Watch Oliver North's War Stories this weekend - The Battle of Leyte Gulf. It's scheduled for Sunday evening at 8:00 pm ET.
Leyte Gulf was the largest naval battle in history, but it also has a secret. For years, the heroism of American seamen in a desperate battle was left unreported. Even today, few people know how gallantly and bravely our fathers fought during one of the engagements of Leyte Gulf, the Battle off Samar Island. I hope Oliver North gives viewers the real story. In any event, here is what happened -
USS Samuel B Roberts, displaced 2,000 tons of determination. She was one of the escort ships which engaged a powerful Japanese Battleship Force led by the 70,000 ton superbattleship Yamato.
The Battle of Leyte Gulf included several naval engagements between the Japanese and Americans. Our media happily reported the Battle of Suragao Straight, where two separate Japanese task forces were obliterated by battleships, such as the USS West Virginia, which had been resurrected from Pearl Harbor. they also reported other engagements which took heavy tolls on the enemy. Yet, the most spectacular victory was suppressed for fear it would embarrass an American hero, Admiral "Bull" Halsey. That 1 1/2 hour engagement is known as The Battle off Samar Island. It is, arguably, the most heroic naval engagement in history.
The Japanese were desperate. American strength was overwhelming. Japan wished to broker a favorable peace. With an American election nearing, they planned to deal a murderous blow to American forces at Leyte Gulf. They were willing to sacrifice their Navy in Operation Show which was designed to maneuever Battleships offshore from American troops and support vessels at Leyte Gulf. The Imperial Navy would then shell everything within 20 miles without mercy. They hoped to inflict very heavy casualties and fatalities on the 140,000 Americans there. Japanese leadership hoped a bloodbath would turn American opinion against the War.
There was a moment when success was within Japan's grasp. Admiral Halsey left Leyte Gulf practically unguarded when he took his powerful squadron, Task Force 34, after a Japanese decoy fleet. The only warships remaining in the area were a small group of escort carriers (converted Liberty ships), 3 destroyers and 4 destroyer escorts.
Under the command of Admiral Kurita, an Imperial Japanese naval force ("Center Force") of 4 battleships, 6 cruisers, and 13 destroyers closed to about 20 miles of Leyte Gulf. When General McArthur, known by some as "Dug-out Doug" became aware of the threat to his safety, he ordered the USS Baltimore ready to carry him away to safety. The Baltimore was one of the most powerful cruisers in the Navy, more powerful than any of the vessels left to defend American troops and support vessels.
Imperial Battleship Yamato - 70,000 tons of fury.
While General McArthur readied his escape, Admiral Clifton Sprague made a different choice. His sailors would attack the enemy. He ordered his three 4,000 ton destroyers and their 5 inch guns to lay smoke for four slow, small escort carriers. They faced the 70,000 ton Yamato, it's 18 1/2 inch guns, and all the other Japanese Battleships, battle cruisers, and destroyers. It was a hopeless mismatch. Sprague hoped his seamen could buy time for Halsey's Task Force to return, not knowing it was 200 miles away.
Behind smoke screens, Spragues tiny, slow escort carriers launched obsolete carrier planes - Wildcats to attack the mighty Imperial fleet. Most were armed for ground attacks, and many attacked without ammunition or ordinance, simply to harass the approaching capital ships.
The baby flat-tops were pummeled with heavy shells. The Japanese weren't aware how accurate their fire was, because they used armor piercing shells and the little carriers were made out of wood. The giant shells penetrated one side of the ships and exited out the other without exploding. Taffy 3's escort carriers couldn't outrun the approaching fleet. They headed into a squall for cover, but even the 20 knot rain storm outran them, making them easy targets.
The USS Johnston then peeled off and charged the enemy cruiser division nearest her. The closing rate was 60 knots. Not knowing the Johnston had already gone after the Japanese, Admiral Sprague ordered his destroyers to attack. The Johnston was followed by two other destroyers and a 2,000 ton destroyer-escort, the Samuel B. Roberts, known since as "The Little Wolf of Leyte." Some called it, "The Charge of the Light Brigade." It was a desperate, hopeless battle, but this Charge would have different results.
Imperial Battleship Kongo - 35,000 tons of destruction, same as American Dakota class battleships.
The Johnston disabled the cruiser Kumano, which was forced to leave the battle. Then, she turned towards the Battleship Kongo. Meanwhile the USS Hoel engaged a number of enemy warships, scoring many hits while firing over 500 rounds. She was hit 40 times before sinking. The powerful Yamato was forced to turn away from the battle by a torpedo attack. Because of her wide turning radius, the Yamato's evasive maneuvers took her 20 miles away from the battle.
