Action off Samar

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For more information, see: Battle of Leyte Gulf.


Also known as the Battle of San Bernadino Strait, the Action of Samar was a critical battle of the larger Battle of Leyte Gulf. The main Japanese battle fleet consisting of six battleships, seven heavy cruisers, and attendant screening forces, came upon elements of the U.S. Third Fleet, consisting of mostly escort carriers and screen. Out-classed and out-gunned, the Americans put up a heroic defense, for if the battle fleet got passed it could have wrecked the whole invasion of Leyte if it got to the landing areas. The Japanese suffered from confused tactical control and were completely taken aback by the aggressiveness of the American defense, both of which played into the Japanese decision to withdraw after the battle. The official U.S. Navy historian, Samuel Eliot Morison, wrote, "In no engagement of its entire history has the United States Navy shown more gallantry, guts, and gumption than in those two morning hours between 0730 and 0930 off Samar."[1]

Order of Battle

Halsey as a source

Unquestionably, one of the great controversies of the Battle of Leyte Gulf was responsibility for the Center Force reaching the Samar area, and Fleet Admiral William Halsey (a vice admiral in the battle) has defended his decisions. His 1947 autobiography, which originally appeared as magazine installments, retained "a good deal of the original dictated narrative, sometimes at the expense of unity and in defiance of chronology. The result catches Halsey's personality strikingly; the reader almost seems to hear the admiral talking."[2]

It did, however, make an "implacable enemy" of Thomas Kinkaid, [3] in spite of writing, in the autobiography, "I have attempted to describe the Battle for Leyte Gulf in terms of my thoughts and feelings at the time, but, on rereading my account, I find that this results in an implication grossly unfair to Tom Kinkaid. True, during the action, his dispatches puzzled me, Later, with the gaps in my information filled, I not only appreciate his problems, but frankly admit that had I been in his shoes, I might have acted precisely as did he."[4]

As this battle was part of the larger Battle of Leyte Gulf, the Japanese forces C and the second striking force, as well Halsey's Third Fleet and other elements of Kinkaid's Seventh Fleet were also in the area, but played only a background role in this particular action. For how these forces played into and reacted to the Action off Samar, see the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

U.S. Forces

The invasion area in Leyte Gulf was the naval responsibility of United States Seventh Fleet under Vice Admiral Thomas Kinkaid. Air support for the invasions was provided by the Seventh Fleet Escort Carrier Group under the command of Rear Admiral Thomas Sprague. Sprague had divided the carrier group into three forces, called "Taffy". Sprague commanded the southernmost group, called "Taffy One." "Taffy Two," the middle group was commanded by Rear Admiral Felix Stump. And the northern group, the one closest to the San Bernadino Strait, was commanded by Rear Admiral Clinton A. F. "Ziggy" Sprague (who was of no relation to Thomas Sprague). Of the three groups, only Taffy Three took part in this action. The Taffy Three force consisted of six escort carriers (maximum speed around 18 knots), with a total of more than 500 planes, three destroyers (USS Heermann, USS Johnston and USS Hoel) and four smaller destroyer escorts (USS Samuel B. Roberts (DE-413), USS Dennis, USS J.C. Butler, and USS Raymond.

Battle map

Japanese forces

Japanese battleship Yamato (foreground) and a heavy cruiser in action during the Battle off Samar. The cruiser appears to be either Tone or Chikuma. Photographed from a USS Petrof Bay (CVE-80) plane.

After the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea, Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita's Force A of the First Striking Force consisted of six battleships (including IJN ''Yamato'', IJN ''Nagato'', IJN Haruna, IJN Kongo), seven heavy cruisers (including IJN Myoko, IJN Haguro, IJN Chikuma, IJN Tone), one light cruiser, and eleven destroyers. Kurita had changed course during the battle, heading away from the San Bernadino Strait. This change of course led Halsey to believe that Kurita had quit the battle, giving him the opportunity to engage Ozawa's carriers to the northeast (and away from Leyte). However, late in the day of October 24, Kurita reversed course again and passed through the strait in the early hours of October 25. By morning Force A was to the east of the Island of Samar and but a couple dozen miles from Taffy Three. At this point, an anti-submarine patrol from Taffy Two sighted the force, which the Americans identified as the "Central Force" and called in the report. By this point, Force A and Taffy Three had made visual contact.

