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Battle off Samar - Taffy 3 comes under attack

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Battle off Samar
The forces
Taffy 3 comes under attack
USS Johnston
USS Hoel
Carriers under attack
Japanese take hits
Seventh Fleet's calls for help
Criticism of Halsey
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Taffy 3 comes under attack

Movements during the battle.
Steaming about 60 miles east of Samar before dawn 25 October, St. Lo launched a 4-plane anti-submarine patrol while the remaining carriers of Taffy 3 prepared for the day’s initial air strikes against the landing beaches. At 06:37, Ensign William C. Brooks, piloting a Grumman Avenger from St. Lo, sighted a number of ships expected to be from Halsey's Third Fleet, but they appeared to be Japanese. When he was notified, Sprague was incredulous and demanded positive identification. Flying in for an even closer look, Brooks reported, "I can see pagoda masts. I see the biggest meatball flag on the biggest battleship I ever saw!" The Yamato alone displaced as much as all units of Taffy 3 combined. They had spotted the largest of the three attacking Japanese forces, comprising four battleships, six heavy and light cruisers, and ten to twelve destroyers. Approaching from the west northwest only 17 miles away, they were already well within gun and visual range of the closest task group Taffy 3. Armed against submarines, the fliers nevertheless initiated the first attack of the battle, dropping depth charges which bounced off the bow of a cruiser.

Taffy 3’s lookouts spotted the antiaircraft fire to the north. The Japanese came upon Taffy 3 at 06:45, having achieved complete tactical surprise which at about the same time others in Taffy 3 had picked up targets from surface radar and Japanese radio traffic. By 06:59, the giant Yamato opened fire at a range of 20 miles and the Americans were soon astonished to see the spectacle of colorful geysers of the first volleys of shellfire finding the range. Each ship used a different color of dye marker so they could spot their own shells. 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 a task group of the American Third Fleet under his guns. His first priority was to eliminate the carrier threat, ordering a 'General Attack'. Rather than a carefully orchestrated effort, each division in his task force was to attack separately. The Japanese had just changed to a circular antiaircraft formation, and the order caused some confusion, allowing Sprague to lead the Japanese into a tail chase, which forced the Japanese to use only their forward guns, while exposing them to his own rear-firing weapons.

This was not the first time aircraft carriers escorted by destroyers were surprised by battleships. In June 1940, while sailing through the Norwegian Sea, the British carrier HMS Glorious and the destroyers HMS Acasta and HMS Ardent, were sunk by the German battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in just in two hours.

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.

U.S. destroyer and destroyer escort counterattack

Three destroyers and four smaller destroyer escorts were tasked to protect the escort carriers from aircraft and submarines. Destroyers like the Johnston were Fletcher-class destroyers. They were affectionately nicknamed "tin cans" for their lack of armor, but they were fast enough to keep up with a fast carrier task force. The destroyers had five single 5-inch and light antiaircraft guns which were not designed to take on armored battleships or cruisers. Only their ten Mark-15 torpedoes housed in two swivelling 5-tube launchers amidships posed a serious threat to battleships. Destroyer escorts like the Samuel B. Roberts were even smaller and slower, since they were designed to protect slow freighter convoys against submarines. With two 5-inch guns without automatic fire control, they carried only three torpedoes (even PT boats carried four), and rarely trained in coordinated torpedo attacks. Since torpedoes only had a range of about five miles, they were best used at night, as in daylight, an attacker would have to survive a gauntlet of shellfire which could reach out to 25 miles. In this battle, they would be thrown against a fleet led by the largest battleship in the world.

After laying down smoke to hide the carriers from Japanese gunners, they were soon sent into near-suicidal daylight torpedo runs. The ship profiles and aggressiveness caused the Japanese to think they were cruisers and full-size destroyers. Their lack of armor tended to aid clean penetration of armor piercing rounds before Japanese gunners switched to high explosive shells which caused much more extensive damage. Their speed and agility enabled some ships to dodge shellfire completely before launching torpedoes. Effective damage control and redundancy in propulsion and power systems kept them running and fighting even after absorbing dozens of hits before sinking, although the decks would be littered with the dead and seriously wounded. Destroyers from Taffy 2 to the south also found themselves under shellfire, but as they were spotted by the Gambier Bay which had signaled for their assistance, they were ordered back to protect their own carriers.

Last Updated ( Wednesday, 15 April 2009 19:51 )