The sound and fury in this portion of the engagement signified nothing as both sides missed each other, but Fuso’s nightmare was coming to an end. Hideo Ogawa watched his ship’s forecastle slide underwater. Crewmen struggled out of No. 1 turret onto the slanting foredeck, her gunhouse parting the seas with its shield. Yasuo Kato wiggled out of the turret and was struck by the fact that “complete silence prevailed on our ship.”
Then the thin sound of gurgling water and the distant rumble of explosions were broken by the strident notes of a bugle blaring “Abandon Ship!” Kato and his buddies started jumping into the water. As they hit the Surigao Strait, they heard a grinding clatter. Everyone looked up and saw Fuso’s bridge tilt “at an angle of 45 degrees to the left and [make] a terrible noise … it hit the water with a huge splash.”
With her bow submerged, Fuso was listing heavily to starboard. Suddenly she corkscrewed to port and upended. Kato, who had scrambled over the starboard rail, had found himself standing on the hull’s side and sliding along the blister. When Fuso spun to port he was flung into the sea on his back. He swam away.
Finally the old battleship rolled over and sank, spewing out unstable Borneo oil from her tanks, turning the sea into a gooey and deadly slime, trapping sailors. As the oil spread, it connected with flaming wreckage and started new fires. The hissing sound created by the fires reminded Ogawa of “roasting beans.” Sailors caught in the goo were killed in the inferno.
Fuso had sunk within 15 minutes of being torpedoed, between 3:40 and 3:50 am. She went to the bottom of Surigao Strait, taking most of her crew of 1,630 officers and men with her. Only a mere 10 members of the old battleship’s crew would survive. As Fuso departed the scene, so did Michishio, at about 3:38 am, sinking into the strait. Only four members of her crew survived.
“This Has to be Quick. Stand by Your Torpedoes.”
Incredibly, Nishimura plowed on with the courage of a samurai, joined by Shigure, Mogami, and the bowless Asagumo. So did Shima’s vessels, barely 40,000 yards behind Nishimura’s.
Hounded by McManes’s destroyers, Nishimura continued to steam north. The Japanese hurled shells at their tormentors, who used smokescreens with considerable effectiveness. On Mogami’s bridge, officers struggled to make sense of radar screens, trying to separate land masses from Japanese and American warships.
By now the opposing destroyers were in gun range, and Hutchins opened fire on Asagumo, hitting her and setting fire to the Japanese ship’s torpedo tubes.
On Louisville, Oldendorf watched the flashes of explosions and the beams of searchlights, awaiting the moment he could cut loose. From listening to the radio chatter, he determined he was up against two battleships, not four. The Japanese were now 26,900 yards away from his dreadnoughts. West Virginia led the parade of battleships, followed by Maryland, flagship Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and California.
At 3:34 am, Destroyer Squadron 56 (Desron 56) Captain Roland Smoot on USS Newcomb led the next U.S. charge against Nishimura’s force, with nine destroyers maneuvering in three sections to corner the enemy. At 3:46, Captain Thomas Conley, commanding Smoot’s second section, signaled his destroyers, “This has to be quick. Stand by your torpedoes.” Smoot and Conley logically were worried that their tin cans would be at risk to both Japanese fire and American guns in this close-range encounter. Their attack would go in bare minutes before the American battleships would open fire.
18-Minutes of Vengeance
The Japanese kept closing in ragged formation. On the American dreadnoughts, radar operators and communicators chanted off steadily decreasing ranges. At 3:50 am, the range dropped to 15,600 yards. Oldendorf barked, “All right, give the order to open fire.”
TBS (Talk Between Ships) radios and soundpowered phones repeated the admiral’s order. On the battleships and cruisers—except Louisville, whose gunners cut loose before the order was given—buzzers sounded and gongs rang, and the battle line spewed forth massive shells with a titanic roar. Louisville’s deck and bulkheads rattled from the opening salvo.
The light cruisers fired their 6-inch guns rapidly, the heavy cruisers their 8-inch guns more deliberately. At 3:53 am, West Virginia opened fire on Yamashiro, 22,800 yards away, in full broadside. Her 16-inch guns, two gun turrets officered by men on their first sea voyage, exacted revenge for the Pearl Harbor humiliation by hitting Yamashiro on the first salvo. Yamashiro’s forecastle spouted flame, and her 14-inch gun turrets erupted with answering shells.
