Newsletter No. 495
The meeting of 13th April 2017 was also the Annual General Meeting for the KZN Branch. After the announcements the outgoing Chairman, Roy Bowman, handed the meeting over to Colonel "Tex" Westgate, ably assisted by Robert Suberg, to proceed with the AGM Roy Bowman read his Chairman's report and handed the meeting back to Col. Westgate who then called the Honorary Treasurer, Don Porter who went over the Financial Statement and read out his Financial Report for the Branch.
Col. Westgate then called for the election of the Chairman and Roy Bowman was unanimously re-elected for a further term. Election for the Committee was called and the 2016/7 Committee was re-elected en-bloc. The elected members are;
Major Gen Chris le Roux (ret.)
Professor Philip Everitt
With the business of the Annual General Meeting completed Col. Westgate handed the meeting over to the newly elected Vice Chairman, Graeme Fuller who announced a short video entitled "D. Day Minus 1" dealing with the paratrooper and glider borne troops who were dropped on Normandy the night before the D' Day landings of 6th June 1944.
After a short break the draw of the Raffle to raise funds to cover the rental of the lecture theatre was carried out. Congratulations to Robert Suberg.
Because of a major misunderstanding, the advertised speaker Graham Dominy, was unable to give his talk on Fort Napier and a substitute speaker stepped in at the last minute to provide the talk. Graeme Fuller then announced the Main Talk for the evening given by Roy Bowman entitled:
THE BATTLE OFF SAMAR - 25TH OCTOBER 1944
The Battle off Samar was the centre-most action of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, one of the largest naval battles in history, which took place in the Philippine Sea off Samar Island, in the Philippines, on 25th October 1944. It has been cited by historians as one of the greatest military mismatches in naval history.
Taffy 3 was one of the four units of Rear Admiral Thomas L. Sprague's Escort Carrier Group 77.4 known by their call signs "Taffy 1, Taffy 2, Taffy 3, Taffy 4", attached to the Seventh Fleet, protecting the invasion forces off the Philippines.
Taffy 3 (Escort Carrier Task Unit 77.4.3) consisted of Rear Admiral Clifton "Ziggie" Sprague's (no relation to Rear Admiral Thomas L. Sprague) flagship Fanshaw Bay, five other escort carriers, Gambier Bay, St Lo, Kalinin Bay, White Plains and Kitkun Bay, three destroyers USS Johnston, Hoel and Heermann and four destroyer escorts USS Samuel B. Roberts, John C. Butler, Raymond and Dennis.
On the morning of 23rd October, two American submarines detected and attacked units of the Japanese Fleet, coming in from the South China Sea, toward the Leyte beachhead.
The Japanese battleship/Cruiser/destroyer Southern Force was decimated as it attempted to enter Leyte Gulf via Surigao Strait on the night of 24th- 25th October.
A more powerful Battleship/cruiser/destroyer Centre Force had been pounded by Admiral Halsey's Carrier aircraft at the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea and presumably turned back from San Bernardino Straits!
Admiral William "Bull" Halsey Jr. then raced Northward with his attack carriers and fast battleships, to investigate a report that a Japanese carrier force was heading for the Leyte Beachhead from the Philippine Sea, his intention being to engage this North Force, a Japanese combined Carrier / Battleship task force off Cape Engano without orders and failing to notify the units that he was supposed to be protecting off of the Leyte beach-head.
This left Taffy 3 as the lone sentinels East of Samar and South East of San Bernardino Strait, on the route to Leyte Gulf.
As the Japanese Southern Force fled the Battle of Surigao Strait at daybreak on 25th October, the powerful Japanese Centre Force slipped through the San Bernardino Strait. It steamed along the coast of the island of Samar directly for the American invasion beachhead at Leyte, hoping to destroy amphibious shipping and American troops ashore.
This Centre Force consisted of four battleships. The largest and most powerful battleship in the world, Yamato, her consorts Haruna, Kirishima and Nagato as well as the veteran battleship of the Guadalcanal campaign, Kongo. This powerful force was supported by six heavy cruisers, Chokai, Haguro, Kumano, Suzuya, Chikuma, Tone and two light cruisers Yahagi and Nashiro protected by eleven destroyers and 30 land based aircraft, commanded by Admiral Takeo Kurita.
