Key point: World War II had so many famous battles that some have been overlooked.
At exactly 6:45 on the morning of October 25, 1944, Rear Admiral Clifton A.F. Sprague received a message from one of his pilots on antisubmarine patrol. The admiral recalled that the message went something like this: “Enemy surface force of 4 battleships, 7 cruisers, and 11 destroyers sighted 20 miles northwest of your task group and closing in on you at 30 knots.”
Admiral Sprague, nicknamed “Ziggy,” was annoyed by the message. He was certain that the sighting report was a case of mistaken identity. “Now, there’s some screwy young aviator reporting part of our own forces,” he said to himself with no small amount of exasperation. The “enemy surface force” was probably just part of Admiral William F. Halsey’s fast battleship group. Actually, Halsey’s Third Fleet was miles away to the north.
Admiral Sprague shouted into the squawk box, “Air plot, tell him to check his identification,” and went back to work. His six escort carriers, screened by three destroyers and four destroyer escorts—officially known as Task Group 77.4.3, but usually referred to by its call sign, “Taffy 3”—had been flying support strikes for the recent landings on the Philippine island of Leyte for the past eight days. Taffy 3 was operating just east of Samar Island, and Sprague had another full day of patrols and air strikes to schedule.
Three minutes after the first report, Sprague received another message from the pilot who made the first report. “Identification of enemy force confirmed,” he radioed. “Ships have pagoda masts.”
At about the same time, a thick pattern of antiaircraft puffs began bursting off to the northwest—another confirmation that the surface force was not Admiral Halsey’s battleships. Enemy gunners were shooting at the pilot who had just spotted them. The pilot, Ensign William C. Brooks of Pasadena, California, was returning the compliment, dropping his payload on an enemy cruiser. The only trouble was that the ensign’s payload consisted of two depth charges—hardly effective weapons against an enemy cruiser. This attack could be seen as a symbol of the battle that was to come—an American David confronting a Japanese Goliath, armed with not much more than a slingshot.
The force that Brooks had sighted was the middle section of a three-pronged Japanese advance against the American landing beaches at Leyte Gulf. Admiral Takeo Kurita’s Center Force, which was made up of four battleships, six heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and 11 destroyers, had been hit by air strikes from Halsey’s Third Fleet in the Sibuyan Sea the previous day. Although Kurita had initially withdrawn his force after Halsey’s fleet had damaged several Japanese warships and had sunk the battleship Musashi, he reversed course and made his way through the San Bernardino Strait during the night. Many senior American officers reached the conclusion that Kurita was retreating from the battle, but that was not the case.
Shortly after Ensign Brooks confirmed that the approaching warships were Japanese, Sprague’s lookouts were able to provide visual confirmation—the unmistakable superstructures of Japanese cruisers and battleships began popping over the northwestern horizon. At 6:58, the ships opened fire. Less than a minute later, colored splashes from the Japanese shells landed astern of Taffy 3. Each Japanese warship used a different color dye marker, which allowed them to spot their own shells and make targeting adjustments.
Admiral Sprague’s command, Taffy 3, was made up of six escort carriers: Fanshaw Bay, St. Lo, White Plains, Kalinin Bay, Kitkun Bay, and Gambier Bay along with three destroyers, Heermann, Hoel, and Johnston, and four destroyer escorts, Dennis, J.C. Butler, Raymond, and Samuel B. Roberts. Kitkun Bay and Gambier Bay were actually a separate carrier division, under Rear Admiral Ralph Ofstie, although they were still part of Taffy 3. The heaviest armament on any of these ships was the 5-inch batteries aboard the destroyers and destroyer escorts. Each of the escort carriers also had one 5-inch gun. This was clearly no match for Kurita’s force, which included the 18-inch guns of Musashi’s sister ship, the giant battleship Yamato.
“Wicked salvos straddled the USS White Plains, and then colored geysers began to sprout among all the other carriers,” Sprague later reported. “In various shades of pink, green, red, yellow and purple, the splashes had a kind of horrid beauty.” A seaman aboard the White Plains remarked, “They’re shooting at us in Technicolor!”
Sprague was fully aware of his predicament and did not think that his force of “baby flattops” and their escorts would last 15 minutes against the oncoming battleships and cruisers. As soon as the approaching task force was confirmed as Japanese, he “took several defensive actions in quick succession.” He ordered a change in course from north to due east, which pointed Taffy 3 “at full speed toward a friendly rain squall nearby.” The new course also turned his carriers into the wind, and at 6:56 Sprague ordered all carriers to begin launching aircraft for torpedo and bombing attacks against Kurita’s force. A minute later, he ordered the carriers and their escorts to make as much smoke as possible to screen Taffy 3 from the Japanese gunners. A smokescreen offered scant protection against large-caliber enemy shells, but it was better than nothing.
The carriers began launching their aircraft as soon as it was practical. Admiral Sprague’s flagship Fanshaw Bay, called “Fannie Bee” by her crew, sent her full complement of Grumman TBF Avengers off first, armed with torpedoes. White Plains began by launching Grumman F4F Wildcat fighters and brought her bomb-carrying Avengers up to the flight deck after the fighters were in the air.
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.