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"SMALL BOYS INTERCEPT!"
By CDR Amos T. Hathaway, USN
First published in American Magazine in April 1945
A note: This article was written by the only surviving destroyer's commanding officer. As with "They had us on the ropes," some of the information contained in this article is also inaccurate. Several fine accounts of HEERMANN's action at Samar can be found in The Battle Off Samar Reading List. Enjoy!
In the midst of the battle the HEERMANN's radio barked with a sharp order from the admiral: "Small boys (destroyers) on my starboard quarter, intercept an enemy cruiser coming in on my port quarter." The destroyer JOHNSTON and I turned to obey the order. Forty seconds later it was repeated, with the addition, "Expedite!" The JOHNSTON was doing her best, but I realized she was unable to make speed, so I swung past to execute the order independently.
A destroyer can't very well intercept a cruiser without torpedoes, and we had none, since we had used all of our earlier to smash a Jap battlewaggon. I tried to pass this information to the admiral in double-talk. Other ships were doing the same. As I listened, it became evident that there wasn't a torpedo among us. Anything we could do from now on would have to be mostly bluff.
Smoke still hung heavy on the sea as we ripped around the rear of the formation, but as we broke out of the smoke, the first thing I saw was one of our carriers dead ahead, taking a terrific pounding. Directly beyond her, so that only her fantail was visible, was an enemy TONE class cruiser. As we tore around to get the cruiser in the clear, I remembered that a TONE mounts eight 8-inch guns and a secondary battery of 5-inchers almost as heavy as our entire fire power. This was apt to be interesting.
Just as she switched her fire to us, we saw three more cruisers of the ATAGO or MAYA class, each mounting ten 8-inch guns, in column astern of her, and behind them two other big ships we had no time to identify. Thus, we were opposed by a total of thirty-eight 8-inch guns and about twenty 5-inch. Our entire strength on the HEERMANN consisted of five 5-inchers.
I had one thing in my favor: a splendid range. Those cruisers made beautiful targets for our little guns at 12,000 yards; we made a difficult target for their big ones. Nevertheless, I must say for them that they tried.
The blast from our number two gun was annoying, so I climbed to the fire-control platform above the pilothouse when the action began. I had a voice tube to the pilothouse, and from this elevation I could conn the ship more readily. My tactics were simple enough and as old as naval warfare. When I saw a splash, I ran straight for it, on the theory that they wouldn't shoot twice in the same place. This worked well enough until the enemy started firing colored salvos to get the range; after that I merely zigged and zagged.
The enemy splashes were consistently close, but not too close. The red splashes were closest. Then all at once a red salvo landed 1,000 yards short. The next red salvo was 100 yards closer. Thus they walked up in steady 100-yard steps until they hit us squarely. Even then, the Nips didn't have sense enough to know they'd found the range. The next salvo landed over us, and we were never hit again.
A good many things happened when the salvo hit. One projectile struck at the water line forward, tearing a jagged hole five-feet wide and flooding the forward magazines. Two others struck forward beneath the water. And another hit the uptake which carries a terrific blast of heat from the forward boiler to the stack.
On its way, this last shell plowed through a big stowage locker packed with dried navy beans. In a split second, it reduced those millions of beans to a gooey paste. The paste was sucked up by the hot blast of the uptake and tossed into the air. Lieutenant Bob Rutter, the paymaster, was standing on the machine-gun control platform on the forward side of the after stack.
The bean paste literally buried him. It was hot and moist, and he thought he had been blinded, until he scrambled out of the mess and wiped it from his eyes. He lost his taste for beans right there.
By all rules of naval warfare, that should have ended the battle. The sea rushed into the forward part of the ship and we began to go down rapidly by the bow. The ship felt as though, racing full speed, she were about to dive headfirst beneath the surface. We were so far down by the head that our anchors were dragging in the bow wave, throwing torrents of water on the deck. Yet, except for our number two gun, which had taken a piece of shrapnel, we were still firing.
The whole ship had shuddered and pitched when the salvo hit. Now, although she was steady except for the forward pitch of the deck, a lot of thoughts raced through my mind.
The one I couldn't forget was that the ships which had slowed down that day had continued to receive more and more damage. So I decided to keep going and take a chance. Thus we raced along, firing rhythmically, wondering how long we could last.
Just twelve minutes later a miracle happened: The Japs turned away. Don't ask me why. They had won the battle. Yet they quit.
In mid afternoon we received word they were retreating through San Bernardino Strait.
But not all of them. Just once, as though a curtain were being lifted, the haze rose from the sea. Ten miles away we saw a beautiful sight - a Jap cruiser burning furiously, topped by an enormous mushroom of smoke, dead in the water. While we were admiring her, the curtain closed down, but not before we saw a flight of our planes headed that way to polish her off.