(Note: Sorry for the late posting this week... I am super sick barfing my face off, and even with a full day's rest I'm still feeling terrible. So instead of writing a new one this week, here's one of my favorite chapters from my new book, Badass: Ultimate Deathmatch.)
United States Navy Task Group Taffy-3 was not designed to engage enemy warships in combat. Comprised of just six carrier escorts (basically just ordinary merchant ships, each equipped with a flight deck and a complement of thirty aircraft), three destroyers, and four destroyer escorts, Taffy-3’s primary mission during the American operation to retake the Philippines was to hang around off the coast of Leyte Island and launch ground attack aircraft to support the infantry assault. If a submarine or two came knocking on the door looking for a nice meaty carrier to deep-six, or some stray squadron of Japanese fighter-bombers stuck its nose where it didn’t belong, the destroyers were equipped to handle it.
So, naturally, when Rear Admiral Clifton “Ziggy” Sprague, Taffy-3’s commander, received a frantic radio call from one of his reconnaissance pilots reporting that the largest and most heavily armed assortment of surface-sailing battle cruisers ever assembled was bearing down on a collision course with Taffy-3, he was a little concerned. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it—the Japanese superbattleship Yamato was out there, accompanied by three massive battleships, eight cruisers, and eleven destroyers, bearing three-four-zero, range twenty miles, closing fast on his position at thirty knots.
Five minutes later, a trio of armor-piercing shells eighteen inches in diameter threw up a towering wall of water just off the bow of Sprague’s flagship. It had been launched by the Yamato, the largest battleship ever built in the history of naval warfare—seventy-two thousand tons of steel-plated intimidation equipped with massive cannons that could launch a bullet the size of a Volkswagen over fifteen miles. This heavily armored, virtually indestructible behemoth of imperial justice outweighed the entire Taffy-3 task force by itself, and those planet-killing guns it was popping off like bottle rockets were more than baller enough to completely vaporize any ship in the American task force with a single round. Meanwhile, the biggest guns in Taffy-3 were the Mark 12 5-inch/38-caliber guns mounted on the decks of the destroyers and destroyer escorts—midsized crew-operated cannons designed for use against aircraft and lightly armored targets like surfaced submarines. A direct hit from one of those things couldn’t have even dented the cooking utensils on the Yamato.
Of course, it’s not as if that was going to stop the Americans from giving this massive Japanese battleship fleet a hell of a fight.
It should be mentioned here that there was a hell of a lot more at stake here than just those six carrier escorts (although these were to be defended at all costs). Earlier in the day a masterful Japanese feint had succeeded in drawing the entire U.S. Third Fleet away from the Philippines on some wild-goose chase snipe hunt into the middle of nowhere, and with Third Fleet’s unexpected departure the only thing keeping this gigantic Japanese armada from donkey-punching the two hundred thousand American soldiers and marines fighting on Leyte Island in the kidneys with artillery shells the size of refrigerators were the tiny antisubmarine warships of Taffy-3. Defeat here would give Japanese admiral Takeo Kurita’s battleships a free run to annihilate the landing craft and troop transports currently ferrying reinforcements and supplies to the island, massacring an entire division of U.S. Marines in their ships, crippling the operation to retake the Philippines and quite possibly turning the tide of the war in the Pacific back against the Allies.
The men of Taffy-3 weren’t about to let that happen.
Sprague’s carriers turned east into the wind so they could launch their fighters, then the entire Taffy-3 group turned south and ran toward Leyte as fast as they could go, zigzagging between enemy shells while roughly half of the Japanese navy took potshots at their asses. The destroyers all started pumping black smoke out of their smokestacks in a desperate effort to conceal the carriers from enemy gunners, hanging tight around the ships they’d been ordered to protect as salvos from the unstoppable enemy armada churned up the water around them so hard it looked like they were sailing through a glass of Alka-Seltzer, but it quickly became obvious that running wasn’t going to be enough—the Japanese cruisers could easily haul ass at twice the speed of the carrier escorts, and their guns were more than enough to shred the unarmored carriers as if they were paper targets in a shooting range. And they were closing in fast.
