Battle off Samar
October 25, 2006 8:25 AM   Subscribe

On 14 April 1988, the missile frigate Samuel B. Roberts was damaged by a mine in the Persian Gulf. Some 45 years before, Coxswain Samuel B. Roberts was killed when he guided his boat in front of Japanese lines on Guadalcanal in an effort to distract their fire from a rescue party evacuating wounded marines. In between was the destroyer escort Samuel B. Roberts, which on 25 October 1944 sailed into history in the Battle off Samar. (Long post inside for history buffs.)
posted by forrest (21 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Just after dawn on October 25, the ships of task force Taffy 3 -- 6 escort carriers, 3 destroyers, 4 destroyer escorts under Admiral Ziggy Sprague -- were surprised by Japanese Center Force: 11 destroyers, 2 light cruisers, 6 heavy cruisers, 3 battleships, and the super-battleship Yamato. The Yamato alone displaced more tonnage than the entire Taffy 3 task force. Behind Taffy 3 lay MacArthur's Phillipines invasion force. Sho-1 -- the desperate Japanese plan to turn the tide of war -- had succeeded. Vice-Admiral Takeo Kurita thought he had brought Halsey's carriers under the guns of his battleships.

The destroyer USS Johnston under Cmdr. Ernest Evans immediately peeled away from the task force and headed for the Japanese fleet, zigzagging and making smoke to hide the task force. It closed on the enemy fleet, launching all 10 of its torpedoes to disrupt the formation and scoring hits on the cruiser Kumano. The Johnston was hit by at least three 14" battleship shells ("like a puppy smacked by a truck") and lost one of its two engines, finally turning to hide inside a rain squall.

Meanwhile, Admiral Sprague issued the order, "Little fellows, make a torpedo attack" and the other two destroyers, the Hoel and Heermann, headed towards the Japanese ships. The commander of the Samuel B. Roberts, uncertain as to whether "little fellows" included his ship, decided this was his best chance to protect the task force and came with them. As they passed by the limping Johnston, it turned once more and joined the charge. The remaining ships of Taffy 3 turned south to run from the shells hitting them.

As soon as Taffy 3 had come under attack, the carrier commanders began launching aircraft to get them off the doomed carriers. The 30-some aircraft on each carrier were either loaded with ground-support weapons or not loaded at all. Nonetheless, the pilots flew at the Japanese ships as if they had effective weapons. Some pilots made their fake bombing runs simply to draw fire away from their fellow aviators who might have bombs.

The little fellows pressed their attack, launching torpedoes and closing to where they could fire their 5" guns. The Hoel was the first to go: both engines dead, drifting and listing, battleships and heavy cruisers firing point-blank into her, she fought until an errant shell set off the ship's whistle and the crew took it for the order to abandon ship. The others continued their run against the enemy fleet, which by now had cornered the carrier escort Gambier Bay and was in the process of sinking her. The Johnston began firing on the ships around the carrier to draw their fire. After taking four hits from a cruiser, the Johnston turned and took on the destroyer squadron threatening the remaining carriers. It charged the column, facing down the first and second destroyers in line and forcing the others to turn away before they came into torpedo range of the carriers. On the final run, his bridge destroyed, Cmdr. Evans stood on the fantail and shouted orders through an open hatch to the steering crew below. Finally, the Johnston was brought to a standstill: both engines gone and dead in the water, the Japanese surrounded and sank her.

The magazine of the aft gun on the Samuel B. Roberts held 325 shells. The gun crew fired 324 of them before the gun overheated and exploded, killing most of the men in the gun crew. Under fire from the battleship Kongo, the little ship first lost an engine, then took a direct hit that opened up a 50-foot long hole in its hull. As the crew abandoned ship, they discovered the dying chief of the aft gun, the 325th shell still wrapped in his arms.

With victory in his grasp, Vice-Admiral Kurita realized that he wasn't facing Halsey's carriers as he had thought. Land-based aircraft and aircraft from the two other task forces in the area were now arriving overhead to attack his ships. Furthermore, radio intercepts led him to believe that American reinforcements were on the way. He turned his fleet north and steamed away from Samar. As he left, the 5" gun on the escort carrier White Plains scored a lucky hit on the cruiser Chokai, setting off a torpedo that crippled the ship and caused it to be scuttled some hours later. The glory of this audacity was short-lived, however, as Taffy 3 was attacked by shore-based Japanese fighters minutes later and the escort carrier St. Lo was sunk.

