from the personal collection of Eugene Ray Perkins F/1c, USNR USS MARCUS ISLAND (CVE 77)
The following are extracts from an Associated Press article which appeared in the Honolulu papers:
PACIFIC FLEET HEADQUARTERS, PEARL HARBOR, Nov. 20.
(AP) - The battle of San Bernardino Strait October 24, in which a Japanese force of four battleships, eight heavy cruisers and at least 10 destroyers trapped 16 American escort carriers protected only by their own planes and an unreported number of destroyers was one of the strangest in Naval history.
The American victors fled before the vanquished Japanese, who had heavy odds in their favor; far superior range, very heavy armor, far greater speed and the assistance of land based airplanes.
The Japanese were fast overtaking the little CVE's (escort carriers) - but just when the American vessels seemed doomed the enemy turned and fled under attack by U.S. carrier planes.
The Gambier Bay took a shell that knocked out one engine. The resultant sudden slowing, plus the enemy's speed, allowed the Gambier Bay to be overtaken by the entire Japanese force.
The enemy deliberately riddled her at point blank range and sent the ship to the bottom, but a great number of her crew were saved.
The story was related today by a naval observer who witnessed much of the action from the escort carrier Natoma Bay, but whose name was withheld by censorship.
Another CVE, the St. Lo, was hit heavily, set afire and sunk a few miles away. The crew went overside when "abandon ship" was ordered and an escorting destroyer dared Japanese fire to pick up survivors. At this time, about 9 am, the naval officer reported, the CVE's were fleeing the scene as fast as possible in a line extending many miles over the Philippine Sea, even while their own planes were bombing and torpedoing the enemy attackers. The little carriers, capable of only about 20 knots, were being overhauled rapidly by the Japanese ships, all believed capable of more than 30 knots.
The CVE's were "being heavily shelled by Jap cruisers and battleships - - the situation looks almost hopeless," the naval officer wrote in his diary.
He saw shells from the foremost Japanese ship falling over the screening American destroyers and astern of his fleeing Natoma Bay. The enemy used red, green, yellow and purple dyes in shells from the various ships better to determine their accuracy. Green shells fell around the Natoma Bay and "spouted plumes of water in a beautiful iridescent green in the clear sunlight against the dark blue sea."
The 16 escort carriers "had no protection other than our aircraft, our maneuverability and gallant destroyer screen."
Their captains were:
Gambier Bay, Capt. W. V. R. Vieweg.
St. Lo (formerly the Midway), Capt. F. J. McKenna.
Kalinin Bay, Capt. T. B. Wilkinson.
Kitkun Bay, Capt. J. P. Whitney.
Fanshaw Bay, Capt. D. P. Johnson.
White Plains, Capt. D. J. Sullivan.
Natoma Bay, Capt. A. K. Morehouse.
Manila Bay, Capt. Fitzhugh Lee.
Ommaney Bay, Capt. H. L. Young.
Kadashan Bay, Capt. R. N. Hunter.
Marcus Island, Capt. C. F. Greber.
Savo Island, Capt. C. E. Ekstrom.
Sangamon, Capt. M. E. Browder.
Suwanee, Capt. W. D. Johnson.
Santee, Capt. R. E. Blick.
Petrof Bay, Capt. J. L. Kane.
Rear Admiral T. L. Sprague was in overall command, with Rear Admiral C. A. F. SPRAGUE and Fexlix B. STUMP cooperating. Some of the other CVE's were damaged, but they were not identified.
The force expected no outside aid (although it did get some in mid afternoon). Vice Admiral Jesse B. Oldendorf's battleship force still was in Leyte Gulf after sinking an entire Japanese force of two battleships, two cruisers and four destroyers before dawn.
Admiral William F. Halsey's 3rd Fleet was engaging the imperial carrier task force northeast of Luzon Island.
However, shortly after the naval observers noted that the situation was ominous, grim, these things happened in quick sequence.
"The Japanese force split and turned away...
"Our torpedo planes stopped the Japanese. At least one Japanese cruiser has been torpedoed and sunk....Other cruisers and battleships had been hit..."
All morning, the CVE pilots bombed and torpedoed the Japanese, returned to their carriers, armed, gassed, gulped sandwiches and were launched again and again for further attacks on the Japanese. Many of the pilots were engaging in their first combat.
The naval observer's final entry in is diary:
"The Japanese force has been whipped by our planes. Japanese ships lie crippled in their pools of oil....Surviving ships are running for their lives, leaving their wounded behind. The battle has turned and we no longer are pursued but are now the pursuers... A Jap battleship, a cruiser and a destroyer are ignored by our pursuing planes as they lie crippled in the sea. We are harrying them in their retreat."
At 4:30 in the afternoon, the Japanese sent more than 40 land based planes against the CVE's, but they were turned back after 16 had been destroyed. Meanwhile, carriers Admiral Halsey had detached from his 3rd Fleet had come south and joined in sinking or damaging every one of the fleeing Japanese ships.
Today, Admiral T. L. Sprague sent this message to all ships which had participated in the CVE action:
"These ships not only met and defeated enemy attacks in the air but they have turned back a large enemy fleet composed of his most modern ships.... Never have fighting men performed their duty with greater determination and distinction....Against such teamwork the enemy could not have prevailed....
"To the mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, wives and sons and daughters of those who were lost, I say: Do not be sad. Be comforted and inspired in the thought that victory for which these men so freely and courageously gave their lives has contributed immeasurably to final defeat of the enemy."