Pearl Harbor Revenge: The Battleship Battle of Surigao Strait
At 10:36 pm on the night of October 24, the crew of PT-131 picked up Nishimura’s group on radar. Visual contact was established 14 minutes later. About two minutes after this, the destroyer Shigure sighted the PT boats and began shooting. One shell hit PT-130 but failed to explode. The boat’s captain broke off contact at maximum speed and sent his contact report. Aboard Louisville, Admiral Oldendorf received the report just after midnight on October 25.
Each PT squadron in the strait went through the same sequence of events: making contact with the enemy, usually sending a contact report, firing torpedoes that missed, coming under fire from Japanese destroyers, and retiring behind a smoke screen. Admiral Oldendorf followed the progress of the PT reports closely; they confirmed that he did not need to make any changes to his battle plan. Of the boats that came under fire, 10 were hit and one was sunk. Total casualties were three killed and 20 wounded.
A Devastating Torpedo Salvo
Admiral Nishimura paid no attention to the PT attacks and kept advancing northward toward Leyte Gulf. His next contact with the enemy came at about 3 am, when he encountered the seven destroyers of Destroyer Squadron 54, commanded by Captain Jesse Coward. Captain Coward had already received notification of an unidentified contact at 2:40 am. The contact soon was confirmed to be a column of ships steering due north. Coward ordered his destroyers to attack with only torpedoes since their 5-inch guns would be ineffective against large enemy warships.
Admiral Nishimura’s column had its four destroyers in the lead, followed by Yamashiro, Fuso, and Mogami. Destroyer Squadron 54 split into two groups. Melvin, McGowan, and Remy would attack from the east, while Monssen and McDermut would make their approach from the west. Captain Coward, aboard Remy, closed with Nishimura’s ships at about 30 knots, making smoke. At 2:58, he turned his destroyers to the left, bringing torpedo tubes to bear, and gave the order, “Fire when ready.” Remy, Melvin, and McGowan began launching their torpedoes, firing 27 in about 75 seconds. It would take about eight minutes before they completed their runs of between 8,200 and 9,300 yards. With all torpedoes expended, Coward turned hard to port on a base course of 21 degrees, the three destroyers zigzagging individually and making smoke. None of the American destroyers suffered damage.
Strangely, Admiral Nishimura did not take any evasive action, even though he must have guessed that the American destroyers had fired torpedoes at his column. Several explosions were observed by sailors aboard Coward’s destroyers. A few minutes later, a large ship in the column slowed and began turning slowly to starboard. The battleship Fuso had been hit by a torpedo from the Melvin, but Admiral Nishimura continued to send orders to Fuso as though the ship were still undamaged.
While Captain Coward’s division was withdrawing, the destroyers McDermut and Monssen were still steaming due south. The destroyer division’s commanding officer, Commander Richard H. Phillips, turned to port to get into firing position, swinging his two destroyers back on a southerly course. A moment later, he ordered torpedoes to be fired when ready. McDermut began firing immediately; Monssen followed at 3:11.
This time, Admiral Nishimura did try to take evasive action. He turned 90 degrees to starboard, then 90 degrees to port, but this did not take him away from the torpedoes. At 3:20, flashes from explosions among Nishimura’s ships were observed aboard both destroyers. A searchlight beam, probably from one of the Japanese destroyers, lit up Monssen. Shell splashes followed almost immediately, and some were so close that columns of water drenched the aft guns of both Monssen and McDermut. The destroyers made smoke, changed course, and increased speed. The searchlight beam disappeared along with the bursting shells.
Destroyer Squadron 54 fired a total of 47 torpedoes. Captain Coward was positive that they had scored at least three hits. Actually, five of the torpedoes had found targets, resulting in the sinking of three enemy ships. McDermut’s torpedo salvo accounted for no fewer than three destroyers—Yamagumo, Michishio, and Asagumo. Yamagumo blew up and sank; Michishio was badly damaged and drifting and would sink shortly; Asagumo had her bow blown off but was able to make headway. Monssen scored a hit on Yamashiro, which continued steaming on course, but Melvin’s hit on Fuso would prove to be fatal.
However, the attack of the destroyers was not over. Destroyer Squadron 24, under Captain K.M. McManes, also came south down the strait in two sections. The first section consisted of Hutchins, Daly, and Bache; the second of Killen, Beale, and HMAS Arunta. At 3:17, Commander A.E. Buchanan of the Royal Australian Navy heard Captain McManes’s order, “Boil up! Make smoke! Let me know when you have fired.” Two minutes later, the destroyer Yamagumo blew up, already hit by one of McDermut’s torpedoes. The light from the explosion was a great help to Commander Buchanan in making his run.