The Battle off Samar is considered by many to be the US Navy's finest hour. Four tiny ships and a handful of aviators turned back the most powerful concentration of naval gun power the Japanese had ever assembled. If you haven't heard of this battle, it's no wonder. It was part of the larger Battle of Leyte Gulf and the blunders that led to Taffy 3 being left to face the Japanese fleet alone had to be glossed over. "Halsey acted foolishly" (as a famed Soviet submarine commander commented) when he was lured away by a decoy force of Japanese carriers. A communications mixup led Admiral Kincaid to believe he still had a screen of battleships protecting the northern end of the San Bernardino Strait (it actually sailed away with Halsey). Finally, the men of Taffy 3 who went into the water when their ships were sunk had to wait two days to be rescued because of another mixup by Kincaid. Exposure, drowning and sharks took more than 100 men in those two days, including Cmdr. Ernest Evans.

The Gambier Bay was the first and only US aircraft carrier ever sunk by surface gunfire. The White Plains scored the only direct gunfire hit ever by a carrier. The St. Lo was the first ship to be sunk by the new Japanese kamikaze tactic. The largest battleship ever seen fired its guns in anger for the first time. This was the last large-scale engagement between navies that the world has seen.

Cmdr. Ernest Evans was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor
posted by forrest at 8:29 AM on October 25, 2006 [1 favorite]

Very interesting.
posted by caddis at 9:41 AM on October 25, 2006

Fascinating - thanks!
posted by Flitcraft at 9:46 AM on October 25, 2006


posted by norm at 9:49 AM on October 25, 2006

Thanks for posting. Its a great story.

Just for a bit of further information on the 1988 attack, here's the wiki story on Operation Praying Mantis, the largest surface action after WWII. This battle was triggered by the attack on the Samuel B. Roberts.

There's a mild irony that the Samuel B. Roberts would take part in the last major surface engagement in WWII and then, 44 years later, trigger the next biggest naval battle.

Also an interesting read when you realize the US Navy is sending a considerable number of carrier groups to this region for reasons that aren't clear.
posted by pandaharma at 9:51 AM on October 25, 2006

Fantastic post, forrest.
posted by saladin at 9:56 AM on October 25, 2006

pandaharma: what's your source on the carrier group positioning? FAS stopped tracking it awhile ago.
posted by trinarian at 10:01 AM on October 25, 2006


I hate to admit it but I read a few diaries on Kos about it. I suppose this is the equivalent of constructing theories about extraterrestial life based on the Weekly World News cover stories.

In my defense, the information on the ship movements seemed to be well sourced even if the accompanying conspiracy theories were beyond credulity.

Now that I've googled a bit, came up with this Navy Times article which contradicts my original assertion.

For comparison, here's the original Kos diary, which might be useful if you can read past the purple prose.

But I haven't been able to find any serious unbiased source for this ship movement, so I suppose I should double my dosage of anti-gullible pills.

Addendum on preview: Found a Pajamas Media article about it, though they're sourcing Debka, which probably makes this as useful as the Kos link.

And then there's this Global Security article about the deployment of the Eisenhower's group, though if the Navy Times is to be believed, this is just a normal maneuver.

Another link from the Nation, which is hardly an unbiased source, but might be useful.

And then a Stars and Stripes article on the Iwo Jima performing training exercises in Kuwait.

If you have any links, better than my quick searches, which could prove or disprove this matter, I'd love to see them.
posted by pandaharma at 10:54 AM on October 25, 2006

One of my favourite parts of that story is that as the Johnston was sinking, one of the men was still on the deck firing at the Japanese.
posted by Captaintripps at 11:56 AM on October 25, 2006

Ships and water is all we ever talked about in the Navy.

