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"THEY HAD US ON THE ROPES"
By RADM C.A.F. Sprague, USN,
& LT P.H. Gustafson, USN
First published in American Magazine in April 1945
A note: As this article was published prior to the war's end, some of the information it contains is inaccurate. As would be expected, after the war was concluded, this battle was investigated in great detail. Several fine accounts can be found in The Battle Off Samar Reading List. This article does however, give a fine flavor of the battle from the senior commanders perspective. Enjoy!
A half-hour after sunrise-0645, to be exact - I received a radio message from one of our planes on local anti-submarine patrol, and I remember that I was very much annoyed. In plain language, the message ran something like this:
"Enemy surface force of 4 battleships, 7 cruisers, and 11 destroyers sighted 20 miles northwest of your task group and closing in on you at 30 knots."
"Now, there's some screwy young aviator reporting part of our own forces," was the disgusted thought that ran through my mind; "undoubtedly he's just spotted some of Admiral Halsey's fast battleships."
"Air Plot, tell him to check his identification," I yelled into the squawk box.
While I waited for a reply, I went back to worrying about the schedule of strikes and patrols we had to send Commander Support Aircraft that day. It would keep my deck crews on the jump until sundown, just fueling, arming, and launching the regular combat air patrols, antisubmarine patrols, and photo, search, and support missions - let alone the special strikes he was sure to ask for. Each day got tougher than the one before, and this was our eighth on Philippine air support for my task group of 6 baby flattops, 3 destroyers, and 4 destroyer escorts operating that morning to the north of the southern tip of Samar Island.
About 100 miles to the south and west of us, as a ship would cruise, the shore was black with thousands of men establishing a beach-head on Leyte, and their ships were thick in the harbor. Forty miles to the west of us, where the morning light was just beginning to penetrate, stood the vague, gray outlines of the Samar Mountains, now blacked out all over the northwest by the inky clouds of a heavy squall.
This was the picture . . . at 0648 on October 25 (1944) as I got my reply from the pilot who had sent that contact report. "Identification of enemy force confirmed," he radioed. "Ships have pagoda masts."
Pagoda masts! Well, that was the clincher for me, and I knew I was on the spot. But if there still remained the slightest doubt that this was an enemy fleet, it was dissolved a moment later when a thick pattern of anti-aircraft puffs speckled the sky above the squall to the northwest, making it hot for the flier who had smelled them out. And as it turned out, he was giving them hell too! Pushing over into the flak of the whole Japanese fleet, this plucky lad, Ensign William C. Brooks, USNR, of Pasadena, California, dive-bombed a cruiser with his antisubmarine loading - two measly depth charges. I blush to recall any unkind thoughts I ever had about him.
The force Brooks had spotted was the middle prong of a three-prong Japanese advance on our Philippines occupation. Lambasted the afternoon before by bombs and torpedoes, this force had been left apparently crippled and in full retreat. During the night the Jap commander had repaired his losses, daringly navigated the perilous San Bernardino Strait at high speed, and slipped down through the mists off the Samar coast toward the docile shipping in Leyte Gulf, a rich prize to be destroyed with frightful leisure.
They'll steam on down close to the Leyte coast, I thought, meanwhile sending out a few cruisers to polish us off. That will be about a 15-minute job. But if we can get this task force to attack us, we can delay its descent on Leyte until help comes, though obviously the end will come sooner for us.
While the ack-ack was still chasing Brooks, we made visual contact with the Japs. Out of the fog loomed his big battlewagons - pagoda masts and all - and opened with their 14- and 16-inch guns at 25,000 yards. He had committed his whole task force to an attack on us! Wicked salvos straddled the USS WHITE PLAINS, and then colored geysers began to sprout among all the other carriers from projectiles loaded with dye to facilitate the spotting of gunfire. In various shades of pink, green, red, yellow, and purple, the splashes had a kind of horrid beauty. No I wouldn't say it was like a bad dream, for my mind had never experienced anything from which such a nightmare could have been spun. Neither could such dream stuff have been recalled from my reading in some history book, because nothing like this had ever happened in history.
I didn't think we'd last fifteen minutes. What chance could we have - 6 slow, thin-skinned escort carriers, each armed with only one 5-inch peashooter, against 16-, 14-, 8-, and 5-inch broadsides of the 22 warships bearing down on us at twice our top speed? No carrier is built for surface engagements, and these 10,000 ton CVE's were originally intended for convoy escort, airplane transport, and air cover, not even for fleet-to-fleet air strikes. The thought that 6 of us would be fighting 22 Jap warships at gun range had never entered anyone's mind.
Bearing down on us at 30 knots were 4 new Jap super-battleships, in action for the first time: the YAMATO, NAGATO, KONGO, and HARUNA (32,720 to 45,000 tons), averaging eight 14- and 16-inch guns; sixteen to twenty 5.5-inch and eight 5-inch guns, 7 cruisers of the NACHI, MOGAMI, and TONE classes (8,850 to 12,000 tons, speed 35 knots), averaging eight 8-inch and eight 5-inch guns and eight to twelve 24-inch torpedo tubes; 11 destroyers, averaging 1,700 tons, five 4-inch guns, and four torpedo tubes.