Steaming Southward along the coast of Samar, hoping that Halsey had taken the bait and moved most of his fleet, Kurita had been notified that the Southern Force had been destroyed at Surigao Strait and would not be joining his force at Leyte Gulf, however he had not received any transmission from the Northern Force, confirming that they had successfully lured Halsey's Third Fleet of carriers and Battleships.
United States Navy Task Group Taffy - 3 was not designed to engage enemy warships in combat. Comprised of just six escort carriers, which were ordinary merchant ship hulls equipped with a flight deck and equipped with a complement of thirty aircraft, three Fletcher class destroyers and four destroyer escorts, Taffy - 3's primary mission during the operation to retake the Philippines was to patrol off the coast of Leyte and launch ground attack aircraft to support the infantry assault. The destroyers and destroyer escorts job description was to protect the carriers from submarine and air attack.
When Rear Admiral "Ziggy" Sprague, commander of Taffy - 3, received a radio message from one of the early morning anti-submarine patrol pilots, reporting that a large and heavily armed group of battleships and cruisers was on a collision course with Taffy - 3, he was more than concerned. The pilots of the dawn patrol quickly identified the ships as Japanese by the unique pagoda shaped main masts and recognised the largest battleship in the world, the Yamato. She was accompanied by eight cruisers and eleven destroyers and they were twenty nautical miles away and closing fast.
Five minutes later, a trio of armour piercing 18.1 inch shells threw up a towering wall of water off the bow of Sprague's flagship, Fanshaw Bay. This salvo had been fired from Yamato!
Sprague's carriers turned East into the wind to enable them to launch their aircraft, Hellcats and Avengers, then the group turned South and ran towards Leyte as fast as they could, zigzagging between enemy shells, whilst roughly half of the Japanese Navy chased them. The destroyers made smoke in a desperate effort to conceal the carriers from the enemy gunners, whilst keeping close station to their charges, the carriers. It became clear that running was not going to help as the speed differential between the enemy cruisers, destroyers and battleships and the carriers was so great that they would soon be overrun.
Suddenly, out of the smoke broke the bow of DD 557, USS Johnston! A 2 050 ton, Fletcher class destroyer, on a suicide run straight into one of the most heavily armed surface fleet ever assembled! She was commanded by Cmdr Ernest E. Evans, who had vowed "never to take one step back from the Japanese" at the launching of the Johnston and was now to find himself and his ship up against an enemy twenty three ship armada, hoping that his actions would delay the enemy long enough for the carriers to escape.
Still way out of range of her little five inch guns and torpedoes, Johnston determinedly zigzagged at flank speed through a barrage of concentrated fire from the enemy armada. Evans knowing full well that his ship had to cover twenty miles of open water to get within range and that a single hit from any enemy ship would rip her hull and possibly send her careening to the ocean floor. Still oblivious of any danger, Evans raced on!
Six squadrons of Avenger bombers and Hellcat fighters screamed through the air above Johnston, making their way toward the Japanese fleet, despite a hail of tracer fire and shrapnel exploding all around them. The aircraft that got through the barrage of anti-aircraft fire, streaked in at 200 m.p.h. to attack the enemy ships with all they had, depth charges, anti personnel bombs and .50 cal machine guns, hoping to turn the behemoths away from the carriers.
Back on the ocean surface, Johnston had miraculously made her way through the carnage and closed within range to begin her attack. Johnston opened up on the lead Japanese heavy cruiser, blasting all five of her 5-inch guns at IJN Kumano, a hulking warship that outweighed the little Johnston by a factor of seven. Undeterred, Johnston fired two hundred rounds of 5-inch ammunition in just 5 minutes, hammering the Kumano's superstructure, destroying two of her main gun mounts and then followed with a ten torpedo salvo that ripped into Kumano's hull, blasting her bow off and stopping her in her tracks.
Having expended all of her torpedoes, Johnston did an emergency 180° turnabout and sped back toward Taffy - 3, firing her 5-inchers at any ship that displayed the rising sun.
