San Bernardino Strait in time to have clashed with Kurita's Center Force… Apart from the accidents common in naval warfare, there is every reason to suppose that Lee would have crossed the T of Kurita's fleet and completed the destruction of Center Force.||”|
Instead, as Morison also observes:
|“||The mighty gunfire of the Third Fleet's Battle Line, greater than that of the whole Japanese Navy, was never brought into action except to finish off one or two crippled light ships.||”|
—Morison (1956), pp. 336–337
Perhaps the most telling comment is made laconically by Vice Admiral Lee in his action report as the Commander of TF 34:
|“||No battle damage was incurred nor inflicted on the enemy by vessels while operating as Task Force Thirty-Four.||”|
Presidential Unit Citation
Taffy 3 was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation:
For extraordinary heroism in action against powerful units of the Japanese Fleet during the Battle off Samar, Philippines, October 25, 1944. ...the gallant ships of the Task Unit waged battle fiercely against the superior speed and fire power of the advancing enemy ...two of the Unit's valiant destroyers and one destroyer escort charged the battleships point-blank and, expending their last torpedoes in desperate defense of the entire group, went down under the enemy's heavy shells ... The courageous determination and the superb teamwork of the officers and men who fought the embarked planes and who manned the ships of Task Unit 77.4.3 were instrumental in effecting the retirement of a hostile force threatening our Leyte invasion operations and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.
A number of ships were named after participants in the battle, and ships from that battle, including USS Copeland (FFG-25), USS Evans (DE-1023), USS Clifton Sprague (FFG-16), USS Carr (FFG-52) and USS Hoel (DDG-13), and USS Johnston (DD-821). When USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58) struck a mine, her crew would touch a plaque commemorating the original crew as they struggled to save the ship. No ships were named for any of the escort carriers, and no examples of escort carriers survive to this day beyond models and partial mockups.
While the battle is frequently included in historical accounts of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the duels between the destroyer and destroyer escorts and Yamato and the Japanese force was the subject of a Dogfights television program "Death of the Japanese Navy" That episode, as well as a History Channel documentary was based on The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors, written by James D. Hornfischer.
The survivors formed associations which still meet annually, and raised funds to build memorials in San Diego near the current location of the USS Midway (CV-41) museum which contains a model of Gambier Bay.
In 2005, the memorial was vandalized with the bust of Admiral Sprague broken off the pedestal base. It was restored in June 2007.
The 1962 novel Harm's Way bears many similarities to the battle. The combined small destroyer/Jeep carrier/cruiser group portrayed as facing a battle group centered on the Japanese battleship Yamato is quite similar, as are the lopsided results of the battle. As the author of Harm's Way was Admiral Halsey's Public Relations officer, his familiarity with the detailed background of the real engagement doubtless inspired the book.
The 2005 Japanese movie Yamato (film) shows Yamato firing its main guns against surface targets, and battling against aircraft, but it is not made clear that the ship withdrew in the face of an attack by light escort ships.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Battle of Leyte Gulf.|
- Animated History of The Battle of Leyte Gulf including the Battle off Samar
- Battle Experience: Battle for Leyte Gulf [Cominch Secret Information Bulletin No. 22]
- Task Force 77 Action Report: Battle of Leyte Gulf
- "Turkey Trots to Water"—detailed description of the battle from battleship.org
- Order of battle: Samar.
- "Glorious Death: The Battle of Leyte Gulf" by Tim Lanzendörfer
- The Battle Off Samar – Taffy III at Leyte Gulf website by Robert Jon Cox
- Return to the Philippines: public domain documents from ibiblio.org
- The Battle for Leyte Gulf Revisited
- Timeline for USS Samuel B. Roberts (DE 413)
- Japan's TA-Operation: A Blueprint for Disaster by Irwin Kappes
- Case study if Halsey had formed task force 34
- USS Johnston-Hoel Association
- USS Samuel B. Roberts (DE-413) Survivors Association
- The Ship Has Sunk and the Sharks are Hungry The account of survivor Earl Bagley
- Lost Evidence of the Pacific: The Battle of Leyte Gulf. History Channel. TV. Based on book by Hornfischer, James D. (2004). The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors.
- Dogfights: Death of the Japanese Navy. History Channel. TV. Based on book, and with interview by Hornfischer, James D. (2004). The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors. History Channel DVD "Score one for the little guy as Taffy 3 sends Yamamoto's fleet limping home."