Early in the morning of 25 October, 1944, Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita led one of the largest collections of naval gun power ever seen through San Bernardino Strait, a narrow passage between the Philippine islands of Luzon and Samar. In spite of his incredible firepower Kurita was uncertain. He was only one part of a large, massively complex plan to strike at the Allied invasion of Leyte and prevent the reconquest of the Philippines. Kurita had very little in the way of air support, most of it promised from army air bases in the area, and the necessity of radio silence left him entirely blind to the progress of the other parts of the operation.
A total of four separate elements of the Japanese Navy was involved in the Japanese counteroffensive. Kurita’s was the largest, and the primary strike force. To his north, another fleet comprised of the dregs of Japanese naval air power dangled itself as bait, hoping to lure away the powerful battleships and carriers of the United States’ Third Fleet. To the south, two more smaller fleets sailed for Surigao Strait, hoping to come up and meet Kurita and catch the Seventh Fleet and the landing forces of General Douglas MacArthur unawares, destroying the Sixth Army’s troop and supply ships and shelling the troops until they surrendered or the Third Fleet returned and drove them off.
The complexity of the plan had already proven costly once. The absence of Kurita’s air support the previous day had resulted in the mauling of his fleet by planes from Admiral William Halsey’s carriers in Third Fleet. Before that, they had been ambushed by submarines in the Sibuyan Sea.
While Kurita couldn’t know it, the southern arms of the fleet had encountered the battleships of Seventh Fleet, under the command of Rear Admiral Jesse Oldendorf. One group of ships was almost entirely destroyed, the other withdrew rather than risk the same fate.
At the same time, the northern arm had met with a certain degree of success. Halsey had spotted the carrier force to his north and, knowing the power of carriers in modern naval warfare, concluded they must be the real threat. Hoping to destroy the last of Japanese naval air power, he moved to the north with his fleet in tow.
A crucial string of miscommunications and wrong assumptions led everyone from MacArthur to Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, stationed in Hawaii, to believe that Halsey had left a task force of battleships to guard the strait. The upshot was that no one was watching San Bernardino when Kurita came through.
With Third Fleet sailing to the north and Seventh Fleet’s battle line still mopping up Surigao Strait there was almost nothing at all between the full might of Kurita’s warships and the transports in Leyte Gulf. Almost nothing, but not nothing at all.
Rear Admiral Clifton A. F. Sprague commanded Seventh Fleet’s Task Unit 3, identified over the radio as Taffy 3. As its name implies, it was one of three virtually identical groups of small aircraft carriers, known as escort carriers, assigned to patrol airspace around Luzon, support the Army troops and chase subs. As the sun rose over the Philippines, Sprague’s command was preparing to send up its first combat air and anti-submarine patrols. A scout plane was dispatched with instructions to scout San Bernardino Strait.
Rather than the battleships of Third Fleet they were expecting, the scouts found twenty three Japanese warships with enough firepower to sink all of Taffy 3 in twenty minutes, practically without breaking stride. The stage was set for the battle off Samar Island.
The scale of the mismatch alone is incredible. Taffy 3 included six Casablanca-class escort carriers, three Fletcher-class destroyers and four John C. Butler-class destroyer escorts. Together, all thirteen ships displaced about as much water in dry dock as Kurita’s flagship, IJN Yamato. The largest guns among the American ships were five-inchers, peashooters when compared to Yamato’s massive 18.1 inch guns and still woefully underpowered even when compared to the 11 and 14 inch guns of the heavy cruisers in Kurita’s formation.
Casablanca-class carriers could manage a top speed of about seventeen knots, and the top speed of a pursued group is really no better than its slowest ship. Kurita’s fastest ships could nearly double that. Even the Yamato, damaged in the bombings of the day before and weighted down by water in its double hull, still managed to top twenty knots.
Yamato was the flagship and pride of the Imperial Japanese Navy, and her crew were some of the best and brightest. The rest of Kurita’s battle line was likely staffed by regular navy sailors. Sprague’s force was crewed in large part by reserves and new recruits, many not even past their twentieth birthday.
Taffy 3’s planes were one of its major advantages and, in addition to the compliment of its own six carriers one of its sister groups, Taffy 2, sent its planes to support Sprague’s beleaguered group. However, only Taffy 2’s planes had the time to arm with torpedoes and the heavier bombs suitable for use against warships. Taffy 3’s planes would fly into combat armed with little more than light antipersonnel bombs, depth charges and rockets. Taffy 3’s bees could sting, but not kill.
Such was the situation at 6:59 AM when the guns on Yamato trained on the American ships and opened fire.
Sprague had little in the way of options. He couldn’t run, his ships were too slow. He couldn’t move towards the landing zones or they’d come under fire, and there was no one to help him there anyways. And he had no idea where any of the battleships from either fleet were. There was nothing to do but fight.
For the next two and a half hours Taffy 3 would run before Kurita’s fleet like a clipper ship before a storm. The three destroyers of the group’s screen, along with one very brave destroyer escort, put themselves between the carriers and the Japanese, making smoke to hide the ships and harrying the enemy as best they could with guns and torpedoes.
The planes did all they could with the weapons they carried. They would empty their bomb bays, their ammunition reserves and still fly until their fuel tanks were empty, hoping somehow to distract the Japanese enough to keep their carriers alive.
Sprague maneuvered his ships in any way he could, hiding in rain squalls and behind smokescreens in a desperate bid to last until help arrived.
But help was hours away. The battle line of Third Fleet wouldn’t turn around to head back towards Samar until after the action was over. Oldendorf’s battleships were running low on ammunition and not in place.
Then, with no apparent reason that the Americans could see, the Japanese pulled back and left with nothing to show for their time and effort than a handful of downed planes and four US ships, two destroyers, one destroyer escort and one escort carrier, sent to the bottom.
Taffy 3 had won, thought they might have found it hard to believe in the moment.
After that, Taffy 3 was mostly forgotten. They would be given awards and have the assurance of a job well done, but their work is rarely addressed in the history books. For all they faced and did in those few hours on the other side of the globe, they were overshadowed by names like Midway and Guadalcanal on one side and Iwo Jima and Okinawa on the other.
Tomorrow is the 68th anniversary of the Battle off Samar. It’s not a particularly auspicious number, or a well known occasion. But it’s important. Most of the men who were there were fighting and suffering because they hoped that, by doing so, they could make the lives of their friends and family just a little bit better. They didn’t expect great fame or reward what they did, they only hoped they could live to see the outcome.
In a world that often tells us that any kind of suffering is naturally wrong, and that there’s nothing in this world worth dying for, their example stands in stark contrast. We shouldn’t need a special day to remember that. But sometimes we do. And if thinking of Taffy 3 at Samar Island helps you to remember that, well, maybe that’s all the victory they need.
The Battle of Leyte Gulf: 23-26 October 1944, by Thomas J. Culter
Afternoon of the Rising Sun: The Battle of Leyte Gulf, by Kenneth I. Friedman
Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: The Extraordinary World War II Story of the U.S. Navy’s Finest Hour, by James D. Hornfischer