"Survival cannot be expected"

Watercolor by Commander Dwight C. Shepler, USNR, depicting the escort ships' attack on the Japanese fleet. (Image: Naval History & Heritage Command)
Watercolor by Commander Dwight C. Shepler, USNR, depicting the escort ships' attack on the Japanese fleet. (Image: Naval History & Heritage Command)

You might remember news from late June, 2022 about the discovery of a World War II shipwreck.  The destroyer escort USS Samuel B. Roberts sank on October 25, 1944, during the Battle off Samar in the Philippines. Lying at the depth of 22,621 ft. (6,895 m), it is the deepest wreck ever identified. What you might not have known is that the previous holder of that record, the destroyer USS Johnston sank in the same battle. Today's article is about the Battle off Samar, and is dedicated to the sacrifice of several American ship crews who entered an unwinnable fight to buy time for others to escape.

The wreck of the USS Samuel B. Roberts (Photo: Caladan Oceanic / Eyos Expeditions)
The wreck of the USS Samuel B. Roberts (Photo: Caladan Oceanic / Eyos Expeditions)

The Battle of Leyte Gulf, which the Battle off Samar is a smaller part of, was the first major step in liberating the Philippines from Japanese occupation. With U.S. forces concentrating on putting men ashore, the Japanese hatched a plan to disrupt the operation, win a decisive victory over the U.S. Navy, and keep Japanese supply lines open to the south.
 
The entire operation is beyond the scope of this article, but it should be stated that U.S. forces were victorious: not only did the liberation of the Philippines go ahead, but the Japanese Navy was also dealt a crippling blow. In the middle of this ultimately victorious battle, however, miscommunication and impulsive glory-hounding left a force of sixteen poorly guarded American escort carriers right in the way of the overwhelming main Japanese force, and only sacrifice beyond rational expectation saved the majority of the imperiled vessels.
 
The Japanese had three separate fleets. One, approaching from the north, was composed of valuable carriers (but carrying few planes), and was to act as bait and attract the main American force, Admiral William "Bull" Halsey's Third Fleet, away from the islands. Two other fleets were then to approach from the south and the west, catch remaining U.S. forces and transport ships in a pincer along the eastern shores of the archipelago, and destroy them.
 
One critical location, recognized by the Americans for its importance, was the San Bernardino Strait between the islands of Luzon and Samar, which was a route the Japanese could use to reach the transport. Some of Halsey's forces, including America's most modern battleships, were stationed in the strait. Halsey decided to create a separate task force, Task Force 34, to stay in place should he need to move the rest of his fleet. Due to an ambiguously worded telegraphic radio message sent by Halsey on October 24, other American commanders believed that he had already created this task force, whereas he only intended to inform them of his plan to do so in the future. A clarifying message was then lost and unheard due to the shorter range of voice radio.

Admiral Halsey in the South Pacific (Photo: USMC)
Admiral Halsey in the South Pacific (Photo: USMC)

Shortly after sending the first message, Haley received news that the northern Japanese fleet was spotted. Ironically, while the Japanese intended it to be a decoy, it was the only one of their three fleets the Americans were not aware of ahead of time. Being informed that the fleet comprised numerous Japanese carriers (including some of those that launched planes for the raid on Pearl Harbor), Halsey ordered his forces to move out and pursue the carriers… and he left the San Bernardino Strait wide open, since he had not actually detached any of his ships to create Task Force 34.
 
The Japanese Center Force, steaming right for the strait at the time, was commanded by Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita, and was the strongest of the three fleets. When it departed port for the operation, it was led not only by the Yamato, the pride of the Japanese Navy and the largest battleship ever built, but also by the Yamato's sister ship, the Musashi. The Musashi was sunk by American aircraft at around the same time when Halsey headed out of the strait, but the Center Force was still formidable. When it crossed the strait, it consisted of the Yamato, three other battleships, six heavy and two light cruisers, and 11 destroyers. Once through the strait, the fleet steamed east along the north coast of the island of Samar, then turned south along its eastern shores.