The Roberts engaged a powerful enemy cruiser. The Roberts hit the cruiser with torpedoes and unleashed broadsides so close that the Japanese ship's guns couldn't be brought to bear on her. Then, a towering Battleship joined the action against the tiny Roberts, firing giant 14 inch rounds at her. That allowed the cruiser to close and mortally wound the Roberts with several hits.
The Johnston passed the valiant, but wounded Roberts. The Johnston's skipper, Captain Copeland, saw the Robert's skipper, Commander Evans, for the last time. The Roberts was down to one engine, one gun, no electric communications, but she still had guts and fight. Evans was on the Robert's fantail shouting down conning orders through the hatch to the after-steering compartment. He was stripped to the waste and covered with blood. As the Johnston steamed by, Evans looked up at Copeland and casually waved.
Not long afterwards, Copeland gave the order to abandon the Johnson. She was mortally wounded, having lost all her guns. She was sinking. A pack of cruisers and destroyers descended on the tiny, battered Roberts. The destroyer escort was a shambles and became the main target of Admiral Kurita’s force.
Surviviors of the Johnston watched as a Japanese destroyer approached. Many slipped out of their life jackets and under the water, fearing they would be straffed. Others feared they would be depth-charged and tried to float on their backs. However, the Japs neither strafed, nor depth-charged the crew. Many threw cans of food to their enemies now floating helplessly in the water. As the Johnston slipped below the waves, a Japanese officer lifted a hand to the visor of his cap and stood motionless momentarily .. saluting!
The USS Gambier Bay, a Casablanca class escort carrier, sunk in the Battle Off Samar Island, displaced 7,800 tons. Compare that with a WWII Essex Class fleet carrier, which displaced 35,000 tons. Today's nuclear supercarrier, the USS Ronald Reagan, displaces 95,000 tons fully loaded.
Meanwhile, the sole remaining destroyer, Heerman, received heavy damage while trying to draw fire from the escort carrier Gambier Bay, which ultimately was sunk. The mighty Imperial cruisers, Tome and Chikuma, closed upon another baby flat-top, the Fanshaw Bay, and were engaged by the 2,000 ton destroyer escorts Raymond, Dennis and John C. Butler.
The Japanese were on the verge of annihilating Taffy 3, leaving them an open approach to the Leyte landing and a target rich environment. It would be a massacre of Americans, a tremendous military victory for the Japanese, making Pearl Harbor pale in comparison.
But, with the War's greatest victory within his grasp, Japanese Admiral Kurita aboard the distant Yamato ordered a retreat! The tiny American force had fought so ferociously, he believed he was engaging Halsey's Task Force 34! Kurita’s fleet had suffered major losses. The heavy cruisers Suzya, Chikuma and Chokai had been sunk and the Kumano was forced to retire, badly damaged. Kurita thought the American destroyers were advanced, Baltimore-class cruisers, the destroyer-escorts were destroyers. He was certain the angry little carriers were Essex-class flat-tops! As the Japanese fleet turned away to the Americans’ disbelief, a signalman on Sprague’s flagship yelled "damn it boys, they’re getting away!"
I expect Oliver North will give a good account of the Battle in his hour long show. Don't miss it!
The Battle of Leyte Gulf, by Thomas J. Cutler
Little Wolf at Leyte, by J. Henry Doscher
Oct. 20 is "A-Day." MacArthur doesn't want it confused with "D-Day," the invasion of Normandy or the 6th of June. So he calls his invasion A-Day. It's celebrated by the Filipinos and may garner greater publicity as it led to some of the most instrumental battles in the Pacific. The heroic battle of Leyte Gulf where Taffy 3 (Escort Carriers and DD/DDEs) fought off the main battle fleet of the IJN. Destruction of Ozawa's decoy force - their flattops. Expect to see an A-Day stamp some day as well as more ceremonies in the years to come.
My interest in the battle began when I caught a brief mention of the order to charge the Japanese battlefleet. It was in a History Channel documentary on Leyte Gulf, and not much else was mentioned. I was amazed! 3 Destroyers and a destroyer escort charged 4 battlehips, including the giant Yamato, 4 cruisers, and 13 Imperial destroyers! That took guts and conviction!
I wanted to learn more, so I read the two books listed and watched more documentaries. I even called one of the survivors of the Samuel B. Roberts, who lived just a few miles away. He was surprised anyone was interested with what they did. I'm amazed by their courage. One fact not well known is that most men in were married, with families and were assigned there to keep them from harm's way. Halsey's Task Force 34 was meant for that task.