The threat develops

According to Kinkaid's action report, At 0653, Taffy Three "reported many enemy battleships, cruisers, and destroyers on a southerly course about 15 miles north and westward of the Task Unit." At about this time, Kurita's force began the attack at a range of about 30,000 yards. Kinkaid noted that "this was the first indication that the enemy's Central Force had succeeded in passing through San Bernardino Straits."[5] Kinkaid does not give the time he sent this dispatch, but Halsey said he received it at 0648.[6] Halsey later noted that what he believed to be Sprague's sixth message was actually his third, sent at 0725 but received by Halsey himself at 0922.[7]

Until an antisubmarine patrol aircraft sighted the Japanese force, Kinkaid had assumed that Halsey's Third Fleet surface forces (in Task Force 34) were guarding the San Bernardino Strait and were in position to intercept and destroy any enemy forces attempting to come through. Suspecting that perhaps TF34 was not where he thought it was, Kinkaid sent an inquiry to Halsey asking if TF34 was guarding the strait. Kinkaid, however, did not receive Halsey's reply (which was negative) until after he had gotten reports of the attack on Taffy Three. The message read AM NOW ENGAGING ENEMY SURFACE FORCES SURIGAO STRAIT. QUESTION IS TF34 GUARDING SURIGAO STRAIT.[5] When Halsey received this message from Kinkaid, he described it as his "first intimation had intercepted and misconstrued the preparatory dispatch I had sent at 1512 the previous day. I say 'intercepted' because it was not addressed to him, which fact alone should have prevented his confusion. I was not alarmed, because at 0802, I learned from him, ENEMY VESSELS RETIRING SURIGAO STRAIT. OUR LIGHT FORCES IN PURSUIT. [4] The 0648 and 0802 dispatches, however, referred to two separate Japanese forces: Force "A" under Kurita and the units of Force "C" and Second Striking Force.

Immediate responses

Both Kurita and Clinton Sprague appear to have been surprised by their encounter off Samar. In reacting to the surprise, the Americans remained calm and maintained discipline. Kurita, unfortunately, soon lost control of his battle force and the tactical situation. As it was now daylight, and ripe time for air attacks, Kurita was in the process of rearranging his force so as to improve his anti-aircraft defense. So his ships were, at that time, somewhat out of line. Upon seeing Taffy Three, he countermanded the change and ordered "General Chase", allow each ship to pursue individually. Had he ordered a battle line, he could have concentrated his gunfire and allowed systematic target selection. If he had retained some control over his screen, he could have ordered torpedo attacks by his light, fast forces. Both of which may have been devastating to the lightly armored escort carriers.[8]

Clinton Sprague, understood immediately that his slow and lightly armored escort carriers stood little chance against a battle fleet. He immediately order the carriers to turn east and run away from Central Force at flank speed while making smoke. Sprague hoped that the bad visibility would reduce the accuracy of Japanese gunfire.

In response to the reports from Taffy Three, Kinkaid ordered the American battle force to the eastern entrance of Leyte Gulf. But the situation was risky for this force as well. Kinkaid reported "Our surface combatant forces were deep in the southern part of Surigao Strait, after the battle of the early morning, and after five days of almost continuous bombardment of shore objectives and fighting a naval action, they were exceedingly short of ammunition and fuel; moreover, the destroyers had expended almost all their torpedoes. Nevertheless, all of our available surface forces were ordered to concentrate at eastern entrance Leyte Gulf, preparatory to moving to the support of the retiring CVEs and an urgent call for assistance was sent to Commander Third Fleet. All aircraft were recalled from support missions and were directed against the enemy's Central Force attacking our CVEs." Taffies One and Two were moved toward the Central Force to support Taffy Three, "and the enemy was hit with every conceivable form of plane attack, including dummy torpedo runs by planes without torpedoes."[9]

Destroyer counterattack

Clinton Sprague's destroyers did not have a gun that could pierce battleship armor, but their torpedoes conceivably could hurt the heavy ships. At 0730, Sprague ordered his destroyers, USS Heermann, USS Johnston and USS Hoel against the Japanese. While it had not been ordered to do so, the destroyer escort USS Samuel B. Roberts, slower but still carrying torpedoes, joined in the attack.[10] It was a daring, but extremely aggressive move because the four destroyers were certainly no match for the number and power of Kurita's Central Force. The attack was a desperate sacrifice, an attempt to buy Sprague time to get his escort carriers away from the battleships and towards the airpower of Taffies One and Two.

