The Battle off Samar was the central action of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, arguably the largest naval battle in history. It took place in the Philippine Sea off Samar Island - near the island of Leyte in the Philippines - on October 25, 1944.
Admiral Halsey was lured into taking his U.S. Third Fleet after a decoy fleet. They left behind only a light screen of destroyers and destroyer escorts for three escort carrier groups of the United States Seventh Fleet which encountered a powerful Japanese surface force with battleships and cruisers. Lacking weapons suitable against armored ships except for torpedoes, Task Unit 77.4.3 ("Taffy 3") improvised a defence with destroyers and destroyer escort attacking with 5 inch guns and torpedoes, while planes launched from carriers attacked with bombs and depth charges. Taffy 3 suffered serious losses, but managed to inflict enough damage to convince the Japanese commander, Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita, into ordering a withdrawal. Against heavy odds and at great cost, the light American ships and aircraft prevented a far stronger force from attacking American troop and supply ships.
In the lead-up to the battle, on the night of 23 October, two American submarines, USS Dace and USS Darter, spotted Kurita's Center Force entering the Palawan Passage. The submarines submerged and fired torpedoes, sinking two cruisers and crippling a third. One of the cruisers sunk was the flagship of Center Force. Admiral Kurita had to swim for his life, leaving Center Force in chaos for hours before Kurita was finally rescued. Kurita transferred his flag to Yamato. The order was then given to continue on to Leyte Gulf.
Kurita's force entered the Sibuyan Sea, northwest of Leyte, on 24 October. In the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea, it was attacked by carrier aircraft and Musashi was sunk. When Kurita turned around, the American pilots assumed he was retreating, but he turned again and made his way through the San Bernardino Strait in the night.
In the battle, the very powerful force of Japanese battleships, cruisers, and destroyers commanded by Admiral Kurita engaged a U.S. task group of three escort aircraft carrier units. The Americans were taken entirely by surprise because the U.S. Seventh Fleet, of which it was a part, had firmly believed that its northern flank was being protected by Admiral Halsey's immensely powerful Third Fleet. However, Halsey and the Third Fleet had been lured away from their covering mission by a Japanese decoy force commanded by Admiral Ozawa.
The brunt of the Japanese attack fell on the northernmost of the escort carrier units, Rear Admiral Clifton Sprague's Task Unit 77.4.3 (usually referred to by its radio call-sign "Taffy 3"). Ill-equipped to fight a battle with large-gunned warships, Taffy 3's escort carriers attempted to escape from the Japanese force, while its destroyers, destroyer escorts, and aircraft made sustained attacks on Kurita's ships. The ordnance for the escort carriers' aircraft consisted mostly of small high-explosive bombs used in ground support missions, and depth charges used in anti-submarine work, rather than the armor-piercing bombs and torpedoes which would been more effective against heavily armored warships. Nevertheless, even when they were out of ammunition, the American aircraft continued to harass the enemy ships, making repeated mock attacks, which distracted them and disrupted their formations.
In all, two U.S. destroyers, a destroyer escort, and an escort carrier were sunk by Japanese gunfire, and another U.S. escort carrier was hit and sunk by a Kamikaze aircraft during the battle. Kurita's battleships were driven away from the engagement by torpedo attacks by American destroyers; they were unable to regroup in the chaos, while three cruisers were lost due to air attack and several other cruisers were damaged. Due to the ferocity of the defense, Kurita was convinced that he was facing a far superior force and withdrew from the battle, ending the threat to the troop transports and supply ships.
The battle was one of the last major naval engagements between U.S. and Japanese surface forces in World War II. After this, the Imperial Japanese Navy never again sailed to battle in such force, but returned to its bases to remain largely inactive for the rest of the war.
This battle is often depicted as one of the major "what-ifs" in World War II. If Kurita had continued the attack instead of withdrawing, it is thought possible that the U.S. could have suffered heavy losses in troops and supplies, which would have delayed their capture of the Philippines. It is also likely that had Kurita's and Halsey's forces met, that would have set the stage for the long awaited "decisive battle" where both sides would have finally been able to pit their largest battleships against each other.