Then, suddenly, out of the black smoke spewed forth by the destroyer screen, burst the bow of the DD-557—the U.S.S. Johnston. A fifteen-thousand-ton Fletcher-class destroyer on a one-ship suicide run straight into the teeth of the most heavily armed surface fleet ever assembled. It was commanded by Captain Ernest E. Evans, a Cherokee Indian who had vowed never to take one step back from the Japanese no matter how miserable a situation he found himself in, and now that he was presented with the opportunity to stick it to the enemy this infinitely hardcore warrior brave was launching a freakishly dangerous lone-wolf suicide attack head-on against a twenty-three-ship armada, hoping that his desperate effort to ruin their asses would delay the enemy long enough for his task force to escape.
Still way out of range for her little five-inch guns or torpedoes, Johnston determinedly zigzagged at flank speed through a barrage of concentrated fire from twenty-three enemy ships, knowing full damned well that she needed to cross twenty miles of open water to get within range and that a single hit from any enemy ship would rip her hull a new one and send her careening to the ocean floor in minutes. Still, seemingly completely oblivious to any form of danger, Captain Evans raced on.
Six squadrons of American fighter-bomber aircraft screamed through the air over Johnston, making their way toward the Japanese fleet despite a hail of tracer fire and airburst shrapnel exploding all around them. Undaunted by a sky full of explosions, bullets, and other horrible crap capable of disintegrating the fuselage of even the toughest aircraft like a wet paper towel in a bowl of sulfuric acid, the Avenger attack craft and Hellcat fighters streaked in at two hundred miles an hour, strafing the enemy ships with everything they could bring to bear—which wasn’t all that much, considering that these planes had been kitted out for antipersonnel and antisubmarine warfare and the ground crews hadn’t had time to rearm them with something more useful. But the American pilots didn’t give a crap—with literally five hundred heavy machine guns and antiaircraft cannons ripping up the skies around them, Avenger pilots were dropping depth charges on heavy cruisers and Hellcat fighters were diving out of the clouds to strafe armored battleships with .50-caliber machine guns, just hoping that maybe they could maybe just shoot someone important or knock out some critical piece of exposed equipment.
Back on the ocean surface, Johnston had somehow miraculously made its way through the carnage and closed within range to begin its attack. Desperate for delicious vengeance and single-mindedly intent on doing as much damage as its armament would allow, Johnston opened up on the lead Japanese heavy cruiser, blasting all five of her five-inch guns at the Kumano, a hulking warship that outweighed the little Johnston by a factor of seven. Undeterred, Johnston ripped off two hundred rounds of five-inch ammunition in just five minutes, hammering the enemy superstructure, destroying a couple of her heavy gun mounts, and then following that flurry of blows up with a ten-torpedo salvo that smashed into Kumano's balls, ripped her hull up, and blasted off her bow, splitting the cruiser force’s flagship nearly in half. First blood had been drawn, and it was Little Mac getting the Star Power uppercut on Mike Tyson himself.
Having now expended all of her torpedoes—the only weapons capable of legitimately damaging the enemy heavies—Johnston cranked the emergency brake, turned about, and started screaming ass back toward Taffy-3, still blasting hundreds of rounds from her five-inch cannons at anything with a rising sun emblazoned on the hull.
Unfortunately, Johnston’s luck finally ran out, and, at extreme close range with the enemy she took a direct hit from the ridiculously massive Japanese battleship Kongo. Heavy sixteen-inch shells punched through Johnston’s hull, destroyed a boiler, and cut the American ship’s speed in half. Another round from a heavy cruiser then smashed into the crippled American ship, igniting a magazine of forty-millimeter antiaircraft ammunition that exploded and spewed shrapnel across several decks, and then yet another round from some other enemy ship slammed directly into the ship’s bridge, snapping the mast and destroying her communications and radar capabilities. Captain Evans lost two fingers and took a ridiculous spray of white-hot burning metal shrapnel to his face, chest, and hands, but this tack-eating hardcase just got up, dusted himself off, walked out to the deck like he didn't even notice half his body was burning, and kept shouting orders, commanding his ship even though his shirt had been blown off like when James T. Kirk fought the Gorn lizard man Captain on the surface of that asteroid.
Overhead, the Avengers and Hellcats continued their strafing attacks, diving down at high speeds on the enemy, releasing their ship-humping bomb loads, then pulling out of their dives and trying not to black out from the ferocious amount of Gs that were trying to crush their skulls. The cruiser Suzuya was hit with two air-to-ground bombs and badly damaged, pulling out of formation alongside the similarly crippled Kumano. Even the pilots whose bomb bay holds had been loaded with propaganda leaflets and other useless objects found a way to contribute to the battle—these guys opened their (empty) torpedo bays and made fake torpedo runs on the enemy cruisers—the Japanese, of course, didn’t know that these pilots weren’t carrying weapons, and were forced to take evasive maneuvers just in case, throwing them off their game and buying the American fleet just a little more time to make their escape.
