The Battle of Leyte Gulf was one of the most significant naval battles in history, much less World War II. At the center of the conflict was the Battle off Samar, a conflict that pitted a small group of United States escort carriers against the last of the Japanese Navy’s battleships. In a last ditch-effort near the end of the war, Japanese Admiral Kurita led his ships towards the American beachhead at Leyte Gulf. And all that stood between him and the beachhead was Taffy 3, the radio callsign for a group of six small carriers and seven escort ships. Read on for the fate of Taffy 3 and a detailed history of the famous Battle off Samar.
Wednesday, October 25, 1944
The American Army had returned to the Philippines, a collection of islands south-southwest of Japan and east of Vietnam. Taffy 3 was a collection of small carriers, about half the size of a standard aircraft carrier, escort ships, and a few destroyers that guarded them. The carriers were made from merchant ships that had been turned into carriers to meet wartime needs and were designated CVE’s. Veteran soldiers claimed that CVE was an acronym for “Combustible, Vulnerable, and Expendable.”
The purpose of Taffy 3, as was the same for Taffy 1, and Taffy 2, was to provide reconnaissance and ground support for the troops that five days earlier had landed in the Leyte Gulf. Together, the three Taffy groups made up the Escort Carrier Group 77.4 of the U.S. Seventh Fleet. Shortly after the crews sat down to breakfast at 6:30 a.m., Japanese voices were picked up on the radio. As it was assumed that the Japanese fleet was over 100 miles away, the radiomen believed the chatter must be coming from one of the many Japanese controlled islands in the Philippines. However, 11 minutes later, a scout plane reported enemy forces were 20 miles out and closing quickly.
Surprised by this development, Admiral Sprague, the skipper of the Taffy 3 flagship U.S.S. Fanshaw Bay, quickly launched every plane he had under control with whatever weaponry they had on board at the time. The crews of the carriers settled behind their five-inch guns, the largest they had on board. By 11:58 a.m., flashes of light appeared on the horizon and were soon followed by geysers of water as shells hunted for the American ships.
The Battle of Leyte Gulf Begins
To delay the end of the war and give themselves a better position at the bargaining table for peace, Japan had multiple plans designed to blunt the American advances into the Pacific. The Japanese Navy began heading towards the Philippines in mid-October of 1944. On October 18, Japan Combined Fleet commander Admiral Soeniu Toyoda received the command, “Execute Sho Plan Number One.”
Two U.S. fleets were in the area to cover the invasion beaches: the Third Fleet, commanded by Admiral William Halsey, and the Seventh Fleet, commanded by Vice Admiral Thomas Kinkaid. The Third Fleet was made up of big carriers and new battleships, while the Seventh Fleet, which contained Taffy 3, was made up of pre-Pearl Harbor cruisers and battlewagons. The Third Fleet was acting as a roving watchdog, as the Seventh Fleet oversaw the landing on Leyte Island.
Sho Plan No. 1
Sho Plan Number One was a three-pronged attack. The first prong was a decoy designed to distract the Third Fleet and take them out of the battle. It contained four carriers, two converted battleship carriers, and some smaller screening ships. The second prong was to attack the Americans in the Leyte Gulf from the southwest. This prong was composed of 17 total ships, including battleships, destroyers, and cruisers.
The third and final prong was made up of the heavy hitters and contained the world’s two largest warships: the Musashi and the Yamato. These ships displaced 68,000 tons of water, compared to the American’s largest ships that displaced 45,000 tons. The Musashi and Yamato also had 18-inch guns, compared to the American’s 16-inch guns. The third prong also contained three more battleships, 15 destroyers, 12 cruisers, and was designed to come in through the backdoor from the east.
Americans Strike First
Luckily for the Americans, two submarines spotted the third prong first and took down the flagship heavy cruiser Atago and cruiser Takao with torpedos. This left the Japanese fleet down five ships, including the three destroyers sent to rescue the crews of the sunken ships. Having already lost some of their early advantages, the Japanese continued their poor form to start the battle.