Well, anyhow, I thought, we might as well give them all we've got before we go down, so the minute the Japs were sighted I took several defensive actions in quick succession. At 0650 I shifted from my northerly course and ran directly east, heading at full speed for a friendly little rain squall near by. On the new course, we were bearing almost into the wind, and at 0656 I ordered all carriers to launch aircraft for torpedo and bombing strikes on the Jap fleet. Many of our planes were over the beach on support missions, and I radioed Commander Support Aircraft to send these back on the double. They had bombs which we could use.
At 0657 I instructed my carriers to throw up all possible smoke from their stacks and break out tanks of screening chemical ordinarily used by the planes. Open to the air, these tanks were soon billowing clouds of vapor over the stern. At the same time, I ordered all the escorts to get on the stern of the formation and whip up all smoke they could muster.
From Vice-Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid, commanding the Seventh Fleet, I requested all available air and surface assistance, particularly from two other groups in our carrier task force. Rear Admiral Felix Stump, commanding the nearest carrier group, 30 miles to the south, responded at once with a series of bombing and torpedo strikes that continued during the next two hours. Planes were also thrown at the Jap fleet by carriers under Rear Admiral Thomas L. Sprague (no relation of mine), operating the third group 70 miles south of us.
Commander Richard L. Fowler, USN, Fargo, North Dakota, leader of the flagship's air group, roared off into the murk with a division of torpedo planes, and himself scored a hit amidships of the battleship NAGATO. Others of his section hit cruisers. Fowler and the rest of the first attackers flew into a blinding flak thrown up by the whole Japanese force, still in a single group deployment.
Launching hastily - singly or in small units - the Avengers and Wildcats could seldom rendezvous in the smoke and confusion to make coordinated attacks; consequently, the torpedo planes often went in without benefit of bombers and strafers to clear the decks ahead of them. Fighters ran impromptu interference whenever they could find a good ball carrier, or, bombs lacking, just flew strafing into clouds of anti-aircraft fire to chase the Jap gun crews and divert the ships from their targets.
Salvos were splashing thickly around all my ships as, at 0713, still heading east, we entered our little rain squall and in its slight shelter finished launching aircraft. This providential rainstorm, plus the funnel and screening smoke laid down by all ships, seemed to bother the enemy fire-control parties to an unusual degree, at times causing lulls in the shelling.
In the squall, I did some thinking. I didn't like my easterly course, because I felt the Japs were not being drawn as far from San Bernardino Strait as I'd like. I wanted to pull the enemy out where somebody could smack him, for if we were going to expend ourselves I wanted to make it count. Furthermore, I felt I should run southwest to meet whatever help might be coming to me out of Leyte Gulf. And still I wanted to keep myself between the enemy fleet and our landing operations to the southwest.
It was a hard decision to make, but at 0730 I changed course to the southeast and then to the south. It was hard, because in so turning we moved in an arc - roughly semicircular - and I feared the Jap commander would cut across the diameter and blast us out of the water as we emerged from our little squall. Racking my brains for some trick to delay the kill, I resolved to throw my destroyers and destroyer escorts at him in a torpedo attack as we emerged from the rainstorm.
As we came out of the squall, I was surprised to find that the Jap commander had not moved to cut us off but had stupidly followed us around the circle. However, going now at almost twice our top speed, he closed with depressing rapidity, slipping up to 25,000, then to 20,000, and soon to 15,000 yards. The volume and accuracy of his fire increased until, at one point, it did not seem that any of our ships could survive for another five minutes.
Some urgent counteraction was demanded at once, and this was the time for my little group of seven escorts to charge our big tormentors. In they went, pressing their attack to close range in the most heroic fashion. And not a single one of these little ships was lost! Results were obscured in the heavy smoke screen, but we know that one destroyer got a direct torpedo hit on a battleship. More important, the escorts turned the battleship fleet away momentarily and created a diversion of immense value.
As the Japs came within range, I ordered the carriers to open up with their peashooters (the single 5-inchers with which each carrier is armed). As he watched the one on the USS SAINT LO plug doggedly away over the stern, an old chief was heard to mutter, "They oughta fire that thing under water - we could use a little jet propulsion right now."
At any rate, the SAINT LO, singled out a cruiser 14,000 yards astern and closing, scored three hits and started a large fire. His range finder damaged, Chief Gunner S.G. Jenkins, a warrant officer of 16 years in the Navy, did his own spotting for the gun on the KALININ BAY. Even so, he made three hits, two on a cruiser and one on a destroyer. As the little 5-incher on the USS WHITE PLAINS banged away, one of the battery officers sang out cheerily, "Just hold on a little longer, boys; we're sucking them into 40-mm range."
At this point the enemy split his forces, advancing two heavy cruisers on our port quarter which soon moved up abeam of us, closing the range at will and delivering salvos from as close as 10,000 yards. Straddles and hits were being scored all over our force. On the starboard side, the Jap OTC (Officer in Tactical Command) also moved up a group of cruisers and destroyers in a similar tactic, and these also closed the range to 10,000 yards. His battleships he kept in the rear, closing to 10,000 to 15,000 yards. The Japs were now firing at us from three sides.
