During the Battle of Leyte Gulf and the invasion of the Philippines, the Japanese launched a daring plan to destroy the American transports off the coast in the central Philippines and inflict crippling damage on U.S. naval forces. The Japanese plan worked thanks to a ruse that lured the heavy American fleet carriers away to the north. A fleet of Japanese battleships and heavy cruisers caught the depleted Americans completely by surprise. The desperate Americans had six slower, smaller “jeep” carriers, and destroyers whose five-inch guns and thin armor were no match for the Japanese.
Nevertheless, Task Unit 77.4.3 (“Taffy 3”), commanded by Rear Admiral Clifton Sprague, wouldn’t go down without a fight. Their delaying action aided by aircraft allowed the slower escort carriers to escape. The Americans suffered as many casualties as at the Battles at Midway and the Coral Sea combined; but it could have been much worse. The “Tin Cans” (destroyers and destroyer escorts) of Taffy 3 saved the day and showed incredible resolve and heroism.
After the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the Japanese fleet was a shell of its former self. It was rendered incapable of ever again conducting offensive operations.
The Japanese Ruse
The Japanese Naval General Staff had created four different Shō plans to deal with assaults on the vital island perimeter that guarded Japanese commerce. Shō-1 (Shō-Itchi- Go) was a plan to thwart an invasion of the Philippines.
The Japanese plan was for Vice Admiral Jisaburō Ozawa’s Northern Force was to lure the American Third Fleet under Admiral “Bull” Halsey away from the Allied landings on Leyte using an apparently vulnerable force consisting of one fleet carrier and three light carriers as bait. Ozawa’s four carriers had a total of just 108 aircraft, slightly more than one fleet carrier would normally carry.
The American assault troops, without the air cover of the Third 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.
Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita’s Center Force consisted of five battleships, including Yamato and Musashi, the largest battleships ever built. It was escorted by cruisers and destroyers. Nishimura’s flotilla included two battleships. It would be followed by Vice Admiral Kiyohide Shima with three cruisers.
The Battle Begins
On October 15, 1944, the Japanese launched Operation Shō. During the subsequent Battle of the Sibuyan Sea, Halsey’s Third Fleet savagely attacked the Japanese Center Force, which had no air cover, with his five fleet carriers Intrepid, Essex, Lexington, Enterprise, and Franklin and light carrier Cabot.
The Americans flew 259 sorties and sunk the battleship Musashi, the sister ship to the Yamato, after hitting it with 19 torpedoes and 17 bombs. But the Japanese were using Ozawa’s Northern Force as a sacrificial ruse to draw the main American carriers away from the landing areas.
Halsey took three groups of Task Force 38, 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 to chase down the Northern Force that he believed to be the main threat.
Kurita’s force had seemingly withdrawn, but in the middle of the night had turned around in the San Bernardino Straits. The only forces standing in the way were the small group of destroyers and escort carriers of Taffy 3.
Kurita’s Center Force 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-, Yūgumo- and Shimakaze-class destroyers.
Although the Japanese ruse had worked, Kurita was never radioed that Halsey had taken the bait, so, throughout the battle, he worried that his force would come under attack from Halsey.
Shortly after 6:30 a.m. on October 25, an Avenger torpedo bomber flying anti-submarine patrol off the coast spotted the Japanese fleet. Armed with only depth charges, it dropped them anyway. They bounced harmlessly off the decks of the Japanese ships.
Achieving total tactical surprise, the Japanese battleship Yamato opened fire at 6:45. Kurita mistook the small escort carriers for the larger fleet carriers. His anxieties about the American strength would hound his decisions all through the battle.
At 6:50, Admiral Sprague ordered his ships to turn towards a squall, hoping his small, slower force would be harder to spot for the Japanese gunners. He ordered the escort carriers to launch the aircraft. Most of the aircraft had only depth charges or rockets and not bombs or torpedoes. After emptying their ordnance, they were ordered to Leyte to refuel and re-arm.
Kurita ordered a general attack, which led to confusion among the Japanese forces, as the order entailed that the ships attack piecemeal rather than in a coordinated fashion.
Taffy 3’s four destroyers, aptly nicknamed “Tin Cans” for their lack of any armor were armed with 5-inch guns. These were ineffective against the cruisers and battleships of Kurita’s force. Nonetheless, the American torpedoes were a threat to the Japanese and they would use these in an effort to allow the slower escort carriers to escape.