Anticipating airstrikes from American planes, antiaircraft from the third prong fought heavily to take down the first planes they saw. Unfortunately for the Japanese, these were land-based Zeros that had been sent to provide air cover. And after being shot at, they returned to their land base, leaving the third prong with no air support.
The good fortune for the Americans continued as a scout plane spotted the Japanese armada of the third prong at 8:10 a.m. on October 24. After sinking the massive Musashi and badly damaging another heavy cruiser at the cost of 18 torpedo planes and dive bombers, a false sense of security overcame Admiral Halsey and his Third Fleet. Under the assumption that the third prong was no longer a serious threat, Halsey fell for the bait of the first prong intended to take his fleet out of the main battle. By 8:30 p.m. on October 24, the Third Fleet was in pursuit of the Japanese first prong decoy.
The Battle off Samar Begins
Just past midnight on October 25, the Japanese third prong, led by the massive Yamato, entered the Philippine Sea. In addition to the Yamato, the fleet now contained the battleships Kongo, Haruna, and Nagato, along with heavy cruisers Suzuya, Kumano, Tone, Chokai, and Chikuma. Expecting to have to fight their way to Leyte, the Japanese were thrilled to see nothing but open sea. All that remained between them and the beachhead was Taffy 3.
Admiral Kurita, now aboard the Yamato, believed that he must have run into the American Third Fleet when he first came across Taffy 3. This led to a sudden change in formation, which led to a disjointed attack on the Americans. At 6:58 a.m., the Yamato fired its 18-inch guns at another ship for the first time. Three minutes later, Admiral Sprague was sending out an urgent transmission for help, and planes from Taffies 1 and 2 were sent for assistance.
Sprague’s plan was to lead the enemy in a circle southwest to meet up with the Third Fleet. Kinkaid’s Third Fleet had just been in a battle overnight with the Japanese second prong, so they were not fully prepared for another fight so quickly. However, luck would strike again for the Americans as Sprague suddenly found himself in a squall of rainfall.
A Welcome Rain Delay
Disrupting the radar of the quickly approaching Japanese ships, the rain squall provided a 15-minute respite for Taffy 3. At this time, air fighters from Taffies 1 and 2 had reached the Japanese fleet and began peppering them with bombs and depth charges. Having not been prepared for all-out battle, though, those munitions quickly ran out, and the fighters began attacking with machine guns. Once the machine gun ammo ran out, the air fighters continued to buzz the Japanese ships hoping to provide a distraction for Taffy 3.
Taffy 3 Fights Back
Admiral Sprague then made the decision to order his destroyers to fire torpedoes at the Japanese fleet. After refueling ammunition, the American Wildcat fighters and Avenger bombers were back in action. First blood was struck as a bomb hit the deck of the heavy cruiser Suzuya, taking it out of battle. Soon after, the first destroyer to respond to Sprague, the Johnston, veered course and headed straight at the heavy cruiser Kumano.
The Johnston let loose its ten torpedoes, and one struck the nose of the Kumano, causing it to dip deep into the swells and taking it out of action. However, after the direct hit, the Johnston took a massive blow of her own by three 14-inch shells and three 6-inch shells. Two more American destroyers, the Heerman and Hoel, then entered the fight to aid the Johnston. The injured Johnston joined behind them to provide cover from her guns.
The Heerman and Hoel provide a much-needed distraction for the carriers to flee, but it was at the cost of the Hoel, while the Heerman received reparable damage. At 8:51, the destroyer Roberts entered the fight trading blows with its 5-inch cannon against the 14- and 8-inch shells of the Japanese cruisers. Despite taking blow after blow, the Roberts continued fighting for another 45 minutes. The Roberts fired off 608 shells before succumbing to the sea.
The Battle off Samar Concludes
Without their air support, the Japanese fleet was vulnerable to the continued salvos from refueled American planes. In total, the American forces lost two destroyers, a destroyer escort, two escort carriers, and several aircraft. Over 1,000 Americans died in the battle. The Japanese losses totaled three cruisers, three disabled cruisers, and enough damage and confusion to the Yamato that it was forced to retreat. In the Battle of Leyte Gulf, 3,000 Americans and 10,000 Japanese sailors lost their lives.