The carriers of Taffy 3 turned south and withdrew through shellfire at their top speed of 17.5 knots. The six carriers dodged in and out of rain squalls and managed to launch all available FM-2 Wildcat fighter / bombers and TBF Avenger torpedo bombers with whatever armament they were already loaded with. Some had rockets, machine guns, depth charges, or nothing at all. Very few had general purpose bombs or torpedoes. Against ground targets and subs, the obsolecent Wildcats were low cost stand-ins for the faster Hellcats and heavier Helldivers which flew from larger carriers. 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.
After one hour, the Japanese had closed the chase to within ten miles of the carriers. That the carriers had managed to evade destruction reinforced the Japanese belief that they were attacking fast fleet carriers. At 800, Sprague ordered the carriers to "open fire with pea-shooters when the range is clear". The tail chase was also advantageous for the sole anti-ship armanent of small carriers that was a single manually controlled stern-mounted 5-inch as a stinger, though they were loaded with anti-aircraft shells. As anti-aircraft gunners observed helplessly, an officer cheered them by exclaiming, "just wait a little longer, boys, we’re sucking them into 40-mm range."
The ships had been battered by near-misses, but at 8:05 Kalinin Bay was struck by an 8 inch shell. During the early phase of the action, the enemy ships were firing armor-piercing (AP) shells which often carried right through or skipped off the flight decks of the unarmored escort carriers without detonating. Though CVE's were popularly known as "Combustible Vulnerable Expendable" they would ultimately prove durable in first dodging and then absorbing heavy shell fire, and in downing attacking kamikaze planes. The Gambier Bay would be the first and only US carrier sunk by surface fire, but fire from their stingers would be credited with hitting and contributing to the sinking of capital ships that ventured within gun range.USS Gambier Bay
It was not until 8:10 that Chikuma had to closed within 5 miles to finally land hits on the flight deck of the Gambier Bay which was the most exposed. Subsequent hits and near misses as the Japanese switched to high explosive (HE) shells first reduced her speed, and the Gambier Bay was soon dead in the water. Three cruisers closed to point blank range as ecorts such as the Johnston were unsuccessful in trying to draw fire away from the doomed carrier. Fires raged through the riddled escort carrier. She capsized and sank at 0907 on 25 October 1944 with the majority of her nearly 800 survivors rescued two days later by landing and patrol craft dispatched from Leyte Gulf.USS St. Lo
USS St. Lo explodes after kamikaze strike
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; although the aircraft itself was stopped there, its bomb penetrated the deck, inflicting a fatal blow. The escort carrier went down stern first and 114 men were killed.
USS Kalinin Bay
Last Updated ( Wednesday, 15 April 2009 19:51 )
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.
USS Kitkun Bay prepares to launch her Wildcat fighters, while USS White Plains is straddled by 14 inch shells.
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.