The destroyers began laying down smoke to screen the carriers from Japanese gunners. They then began making aggressive attacks on the Japanese as they peppered the cruisers and battleships with gunfire while unleashing torpedo attacks. They were so aggressive that the Japanese reported that the destroyers were “heavy cruisers” and that the smaller escorts were destroyers. The Japanese were firing armor-piercing rounds which passed right through one side of the small ships and out the other, due to their lack of armor, without exploding.
The Heroism of Commodore Ernest Evans
The USS Johnston, commanded by Cmdr Ernest Evans rushed into the fray by unleashing 5-inch gunfire. With fire bracketing his ship, Evans ordered flank speed and pressed home the attack.
The Johnston fired more than 200 shells while closing to just 4.4 miles away and unleashed all 10 of her torpedoes. Minutes later at 7:24 three torpedoes struck the heavy cruiser Kumano, blowing off her bow. The heavy cruiser Suzuya, which had been damaged during airstrikes from the carriers, stopped to assist the Kumano, taking her out of the fight.
Evans ordered the Johnston to reverse its course and began generating smoke tried to put some distance between itself and the Japanese. Meanwhile, the destroyers Heermann, Hoel, and the destroyer escort Samuel B. Roberts were pressing home a torpedo attack.
The Johnston was hit by an 18-inch shell that penetrated down to its engineering section, reducing her speed. Another shell blasted the bridge, killing and wounding several sailors including Evans who lost several fingers on his left hand. The Yamato reported sinking an “American heavy cruiser” but the Johnston was not out of the fight.
Despite the damage, at 8:20 Evans engaged the battleship Haruna and hit the superstructure of the bigger ship settling several fires onboard while avoiding the heavy fire. Evans then rushed into an attack against the heavy cruiser Haguro scoring several hits at a range of just three miles.
Then 20 minutes later, Evans saw seven Japanese destroyers closing quickly on the carriers in two columns. Although the Japanese fired and hit the Johnston several times, Evans pressed on the attack and hit the lead destroyer 12 times forcing the commander to veer off. He then hit the second destroyer five times. The entire seven-destroyer force turned away from the Johnston.
By 9:00, the fighting had become a close-quarters brawl, with the Johnston narrowly avoiding both the Heerman and the Samuel B. Roberts. But with the Hoel and the carrier Gambier Bay sinking, the Johnston, already crippled, made an inviting target as Evans continued to engage several destroyers and four cruisers.
Several Japanese shells ripped into the Johnston’s bridge and forward gun mount. Evans, somehow still alive, commanded the ship from the stern, shouting orders to sailors below that were manually operating the rudder. The Johnston was then hit several more times leaving her dead in the water.
The Japanese then ignored the carriers and concentrated all of their fire on the crippled Johnston. At 9:45, Evans gave the order to abandon ship and the Johnston sank at 10:10. He left with his men but was never seen again. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. So, impressed were the Japanese with the Johnston’s heroics, that survivors recall that when the Japanese destroyer Yukikaze cruised slowly past the sinking ship the Japanese captain saluted the Johnston as she went down.
The End of the Hoel and the Samuel B. Roberts
The Hoel rushed in at the beginning of the battle laying down a heavy smokescreen to allow the carriers to flee. She opened fire on the enemy but an early 18-inch round from the Yamato hit the bridge, killing several sailors and wounding the captain, Commander Leon S. Kintberger.
Commander Kintberger ordered the Hoel to advance right into the middle of the attacking Japanese force. The Hoel was firing rapidly at the Japanese and scoring hits while being bracketed by return fire. She then launched a load of torpedoes, forcing the Haguro to veer off course to avoid the torpedo spread. Shortly after that, the Hoel was blasted by a fusillade of shells. The shells knocked out the ship’s fire direction radar, the Mark 37 fire direction control, her primary and secondary weapons aft, and bridge steering control, as well as the port engine.
Now surrounded by enemy ships, Kintberger blazed away with his remaining two guns at an abundance of targets. But the Hoel was a sitting duck and was hit with nearly 40 shells in quick succession.
At 8:30 the Hoel went dead in the water. Listing to port, with all of her engineering spaces flooded and her No. 1 magazine on fire, Hoel began settling by the stern and the crew was forced to abandon ship. The Hoel then rolled over and sank, the first of Taffy 3’s ships to sink.