The destroyers attacked the "enemy battleships at a range under 10,000 yards, then turned and delivered the other half salvo against enemy heavy cruisers at a range of about 7,000 yards. After one of the most gallant and heroic acts of the war, all three ships were sunk, although the Hoel continued to withstand concentrated enemy fire for about one hour before finally sinking. As a result of continuing air action by our CVEs and the destroyer attack, the enemy momentarily turned away, and several of his ships were seen to be hit and in trouble."<Citation?>

It was fortuitous that the first attacks from American aircraft were beginning when the destroyers started to attack, complicating the problem of defense. USS Johnston, closest to the enemy, made her first run, firing all her torpedoes at the leading heavy cruiser, IJN Kumano, and then reversing course under the cover of a smokescreen. At 0728, Kumano, the flagship of Cruiser Division 8, was hit. Vice Admiral Shiraishi, commanding, shifted to the already damaged IJN Suzuya, already damaged by air strikes. Both vessels fell back behind the main formation. Minutes later, Johnston was hit by six heavy shells. She moved into the rain squall that had protected the carriers, which gave ten minutes for damage assessment and quick repairs.

USS Hoel, the screen flagship, acted next, with a torpedo attack on the battleship Kongo. Hoel fired a half-salvo of torpedoes at the battleship, which the Kongo avoided by evasive action. Hoel was hit by gunfire but maneuvered to make a new torpedo attack on heavy cruiser leader Haguro. Japanese records say a "heavy cruiser" blew up and sank at 0725, but, aside from the U.S. having no heavy cruiser and no ship exploded at this time. Note also, that this is a strong indication that the destroyers were making a big impression on the Japanese that they thought this destroyer attack was being made by heavy cruisers. The Japanese also say the torpedoes missed, but columns of water were seen at the aim points, and there were no bombers to have caused splashes from near-misses. Hoel took more than 40 gunfire hits, and she sank at 0855. <Reference?>

The Heermann had been farthest from the Japanese, but was able to participate in a second torpedo attack, ordered at 0742 and executed at 0750. She launched torpedoes on Haguro, which replied with gunfire. Heermann then spotted Kongo, which was followed by the other three battleships. She fired her rremaining torpedoes and peppered Kongo with gunfire before attempting to return to the carrier formation. While Heermann did not make any gunfire hits, her torpedoes and others had hit the Yamato, the heaviest battleship still afloat. Yamato concentrated on avoiding the torpedoes and failed to maneuver in a manner that kept her as part of the fight.

The destroyer escort Samuel B. Roberts had joined the full-sized destroyers, rather than wait to link with the other DEs. On seeing the second attack, The Johnston, out of torpedoes, still joined the other three destroyers to provide fire support. They, along with Roberts, attacked beginning at 0756.

The carriers' running fight

USS Gambier Bay sinking at Action off Samar

Taffy Three had briefly been able to hid in a small rain squall but came out of it at 0729. The force maneuvered to a generally southern course, avoiding the most immediate threat from four heavy cruisers, Chikuma, Tone, Haguro and Chokai. Sprague then ordered all aircraft to concentrate on those ships, while giving the order for the destroyers to counterattack.

IJN Chikuma sinking; hit by gunfire from an escort carrier and finished by aircraft

The superior speed of the Japanese force would have allowed it to draw closer and fire on the retreating carriers. Sprague sent planes with no bombs or torpedoes to make dummy runs to further distracted the battleships. Again, the multiple light attacks, even the diversionary ones, were a form of swarming rather than traditional attack.