Unfortunately Johnston's luck finally ran out and at extreme close range with the enemy, she took a direct hit from the Battleship Kongo. Heavy sixteen inch shells punched through Johnston's hull without exploding, destroying a boiler, which cut the ships speed by half. Another round from a heavy cruiser smashed into her, igniting a 40 mm magazine, which exploded, spewing hot metal across her decks, cutting down damage control parties desperately putting out fires. Another round slammed into Johnston's bridge, snapping the mast, destroying communications and radar capabilities. Captain Evans lost two fingers and was covered by a spray of white hot burning shrapnel but he recovered and walked across the deck issuing orders, as if nothing had happened.
Overhead the Avengers and Hellcats continued their strafing attacks, diving on the enemy at high speed, releasing their bomb loads and strafing the decks as they sped away. The Heavy cruiser Suzuya was hit with two bombs and badly damaged, pulling out of the formation alongside the crippled Kumano. Even the pilots whose bomb bays were empty, turned in toward the enemy fleet, opening their bomb-bays as they sped toward their target, making fake torpedo runs on the Japanese cruisers, forcing them to take evasive action, so buying more time for the American carriers to make their escape.
Inspired by the example of USS Johnston, the rest of the Taffy - 3's destroyer screen turned from their close escort of the carriers and joined Johnston in the attack. The destroyers Heermann and Hoel threw themselves through the smoke screen into the battle, joined by the diminutive Samuel B. Roberts - a tiny, slow, lightly armed, un-armoured anti submarine ship.
As the second American attack wave closed to within torpedo range, they passed the crippled Johnston, still trying to limp back to the escaping carriers, the bleeding, badly wounded Cmdr Evans saluting them as they hurtled to certain death! After the destroyers had passed, Evans ordered his ship to turn about and follow the others into the fray, giving covering fire with whatever ammunition remained in the magazines. The damage control crews stuffed mattresses into shell holes and kept the pumps running at full speed to keep the ingress of the sea under control as their ship sped into action.
The American destroyers steamed at flank speed through the deadly spray of enemy shells straight into the midst of the Japanese formation with all guns blazing. The Hoel launched her torpedoes at the Kongo, missing, but forcing her to turn away then began trading point blank salvoes with the heavy cruiser Haguro. The Heermann charged directly at four Japanese cruisers, hitting them with a barrage of 54 pound shells from her 5 inch guns and then fired seven of her ten torpedoes at the behemoth Yamato. The Imperial flagship, seeing more than six torpedoes speeding towards her turned away, taking the fleet commander Admiral Kurita away from the action.
Heermann then her attention turned to the battleship, Haruma with another torpedo barrage damaging the Haruma's hull and causing her to slow considerably.
The tiny Samuel B. Roberts became involved as she closed on the heavy cruiser Chokai, hammering her with five torpedoes and trading gunfire from her two 5 inch's at point blank range. The Roberts was so small and at so close range that the Chokai couldn't depress her guns enough to hit her, allowing Roberts to get in a few well placed rounds at her steering gear, causing the Chokai's rudders to jam.
As the swirling ship on ship melee ensued with the three tiny American destroyers engaging a dozen enemy cruisers and battleships at extremely close range, Cmdr Evans of the Johnston noticed a group of Japanese destroyers, comparable in size and weaponry to the Johnston that had broken away from the main enemy group and were heading to make a torpedo attack on the carriers. Johnston was crippled but Evans knew that she was the only American ship able to intervene. He ordered his ship to turn and attack, driving her directly into the Japanese destroyer formation firing madly, despite being outnumbered five to one by ships in better fighting shape than his own. In his desperate charge, Evans threw the entire Japanese destroyer column off course as they reacted to the shells pounding their hulls.
Back in the gun battle now engulfing the seas off Samar Island, the destroyer escorts Dennis, Raymond and John C. Butler also steamed ahead and joined their sister ship Samuel B. Roberts steaming straight into the teeth of the epic naval duel that now raged across the ocean. The tiny American ships did everything they could to get in the way of the Japanese heavies and keep them away from the carriers, firing with everything they had. The Heermann was trading fire with two heavy cruisers at point blank range, Hoel was fighting for her life against impossible odds as three enemy warships hammered her from different sides and the little Samuel B. Roberts was firing at a rate that would see her expend six hundred rounds from her two guns in just an hour, most them being fired into Chokai causing Chokai to leave the fray.