Lieutenant Commander Robert W. Copeland, captain of the Roberts, told his crew over the ship’s intercom at the outset of the battle that “This will be a fight against overwhelming odds from which survival cannot be expected. We will do what damage we can.” Like Evans, he too charged into the fray.
The Roberts held fire as she charged through the smokescreen trying to get in torpedo range. She fired her torpedoes at the heavy cruiser Chōkai and hit her. This caused Chōkai to pull back from the battle.
The Japanese heavy cruiser Chikuma came through a squall and began firing a broadside at the carriers. The Roberts rushed in and began firing rapid-fire at the Chikuma. Copeland closed to just three miles away and in the space of just 35 minutes fired nearly all of his ship’s 5-inch rounds, almost 600 in all. The Heermann also began firing on the Chikuma as well and the two American ships raked the Chikuma’s superstructure, knocking out the bridge and one of the gun mounts.
The Chikuma and other ships had damaged the carrier Gambier Bay which sunk. It was the only U.S. carrier sunk by naval gunfire in the war. The Chikuma withdrew but was heavily damaged; it sank soon later. The Japanese destroyer Nowaki picked up survivors but that too was soon sunk; only one of the Chikuma’s sailors survived at the end.
After the Roberts was bracketed, she went all back full which caused the salvo to miss but also made her a sitting duck. She was hit hard under the waterline and lost a boiler. Then several 14-inch shells ripped a 30-foot gash in her port side. All power was lost and the crew abandoned ship at 9:10. Copeland was awarded the Navy Cross.
The Heermann came under fire from all of the Japanese ships as geysers of red, yellow, and green splashed all around her. The Japanese used different color dye in the rounds of their ships so that they could zero in their own targets.
Soon, the Heermann took a shell to the wheelhouse, and then several 8-inch shells flooded its forward compartments by the bow, which dragged low in the water. But she survived, although severely damaged. She was the only destroyer of the group to survive.
Just before 9:00, the aircraft from the Japanese carriers began conducting air attacks on the American cruisers. At about 10:13, a Japanese Zero fighter conducted a kamikaze attack on the St. Lo hitting her astern. The fighter went through the flight deck and created huge fires below deck that engulfed the ship. By 11:00 the order was given to abandon ship and she sunk at 11:25 with the loss of 114 sailors. The Kalinin Bay also suffered a kamikaze hit, and about a dozen shell hits that damaged her severely but she would survive.
The USS Fanshaw Bay suffered moderate damage from several near shell misses as well as a kamikaze attack. She suffered four dead and four wounded. The Kitkun Bay was the only jeep carrier to escape the action unscathed.
Kurita Decides to Withdraw
Admiral Kurita was convinced from the outset that he was engaged with a force much more formidable than he was actually facing. Much of that had to do with the heroics of Taffy 3 and the ferocity that they attacked the Japanese ships with.
He had lost tactical control of his fleet. Although none of his battleships had sustained any damage, his force was scattered due to the air attacks.
Believing he had sunk or damaged several fleet carriers, at 9:20 he signaled his fleet to withdraw back towards the San Bernadino Straits.
Due to garbled transmission, Admiral Nimitz’s message to Halsey, sent when he received reports of the landing transports being attacked, seemed like a rebuke as it came out, “Where is TF 34? the world wonders.”
Halsey, shortly after receiving the message, sank the four Japanese aircraft carriers that he was pursuing.
Shortly before 12:30, he sent a message to Nimitz and General Douglas MacArthur. “It can be announced with the assurance that the Japanese Navy has been beaten, routed, and broken by the Third and Seventh Fleets.”
The Americans lost two escort carriers sunk, two destroyers sunk, one destroyer escort sunk, 23 aircraft lost. A further four escort carriers, one destroyer, and two destroyer escorts were damaged; 1,161 men were killed and missing with 913 wounded.
The Japanese losses consisted of three heavy cruisers sunk, three heavy cruisers damaged, one destroyer damaged, and 52 aircraft lost. Casualties are unknown but thought to be about 950 in total.
The battle could have been much worse for the Americans if not for the valor of the Taffy 3 sailors. The Americans benefited from much more accurate fire due to the MK-37 radar-directed fire control system, and their faster reloading. On the other hand, the Japanese gunners had to rely on visual adjustments and resorted to bracketing.
If you want to learn more about the battle, SOFREP recommends the outstanding book The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors by James Hornfischer.