In the annals of US Naval history, there are a number of instances that demonstrate the courage and determination of a committed group of dedicated officers and men.
The one that stands out most in many people’s opinions is the battle which occurred on October 25th 1944. On this day, a small group of scrappy warriors took on a force many times its size and contributed to one of the greatest naval victories of all time.
By October of 1944, the Japanese were becoming more and more desperate to slow down or stop the advancing juggernaut that the US Navy had become in the Pacific. From the ashes of Pearl Harbor on December 7th, a resurgent United States used its massive industrial capability to produce a fleet second to none in the world. The men of Pennsylvania, Kansas, California, and the other forty eight states were indoctrinated into a life as a bluejacket and sent to support the rising tide of ships, submarines and planes. Admiral Nimitz had a large pool of resources to draw from in order to support the steady drive to liberate the Philippines and the pathway to Tokyo.
The Japanese had captured the Philippines in the early part of the war and had made many preparations to repel any invaders. The raw materials and supplies from the entire Pacific rim were vital to Japan’s future and every inch of territory had to be defended at any cost. This determination was the direct cause for the creation of an almost suicidal attack called the Sho-go plan (Operation Victory). The attack would have three prongs, North, Center, and South. The North group was actually a decoy to lure the third fleet away from the center and allow a heavy force of Japanese surface ships to disrupt the landings at Leyte Gulf. Unfortunately, Admiral Halsey did not know that at the time.
The actual attack started with American submarines discovering the center fleet approaching the gulf on the 23rd. The USS Darter and Dace intercepted the center force in the Palawan Passage.
Admiral Kurita had failed to place destroyers in an anti-submarine posture ahead of his group of heavy ships. The Darter sent torpedoes into Admiral Kurita’s flagship the heavy cruiser Atago sinking it. Dace was successful in torpedoing two heavy cruisers sinking the Takoa and severely damaging the Maya which was forced to withdraw.
Despite the damage to some of his ships, Kurita moved forward. Meanwhile, the Darter and Dace faced a new problem. In the aftermath of the battle, the Darter went aground. Heroic efforts on the parts of both crews failed to release her from her prison and a decision was made to scuttle her.
After picking up the crew, the Dace waited nearby for the expected explosions from the charges meant to destroy Darter. The charges failed and a decision was made to return and use the deck guns to finish the job. While on the surface, radar spotted an incoming plane. All hands were ordered below and Dace barely escaped the explosions that followed. The plane, seeing an escaping submarine, chose to attack the remaining boat. The attack finished what Dace had started.
The central force was attacked by American airpower and sustained a number of hits. Their response was to turn back on their original approach. Halsey’s scouts had found the Northern force and he made a decision that will stand as a textbook case of strategic thinking for generations to come. Feeling that the center force was beaten and knowing that the southern force was being chewed up by his own old battleships and auxiliary attack units, he decided to keep his fast battleships and carriers together as a group and destroy the northern fleet. The decision earned his maneuver the nickname of “The Battle of Bull’s Run”
The decision left only a small force of escort carriers and destroyers to cover the beachhead from any further naval attacks. Admiral Kurita still had four battleships, six heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and eleven destroyers. Facing that attack, Rear Admiral Sprague had 16 escort carriers and their destroyers. Taffy 3 which only included six small carriers, three destroyers and four destroyer escorts immediately turned east to confront the overwhelming force. The Battle of Samar had begun.
Knowing that the men on shore would be slaughtered if nothing was done, Sprague charged at the superior force with his small group and proceeded to sail his way into history. The tiny force was battered by the battleships and cruisers and many American lives were lost this day.
In the end, their fearless determination convinced the Japanese that there must be a larger force on its way and they retreated homewards. On this day, the Japanese Fleet ceased to exist as an offensive unit. Halsey had destroyed most of the northern fleet, the southern fleet was in ruins and the center force was harassed all the way home.
The lessons learned from the action were many. A determined force with a highly skilled and motivated crew can overcome incredible odds with the right leadership. The sacrifices of those men in the face of overwhelming odds will remain a hallmark of the American Spirit.
Leadership means making tough decisions. Sometimes those decisions will be less than optimal. The way to decrease the chances of being wrong means using the training, skills and experience combined with as accurate information as is available.
Never forget the main objectives. While Halsey felt his role was not a defensive one, the sacrifices of Sprague’s men could have cost the invasion of the Philippines and extended the war for an indeterminate period of time. Not to mention the senseless loss of men and equipment.
I can only imagine what it would have been like to be one of the men on any of Taffy 3’s ships. Knowing that they were being thrown into a meat grinder that could ultimately destroy them all must have been unnerving to say the least. But in every after action report, only one common theme emerged. The men of Taffy 3 stayed at their stations to the last. As a result, the tide was turned. God Bless their memory.