Some of Center Force's ships, photographed shortly before the battle. From left to right: the Musashi, the Yamato, a cruiser, and the Nagato. (Photo: Naval History & Heritage Command)
Some of Center Force's ships, photographed shortly before the battle. From left to right: the Musashi, the Yamato, a cruiser, and the Nagato. (Photo: Naval History & Heritage Command)

The closest American vessels were three small task units, answering to the radio callsigns Taffy 1, Taffy 2, and (northernmost and closest to the Japanese) Taffy 3. These units were never intended to fight other ships during the operation, let alone the main Japanese force. Each Taffy had six small, slow and unarmored escort carriers, whose airplanes had the job of supporting troop landings. As such, they were mainly equipped with rockets and small bombs, and only had minimal stores of anti-ship weapons such as aerial torpedoes. Each group of carriers was also escorted by a small force of destroyers and destroyer escorts (which were smaller, more lightly armed and slower than "proper" destroyers).

The deck of the USS White Plains, one of Taffy 3's escort carriers, under attack by a Japanese kamikaze shortly after the battle. The suicide plane ended up missing the ship. (Photo: Naval History & Heritage Command)
The deck of the USS White Plains, one of Taffy 3's escort carriers, under attack by a Japanese kamikaze shortly after the battle. The suicide plane ended up missing the ship. (Photo: Naval History & Heritage Command)

Taffy 3's escort comprised the destroyers Johnston, Heerman and Hoel, and the destroyer escorts Samuel B. Roberts, Dennis, John C. Butler and Raymond – the crews of all of which believed that the San Bernardino Strait was safe and guarded. For comparison's sake, it ought to be mentioned that the Yamato alone had a greater displacement than all the ships in Taffy 3 combined.
 
At 6:37 a.m. on the 25th, Taffy 3 received a radio report from a plane: "I can see pagoda masts. I see the biggest meatball flag on the biggest battleship I ever saw!" At this moment, the Japanese fleet was 17 nautical miles (20 miles / 31 km) away from Taffy 3, within firing range for the Japanese capital ships.

The Yamato and a Japanese cruiser firing at American planes during the battle. (Photo: Naval History & Heritage Command)
The Yamato and a Japanese cruiser firing at American planes during the battle. (Photo: Naval History & Heritage Command)

Kurita saw the American force, but misidentified them. His identification charts did not include the small escort carriers, and he believed he was seeing larger, "proper" fleet carriers, only from a larger distance. He similarly mistook the destroyers for larger cruisers farther away. Not knowing that Halsey's force went off after the decoy fleet, he logically but incorrectly concluded that he was seeing an element of the main American fleet and gave a "General Attack" order.

Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita (Photo: Public domain)
Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita (Photo: Public domain)

This was, in a way, a mistake. The Center Fleet was in the middle of adopting an anti-aircraft formation, with destroyers surrounding the capital ships in a large circle. Once given the attack order, the formation broke up into several smaller groups, each heading toward the American ships at its own pace.
 
Taffy 3 turned east, launched all available planes, and headed for a nearby squall. The Japanese lagged behind other combatant nations in adopting gunnery radars; Admiral Sprague, the American commander of the task unit, knew that while the squall would not hide them from such radar systems, it would protect them from visual targeting. This was a smart move, since only the Yamato had radar, and the other ships had little chance to hit the American vessels in the squall.

The carrier USS Gambier Bay and several escorts laying down a smoke screen during the battle. (Photo: Naval History & Heritage Command)
The carrier USS Gambier Bay and several escorts laying down a smoke screen during the battle. (Photo: Naval History & Heritage Command)

The American escort ships were hopelessly outmatched – they were armed with 5-inch (127 mm) guns which had little chance to do meaningful damage to capital ships, and anti-aircraft guns which had none. Their best weapons were torpedoes, which could cause serious damage if they hit – but these had a limited range, and the ships would have to get within 5.5 nautical miles (6.3 miles, 10.2 km) of their targets before launching them, all the while exposed to withering fire from battleships and cruisers. They started to lay down smoke to hide themselves and the carriers and headed away from the Japanese fleet.

