The American PT boats were still harrying the Japanese, though. Next up, PT-134, commanded by Lieutenant Edmund F. Wakelin, got to within 2,500 yards of Nishimura’s ships before coming under Japanese searchlights and gunfire. Wakelin fired torpedoes at Fuso, but they passed harmlessly astern of the battleship. Three more PT boats popped out, and Nishimura had to do some fancy maneuvering to avoid the American fish.
PT-490 found itself a bare 400 yards from the Japanese ships and was hit by two shells. Other shells hit PT-493, damaging the engine, tearing a hole in the boat’s bottom. PT-491 moved in to evacuate the crew, and the wounded PT-493 drifted free and sank after sunrise. American casualties on the fragile PT boats numbered three killed and 20 wounded.
At 2:11 am, Nishimura ordered his ships into battle formation for the dash up the strait. As they did so, another group of PT boats sprinted in from the southeast, hurling six torpedoes at the Japanese. The torpedoes all missed. Nishimura’s ships steamed on at 20 knots.
“Brilliantly Conceived and Well Executed”
Now came Captain Coward’s Desron 54. The sea was glassy and the temperature about 80 degrees Farenheit, and only the wind made by the tin cans’ speed brought relief to the men topside. All hands were served coffee and sandwiches after midnight.
Moving in two flanking groups south through the strait, Coward’s five destroyers plotted the Japanese approach with their radar. At 2:58 am, Shigure illuminated Coward’s eastern group with a searchlight, and Coward assigned targets as his tin cans cranked up to 30 knots for an attack. His plan was to use torpedoes only, so as not to give away his ships’ positions with gun flashes. At 3 am, the American destroyers loosed 27 torpedoes at a range of 11,500 yards at the Japanese.
As the torpedoes powered through the water, Fuso opened up with her 14-inch guns at a surface target for the first time in her life. Petty Officer Hideo Ogawa removed cordite charges from flash-proof storage canisters and loaded them onto the powder-cage elevator, and at 3:07 Fuso let loose at her targets. Japanese shells flew at the American destroyers. A minute later, two American torpedoes from Melvin slammed into Fuso’s starboard side with towering explosions and cascades of water. The dreadnought slowed down and began listing to starboard.
The starboard boiler rooms flooded rapidly. The dreadnought sheered out of line, her starboard side blazing. Incredibly, her skipper, Rear Admiral Masami Ban, did not radio a damage report—he may have been unable to do so or coping with too many crises at once—and her companions continued steaming north. Mogami slipped into the position Fuso vacated. Nishimura was unaware that he had just lost 50 percent of his dreadnought strength and pressed on, radioing orders to an unresponsive Fuso.
Coward’s destroyers charged in, illuminated by a Japanese parachute flare from one of Yamashiro’s floatplanes. As their torpedoes streaked off, Chief Petty Officer Virgil Rollins, manning McDermut’s No. 2 torpedo mount, calmly remarked, “It is about time for something to happen.”
At that instant, 3:20 am, explosions and fireballs lit up the night. Two torpedoes crashed into Yamagumo’s port side, and the destroyer exploded immediately, the blast seen as far away as Oldendorf’s battleships. The hits apparently cooked off Yamagumo’s torpedoes, and the destroyer sank rapidly.
The destruction was only beginning. At 3:22, a torpedo slammed into Yamashiro’s port side. At 3:25, Asagumo took a torpedo hit forward. A startling vibration shook up Chief Engineer Tokichi Ishii. He phoned the bridge to find out what was going on but got no answer. Seconds later, a runner from the bridge appeared bearing word from the skipper, Commander Kazuo Shibayama, to check on a torpedo hit to the port bow. At the same time, torpedoes smacked into Asagumo. She rapidly took on water, her bows shredded.
The Japanese now had only one battleship, one cruiser, and one destroyer ready to hit back, and as Michishio prepared to launch torpedoes, she suddenly heaved and shuddered violently, slowing to a dead halt, the recipient of more American torpedoes from McDermut and Monssen. All power on the Japanese destroyer went out, and the machinery spaces began flooding rapidly.