The Japanese Center Force now consisted of the battleships Yamato, Nagato, Kongo, and Haruna; heavy cruisers Chokai, Myoko, Haguro, Kumano, Suzuya, Chikuma, Tone; light cruisers Yahagi, and Noshiro; and 13 destroyers.
Each of the three task units of the U.S. Seventh Fleet's Task Group 77.4 had six small Casablanca-class or larger Sangammon-class escort carriers, and seven or eight lightly armed and unarmored destroyers and/or smaller destroyer escorts.
Admiral Thomas Sprague's Task Unit 77.4.1 ("Taffy 1") consisted of the escort carriers Sangamon, Suwannee, Santee, and Petrof Bay. (The remaining two escort carriers from Taffy 1, Chenango and Saginaw Bay, had departed for Morotai, Indonesia on October 24, carrying "dud" aircraft from other carriers for transfer ashore. They returned with replacement aircraft after the battle.)
Admiral Clifton Sprague's Task Unit 77.4.3 ("Taffy 3") consisted of Fanshaw Bay, St Lo, White Plains, Kalinin Bay, Kitkun Bay, and Gambier Bay. Screening for Taffy 3 were the destroyers Hoel, Heermann, Johnston, and destroyer escorts USS Dennis, John C. Butler, Raymond, and Samuel B. Roberts.
Though each escort carrier was small, and carried an average of about 28 planes, this gave the three "Taffies" a combined total of approximately 450 aircraft. However, as these were intended for attack against ground forces or defense against enemy aircraft and submarines, the majority were armed only with machine guns, depth charges and high explosive and anti-personnel bombs, effective against troops, submarines or destroyers, but not against armored battleships or cruisers.
Kurita's force passed through San Bernardino Strait at 03:00 on 25 October 1944 and steamed southwards along the coast of Samar, hoping that Halsey had taken the bait and moved most of his fleet away. This hope proved to have been amply fulfilled - Halsey had taken all his available strength north.
Taffy 3’s lookouts spotted the antiaircraft fire to the north. Sprague was incredulous and demanded identification verification, which arrived as the enemy battleships steamed into sight. The Japanese came upon Taffy 3 at 06:45, having achieved complete tactical surprise. Not finding the silhouettes of the tiny escort carriers in his identification manuals, Kurita mistook them for larger fleet carriers and assumed that he had the whole of the American Third Fleet under his guns. Immediately, Sprague directed his carriers to turn to launch their aircraft and then withdraw towards a squall to the east, hoping that bad visibility would reduce the accuracy of Japanese gunfire. He ordered his destroyers to generate smoke to mask the retreating carriers. Kurita’s force steadily closed and opened fire around 06:58.
In an action that author James D. Hornfischer would call “The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors,” Lieutenant Commander Ernest E. Evans, CO of the destroyer Johnston, the closest to the attackers, took the initiative. He ordered his ship to “flank speed, full left rudder,” attacking on his own in what appeared to be a suicide mission.
The Johnston was a Fletcher-class destroyer, much smaller than a cruiser or a battleship. Her five 5-inch and light antiaircraft guns were not designed to take on armored battleships or cruisers. Only her ten Mark-15 torpedoes housed in two 5-tube launchers had the ability to sink a battleship. However, as these only had a range of about five miles, she would have to survive shellfire well within range of the guns of the heavy ships she was facing including the Yamato with a range of 25 miles, and hope for a hit. Had Johnston withdrawn, the slow escort carriers of Taffy 3 would have been vulnerable to the opposing force’s superior speed and armament.
Weaving to avoid shells, and steering towards splashes, the Johnston approached the cruiser squadron flagship, the heavy cruiser Kumano, for a torpedo attack. At a range of 10 miles (16 km), Johnston opened fire, aiming for the Kumano's superstructure, bridge and deck, since her 5-inch shells would have bounced off the enemy's belt armor. When Johnston closed to within torpedo range, she fired a salvo, which blew the bow off Kumano, which also took the Mogami-class heavy cruiser Suzuya out of the fight, as she stopped to assist.
