For two decades prior to World War II, both the Imperial Japanese Navy and the United States Navy assumed any war in the Pacific would culminate in a decisive battle in the waters off the Philippines archipelago.
B0th navies built their fleets, their doctrine, their weapons, and their training around this assumption. And in late October, 1944, that battle was joined, the largest naval battle in history, The Battle of Leyte Gulf.
Spread over three days, and hundreds of thousands of square miles, it was a decisive defeat for the IJN. But on the 25th of October, one portion of the battle was very nearly a catastrophe for the US Navy, and only by the dint of extraordinary heroism and sacrifice was disaster averted.
In mid 1944, having consolidated the capture of the Marianas island chain, the Navy actually argued to bypass the Philippines, and instead invade Formosa.* But shipping and a shortage of available Army troops meant any invasion of Formosa would be delayed an unacceptable length of time. With the resources available, an invasion of the Philippines was practical. Further, GEN MacArthur strongly argued that the US had a moral obligation to fulfill his promise to return. The Philippine people, and all other Asian nations, he argued, would never forgive the US for a failure to attempt to liberate conquered peoples.
GEN MacArthur won the argument. The next objective in the Pacific would be his target. But President Roosevelt was loathe to place either MacArthur subordinate to ADM Nimitz, or ADM Nimitz under MacArthur. And so were sewn seeds of disunity of command.
Under Nimitz, VADM Halsey lead the Third Fleet in direct support of the invasion. But the actual invasion forces were under the US Seventh Fleet, which was under GEN MacArthur’s command.
The IJN plan to counter the invasion was, as so many of their plans, a complex one that divided the Japanese fleet into three forces, the Northern Force, the Center Force, and the Southern Force.
Northern Force was centered around the remnants of the Japanese carrier fleet. But the air wings of the fleet had been ground to a nub months earlier in the Great Marianas Turkey shoot, and so the force carried only a paltry 108 planes. It was, in actuality, a sacrificial decoy force, intended to draw Halsey and his stupendously powerful Fast Carrier Task Force away to the north.
The rest of the Japanese plan was for the Center force to pass north of Samar, and for the Southern Force to pass through the Surigao Strait, and for both to fall upon the lightly defended invasion forces at Leyte.
It didn’t turn out that way. The Center Force was attacked during the day of October 24th by Halsey’s carriers, and forced to turn back. The Southern Force, harassed by submarine and air attack was later annihilated in the Surigao Strait by waves of destroyer torpedo attacks and a masterful battleship and cruiser gun line in history’s last “Big Gun” naval battle.
The decisive victory had been won! Except, it hadn’t.
In the waters to the east of Samar, under the Seventh Fleet, three groups of small escort carriers were providing close air support to the troops ashore, and a Combat Air Patrol over the invasion fleet. Escort Carriers, known as CVE, were jokingly said to be Combustible, Vulnerable, and Expendable. Based on converted merchant hulls, they lacked many of the survivability measure of warships. Armed with a single 5”/38 gun on the stern, and with an airwing of about two dozen FM-2 Wildcat and TBM Avengers, they were well suited for their role supporting invasion forces.
Three groups of six CVEs were operated in support of the invasion, with the call sign “Taffy.” Taffy 3 was the northernmost group, under RADM Clifton A. F. Sprague.** In total, Taffy 3 had those six carriers, and an escort of three Destroyers (DD) and four Destroyer Escorts (DE).
At 0637 on October 25, 1944, a scout pilot from Taffy 3 was astonished to spot a massive Japanese force coming round Samar and headed right for Taffy 3. The Center Force, under ADM Kurita, turned back the day before, had countermarched and resumed its mission. The thirteen fragile ships of Taffy 3 now faced a force of four battleships, six heavy cruisers armed with 8” guns, two light cruisers armed with 6” guns, and eleven destroyers. Taffy 3 was doomed. No force could withstand such an onslaught.
Instantly, RADM Sprague made a series of decisions, every one of them correct. First, he called for help, especially from the other escort carrier groups. Second, he immediately turned away from the Center Force and ran as fast as his carriers could go. And third, he began launching every plane he could to throw at the Japanese. And fourth, he had his ships begin laying as much smoke as possible. While US ships used radar fire control, the Japanese fleet was still restricted to optical fire control.
An escort carrier had a maximum speed of about 18 knots. Every ship in the Japanese force was at least 10 knots faster, and many were twice as fast. Sooner or later, the Japanese would be able to run down the carriers.
The escorting destroyers and destroyer escorts place themselves between the carriers and the oncoming armada. USS Johnston, under the command of CDR Earnest Evans, immediately turned to make a torpedo attack on the Japanese. Soon the destroyer USS Hoel joined, and the destroyer escort USS Samuel B. Roberts as well. All three would soon be sunk with heavy loss of life. But the combined efforts of these three ships and the others of the escort, the furious air attacks by Taffy 3’s planes and those of the other escort groups staved off complete disaster.
In the end, ADM Kurita’s heavy cruisers first slowed, then sank the escort carrier USS Gambier Bay.
An 8-inch salvo from either Japanese cruiser Tone or Chikuma straddles the burning U.S. escort carrier Gambier Bay on October 25, 1944 during the Battle off Samar. The Japanese cruiser can be faintly seen in the center right of the photograph.
But the storm of fire from the escorts and the American planes cost the Japanese three heavy cruisers sunk, and three badly damaged. ADM Kurita, with victory within his grasp, took counsel of his fears. He recalled his force and attempted to make good his escape.
In just over two hours,the Japanese had inflicted 1000 fatalities upon Taffy 3, and sunk four ships.
But as historian Samuel Elliott Morrison notes his history of the battle, ADM Kurita’s failure was a very minor tactical victory when he should have inflicted a major operational defeat upon the US Navy. The IJN in October 1944 was a spent force. The role of the Center Force was a suicide mission. Had he persisted, he could have further battered Taffy 3, and far more importantly, he could have fallen amongst the invasion forces and done unimaginable slaughter to them.
While Taffy 3 escaped annihilation at the hands of ADM Kurita’s Center Force, it’s ordeal that day was far from over. Possibly the most fear inducing weapon the Japanese fielded in the war made its debut an hour later. For the first time, the Kamikaze corps would dive their planes to their doom, and their targets were the thin decks of the carriers of Taffy three. USS Kalinin Bay would suffer ghastly damage, and the USS St. Lo***, already badly damaged by gunfire, would succumb to a Kamikaze.
In the dark days of the summer and autumn of 1942 during desperate fighting in the Solomons Islands, US Navy ships, equipment, doctrine, leadership and training were often overmatched by their Japanese counterparts. Two years later, under some of the most trying circumstances imaginable, young sailors, many who had never been to sea before a few months before, performed magnificently, a feat of gallantry and bravery that has few, if any, rivals in US Navy history.
Should you be interested in learning more of this battle, I strongly recommend Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors by James D. Hornfischer, and Samuel Elliot Morrison’s The Two Ocean War.
*Now known as Taiwan
**In an historical oddity, the southernmost group was under RADM Thomas Sprague, no relation to Clifton
***USS St. Lo was originally commissioned USS Midway, but that name was “clawed back” for the CVB class carrier CVB-41. Sailors say it is bad luck to rename a ship.