Friday, October 24, 2014

Against All Odds

Seventy years ago, the pieces were in motion that would lead to the largest battle in naval history.

The Pacific strategy that the Allies had been pursuing for two years and change had begun to show fruit. The Naval forces under Admiral Chester Nimitz, and the Army forces under General Douglas MacArthur, had zig-zagged across the ocean, bypassing some pockets of Japanese strength, while seizing other islands to use as way stations. Now, in late October of 1944, the fleet stood off of the Philippine Islands to support the Allied invasion.

This was not merely a vanity project of MacArthur's, although the man had vanity and to spare for it to be so. No, if the Allies were to win possession of the Philippines, the Japanese Navy would be in a terrible fix. Their weapons and ammunition were in Japan. Their fuel, though, that was in Southeast Asia. They had one chance, and one chance only, to smash the invasion.

They basically threw everything they had into the operation. It wasn't a suicide operation per se, it was a cold realization that if they lost the Philippines, the fleet wouldn't be worth much in any event. If they stayed in southern waters, they could maneuver, but couldn't shoot. If they stayed in northern waters, they could shoot, but wouldn't have enough gas left to get anywhere. It was well and truly "smoke 'em if you got 'em" time.

The Japanese fleet was divided up into three sections. The Northern Force, under Admiral Ozawa, had the remaining fleet carriers capable of sailing. Those carriers were mostly devoid of planes or pilots. The disastrous Battle of the Philippine Sea had seen to that. Nevertheless, Ozawa figured he could dangle the flat-tops out there as bait. If he could draw Admiral Halsey into a wild goose chase, if Halsey would go chasing carriers and leave the invasion beaches mostly unguarded, the operation had a decent chance of success. The Southern Force and Center Force would be heavy on large surface combatants, battleships and cruisers, and their target would be to strike the invasion beaches thus left unprotected. Southern Force would be under the command of Admiral Nishimura, and the Center Force under Admiral Kurita. Admiral Kurita's group had the Yamato and the Musashi, the largest battleships that had ever been (or would ever be) built.

The Northern Force would approach the Philippine Sea from the north. The Southern Force would wind its way through the Surigao Strait on its way to the landing grounds. The Center Force would drive up the middle, through the Sibuyan Sea and the San Bernardino Strait.

The plan would depend greatly upon whether Halsey would take the bait. He took it, all right ... hook, line, and sinker.

Of course, the Southern and Center Forces still had to get there. And that was far from guaranteed. The Southern Force was turned back in the Battle of Surigao Strait after taking heavy damage. The Center Force came under heavy air attack from Halsey's carriers, and the Musashi went down somewhere in the Sibuyan Sea. They must have thought that they'd taken care of the Center Force, because no one would thread the San Bernardino Strait at night, in bad weather. Or so they thought.

So, overnight on the 24th, Halsey took most of the Third Fleet north to go hunting for carriers. He left Admiral Kinkaid with a small force of destroyers, destroyer escorts, and escort carriers to guard the invasion beaches from attack. This force was divided into three groups. Task Unit 77.4.1, call sign "Taffy 1", was under the command of Rear Admiral Thomas Sprague, on the escort carrier USS Sangamon. "Taffy 1" also included the escort carrier USS Santee, which I mentioned earlier. Task Unit 77.4.2, call sign "Taffy 2", was under the command of Rear Admiral Felix Stump, on the USS Natoma Bay. Task Unit 77.4.3, call sign "Taffy 3", was under the command of Rear Admiral Clifton Sprague (no relation), on the USS Fanshaw Bay. Near enough, the Task Unit deployment ran from south to north, meaning "Taffy 3" held the north flank and "Taffy 1" the southern flank.

Thus it was at dawn on Wednesday, the 25th of October, that "Taffy 3" was the first to spot the ships of Admiral Kurita's Center Force.

The thing that you must understand, here, is that Yamato -- by itself -- outweighed all of "Taffy 3" put together. Against four battleships, six heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and eleven destroyers, "Taffy 3" had six escort carriers, three destroyers, and four destroyer escorts. A more lopsided mismatch could hardly be found. And yet, they had one ace in the hole -- the other two Task Units were not under attack, and could throw their air wings into the fight. Clifton Sprague could count on four hundred aircraft -- mostly fairly new Grumman Wildcats and Avengers -- to turn up the heat on the Center Force.