Two minutes later, California opened up with the first of 63 rounds of 14-inch shells. At 3:56, Tennessee joined the din—three American battleships that had survived Pearl Harbor blasting a single Japanese dreadnought.
On Mogami, the American barrage shone in distant flashes like light rows of a switchboard turning on one after another in a dark room. The light show was followed by the whistle and hiss of incoming shells. Those shells that missed sent up huge walls of white water. Those shells that hit Yamashiro impacted near her bridge, rocking the giant ship, starting fires, disabling the radar, but missing the compass and flag bridge.
Nishimura’s “T” had been fully crossed, but it did not matter. The previous hits to his ship had flooded the magazines for his No. 5 and No. 6 turrets, knocking them out of action, and he was about to unmask his No. 3 and No. 4 turrets. All of Mogami’s guns bore forward because of her wartime rebuildings, and Shigure’s primary weapons were her torpedoes. Furthermore, head-on targets were tougher to hit.
Under fire, poorly informed as to his situation, Nishimura radioed for Fuso to open fire on the Americans, unaware that his second battleship was sunk. Nor was Nishimura aware of Shima’s location behind him. The two Japanese forces would enter battle completely uncoordinated.
American shells rained down on Yamashiro. At 3:56, HMAS Shropshire finally had a firing solution and hurled 32 8-inch broadsides of eight guns at Yamashiro. At 3:59 am, Maryland located Yamashiro on her radar and ripped loose with her main battery.
The American heavy guns thundered for only 18 minutes, but it was time enough to avenge the humiliations of Pearl Harbor and Savo Island, raining destruction on Yamashiro. A direct hit exploded the officer’s wardroom, serving as a sickbay, killing medical lead Lieutenant Buntaro Kitamura and staff along with the wounded they were attending. Other heavy shells ripped open Yamashiro’s armor and shredded her superstructure.
A Sudden Promotion for Chief Petty Officer Yamamoto
While Yamashiro absorbed the shelling, Mogami, and Shigure struggled to fight. Mogami turned to port to unmask starboard torpedo tubes under heavy enemy fire.
The Americans did not ignore the cruiser. McManes’s destroyers spotted Mogami, illuminated by Yamashiro’s fires, bearing down on the onrushing Hutchins. The destroyers Daly and Bache opened fire on Mogami. On the cruiser, Captain Ryo Toma wondered if he was steaming toward Japanese or American ships in the confusion. To be sure, he flashed two large searchlights and a red Very star. The Americans answered his signals with a hail of shells.
Mogami took a hit on her mainmast, and the steel structure began to sag. Other shells blasted her two radio rooms and antiaircraft mounts. Toma decided to make a wide loop away to try to launch torpedoes from his port side. But the fire and smoke drew a fusillade of 6-inch and 8-inch shells from Oldendorf’s cruisers, which added to Mogami’s pain with hits on No. 3 turret, knocking it out of action, and another on the deck near the starboard after engine room’s air intake, which sent smoke into the engine room and forced the crew to evacuate.
On Mogami’s bridge, Toma and his officers argued over what they should do, continue the attack or withdraw? Toma wanted to withdraw, but his officers believed they could still fight their way past the Americans. Toma yielded to their Bushido spirit. Mogami turned around and headed north at 4 am.
At 4:02, two shells from Portland smashed Mogami’s compass bridge, and a third tore into the air defense center, killing almost all hands at both positions, including Toma. Only four signalmen who happened to be on the signaling platform were left alive and standing. Mogami was steaming along out of control, nobody in command.
Chief Petty Officer 1st Class Shuichi Yamamoto, the chief signalman, took the reins. He ran onto the smashed bridge and found the steering mechanism power had failed. He contacted the armored wheelhouse two decks below his feet on the sound-powered phone and called for manual steering and for someone to find the ranking senior officer.
Shuddering from repeated hits, Mogami swung out of line just as heavy shells slammed into the cruiser’s forward No. 1 engine room, sending high-pressure steam spewing in all directions, killing trapped engineers. Flames spread to the No. 9 boiler room, and choking black smoke poured out. Boiler tenders shut down the furnace.