At a range of seven miles, the battleship Kongo sent a 14-inch shell through the Johnston’s deck and engine room, cutting the destroyer's speed in half to 14 knots and interrupting electric power to the aft gun turrets. Then three 6-inch shells, possibly from Yamato, struck Johnston’s bridge, causing numerous casualties and injuring Captain Evans' left hand. The bridge was abandoned and Evans proceeded to steer the ship back towards the fleet from the aft steering column, when he noticed other destroyers starting to engage the enemy.
Emboldened by Johnston’s attack, Sprague gave the order "small boys attack", sending the rest of Taffy 3's destroyers on the offensive. They attacked the Japanese line, drawing fire and scattering the Japanese formations as ships turned to avoid torpedoes. Despite heavy damage, Evans turned the Johnston around and reentered the fight while damage control teams restored power to two of the three aft turrets.
Two hours into the attack, Captain Evans aboard the Johnston spotted a line of four Japanese destroyers led by the light cruiser Yahagi making a torpedo attack on the carriers and moved to intercept. Johnston fired on them, forcing them to prematurely fire their torpedoes at 10,500 yards distance at 09:15. The torpedoes were reaching end-of-run as they approached their target, broaching the surface. At 09:10, the Japanese scored a direct hit on one of the Johnston's forward turrets, knocking it out and setting off many of the 5-inch shells stored in the turret. Her damaged engines stopped, leaving her dead in the water. Johnston was then hit so many times that one survivor recalled "they couldn't patch holes fast enough to keep her afloat." Under heavy attack from the air and fire from American destroyers and destroyer escorts, the Japanese cruisers broke off and turned northward at 09:20. At 09:45, Evans finally gave the order to abandon ship. The Johnston sank 25 minutes later with 186 of her crew. Evans abandoned ship with his crew, but was never seen again. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
Roberts was so close that the enemy shells passed overhead. Once she was within torpedo range, she launched her three torpedoes, apparently registering at least one hit. Roberts then fought with the Japanese ships for a further hour, firing over 600 5-inch shells, and while maneuvering at very close range, mauling Chokai’s superstructure with her 40 mm Bofors and 20 mm Oerlikon anti-aircraft guns. At 08:51, the Japanese finally landed two hits, the second of which destroyed the aft gun turret. With her remaining 5-inch gun, Roberts set the bridge of the cruiser Chikuma afire and destroyed the number 3 gun turret, before being pierced again by three 14-inch shells from Kongo. With a 40-foot hole in her side, the Roberts took on water, and at 09:35, the order was given to abandon ship. She sank 30 minutes later with 89 of her crew. She would go down in history as “the destroyer escort that fought like a battleship.”
Heermann engaged the heavy cruiser Chikuma with her 5-inch guns while directing a torpedo attack at Haguro. After firing two torpedoes, Heermann changed course to engage a column of four battleships that had commenced firing upon her. She trained her guns on the battleship Kongo, the column's leader, and launched three torpedoes. Then she quickly closed on the battleship Haruna, the target of her last three torpedoes, launched at 08:00 from a mere 4,400 yards (4000 meters). Believing that one of the torpedoes had hit the battleship, the destroyer avoided being hit as she retired. Japanese records claim that the battleship successfully evaded all of the torpedoes, but the attack slowed down the pursuit of the American carriers. The Yamato found herself bracketed between two of Heermann's torpedoes on parallel courses and for ten minutes, was forced to head away from the action. Heermann then engaged the other Japanese battleships at such close range that they could not return fire due either to inability to sufficiently depress their guns or for fear of hitting their own ships.
Heermann sped to the starboard quarter of the carrier formation to lay more concealing smoke and then charged back into the fight a few minutes later, placing herself between the escort carriers and a column of four enemy heavy cruisers. Here she engaged Chikuma in a duel which seriously damaged both ships. A series of 8 inch hits flooded the forward part of the U.S. destroyer, pulling her bow down so far that her anchors were dragging in the water, while one of her guns was knocked out. The cruiser also came under heavy air attack during the engagement. Under the combined effort of Heermann’s guns and the bombs, torpedoes, and strafing from carrier-based planes, Chikuma finally disengaged but sank during her withdrawal.
As Chikuma turned away, the heavy cruiser Tone exchanged fire with Heermann until the latter reached a position to resume laying smoke for the carriers. At this point, planes from Admiral Felix Stump's Taffy 2 damaged Tone so severely that she too broke off action and withdrew.
