The Battle of Leyte Gulf: Act III.1, The Battle off Samar

The first indications for most of the sailors of Rear Admiral Clifton “Ziggy” Sprague’s Task Force 77.4.3, that “Taffy 3” was under attack were the sound of hurtling trains, followed by splashes that shook the small jeep carriers and knocked sailors off their feet and out of their bunks. Because the Japanese still used visual fire control techniques each of the splashes were color coded so the observers high in the “pagoda”, as the Allies called the tall Japanese superstructures, could adjust their ship’s fire. The Haruna’s green shells, the Kongo’s yellow, Nagato’s orange, and the Yamato’s distinctive red splashes fell among the jeep carriers and escorts. Each red dyed splash caused by the Yamato indicated a near miss from a 3,200 lbs shell. In fact, the Yamato displaced more tonnage by itself than the combined weight of Taffy 3. And so did the next largest ship, the Nagato.

Within minutes the Japanese were registering hits, but the Americans only saving grace was the armored piercing rounds didn’t hit anything substantial enough for the fuses to ignite, so they passed right through their ships. Kurita’s initial assessment that he faced the six fleet carriers, four battleships, and three cruisers of Mitscher’s TF 38 was wrong. What he actually faced were the six smaller escort or “jeep” carriers, four destroyers and four smaller destroyer escorts of Taffy 3. Kurita, who would have been astonished to know how close he was to the Americans, thought he was further away than he was, and thus the ships bigger than they actually were.

The Americans were clearly surprised and Kurita hoped to overwhelm them before they could organize a coherent defensive formation. His own ships were in the midst of changing formation from a nighttime cruise to a daytime anti-aircraft formation, and his order to immediately attack at all speed no matter a ship’s position caused some confusion among the Japanese captains. Nonetheless, Kurita was convinced this maritime banzai would overpower the American surface ships and he could exact revenge on the hated American aircraft carriers before they could launch a strike.

Ziggy Sprague was under no illusions about what he faced. The most powerful independent surface action fleet in the history of mankind was speeding straight at him. And Halsey’s TF 34 was nowhere to seen. All he could do was make a run for nearest rain squall to hide. With that in mind, it wasn’t Kurita’s four battleships that were the most immediate concern but the eight Japanese cruisers. Sprague’s jeep carriers were only slightly slower than the battleships, but the Japanese cruisers had a 13 knot advantage. They had to be slowed down. Sprague did the only thing he could do: he launched all of his aircraft at Kurita, no matter their fuel or weapon status. During the short 15 mile trip to the Japanese, the aviators were surprised to see a single destroyer, the USS Johnston by herself, laying a smoke screen and charging directly at Kurita’s Center Force.

Commander Ernst E Evans, the Cherokee-American captain of the USS Johnston and veteran of the defeats of the Bismarck Sea and the naval battles in Solomon’s, knew exactly what was happening as soon as heard the first telltale train engine sound of the large battleship caliber shells streaking overhead. Evans, with the closest destroyer to the Japanese, without orders turned the Johnston around, moved to flank speed, attacked, and made smoke to obscure his charges. The problem with making smoke on a destroyer is that it billows behind the ship: it doesn’t obscure the destroyer making the smoke, it highlights it. This is what the flyers saw as Evans desperately tried to close the distance to engage.

Taffy 3’s pilots attacked with whatever ordinance they were carrying: anti-personnel bombs, napalm, rockets, .50 cal machine guns, and the gunner’s stern mounted .30 cals. There was even a recorded instance of an Avenger flying past the astonished bridge crew of the battleship Kongo with his canopy open and the pilot firing his pistol at them. And when they ran out of bombs and ammunition, the flyers continued making attacks: for every Japanese gunner who was shooting at them was one that wasn’t shooting at someone who could do some damage.

The Japanese swerved to avoid the attacks: some real, some imaginary. And every turn slowed them down.

At 10,000 yards, the Johnston was miraculously not hit. Like the Death Star’s turbo lasers, the Japanese gunners were under compensating for the small and fast target. The Johnston’s guns had no such problem: her five 5” guns swung into action guided by radar and the new Mark 1A firing computer. She put 43 rds into the lead cruiser, and 34 into the second cruiser, setting them on fire.

At 4,000 yrds, she launched all eight of her torpedoes.

Three hit the lead heavy cruiser, the Kumano, and it was dead in the water.

To be continued.

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