At 0851, The White Plains hit the heavy cruiser Chokai at least six times, as Chief Gunner Jenkins, on a 40mm antiaircraft gun mount, called out "Hold on a little longer, boys. We're sucking them into 40mm range!" Forty-millimeter cannon would have had no effect on a heavy cruiser, but a carrier's 5" gun was also unlikely to do any damage.[11]

The retreating carrier force took numerous hits from Japanese gunfire. Two carriers, the Gambier Bay and St. Lo were severely hit. Gambier Bay lost power and fell behind. At 0900 the Gambier Bay exploded and sank. Japanese heavy cruisers Chikuma and Chokai, both of which later sunk, delivered the fatal fire, as well as (probably) IJN Haguro, the light cruiser IJN Noshiro, and a destroyer.[12] Edward Huxtable, Gambier Bay's air group commander, played a vital role in the battle as the airborne attack coordinator, staying aloft for eight hours. At the end of the war, while on the USS Fanshawe Bay, another Samar Action veteran, he and another pilot flew the Japanese surrender documents to the Tokyo ceremony.[13] St. Lo was able to continue its flight until the nearly two hours later when a suicide air attack penetrated the flight deck and started a deadly fires and explosions. St. Lo sank shortly thereafter.[5]

Calls for help

At 0822, Halsey received the third dispatch, ENEMY [battleships] AND CRUISER REPORTED FIRING ON TU 77.4.3 FROM 15 MILES ASTERN. He concluded these were part of Center Force, and "I wondered how Kinkaid had let "Ziggy" Sprague get cautht like this, and why Ziggy's search planes had not given him warning, but I was still not alarmed. I figured that the eighteen little carriers had enough planes to protect themselves until Oldendorf could bring up his heavy ships.

Chief of Naval Operations Ernest J. King, after the war, placed responsibility on both the Third and Seventh Fleets. He "inquired into Kinkaid's air searches...[and] regretfully concluded that the Seventh Fleet — notwithstanding its excellent performance in other respects — had failed to take the reasonable precaution that would have discovered the approach of the Japanese Central Force."[14]

Halsey's first response

"Eight minutes later, at 08303, Kinkaid's fourth dispatch reached me, URGENTLY NEED FAST [battleships] LEYTE GULF AT ONCE. That surprised me. It was not my job to protect the Seventh Fleet. My job was offensive, to strike with the Third Fleet." At this time, however, he ordered McCain's TG 38.1 to attack forces at the given coordinates, and notified Kinkaid. [15]

Kinkaid's fifth dispatch, at 0900, read OUR [escort carriers]] BEING ATTACKED BY 4 [battleships] 8 CRUISERS PLUS OTHERS. REQUEST LEE [commanding TF 34] COVER LEYTE AT TOP SPEED. REQUEST FAST CARRIERS MAKE IMMEDIATE STRIKE. "I had already sent McCain. There was nothing else I could do, except become angrier."

At 0922, Halsey said he received what he believed to be Sprague's sixth message was actually his third, sent at 0725 but received by Halsey himself at 0922. It read [Taffy 3] UNDER ATTACK BY CRUISERS AND [battleships] 0700 [position given]. REQUEST IMMEDIATE AIR STRIKE. ALSO REQUEST BY HEAVY SHIPS. MY [old battleships — Oldendorf's force] LOW IN AMMUNITION. Halsey asked himself why Kinkaid had not mentioned the ammunition problem, and then recognized this message had been delayed. Halsey responded I AM STILL ENGAGING ENEMY CARRIERS [at the Battle of Cape Engano]. MCCAIN WITH 5 CARRIERS 4 HEAVY CRUISERS HAS BEEN ORDERED ASSIST YOU IMMEDIATELY. Halsey gave his present position to show that his main force was too far away to help Seventh Fleet.

Halsey then received two near-simultaneous messages at 1000, one from Kinkaid, significantly sent unencrypted, the mark of extreme urgency. It read WHERE IS LEE. SEND LEE[7] Halsey was concerned that the Japanese might intercept this message, and they indeed did. "Tokyo Rose", the Japanese propagandist, broadcast later "Kinkaid halloing for help showed his great anxiety." On learning of the broadcast, Kinkaid commented "She didn't know how true that was!"[16]

The key garbled message

At that point, Nimitz at Pearl Harbor, who believed TF 34 was operational, sent Halsey his own message.