Not that it mattered. Those thirteen small, thin-hulled ships were all that stood between the Japanese bug guns and the invasion transports. There was only one option.

Commander Ernest E. Evans on board the destroyer USS Johnston said to his crew, "A very large Japanese fleet has been contacted. They are fifteen miles away and headed in our direction. They are believed to have four battleships, eight cruisers, and a number of destroyers. This will be a fight against overwhelming odds from which survival cannot be expected. We will do what damage we can."

Evans ordered flank speed, and charged directly at the Center Force. He was followed shortly thereafter by Commander Copeland on the destroyer escort USS Samuel B. Roberts. After that, Admiral Sprague ordered the rest of his destroyers and destroyer escorts to attack, while he took his carriers towards a nearby rain squall. With all the aircraft launched, the escort carriers had only a single 5" gun, and weren't worth much in a gun fight.

The American ships had one other key advantage, though; their guns had radar-controlled gun directors. While the Japanese ships used dye markers on shells to gauge the range to a target, the American ships merely pointed their gun directors towards what they wanted to hit. Not that the tiny American guns had any realistic chance of piercing the Japanese armor ... but the Japanese had this odd habit of storing their torpedoes on deck, in unarmored containers. They would pay for that design decision today.

The Japanese guns would not have that problem ... except for two minor issues. One, the armor-piercing ammo the Japanese used would more often than not smash straight through the thin-hulled ships without arming, fuzing, or exploding. And two, the American ships were charging in so close that the guns could depress low enough to fire upon them anyway.

The Americans had a run of astounding good luck. Johnson's radar-guided guns scored at least 45 hits on the heavy cruiser Kumano's superstructure, setting it ablaze. Then, as soon as they were in torpedo range, they fired a full salvo of ten torpedoes at the Center Force, hitting Kumano, blowing off its bow. The battleship Kongo was forced to make a hard turn to avoid four torpedoes heading its way. The heavy cruiser Suzuya, stopping to assist Kumano, was taking heavy damage from aircraft. Even the flat-tops got into the action. The Japanese cruiser Chokai got close enough to the USS White Plains to get a reminder that yes, they do carry live ammunition. The gunner on White Plains knew that his 5" gun wouldn't do much damage to Chokai ... but those Long Lance torpedoes sitting on her deck? Another story. The resulting explosion was quite impressive, taking out her rudder and engines. A 500-pound bomb dropped a few minutes later finished the job. But their luck could not last forever.

Johnston was eventually hit, several times, and sank. So was the Samuel B. Roberts, but not before winning the name "The Destroyer Escort That Fought Like A Battleship." Survivors tell of Japanese sailors standing at attention and saluting while their ships went down. Japanese guns would sink two escort carriers, and one more destroyer.

Time and again that morning, these small fragile ships would charge ships ten and twenty times their size, doing what they could. Time and again, aircraft attacked with bombs, then with machine guns, and then lined up to make "dry" attack runs, so that they could draw fire from their comrades that still had ammunition. But as much damage as they were doing to the Japanese, they did not have the firepower to destroy many more ships.

They wouldn't need it. Admiral Kurita had lost two crucial things: surprise, and control of the battle. His ships were maneuvering wildly all over the place. They would have to be regrouped for a strike against the transports ... assuming they could get to the transports. The Third Fleet could show up at any moment, and then the tables would turn with a vengeance. Not that the tables were looking all that great in any case. Kurita had already lost three heavy cruisers, had three more damaged, and just about all of his ships had taken some abuse. He no longer believed he could accomplish his mission, and called for a withdrawal.

The Nihon Kaigun would never again sail in such force. The Battle of Leyte Gulf had broken the back of the Japanese Navy.

(Personal Note: My father was a Machinist's Mate on the escort carrier USS Santee, CVE-29. His assignment was as a ball turret gunner on a Grumman TBF Avenger in Torpedo Squadron 26. Seventy years ago, he fought in the Battle of Leyte Gulf.)

VT-26 Insignia

TBF Avenger from VT-26

USS Santee, CVE-29

1 comment:

Gerald said...

Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

Your article is very well done, a good read.