The Battle off Samar, fought on October 25, 1944, was not supposed to be a battle. Admiral Bill Halsey, with his mighty task force of giant carriers and supporting cruisers and destroyers, had been lured away from the Philippine Islands, where General Douglas McArthur had promised “I shall return”. The main Imperial Japanese fleet, supposedly in full retreat to the north, took with it the task force under Admiral John S. McCain, and left almost unguarded the strait near the island of Samar.
There were a few token ships: some “jeep” carriers, ships mostly converted from merchant ships and intended primarily to ferry needed aircraft to islands and to larger carriers. Their names: St. Lo, White Plains, Kalin Bay, Fanshaw Bay, Kitkin Bay and Gambia Bay.
The destroyers and destroyer escorts were there, the “small boys”, the fast, lightly armored, all-purpose ships that no commander ever had too many of, but often did not appreciate until after an action. The USS Hoel, a Fletcher class destroyer stood ready, as did the USS Heermann and the USS Johnston. The USS Samuel B. Roberts, a destroyer escort, known then, and forever after, as the “Sammy B”, awaited the call, as did the other destroyer escorts, the USS John C. Butler, the USS Raymond and the USS Dennis.
And through a strait at Luzon came another Japanese fleet; eleven destroyers, eight cruisers, and the world’s largest battleship, the Yamato, accompanied by three other battleships. Rear Admiral Takeo Kurita intended to strike the ships in shelter of the bay and turn and run down Admiral Halsey as he steamed north chasing a decoy fleet.
The small American fleet that was left near Luzon was commanded by Rear Admiral Clifton “Ziggy” Sprague, and had been tagged with the unwarlike call sign “Taffy 3”. Sprague could have turned and run, and saved his ships, but he chose to stand.
The huge Japanese fleet bore down on them, and Sprague sent his “small boys”, his destroyers, and destroyer escorts into action. They closed on the battleships and the cruisers, some firing their guns, others holding their torpedoes in readiness until they reached 3,000 yards. Pumping out smokescreens as they went “all ahead flank,” they zigzagged, fired, and turned into the smoke, and fell back only to turn once more and go back after the battleships and the cruisers.
There were no surprises. Taffy 3 was the underdog, and the captain of the “Sammy B”, as they engaged the enemy the first time, told his crew that there would be a “fight against overwhelming odds from which survival could not be expected.” He was right. His ship went down, with almost all hands perishing.
Admiral Kurita mistook the destroyers for battleships and the destroyer escorts for cruisers, and, after exchanging unequal gunfire, turned his flagship Yamato to the north. The other Japanese ships that were afloat turned with her and retreated.
Sprague’s miniscule fleet was chopped up. The “Sammy B” was sunk, as was the Johnston, and the Hoel, but the tide was turned. As the Hoel slipped beneath the waves of the bay, the commander of one of the Japanese destroyers slowed his engines and saluted the valiant crew. Only eighty six out of three hundred thirty nine survived.
The Imperial Japanese Navy left two heavy cruisers on the bottom. The Yamoto went home, and was sunk in the waning days of the Pacific war.
And the Battle off Samar, a battle that lasted about two hours, an unbalanced battle if ever there was one, gave our nation a long list of heroes, both ships and men. But the war went on, and the fleet was faced with the most dreaded of enemy weapons, the kamikaze, the “divine wind,” that was more deadly than the huge battleships and the cruisers that went up against the Navy.
(Recommended reading about destroyer action, particularly the Battle off Samar, is “The Last of the Tin Can Men”)