The USS Heermann and a destroyer escort laying down smoke screen during the battle. (Photo: National Archives)
The USS Heermann and a destroyer escort laying down smoke screen during the battle. (Photo: National Archives)

That is, until the Johnston, located at the rear of the formation and closest to the Japanese, turned around and made directly for the enemy juggernaut. The Johnston was captained by Commander Ernest Edwin Evans, nicknamed "Big Chief" for his half Cherokee and one quarter Creek ancestry. When he assumed command of the Johnston, Evans made a declaration to his crew: "this is going to be a fighting ship. I intend to go in harm's way, and anyone who doesn't want to go along had better get off right now."

Commander Evans at the USS Johnston's commissioning ceremony. (Photo: Naval History & Heritage Command)
Commander Evans at the USS Johnston's commissioning ceremony. (Photo: Naval History & Heritage Command)

True to his earlier promise, Evans now led the destroyer on a lonely charge. He hit the Japanese cruiser Kumano first with several 5-inch shells, then with somewhere between one and three torpedoes, putting it out of the fight. The cruiser Suzuya came to a stop next to the Kumano to assist her, and also had to sit out the rest of the fight. This small victory, however, came at a high price, as the destroyer now came under attack from the Yamato, the battleship Nagato and two cruisers. Six hits almost demolished the Johnston's bridge, damaged her engineering space, cut her speed in half, and knocked out her aft guns and her steering engine. Evans lost the fingers on his left hand to the explosions. The Johnston sought refuge in smoke and squall while the crew tried to patch her up to combat-readiness.
 
Meanwhile, the Samuel B. Roberts, the Hoel and the Heermann also went on their own torpedo runs. The captain of the Samuel B. Roberts, Lieutenant Commander Robert Witcher Copeland, addressed his crew: "This will be a fight against overwhelming odds from which survival cannot be expected. We will do what damage we can."

Lieutenant Commander Robert W. Copeland (Photo: United States Navy)
Lieutenant Commander Robert W. Copeland (Photo: United States Navy)

Seeing the other three ships, Evans ordered the Johnston to turn around again and assist them despite already having suffered heavy damage. Fighting without hope of victory, the flotilla did whatever damage it could – and far more than it should have been able to. The Samuel R. Roberts was hit and her mast fell, jamming the torpedo mount. Once it was fixed, her torpedo salvo crippled the heavy cruiser Chōkai; Copeland's ship then went on to exchange broadsides with the heavy cruiser Chikuma at close range. In 35 minutes, the Samuel R. Roberts all but exhausted her ammunition. Once she ran out of armor-piercing shells, the crew changed to high explosive ones. When those ran out, they brought out the anti-aircraft shells. When those, in turn, were gone, the men started loading star shells used for illumination at night – these last actually worked better than expected, starting chemical fires onboard the Japanese vessel.

  The USS Samuel B. Roberts, "the destroyer escort that fought like a battleship," a few weeks before the battle. (Photo: Naval History & Heritage Command)
The USS Samuel B. Roberts, "the destroyer escort that fought like a battleship," a few weeks before the battle. (Photo: Naval History & Heritage Command)

The Heermann engaged several ships with guns and torpedoes, and fought a lopsided duel with the battleship Nagato. The Hoel launched a torpedo salvo at the Yamato. The salvo missed, but it forced the Japanese flagship to turn to port in an attempt to evade the attack, and the maneuver took her and Admiral Kurita out of the battle, causing the Japanese commander to lose track of his forces.
The heroic "tin cans" paid a terrible price for their achievements, as they were all savaged by the vastly superior firepower of the Japanese fleet. One reason why they survived as long as they did against such an enemy force was Kurita's misidentification at the beginning of the battle. Believing that they were engaging armored fleet carriers and cruisers, the Japanese ships were using armor piercing shells. When these shells hit the thin, unarmored small ships, they usually punched straight through them without detonating. Some Japanese crews eventually recognized their mistake and switched to much more destructive high explosive shells, but the pugnacious American ships have already caused a surprising amount of damage by then.