The carriers of Taffy 3 turned south and withdrew through shellfire. During the early phase of the action, the enemy ships were firing armor-piercing (AP) shells which carried right through the unarmored escort carriers without detonating. After a switch to high explosive (HE) shells, USS Gambier Bay at the rear was holed, slowed and sunk, while most of the others were also damaged. Their single stern-mounted 5-inch DP guns returned fire.
The six carriers dodged in and out of rain squalls and managed to launch all available fighter and torpedo planes with whatever armament they had (general purpose bombs, rockets, machine guns, and even depth charges.) The pilots were ordered “to attack the Japanese task force and proceed to Tacloban airstrip, Leyte, to rearm and refuel". Many of the planes continued to make "dry runs" after expending their ammunition and ordnance to distract the enemy.
By 07:38, the Japanese cruisers, approaching from St. Lo’s port quarter, had closed to within 14,000 yards. St. Lo responded to their salvos with rapid fire from her single 5-inch gun, claiming three hits on a Tone-class cruiser. For the next hour and a half, Admiral Kurita's ships closed in on Taffy 3, with his nearest destroyers and cruisers firing from as close as 10,000 yards on the port and starboard quarters of the St. Lo. Throughout the running gun battle, the carriers and their escorts were laying a particularly effective smoke screen that Admiral Sprague credited with greatly degrading Japanese gunfire accuracy. Even more effective were the attacks by the destroyers and destroyer escorts at point-blank range against the Japanese destroyers and cruisers. All the while, Kurita's force was under incessant attack by aircraft from Taffy 3 and the two other American carrier units to the south. At 1047 hours a kamikaze attack against the surviving carriers began. Minutes later one of Lt. Yukio Seki's Shikishima squadron crashed into St. Lo’s flight deck, while the aircraft itself was stopped there, its bomb penetrated the deck, inflicting a fatal blow.
Kalinin Bay accelerated to flank speed and, despite fire from three enemy cruisers, launched her planes, which inflicted heavy damage on the closing ships. As the trailing ship in the escort carrier van, Kalinin Bay came under intense enemy fire. Though partially protected by chemical smoke, a timely rain squall, and counterattacks by the screening destroyers and destroyer escorts, she took the first of 15 direct hits at 07:50. Fired from an enemy battleship, the large caliber shell (14 inch or 16 inch) struck the starboard side of the hangar deck just aft of the forward elevator.
By 08:00, the Japanese cruisers, which were steaming off her port quarter, closed to within 18,000 yards. Kalinin Bay responded to their straddling salvos with her 5-inch gun. Three 8-inch armor-piercing projectiles struck her within minutes. At 08:25, the carrier scored a direct hit from 16,000 yards on the No. 2 turret of a Nachi-class heavy cruiser, and a second hit shortly thereafter forced the Japanese ship to withdraw temporarily from formation.
At 08:30, five Japanese destroyers steamed over the horizon off her starboard quarter. They opened fire from about 14,500 yards. As screening ships engaged the cruisers and laid down concealing smoke, Kalinin Bay shifted her fire and for the next hour traded shots with Destroyer Squadron 10. No destroyer hit Kalinin Bay, but she took ten more 8-inch hits from the now obscured cruisers. One shell passed through the flight deck and into the communications area, where it destroyed all the radar and radio equipment.
At 09:15, an Avenger torpedo bomber from St. Lo piloted by Lieutenant (j.g.) Waldrop strafed and exploded two torpedoes in Kalinin Bay's wake about 100 yards astern of her. A shell from the latter's 5-inch gun deflected a third from a collision course with her stern.
At about 09:30, as the Japanese ships fired parting salvos and reversed course northward, Kalinin Bay scored a direct hit amidships on a retreating destroyer. Five minutes later, she ceased fire and retired southward with the other survivors of Taffy 3.
Around 10:50, the task unit came under a concentrated air attack. During the 40-minute battle, the first attack from a Kamikaze unit in World War II, all escort carriers but Fanshaw Bay were damaged. Four diving planes attacked Kalinin Bay from astern and the starboard quarter. Two were shot down close aboard, while a third plane crashed into the port side of the flight deck, damaging it severely. The fourth destroyed the aft port stack.