For the next hour the fighting was fast and furious, but the situation was getting darker and darker by the minute for Taffy - 3. The Heermann and the destroyer escorts damaged the heavy cruiser Chikuma, which turned to escape and was promptly torpedoed by one of the TBF Avengers circling overhead but despite that, things were beginning to turn against the American fleet. Heermann then took a Japanese shell through her bridge but continued to fight, despite being on fire and boxed in by a trio of Japanese destroyers.
Swarmed by battleships and cruisers, Hoel was hit by a trio of fourteen inch shells from IJN Kongo, smashing her aft engine and aft guns. Hoel, virtually dead in the water, continued on launching her remaining torpedoes which struck the Haguro forcing her to also leave the attacking formation. Hoel was in serious trouble! With her ammunition depleted, many of her weapons smashed beyond repair and having taken over forty hits from large calibre guns her captain Cmdr Kintberger ordered the crew to abandon ship. The forward two turret crews refused to leave their posts, loading the 5-inch guns manually, as there was now no power for the ammo lifts. They were finally silenced when an enemy round entered the forward magazine causing it to blow up.
The little Roberts was hit as well, a three round salvo of massive armour piercing shells forcing her captain, Lt Cmdr Copeland to give the order to abandon ship, putting an abrupt end to her heroic struggle.
Back in the carrier fleet the Gambier Bay became the only U.S. Carrier to be sunk by surface fire after taking a stray round from a Japanese battleship. The Kalinin Bay was struck fifteen times by enemy shells, she remained afloat but aside from these two set backs the remainder of the escort carriers continued their desperate sprint for safety at their maximum speed of 17 knots, taking full advantage of their brave escorts now sacrificing themselves, to save the day. A second torpedo run by the Japanese destroyers was thwarted by quick manuevering by the escort carriers and some heroic sharpshooting by pilots shooting the torpedoes out of the water with well directed machine gun fire.
Elsewhere on the battlefield, Johnston was valiantly fighting her last stand, firing wildly in all directions, surrounded by four enemy destroyers, hammering her hull and superstructure mercilessly. Finally, with all guns out of action and her engine room flooded, Evans gave the order to abandon ship and was last seen helping members of his crew into a life raft.
As the Japanese destroyers sailed off to rejoin, their officers and crews came on deck and salute the survivors of this gallant ship.
In the two and a half hour melee off the coast of Samar the Americans lost four ships, the destroyers Johnston and Hoel, the destroyer escort Samuel B. Roberts and the escort carrier Gambier Bay. The Japanese, who had gone into the battle with an unimaginably powerful force, suffered similar losses, two heavy cruisers were dead in the water, Chokai and Chikuma, two more were badly damaged, Kumano and Suzuya and the battleship Haruma sustained severe damage to her superstructure and hull.
Deciding that his attack wasn't worth the losses he was taking and realizing that reinforcements, in the form of the 3rd and 7th Fleets, were fast approaching, Admiral Kurita called off the attack. Taffy - 3 had somehow held off the largest naval fleet ever assembled and they had done it with just six escort carriers, three destroyers and four destroyer escorts. Taffy - 3 suffered 792 men dead and 768 wounded. Those men who had abandoned ship were to spend seventy two hours in shark infested waters, before being rescued.
Against all odds, they had accomplished their mission - the carriers and the landing craft at Leyte were safe and the Japanese centre Force had been turned back, one of the most heroic naval battles ever fought. The entire unit received the PRESIDENTIAL UNIT CITATION, Cmdr Evans of the Johnston received the posthumous award of the Congressional Medal of Honour and Lt Cmdr Copeland of Samuel B. Roberts received the Navy Cross.
Throughout the Battle off Samar, Admiral Kurita had thought that he had been fighting fleet carriers escorted by American heavy cruisers. He had no idea that he was actually fighting units half that size.
IN NO ENGAGEMENT OF ITS ENTIRE HISTORY, HAS THE UNITED STATES NAVY SHOWN MORE GALLANTRY, GUTS AND GUMPTION THAN IN THOSE TWO MORNING HOURS OFF SAMAR
SOUTH AFRICAN MILITARY HISTORY SOCIETY
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