About the time of Evans’ suicidal lone wolf attack against the two lead Japanese cruisers, aircraft from Taffy 1 and Taffy 2 entered the fray. Ships of Taffy 2 were briefly sighted by Japanese destroyers far to the south, but were lost when the sighting destroyer division moved to escort their battleships on the far side of the formation. (Kurita’s attack in place order only applied the cruisers and battleships. The destroyers were still expected to escort their charges. This blind obedience to orders caused the Japanese closest to the Taffy’s 2 and 3 to actually move away from the Americans, caused a significant amount of confusion, and inadvertently put the Americans outside of the dreaded “Long Lance” torpedo range.) Soon, the American planes swarmed about the Center Force like angry hornets. They still lacked proper armor piercing bombs and torpedoes, but the exposed parts of the Japanese ships took a pounding. Every busted gunwale, every strafed bridge, every officer that dove for cover, every turn to avoid a dive bomber, every conflagration started by napalm, and every observer mesmerized by a flurry of propaganda leaflets bought Ziggy Sprague and Taffy 3 precious seconds to escape.
With the Johnston already in the attack, Sprague ordered the rest of Taffy 3’s escorts at the Japanese, “big boys on the right, little fellas on the left, prepare for torpedo runs.”
After the Johnston’s successful run which destroyed the Kumano, Evan’s turned around and headed back toward the rest of Taffy 3 to take up his escort position and provide smoke for the carriers. At that moment the Johnston was struck by numerous 8”, 14” and 16” shells from two different cruisers and the battleships Kongo and Nagato. Because the Japanese were still using armored piercing rounds, only one exploded when it hit the engine, the rest passed clean through the ship. Nonetheless, the Johnston was reduced to 17 knots and the ship was severely damaged when it entered its own smoke screen.
Also pumping out smoke were the destroyers USS Heerman and USS Hoel, followed by the plucky little destroyer escort USS Samuel B Roberts, who didn’t want to wait for the other “little fellas” on the far side of Taffy 3. In any other navy in the world the Roberts would be known as a frigate. Uniquely suited for anti-submarine warfare, destroyer escorts only had two 5” guns and a single triple turret of torpedo tubes for surface action. Nevertheless, the Samuel B Robert’s skipper, LtCdr Robert Copeland, put out on the ship’s loudspeaker, “This will be a fight against overwhelming odds from which survival cannot be expected. We will do what damage we can.” And he pulled in behind the Hoel and Heerman.
The three ships were heading forward as they passed the Johnston heading back.
One third of the Johnston’s crew was dead or wounded. She had just taken on two cruisers, both three times her size, and sank one and severely damaged the other. She had only one engine, no electrical power, and she was listing to port because the pumps couldn’t keep up with the numerous holes in her belly.
But the Johnston had five working turrets and plenty of ammunition.
Evans hoisted his giant sack, turned the Johnston around and followed the other ships back into harm’s way.
By 0800 the other Japanese cruisers were dangerously close to the jeep carriers. So close that the Gambier Bay was on fire and engaging them with her own single stern mounted 5” gun. The Farshaw Bay and White Plains were taking a steady stream of hits.
Their aircraft were causing some damage and quite a bit of confusion but only the torpedoes of the destroyers and destroyer escorts would send Japanese iron to the bottom of the sea.
The Samuel B Roberts launched herself at the two cruisers nearest the Gambier Bay, the Tone and Chikuma.
Evan’s did a quick gun run through the smoke on the lead battleship, the Kongo (he couldn’t miss) and then positioned the Johnston to cross the “T” of an approaching light cruiser and five Japanese destroyers.
The Hoel began her torpedo run against the next pair of cruisers, the Chukai and Haguro.
And the Heerman charged forward at 36 knots… straight at Kurita’s four battleships – the Kongo and her sister ship the Haruna, the Nagato, and the mighty Yamato.
To be continued.