FACT: One of the U.S. Navy's Most Heroic Stands Was at Leyte Gulf
It would have made very little difference to Sprague at that particular moment, but Kurita was having some harrowing thoughts of his own. When lookouts aboard Yamato first spotted the American ships at 6:44, he was as surprised as Sprague by the encounter. No one aboard Yamato could see that the carriers of the enemy task force were escort carriers and not fleet carriers. Kurita had already seen what American carriers could do and was shaken by the unexpected sight of still more of them off Samar.
He ordered his force to deploy from sailing in columns on course 170 to a circular antiaircraft formation on course 110. Before the command could be carried out, Kurita changed his orders, this time to “General Attack,” which threw his entire fleet into confusion. “No heed was taken of order or coordination,” his chief of staff reported. Instead of forming a battle line with his four battleships and six heavy cruisers, which would have allowed Kurita to bring all of his big guns to bear, he scattered his ships and his firepower. Because of the general attack order, each Japanese ship would operate independently, which dispersed Kurita’s advantage in gunnery.
Sprague did not know anything about Kurita’s confusion. He only knew that he had a large enemy force bearing down on his lightly armored carriers and escort vessels. At 7:01, he broadcast an urgent request, in plain language, for assistance. Admiral Thomas Stump, commander of Taffy 2, responded immediately. Taffy 2 was the nearest carrier force to Sprague, about 30 miles away. Admiral Thomas Sprague (no relation to Ziggy Sprague) also sent aircraft from Taffy 1, about 70 miles away. Admiral Stump sent words of encouragement to his friend. “Don’t be alarmed, Ziggy,” he shouted over the TBS (Talk Between Ships), “Remember, we’re in back of you—don’t get excited—don’t do anything rash!” His voice went up a level or two every time he spoke, making the officers on Fanshaw Bay’s flag bridge smile in spite of themselves.
The attacking Avengers went in singly or in small groups. They did not have time to form up in a coordinated attack. Whether they carried torpedoes or bombs, the Avengers made their runs without the benefit of strafing fighters to run interference for them.
By 7:30, just about every one of Taffy 3’s operational aircraft had been launched. The heavy cruiser Suzuya was one of the first Japanese warships to come under attack. The cruiser was hit several times and, according to one report, was “slowed down.” All aircraft in the Leyte Gulf area were ordered to attack Admiral Kurita’s Center Force. Six Avengers armed with torpedoes and 20 fighters attacked at 8:30, along with aircraft that had already been launched from the escort carriers.
But these planes were very hurriedly armed and launched and had no time to coordinate their movements, either. Even so, their attacks were aggressive and constant. Most of the Avengers were armed with torpedoes until the supply of torpedoes ran out. Then they were sent out with bombs—any kind of bombs that were available, including 100-pound all-purpose bombs that were designed for hitting small land-based targets.
After they dropped their bombs, the pilots made dry runs on the enemy ships to distract the Japanese gunners. The commander of Gambier Bay’s air group flew his Avenger through enemy flak for two hours after he dropped his bombs. The pilots of the Wildcat fighters were sent in to strafe “with the hope that their strafing would kill personnel on the Japanese warships, silence automatic weapons, and, most important, draw attention from the struggling escort carriers.” When their ammunition ran out, the fighter pilots also resorted to dry runs to harass the enemy. One pilot made 20 strafing runs, 10 of them without ammunition.
Five planes of Gambier Bay’s air group circled the Japanese fleet for 20 minutes looking for a hole in the clouds that would allow them to make their runs against the big ships. While they were waiting for their chance, the pilots watched a group of Avengers and Wildcats going after the battleships. “The attacks were well executed,” observed the flight leader. But there were too few aircraft, and the Avengers had bomb loads that were too dissimilar, usually too light, to do any real damage.
Japanese officers were inclined to disagree with this assessment. “The bombers and torpedo planes were very aggressive and skilful and the coordination was impressive,” a Japanese officer told his American interpreter after the war, “even in comparison with the many experiences of American attacks we had already had, this was the most skilful work of your planes.”
In addition to his carrier’s air groups, Sprague also sent his destroyers and destroyer escorts against Kurita’s force. The normal job of these screening warships was to protect the escort carriers from submarines, but now they would be performing a completely different task.
The Johnston, under Commander Ernest E Evans, was a Fletcher-class destroyer (along with Heermann and Hoel) and would be one year old in two days’ time. Evans opened fire at 7:10; his target was the Japanese cruiser Kumano. Johnston fired more than 200 rounds at the cruiser, and numerous hits were observed. The Japanese ships returned fire. Enormous splashes of four or five different colors erupted around the destroyer.
American warships had a distinct advantage in gunnery over the Japanese due to the radar-controlled Mark 37 Fire Control System and the Ford Mark I Fire Control Computer. The radar-directed system gave Johnston efficient firing solutions for her 5-inch guns, which allowed her gunners to hit their target repeatedly in spite of the greater range of the enemy warships. Japanese gunners had to rely on their colored dye markers from initial salvos to find the range.