An interesting story.
posted by Samuel Farrow at 12:03 PM on October 25, 2006

I'm pretty sure the line Sean Connery delivers is "Your conclusions were all wrong, Halsey acted stupidly." Just, you know, since we're picking nits, here.
posted by ChasFile at 5:17 PM on October 25, 2006

Another fun little bit of trivia is the message sent by Commander in Chief of Pacific Forces Chester Nimitz to Halsey after Halsey took the whole of the 3rd fleet -- including the six battleships of Task Force 34 -- steaming off after Ozawa's decoy and leaving the whole seventh fleet and its carriers dangerously exposed.

Before encryption, messages sent by Allied forces had padding text added before and after the actual message, to increase the difficulty of cryptanalysis. This padding text usually was comprised of words starting with the same letter, to signal to the decrypter that it was meaningless. In this case, however, the decrypter left the padding text on the message when he handed it to Halsey, perhaps feeling it apropos, or perhaps genuinely confused. The message read:


That one message did as much to cement the historical reputation of Halsey as a great blunderer as much as anything else, and is said to have devestated Halsey emotionally.
posted by ChasFile at 5:36 PM on October 25, 2006

ChasFile, you're probably right. I couldn't remember if I had the quote right, so I searched on the foolish variation, found some hits, and thought I had it. Searching on stupidly gets about 15 times as many hits. My bad & apologies.
posted by forrest at 9:14 PM on October 25, 2006

This was the last large-scale engagement between navies that the world has seen.

It was also the largest large scale engagement between navies that the world has seen. Given the size of Jutland, that really took some doing.
posted by vbfg at 1:15 AM on October 26, 2006

One of my favourite parts of that story is that as the Johnston was sinking, one of the men was still on the deck firing at the Japanese.

If there's one place in the whole world you wouldn't want to be, it'd be right in front of a pi$$ed-off bluejacket.
posted by pax digita at 4:45 AM on October 26, 2006

Oh, and...

That famous message padding "THE WORLD WONDERS" was probably just that -- trailing padding; the reasons have to do with crypto -- and was one of the more unfortunate choices of words in military history; Halsey pretty much blew up when he read it.
posted by pax digita at 4:47 AM on October 26, 2006

I wish there were more posts to the blue like this. Absolutely fantastic - and the subsequent discussion has been great, too. This story just blew me away. It is incredible what people are capable of under pressure or when motivated by bonds of comradeship.
posted by greycap at 4:49 AM on October 26, 2006

Yeah, great post. Leyte Gulf in general's a fascinating story-- it's amazing that such a total cock-up still wound up going our way. And it's frustrating that, despite his role in the cock-up, Halsey remains probaly the #2 most-known (behind Nimitz) American naval figure from the war.

History, of course, had its revenge on Halsey when Paul McCartney globbed onto his name and forever associated him with Wings.
posted by COBRA! at 8:45 AM on October 26, 2006

Yeah, this is one awesome frickin' post -- sidebar fodder, for sure. Proud to be a part of this number, and all that.

I think there should've been a movie about Taffy Three, just like there should've been one made from Twenty Million Tons Under the Sea, ADM Dan Gallery's account of the capture of the U-505, which is now a museum exhibit at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry -- BTDT. Two of the most incredible naval stories of the war, and neither's made it to film. Go figure.

(And if the battle of Gettysburg and Operation Market-Garden can be recounted coherently on the silver screen, Hollywood could probably manage this one part of Leyte Gulf okay in spite of what it did with Midway.)

I'd need to check on this, but I think my brother, an MM1, was aboard Macdonough when it responded, along with Jouett and Chr*st knows who else, to SBR's distress call. Larry was LPO in one of the DC parties, and I think he mentioned going over in one of the boats bringing some portable pumps. Quite a few pi$$ed-off bluejackets that day, too.
posted by pax digita at 1:05 PM on October 26, 2006

I think pandaharma is correct: US naval war games off the Iranian coastline: A provocation which could lead to War?
posted by caddis at 3:05 PM on October 26, 2006

pandharma, trinarian, caddis

There's this sketchy and ad-heavy link: Where are the Carriers?

Sh*tty Kitty's in the IO right now. I'm guessing Ike or Truman might relieve her, but insufficient data. I haven't been paying attention to what the 'phibs are doing, but they can bear more directly on the GWO (some) T than the bird farms, really.
posted by pax digita at 5:46 AM on October 27, 2006

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