The Battle of Leyte Gulf: Act III.3, The Battle off Samar

Even though she only made one hit, the Heerman launched the most perfect and effective torpedo spread in history. Her ten torpedoes fanned out at the four Japanese battleships as if it were an exercise. The day before, the Musashi, the Yamato’s sister ship, took 47 aerial torpedo and bomb hits before sinking. But the fear of those ten torpedoes from a surface combatant caused the Yamato to take such radical evasive maneuvers that she ended up steaming AWAY from the battle. The American torpedoes’ inferiority ironically assisted the Heerman, as their slow speed actually extended the chase. In the confusion, the Yamato, and the Nagato who blindly followed her, never regained contact. That torpedo spread damaged one battleship, the Haruna, and effectively took two other battleships, the Yamato and Nagato, including the Center Force’s commander Admiral Takeo Kurita, out of the fight.

It wasn’t over for the Heerman though. She neutralized two battleships, now she locked horns with two more, the Kongo and the Haruna, both six times her size. She darted in between both of them as her 40mm anti-aircraft batteries raked their superstructures while her five 5” guns spewed 20 rounds a minute. The battleship’s turrets couldn’t traverse fast enough, and the Japanese gunners tried to use the concussion from the big guns to capsize the Heerman. The Heerman quickly ran out of her armored piercing shells, and switched to HE. She then expended all those and fired her anti-aircraft shells, which was like launching beehives of shrapnel at the battleships. Eventually, she was reduced to firing bright illumination rounds to cause confusion. But the star shells weren’t for naught, their burning magnesium set the battleships aflame and the high temperatures melted through armor. She sprinted through, around, and then back to the jeep carriers when she was out of ammunition. For an hour, it seemed as if the Heerman was everywhere in the battle.

The Hoel suffered a different fate. As she charged at the Chokai and the Haguro, she took over twenty hits from 6” up to 14” guns. It took an hour, but the Japanese finally decided to use their high explosive shells instead of the armor piercing ones that went right through the thin skinned American ships. The quick destruction of the Hoel gave a glimpse of what would have happened had the Japanese fired high explosive shells from the beginning of the battle. But like in all totalitarian systems, the Japanese loaders and gunners refused to challenge their superiors and switch unless given the order. Dozens of gunners knew exactly what they were looking at in their scopes: Fletcher class destroyers and Casablanca class carriers, not Iowa class battleships and Essex class fleet carriers. They weren’t stupid, they just refused to change. This obstinacy in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary went on for over an hour to disastrous consequences for the Japanese.

The Hoel was the first victim of the switch to HE shells, but she managed to launch her spread of torpedoes before she went down. One hit the Chokai in the stern, and ruined her steering. 275 of the 325 men on the Hoel died, but they were avenged by the solitary 5” stern gun of the jeep carrier White Plains. As the Chokai circled out of control, the White Plains’ solitary gun got a lucky hit on the Chokai’s torpedo magazine. The Chokai exploded and sank.

Further south, the wrecked Johnston pulled double duty: as the cruiser Tone closed in on the Gambier Bay, the Johnston engaged her with her stern guns to draw fire from the carrier. But approaching from her bow were a Japanese light cruiser and five destroyers. The Johnston’s three bow 5” guns scored hit after hit on the cruiser and the lead two destroyers. Miraculously, they all turned and retreated.

The victory was short lived. The next Japanese destroyer division was made of sterner stuff. Another light cruiser and six more Japanese destroyers made it their personal mission to sink the Johnston and the indomitable Commander Evans. The Johnston damaged two more destroyers before she went down. Cmdr Evans was last seen severely wounded on the stern conning the ship by yelling commands to the crewmen manually turning the rudder. As the Japanese destroyers steamed past the sinking Johnston, their crews didn’t machine gun the American survivors as they always had in similar situations. They saluted them. It was the only recorded instance of that happening in the Pacific War.

Just to the east, the jeep carrier Gambier Bay was dead in the water and on fire. The heavy cruiser Chikuma closed in for the kill. But before she could launch the coup de grace, she had to deal with the destroyer escort, USS Samuel B Roberts “The Destroyer That Fought like a Battleship”.

The Samuel B Roberts engaged the Chikuma with her two 5” guns at point blank range for over an hour. She was so close that the Chikuma’s guns couldn’t depress far enough. The Samuel B Roberts melted both of her 5” barrels. Nothing on the Chikuma was safe from the Samuel B Robert’s anti-aircraft guns whose gunners targeted individual Japanese sailors, on the logic that that was an exposed chink in the armor. The Samuel B Roberts even rolled her depth charges to add to the confusion. For over an hour she kept this up, but eventually the Chikuma prevailed when her own 5” guns, finally firing high explosives, sent the Samuel B Roberts to the bottom.

The Japanese were severely bloodied, but the Johnston, Hoel, Samuel B Roberts, and Gambier Bay were sunk. The Heerman was out ammunition and all she could do was lay smoke. The Kongo, Haruna, Haguro, Tone, Chikuma, a light cruiser, and six destroyers were within knife fighting distance of the rest of the jeep carriers. Although the Battle off Samar was more difficult than expected, Kurita was still about to win the battle.

It was as if the Chikuma paused to catch her breath after her fight with the plucky little destroyer escort. She slowed down, leisurely traversed her guns on the rest of the jeep carriers… and then exploded.

While the ships were fighting for their lives, the flyers from Taffy 2 and those from Taffy 3 that landed on the airstrip at Tacloban on Leyte (where they initially procured fuel and ammo from the US Army at gun point) had returned. And this time they had proper ship killing ordnance – torpedoes and armored piercing bombs. The Chikuma was the first, but soon all of the Japanese ships were taking substantial hits from the furious, and well-armed, aircraft.

It was too much for Kurita.

He had been awake for over thirty hours. He had had his flagship sunk from underneath him the day before at the Battle of the Sibuyan Bay, and then he was ignominiously fished out of the water. For the last two hours, he had suffered attacks from what he thought were over a thousand planes. He had steamed in the wrong direction and was no longer in direct control of the battle. And because of the damage done to his ships, he was convinced that the destroyers and destroyer escorts of Taffy 3 were actually Halsey’s battleships and heavy cruisers. His subordinate commanders did not want to lose face so they had not reported otherwise. The effectiveness of the newest air attacks convinced him that the 3rd Fleet was launching a massive raid to destroy him.

At 0911, 25 October 1944, 132 minutes after the Battle off Samar started, Adm Takeo Kurita radioed to the Center Force:

“Rendezvous my course north. Speed 20.”

And with that, the Japanese Center Force, on paper one of the most powerful forces of surface combatants in the history of mankind, disengaged.

The Battle off Samar was the most lopsided naval victory in history.

Kurita’s withdrawal wasn’t the end of the battle, though. In a rare example of Japanese Army-Navy cooperation, a new, and horrifying, Japanese weapon appeared just an hour and a half later.

At 1050, just as Kurita was assembling the Center Force to the north, twelve Japanese aircraft unexpectedly attacked Taffy 3 from the west. But these aircraft were different, they didn’t break off their attacks when they were damaged or when the flak was too great. They tried to fly straight into the American ships. Only one got through. It struck the jeep carrier USS St Lo, which had barely survived the morning. The St Lo was at the bottom of the Philippine Trench by noon. The USS St Lo was the first American ship sunk by the Kamikaze.

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