Kalinin Bay suffered extensive structural damage during the morning's intense action, as well as five dead among her 60 casualties. Twelve direct hits were later confirmed by damage plus two large-caliber near misses. Ironically, it was the two near misses that exploded under her counter that threatened the ship's survival.
Throughout the surface phase of the action, the carriers White Plains and Kitkun Bay, in the lead position, escaped hits from gunfire. During kamikaze attacks, the carrier Fanshaw Bay splashed among others a plane just about to crash into Kitkun Bay and landed planes from her sunk or damaged sisters. Fanshaw Bay lost four men killed, and four wounded.
The Chikuma engaged the U.S. escort carriers, helping to sink Gambier Bay, but came under fire from the American destroyer Heermann and heavy air attack. Chikuma inflicted severe damage on Heermann, but was soon hit by an aerial torpedo attack and immobilized. Her crew was taken off by the destroyer Nowaki and Chikuma was scuttled in the late morning of on 25 October 1944. While withdrawing from the battle area, Nowaki was herself sunk, with the loss of all but one of Chikuma’s surviving crewmen.
Though many of Kurita's ships had not been damaged, the air and destroyer attacks had broken up his formations, and he had lost tactical control. The ferocity of the determined, concentrated sea and air attack from Taffy 3 had already sunk or crippled the heavy cruisers Chōkai, Kumano, and Chikuma. Signals from Ozawa had disabused him of the notion that he was attacking the whole of the Third Fleet, which meant that the longer the engagement went on, the more likely it was that he would suffer devastating air strikes from Halsey's main attack carriers.
Calculating that the fight was not worth further losses, Kurita broke off the engagement at 09:20 with the order: "all ships, my course north, speed 20". As he retreated north then west through the San Bernardino Strait, the smaller and heavily damaged American force continued to press the battle. (While watching the Japanese retreat, Sprague heard a nearby sailor exclaim: "Damn it, boys, they're getting away!") In retreat, Nagato, Haruna and Kongo were severely damaged from the torpedoes of Taffy 3's destroyers and escorts.
Shortly after 08:00, desperate messages calling for assistance began to come in from Seventh Fleet. One from Kinkaid, sent in plain language, read, "My situation is critical. Fast battleships and support by airstrikes may be able to keep enemy from destroying CVEs and entering Leyte." From 3,000 miles (5,000 km) away in Pearl Harbor, Admiral Nimitz had monitored the desperate calls from Taffy 3, and sent Halsey a terse message, "Turkey trots to water GG From CinCPac Action Com Third Fleet Info Cominch CTF Seventy-Seven. Where is task force Thirty-four RR The world wonders". Halsey was infuriated (not recognizing the final phrase as padding, chosen for the anniversary of the Charge of the Light Brigade) and sent McCain's Task Group 58.1 (TG58.1) to assist. Halsey recalled he did not receive this vital message from Kinkaid until around 10:00, and later claimed that he knew Kinkaid was in trouble, but had not dreamed of the seriousness of this crisis. McCain, by contrast, had monitored Sprague's messages and turned TG58 to aid Sprague even before Halsey's orders arrived (after prodding from Nimitz), putting Halsey's defense in question.
McCain raced towards the battle, briefly turning into the wind to recover returning planes. At 10:30, a force of Helldivers, Avengers, and Hellcats was launched from Hornet, Hancock, and Wasp at the extreme range of 330 miles (610 km). Though the attack did little damage, it strengthened Kurita's decision to retire.
At 11:15, more than two hours after the first distress messages had been received by his flagship, Halsey ordered Task Force 34 to turn around and head southwards to pursue Kurita, but the Japanese forces had already escaped.
We saw this ship come up, it was circling around us, and a guy was standing up on the bridge with a megaphone. And he called out 'Who are you? Who are you?' and we all yelled out 'Samuel B. Roberts!' He's still circling, so now we're cursing at him. He came back and yelled 'Who won the World Series?' and we all yelled 'St. Louis Cardinals!' And then we could hear the engines stop, and cargo nets were thrown over the side. That's how we were rescued.