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The USS Gambier Bay straddled by shells as she is falling behind the other carriers. (Photo: National Archives)

Meanwhile, the carriers trying to escape also exchanged fire with the Japanese, firing their single 5-inch guns, and taking much heavier fire in return. American aircraft, eventually reinforced by planes from the other two Taffy groups, buzzed about, attacking the Japanese with whatever weapons they had – often just anti-submarine depth charges or machine guns. Planes that were out of ammo continued to make dummy attack runs on the ships to attract their attention and give a chance to their still-armed comrades to score a hit unhindered. Amid the general chaos, and with several carriers under heavy attack, little heed was paid to landing on the proper carrier for refueling and rearmament. Each plane landed wherever it could, and deck crews served whoever happened to show up.

USS Kitkun Bay launching planes, while the carrier USS White Plains is straddled by Japanese shells in the background. (Photo: U.S. Navy)
USS Kitkun Bay launching planes, while the carrier USS White Plains is straddled by Japanese shells in the background. (Photo: U.S. Navy)

During the battle, seven Japanese destroyers set up a torpedo attack run on the American carriers. Perhaps unsurprisingly at this point, the grievously damaged Johnston noticed the attempt and move to intervene all on her own. Her ferocious arrival forced the Japanese destroyers to veer away, and later launch their torpedoes from a less advantageous angle, missing the carriers.

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The USS Johnston (Photo: Naval History & Heritage Command)

The American flotilla started evading the Japanese fleet at 6:50 a.m. After two and a half hours of desperate fighting, the battle ended – with a Japanese withdrawal. Still believing that he was facing Halsey's fleet, Kurita gave his ships the order to withdraw at 9:20 a.m., leaving behind a badly mauled by incredulous, victorious American force.
 
The losses were dramatic. At 9:45, Commander Evans gave the order to abandon the Johnston. She sank 25 minutes later with 186 of her crew still onboard, including the wounded Evans. Commander Evans was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. Perhaps even more telling of his and his crew's courage was another gesture: when the Japanese destroyer Yukikaze cruised past while retreating, her captain saluted the sinking Johnston.
 
The Samuel B. Roberts sank at around 10:05. The Hoel was the first to sink, at 8:55. The Heermann was the only destroyer to survive the battle, along with three destroyer escorts. Of the carriers, the Gambier Bay sank shortly after the Japanese switched to using high explosive shells, which were much more effective against these lightly armored targets. The St. Lo survived the battle proper, only to be hit, catastrophically damaged and sunk by a kamikaze Zero later in the morning. All other carriers, except for the Kitkun Bay, suffered some level of damage. Poor communications and a fear of Japanese submarine attacks stranded many shipwrecked crewmen in the water for two days before rescue, more than a few of them dying from dehydration, exposure or shark attacks.

Explosion aboard the USS St. Lo after being hit by a kamikaze (Photo: National Archives)
Explosion aboard the USS St. Lo after being hit by a kamikaze (Photo: National Archives)

On the Japanese side, the heavy cruiser Chōkai was crippled during the fighting and either scuttled by the Japanese or sunk by American aircraft later in the day. Similarly, the Chikuma was also either scuttled or sunk by air attacks. The heavy cruiser Suzuya was also lost, interestingly, without ever taking a direct hit. First, a near-miss by an air-dropped bomb took away one of her propellers, slowing her down. Later, another near miss by a bomb detonated a torpedo loaded into one of her starboard tube mounts. The Japanese Long Lance torpedoes were superior to American ones in many respects, but their pure oxygen propellant, combined with their large warhead, also made them very explosive, and prone to destructive accidents. In this case, the torpedo's detonation also blew up several other torpedoes, and eventually a boiler and one of the engine rooms, leading to the ship's loss.

The Japanese cruiser Chikuma maneuvering after being hit by torpedoes. (Photo: United States Navy)
The Japanese cruiser Chikuma maneuvering after being hit by torpedoes. (Photo: United States Navy)

The Battle off Samar was a fight that never should have happened. Admiral Halsey's unclear messages regarding a hypothetical task force in the San Bernardino Strait, as well as his eagerness to jump at the Japanese decoy fleet, allowed the enemy's strongest fleet to steam directly at a weak spot in the American naval forces.  It was only the unimaginable bravery and sacrifice of several small ship crews, mostly comprised of reservists with little experience, which turned an all-but-certain tragedy into one of the finest hours of the United States Navy.

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