Inspired by the example of the Johnston, the rest of Taffy-3’s destroyer screen soon decided, Screw it, these guys aren't going to have all the fun, we’re also going to join the fight and get in on some of this sweet sweet asskicking goodness. The American destroyers Heerman and Hoel threw themselves through the smoke screen into battle, joined by the destroyer escort Samuel B. Roberts—a supertiny, superslow, lightly armed, virtually unarmored antisubmarine ship that under any other circumstances would stand up about as well in toe-to-toe surface combat with an imperial battleship as a paddle-operated swan boat crewed by two guys with steel helmets and nine-millimeter handguns. To give you some indication of scale here, the splashes of water thrown up by off-target Japanese battleship rounds were taller than the mast of the Roberts.
As the second American attack wave closed to torpedo range, they passed the crippled Johnston, still trying to limp back to the carriers. The bleeding, half-dead Captain Evans was standing at attention on the deck saluting them as they hurtled toward almost-certain death. After the destroyers had passed him, Evans gritted his teeth, got pumped up out of his mind, and ordered the Johnston to turn around and go back into the fray, bringing up the rear of the formation and providing covering fire with whatever ammo was left in her five-inch guns despite the ship basically just being held together by duct tape and bumper stickers at this point.
The American destroyers steamed flank speed through the deadly spray of enemy artillery shells straight into the midst of the Japanese formation, their assortment of antiaircraft and antisubmarine guns blazing for everything they were worth. The Hoel launched her torpedoes at the battleship Kongo but missed, then started trading point-blank salvos with the gimongous imperial cruiser Haguro—a losing proposition on the best of days, let alone when you’re outnumbered twenty-three to three. The Heerman charged straight into four Japanese battleships, hitting them with a barrage of fifty-four-pound shells from its five-inch guns, and then fired seven torpedoes at the behemoth Yamato. The imperial flagship, seeing more than a half-dozen torpedoes streaking through the sea toward her, peeled off to evade, a maneuver that sent the ship—and Admiral Kurita—sailing out of the battle in the wrong direction. Kurita, observing the battlefield in his rearview mirror and realizing he wasn’t going to be around to command and control the action, simply ordered a “general attack,” meaning basically every Japanese captain was on his own to figure out what the hell he was supposed to be shooting at. Heerman then hit the battleship Haruma with another torpedo barrage, damaging her hull with a high-explosive underwater kick to the junk. The little Samuel B. Roberts got involved as well, closing with the heavy cruiser Chokai, hammering it with torpedoes, and trading gunfire with it at point-blank range. The Roberts was so small that at such a close range, the Chokai couldn’t depress its guns low enough to hit it, allowing Roberts to get in some sweet shots at Chokai’s soft peanut-buttery underbelly.
As the swirling ship-to-ship free-for-all melee ensued, with three tiny American destroyers engaging a dozen enemy heavy cruisers and battleships at extreme close range, Captain Evans noticed that a group of five Japanese destroyers—ships comparable in size and weaponry to the Johnston—had peeled off from the enemy formation and were preparing to make a torpedo attack on the American carriers. Johnston was crippled and without electrical power (the engine had to be hand-cranked by two strong men while ocean water seeped into the engine room around them), but Evans knew she was the only ship with any prayer of making it there in time. He ordered his ship to turn and attack, diving straight into the formation, guns blazing, firing madly despite being outnumbered five to one by ships in much better fighting shape than his. In his desperate charge, Evans successfully threw the entire Japanese destroyer column off course as they reacted to the heavy shells pounding into their hulls, distracting their aim and sending their entire torpedo complement sailing well wide of the American carriers.