It has been speculated that even if Center Force had quickly annihilated the escort carrier units, Kurita would still have had to contend with Oldendorf's task group — which contained six battleships and eight large, powerful cruisers. After the Surigao Strait action, Seventh Fleet's battleships had much less armor-piercing ammunition than battleships would normally be expected to have on entering an action. But, as Morison observes, they had enough for what would have been required of them in defending the entrance to the Gulf, although not enough for a running fight. The same probably was true for the heavy cruisers. The light cruisers, with their much higher rate of fire, had used most of their armor-piercing ammunition, but still had plenty of HC (or "HE") rounds available. Oldendorf's destroyers had expended almost all of their torpedoes, but still had plenty of ammunition for their 5-inch guns (and Samar demonstrates how effective such guns could be even against heavy cruisers). Even though unable to make torpedo attacks, these 28 or so destroyers would have been able to provide an effective defense against the Japanese destroyers.
Oldendorf's formation was in fact roughly comparable in strength with Center Force after the latter's losses (on 23 October in Palawan Passage and on 24 October in the Sibuyan Sea), and Kurita would have had to dispose of - or at least fight his way through - Oldendorf's task group before he could fall on the invasion shipping in the Gulf. If, instead of annihilating the Taffies, he had managed to get through to the Gulf without having neutralized the escort carriers, he would then have had to engage Oldendorf while under sustained assault from the air - and (as the Battle off Samar also demonstrates) it is an extremely difficult task for warships to fight a surface action while simultaneously defending themselves against air attack. It is, therefore, at the very least questionable whether Kurita had, at any stage, a realistic prospect of causing serious damage to the invasion shipping off Leyte, let alone of inflicting a major reverse on the Allies.
The Japanese had succeeded in luring Halsey's Third Fleet away from its role of covering the invasion fleet, but seemingly light forces proved to be a very considerable obstacle. The air power of sixteen aircraft carriers (albeit lightly-armed and protected escort carriers) — with between them more than four hundred aircraft (roughly equivalent to the air strength of four large fleet carriers) — did much to offset the mismatch in sheer tonnage and surface firepower.
Despite Halsey's failure to protect the northern flank of Seventh Fleet, Taffy 3 succeeded in turning back the most powerful surface fleet Japan had sent to sea since the Battle of Midway. Domination of the skies, prudent and timely maneuvers by the U.S. ships, tactical errors by the Japanese admiral, and perhaps superior American gunnery and seamanship, all contributed to this outcome. It may be argued that, of all of the battles in the Pacific War, Samar best demonstrates the effectiveness of air attack and destroyer-launched torpedoes against larger surface vessels.
Clifton Sprague's task unit lost two escort carriers: (Gambier Bay, to surface attack and St. Lo, to Kamikaze attack). Of the seven screening ships, fewer than half, two destroyers (Hoel and Johnston) and a destroyer escort (Samuel B. Roberts) were lost, as were dozens of aircraft. The other four U.S. destroyers were damaged. More than a thousand Americans died, most from Taffy 3.
On the other side of the balance sheet, the Japanese were forced to scuttle three heavy cruisers, and a fourth limped back to base seriously damaged, having lost its bow. All of Kurita's battleships except Yamato suffered considerable damage, and apart from the Yamato, all of the heavy ships stayed inactive in their bases for the remainder of the war. At Leyte Gulf, compared to six U.S. ships of 37,000 tons (five from Taffy 3), the Japanese lost 26 ships of 306,000 tons.
Taffy 3 was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation:
For extraordinary heroism in action against powerful units of the Japanese Fleet during the Battle off Samar, Philippines, October 25, 1944. ...the gallant ships of the Task Unit waged battle fiercely against the superior speed and fire power of the advancing enemy ...two of the Unit's valiant destroyers and one destroyer escort charged the battleships point-blank and, expending their last torpedoes in desperate defense of the entire group, went down under the enemy's heavy shells ... The courageous determination and the superb teamwork of the officers and men who fought the embarked planes and who manned the ships of Task Unit 77.4.3 were instrumental in effecting the retirement of a hostile force threatening our Leyte invasion operations and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.