Within this three-sided "box," my carriers were formed in a large circle, with the destroyers and destroyer escorts in a larger circle around them. I kept this formation on a southwesterly course, squeezing over 10 to 20 degrees to one side and then to the other, according to which side was throwing the hottest fire. Within the rough circular formation, the individual carrier skippers maneuvered violently, chasing salvo splashes on the assumption that the next salvo would land somewhere else. This was the pattern of our movements for most of the two hours and a half we were under attack. During this time I figure they fired about 300 salvos, letting go at 2-second intervals.
Between 0800 and 0900 the whole formation was under continuous fire. My flagship, the FANSHAW BAY, was hit 6 times. From the splashes, it appeared that the KALININ BAY was getting the worst working over. She suffered 16 hits. The shells created a shambles belowdecks, her officers told me later, and only the heroic efforts of her crew kept the little ship going. Bos'n's crews wrestled under five feet of water to plug up big holes in the hull; engineers worked knee-deep in oil, chocking in the stench of burned rubber; quartermasters steered the ship for hours from the emergency wheel below, as fire scorched the deck on which they stood; and all hands risked their lives to save mates in flooded or burning compartments.
At 0820 the GAMBIER BAY reported being so heavily hit that she lost the use of one engine. Her speed reduced to 14 knots, she dropped back rapidly in the formation and passed through most of the Japanese fleet. As the big enemy warships heaved abeam at 2,000 yards, they pumped twenty 8-inch shells into her unarmored hull until she sank. Swarming down the side on lines, her crew scattered over the water in life jackets and rafts, the hubbub of battle quickly passing them by. Rescue craft came out of Leyte Gulf to pick up some 700 survivors.
The Japs' destroyers and cruisers on our flanks continued firing broadsides at us from 10,000 yards and I never did figure out why they didn't close to 5,000 and polish us off. Around 0840, the Japanese fire from the starboard beam was punishing us so unmercifully that something had to be done. At 0841, I ordered part of our destroyers and destroyer escorts to get between us and the cruisers to throw up a heavier smoke screen. While they were thus protecting the carriers, the destroyers USS HOEL and USS JOHNSTON and the destroyer escort USS ROBERTS were fatally hit and dropped back out of sight.
All during our flight from the Jap fleet, pilots of all three air groups were hitting the Jap ships with everything in the armory - including the doorknobs. After the first launch from my own task group, the heavy firing, violent maneuvers, and cross wind made it impossible for me to land planes. However, Admiral Stump's group recovered and launched planes without pause. Admiral Thomas Sprague also threw in all the planes he could get off, but unfortunately his carriers were under land-based attack a good share of this time. Deck crews on all these carriers worked at terrific pressure landing planes, refueling, rearming, and launching over and over again at top speed.
Avengers took off with torpedoes as long as they lasted. When the torpedoes gave out, they went in with bombs - sometimes only the little hundred-pounders with which they were supplied to bomb shore objectives. When the bombs gave out, they made dummy runs to divert the Jap ships. For two hours, without so much as a machine-gun bullet to fight with, Lieutenant Commander Edward J. Huxtable, USN, glided his Avenger through the flak to make dry runs on enemy capital ships, once flying down a line of 8 enemy cruisers to divert their course and throw off their firing for a few precious minutes.
The Wildcat pilots were given a free hand to strafe, with the hope that their strafing would kill personnel on the Japanese warships, silence automatic weapons, and, most important, draw attention from the struggling escort carriers. Sometimes two, or four, Wildcats would join up for a strafing run. Again, a Wildcat would join up and run interference for an Avenger. Then, likely as not, it would turn out that the Avenger had no torpedo or bomb and was simply making a dummy run. When their ammunition gave out, the fighters also made dry runs to turn the pursuers. Lieutenant Paul B. Garrison, of Seaside, Oregon, made 20 strafing runs, ten of them dry.
After my task group had been under heavy surface fire for about an hour, I turned to William Morgan, my chief quartermaster, with the remark: "By golly, I think we may have a chance."
To me it was a miracle that under such terrific fire for that length of time only one carrier had suffered a crippling hit. Two others had suffered several hits and three others none at all. And all of my six carriers, except the GAMBIER BAY, were able to make their maximum speed.
But at 0920 the Japs, having given us everything they had in surface fire, opened up with a torpedo attack, launching from 12 to 14 fish on our starboard quarter. Again they showed their timidity by striking from too far away - about 10,000 yards - so that when the torpedoes reached our formation they were near the end of their rope and, fortunately, parallel to our course. Several of our pilots, passing over our carriers between strikes, were quick-witted enough to strafe torpedoes which seemed about to hit ships, and exploded several of them in the water.
At 0925, my mind was occupied with dodging torpedoes, when near the bridge I heard one of the signalmen yell, "God damn it, boys, they're getting away!"
I could not believe my eyes, but it looked as if the whole Japanese fleet was indeed retiring . . .