At the time, U.S. communications procedures called for prefixing (after the address header) and suffixing nonsense text to the actual message, and then encrypting the entire message as a unit. The nonsense text was not supposed to have any relationship to the message, and was to be separated by doubled letters from the real text. In this case, Nimitz's actual message was:

WHERE IS TASK FORCE 34

As the ensign in the communications center later said [17] that he put down the first phrases that "popped into his head". The prefix, TURKEY TROTS TO WATER indeed was meaningless, but the suffix THE WHOLE WORLD WONDERS is from a poem about the Charge of the Light Brigade. The message sent, therefore, read:

FROM: CINCPAC

TO: COMTHIRDFLEET

TURKEY TROTS TO WATER GG

WHERE IS TASK FORCE 34 RR

THE WORLD WONDERS

The receiving communications officer clearly recognized the nonsense prefix and deleted it, but the suffix was sufficiently pertinent that he decided it was part of the message. What Halsey actually saw, therefore, was:

FROM: CINCPAC

TO: COMTHIRDFLEET

WHERE IS TASK FORCE 34 THE WORLD WONDERS

While a violation in communications procedure, unknown to Halsey, caused the "message" to read as it did, he took it as a personal insult. He recalled
"I was as stunned as if I had been struck in the face." It was a humiliation for Halsey who turned around his force to assist Kinkaid. I turned my back on the opportunity I had dreamed of since my days as a cadet. For me, one of the biggest battles of the war was off.[18]

Kurita's choice

At 0911, Kurita issued orders for his force to rendevous and reform. If it seemed appropriate, they would then move deliberately into Leyte Gulf. Essemttially, he circled until 1236, steadily becoming more reluctant to move toward Leyte Gulf. He messaged Tokoy at 1236: "First Striking Force has abandoned penetration of Leyte Anchorage. Is proceeding north, searching for enemy task force. Will engage decisively, then pass through San Bernadino Strait.[19]

Interrogated by the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey in 1945, Kurita was described as "somewhat on the defensive, giving only the briefest of replies prior to the discussion of [the Leyte campaign actions]. In some instances his memory for details such as times, cruising dispositions, etc. appeared to be inaccurate." [20] In a 1977 interview, however, he said he chose not to pass through San Bernadino Strait and attack the transports.

What had we come this far for? Bringing so many ships, and also losing so many ships - wasn't it in order to win a victory at Leyte? I thought that, if the reported task force was 30 miles north east of us, we could definitely catch it. I thought it went without saying to steer towards the enemy force that was stronger.... After all, what lay to the south of us was just a collection of soldiers.... Naval war consists of warships sinking warships. Transport shipping is an opponent for land forces to deal with, isn't it? [21]

Results

The Japanese lost heavy cruisers Chokai and Chikuma and a destroyer. The U.S. lost escort carrier Gambier Bay, the destroyers Johnston, Hoel, and Samuel B. Roberts. But the more important result of this action was that Kurita was prevented from breaking through to the transports in Leyte Gulf and had turned around to head back through the San Bernadino Strait.

References

  1. Samuel Eliot Morison (1970), History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, vol. Volume XII: Leyte, June 1944-January 1945, Atlantic Monthly/Little, Brown, p. 217
  2. E. B. Potter (1985), Bull Halsey, U.S. Naval Institute, ISBN 0870211463, p. 368
  3. Potter, p. 372
  4. 4.0 4.1 William F. Halsey and J. Bryan III (1947), Admiral Halsey's Story, McGraw-Hill, p. 227
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Thomas Kinkaid, commanding Task Force 77 (18 November 1944), Preliminary Action Report of Engagements in Leyte Gulf and off Samar Island on 25 October, 1944, Hyperwar Foundation, paragraph 21
  6. Admiral Halsey's Story, p. 248
  7. 7.0 7.1 Admiral Halsey's Story,, p. 220
  8. Morison, pp. 248-250
  9. Kinkaid report, paragraph 22
  10. Kinkaid report, paragraph 23
  11. Morison, pp. 284-285
  12. Morison, p. 283
  13. Cindy Hayostek (September 1998), "Edward J. Huxtable, Jr.: Lead Airmen on USS Gambier Bay During the Battle of Leyte Gulf", World War II
  14. Morison, p. 298
  15. Admiral Halsey's Story, p. 219
  16. Morison, p. 296
  17. David Kahn (1996), The Codebreakers, Macmillan, ISBN 0684831309, pp. 608-69
  18. Admiral Halsey's Story, p. 220-221
  19. Morison, pp. 296-300
  20. "KURITA, Takeo, Vice Admiral, I.J.N.", U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, Interrogation No. 90
  21. C. Peter Chen, "Takeo Kurita", World War II database