Back in the gun battle now engulfing the seas off Samar Island, the destroyer escorts Dennis, Raymond, and John C. Butler also steamed ahead and joined their sister ship Samuel B. Roberts, powering straight into the teeth of the epic naval duel that now raged across the ocean. The tiny American ships did everything they could to get in the way of the Japanese heavies and keep them away from the carriers, firing with everything they had as planes were diving in and out all over the place blasting away with their guns and bombs. The Heerman was trading fire with two heavy cruisers at point-blank range, Hoel was fighting for her life against impossible odds as three warships hammered her from different sides, and the little Samuel B. Roberts was firing at a rate that would see her expend six hundred rounds from her two guns in the span of just an hour, most of them hammering the heavy cruiser Chokai so hard it actually somehow knocked her out of the battle.
For the next hour the fighting was fast and furious, but the situation was getting darker and darker by the minute. The Heerman and the destroyer escorts damaged the cruiser Chikuma, which turned to escape and was promptly torpedoed into a coral reef by Avenger aircraft, but aside from that, things were slowly starting to turn against the American fleet. Heerman then took a round to the bridge, but continued to fight despite being totally on fire and boxed in by a trio of Japanese destroyers.
Swarmed by battleships and cruisers, the Hoel was hit by the battleship Kongo, a trio of heavy fourteen-inch shells smashing her aft engine and guns and rendering her navigation system inoperable. Hoel, virtually dead in the water, still continued on and opened fire with her final torpedoes—aimed manually because the electronics were all toast—the torps striking the cruiser Haguro, detonating some of her lower decks, and forcing her to peel out of formation. But Hoel was in deep trouble. Unable to evade her attackers and with most of her weapons either depleted of ammunition or broken beyond repair, Hoel was struck forty times during the one-hour battle and smashed to bits. The captain finally ordered the crew to abandon ship, but the Hoel’s gun crews refused, still firing as the ship sank beneath them, reloading the guns manually because the ammo lifting machines were offline. They were finally silenced only when an enemy round went into the magazine and blew up the ammunition stores. The little Roberts was hit as well, a three-round salvo of massive armor-piercing shells forcing her to call to abandon ship, putting an abrupt end to her heroic struggle.
Back in the carrier fleet the American carrier Gambier Bay became the only U.S. carrier ever sunk by surface fire after taking a stray round from a Japanese battleship. Though the Kalinin Bay was struck fifteen times by enemy shells, she kept floating, which is impressive considering that it only takes five hits to kill a carrier in a game of Battleship, but aside from those two setbacks the rest of the escort carriers continued their desperate sprint to safety, taking full advantage of the brave destroyer escorts now sacrificing themselves to save the day. A second torpedo run by Japanese destroyers was thwarted by quick maneuvering on the part of the escort carriers and by some heroic sharpshooting pilots shooting the torpedoes out of the water with machine gun fire while hauling ass at two hundred miles an hour.
Elsewhere on the battlefield, Johnston was valiantly fighting her last stand, firing wildly in every direction, surrounded by four destroyers hammering the superstructure without mercy. Finally, with all of her guns knocked out and her engines flooded, Evans gave the abandon ship order, then subsequently vanished from history, never to be seen again. As the Japanese destroyers sailed off to rejoin the rest of the battle, their men came on deck and saluted the American sailors as they floated in the water.
In a two-and-a-half hour melee off the coast of Samar Island, the Americans lost four ships—the destroyers Johnston and Hoel, the destroyer escort Samuel B. Roberts, and the escort carrier Gambier Bay. The Japanese, who had gone into the battle with an unimaginably more powerful force, suffered similar losses—two heavy cruisers were dead (Chokai and Chikuma) two more were badly damaged (Kumano and Suzuya), and the battleship Haruma sustained severe damage to her superstructure and hull. Deciding that his attack wasn’t worth the losses he was taking—and realizing that reinforcements were rapidly approaching in the form of fresh American fighter aircraft and warships—Admiral Kurita called off the attack. Taffy-3 had somehow held off the largest gunship fleet ever assembled, and they’d done it with just six escort carriers and seven destroyers.
Taffy-3 suffered 792 men dead and 768 wounded, and those men who had abandoned ship were stuck spending seventy hours in shark-infested waters before being rescued. But, against all odds, they had accomplished their mission—the carriers and the Leyte landing craft were safe, and the Japanese Center Force had been turned back in one of the most heroic naval battles ever fought. The entire unit received the Presidential Unit Citation, and Captain Ernest E. Evans of the USS Johnston was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
Throughout the Battle off Samar, Admiral Kurita had thought he’d been fighting fleet carriers escorted by American heavy cruisers. He had no idea he was actually fighting units half that size.