Kurita emerged unopposed from San Bernardino Strait and was racing southward heading for Leyte Gulf. At daybreak on Oct. 25, American carriers were sighted on the horizon. Kurita thought he had caught Halsey’s fast carriers with most of their planes down. In fact, Halsey was 300 miles to the north and his planes were taking off to attack Ozawa’s Northern Force. Ozawa radioed Kurita that he was under attack but Kurita never received the message.
What Kurita had come upon was Rear Admiral Clifton A.F. Sprague’s Taffy 3, one of three groups of escort carriers from Kinkaid’s Seventh Fleet assigned to provide air cover and antisubmarine patrol for the Leyte landings, not to attack enemy warships.
When one of his pilots reported seeing enemy forces closing in at 30 knots, Adm. Clifton “Ziggy” Sprague aboard his flagship, the Fanshaw Bay, ordered him to check identification. “Ships have pagoda masts”, came the reply. Sprague wasted no time. He swung his carriers east into the wind at top speed and launched every operational plane including his fighters. He instructed all ships to throw up smoke screens, alerted his destroyers for an attack and radioed for help.
Within minutes, Kurita was dropping salvos all around the American ships. Giant splashes of dyed water rained down in yellow, red, purple and green on the decks of the jeep carriers. Then Providence intervened; a rain squall appeared, and Taffy 3 ducked into it.
For the next three hours, while Taffy 3 broadcast repeated calls for help and Kinkaid frantically radioed Halsey to return south, Sprague eased south with his carriers in a series of brilliant evasive maneuvers. The counterattacks by his aircraft and seven fighting ships were so fierce, so concentrated and so effective that the Japanese continued to believe that they were engaging a much bigger force.
Under the shaky cover of the planes, Sprague’s destroyers and destroyer escorts recklessly threw themselves in front of their carriers. They kept on firing torpedoes, and though few of the missiles found their marks, the misses served to delay and distract the faster Japanese ships.
The destroyer Johnston under the command of Cmdr. Ernest Edwin Evans, a mixed-blood Cherokee Native American from Oklahoma was in the thick of the hectic fight all morning. She fired her last torpedoes just before being hit by three 14-inch shells. Three small shells tore into the hull. A rain squall covered her while her crew made emergency repairs. When the Johnston emerged from a cloud of smoke, she found herself bow to bow with a Japanese battleship. Firing as she went, she ducked back into the smoke and soon came upon the crippled American cruiser Gambier Bay, which was under attack by a Japanese cruiser. Realizing that the carrier was damaged too severely to flee, Evens rushed in with guns blazing to draw off the cruiser but the Japanese, intent on larger prey, ignored the Johnston.
At this point a line of five Japanese warships bore down upon the Gambier Bay and her companion carriers. The Johnston turned around and Evans fired at the Japanese column. He hit a light cruiser. Japanese shells came from every direction until the Johnston was hit and later sunk. A wounded Evans vanished with his sinking ship. The destroyer escort Samuel B. Roberts also went down in this phase of battle while planes from all three Taffys swarmed Kurta’s ships. Then, as the Japanese destroyers turned away, Kurita’s fast cruisers began to close in on Sprague’s carriers. The Gambier Bay was beginning to sink, but she continued to blaze away with her single 5-inch gun.
The destroyer and destroyer escorts had the duty to protect the carriers. In this battle, led by the Johnston, they went far beyond the call of duty. After making a smokescreen to obscure the escort carriers, the Johnston charged the oncoming Japanese fleet. Evans waited until his ship got within eight hundred yards of the leading Japanese ship before firing his torpedoes. A torpedo ripped into the Kumano, flagship of one of Kurita’s cruiser divisions.
Admiral Kincaid frantically called on Halsey as he feared the loss of his escort carrier fleet to Kurita’s fleet. Admiral Nimitz followed the progress of the battle from Hawaii by wireless telegraph. He was concerned by Halsey’s dispatch at 8:24 pm the night before, “am proceeding north with three groups”. Kincaid’s desperate pleas the morning of Oct 25 caused Nimitz to be even more perturbed. He sent a message to Halsey: “Where is Task Force Thirty-Four? Repeat, where is Task Force Thirty-Four? The world wonders.” Halsey felt insulted by Nimitz’ inquiry. Shortly thereafter, he gave the order to change course from due north to due south. He did not expect his fleet to arrive at Leyte Gulf until 8 am the next morning, too late to engage Kurita’s fleet.
Clifton Sprague’s force put up a gallant and heroic fight against a superior force, yet before being annihilated, Kurita’s mighty squadron, astonishingly, was forced to turn and flee northward backward through the San Bernardino Strait. The sight of Kurita’s departing force left Sprague dumbfounded.
Taffy 3, incredibly had outfought and outlasted an overwhelmingly superior enemy – and, in doing so, had kept the heavy guns of the Japanese fleet off the American troop transports and MacArthur’s beachhead on Leyte. Admiral Sprague credited Taffy 3’s survival to “our successful smoke screen, our torpedo counterattack, continuous harassment of enemy by bomb, torpedo and strafing air attacks, timely maneuvers and the definite partiality of Almighty God.”
The Pacific War by William B. Hopkins
Return to the Philippine WWII by Rafael Steinberg