For the American destroyers, it was a grand slam unmatched in nautical history: three Japanese destroyers and a battleship crippled by a single onslaught of torpedoes. Oldendorf’s report on the attack was blunt and accurate: “Brilliantly conceived and well executed.”
Disaster on the Radio Chatter
In the strait, Japanese warships blazed and began to founder. On Yamashiro’s flag bridge, Nishimura tried to make sense of the rapidly unfolding disaster. He reported by radio to his superiors: “Enemy DDs and torpedo boats are stationed at the northern entrance to Surigao Strait. Two of our DDs have received torpedo damage and are drifting. Yamashiro has been hit by one torpedo, but her battle integrity is not impaired.”
Tokyo got the word. So did USS Denver, which picked up the message at 3 am. It clearly indicated that Nishimura was losing control of the situation. He seemed to assume that Fuso was still following him. The surviving Japanese pressed on.
On Fuso’s bridge, Rear Admiral Ban took stock of disastrous damage control reports: “No. 1 powder and shell magazines filling with water … the ship making only 10 knots … her bow drooping into the water … communications out.” At 3:20, Fuso wobbled onto a westerly course.
Behind this scene of nautical destruction, Shima’s force continued to steam north at maximum battle speed. On the flag bridge of Nachi, Shima listened uneasily to the tactical radio and Japanese voices announcing disaster. He peered out his windows into darkness and rain, wondering what was out there.
Shima’s Task Force Struck
What was out there was Panaon Island. His ships were steaming through rain and mist on the wrong course. At the last minute, lookouts saw mountains looming and heard waves crashing ashore and shouted warnings. Shima ordered his ships to a maximum port turn, and he evaded both navigational embarrassment and disaster. At 3:20, they faced disaster at enemy hands as torpedoes crashed out of the night and into the light cruiser Abukuma’s port side just forward of the bridge, ripping open the flimsy ship’s hull. A thousand tons of water cascaded in.
Shima had just met the American PT boats that had not engaged Nishimura’s ships, and they were eager to tear into the Japanese. Abukuma and her escorts fired back, but to no avail. It was clear Abukuma could not proceed, and the old cruiser pulled out of formation with 37 dead. The cruiser’s escorts sprinted on in the night, leaving Abukuma behind to tend her wounds.
Up ahead, Nishimura’s force continued north. The next set of picadors was Captain Kenmore McManes’s Destroyer Squadron 24 (Desron 24), which included HMAS Arunta, her white ensigns snapping in the wind. Unlike seadogs of old, McManes fought this battle not from his flag bridge but in his combat information center hunched over a radar screen. McManes cranked his ships up to 25 knots, and at 3:23 am, Arunta opened up with five torpedoes.
USS Killen launched her fish a minute later, all aimed at Shigure and Yamashiro. At 3:31, one of Killen’s torpedoes smacked into Yamashiro’s port side amidships. The battleship began to list to port and cut speed to a perilously slow five knots. Determined damage control on the dreadnought patched the holes, and soon Yamashiro was back at a decent 18 knots.
South of the flagship, Fuso was in agony, still moving on a wobbly course, probably trying to beach on Kanihaan Island. But the ship was so far down at the bow, Chief Engineer Captain Eiichi Nakaya could not maintain navigability. In No. 1 turret, Yasuo Kato saw water flooding in from the hatch above him. Kato sent a messenger to the bridge to report his predicament. The messenger saluted, scrambled out of the listing turret, and was back moments later. He could not walk the deck. It was spouting steam, oil, and seawater.
Below Kato, Hideo Ogawa and his pals watched seawater trickle into their space. The turret captain ordered Ogawa and 10 of his buddies to evacuate upward. They climbed into the projectile room above, closing the steel hatch behind them to preserve watertight integrity. Once there, Ogawa and his shipmates kept climbing, joining 15 more men to evacuate through another steel door of the hoist. Then came orders from the bridge: all hands of No. 1 and No. 2 turrets were to assemble at the center starboard upper deck as reserves for damage control.
McManes and his tin cans of Desron 24 were still harrying Nishimura’s battered ships. Radar screens were full of pips, from both friend and foe. While the Americans held the initiative, the Japanese fought back. Asagumo fired torpedoes at USS Daly, which sizzled just under the American’s bow.