Oklahoma Proud – The Battle Off Samar

Today in History, October 25, 1944:

A desperate fight for survival, The Battle off Samar.

The Battle off Samar was only one of several major naval conflicts that constituted the Battles of Leyte Gulf. A few days previous, Gen. Douglas MacArthur had returned to the Philippines and invaded Leyte. His invasion was supported by what is likely the largest assembled fleet in history.

In the days since the invasion began, the Japanese Navy had sent 3 battle groups to intercede. One group of Battleships, cruisers and destroyers were to approach the landing forces in Leyte Gulf through Surigao Strait, another built around the massive IJN Yamato was to approach via San Bernadino Strait, and the last, built around Fleet Carriers with few planes left, was to sail far to the north and make sure they were seen, so that major US forces defending the thin skinned landing ships would leave them unprotected.

The Japanese fleet approaching through Surigao Strait was decimated by American Battleships raised from the mud of Pearl Harbor in the last Battleship vs Battleship engagement in history (US Cruisers and Destroyers were key also).

Admiral Kurita’s force around Yamato was bombed on the 24th and turned back.

Admiral William F. Halsey, known to Americans and Japanese for his aggressive nature (By the time we’re done, the Japanese language will be spoken only in hell) commanded the US 3rd fleet…4 battle groups of 4 fast carriers each, and another of fast battleships.

He took the bait, going after the Japanese carriers that were actually playing no combative part in the battle.

This left only cargo ships, small combatants, and “Jeep Carriers”, or Escort Carriers…basically cargo ships with a flight deck built atop their small, thin hulls. The escort carriers were tasked with close support for troops ashore, and were not equipped for a sea battle.

So far, I’ve just set the stage for the events of the Battle off Samar Island…now for the good part. There were 3 small escort carrier task forces left in Leyte Gulf…Taffy 1, Taffy 2 and Taffy 3. As they began operations on the morning of the 25th, Admiral Clifton “Ziggy” Sprague and the men of Taffy 3 were shocked to find that IJN Admiral Kurita’s task force of fast battleships, cruisers and destroyers, who had turned around in the night, bearing down on them. I recently finished “Last Stand of the Tincan Sailors” by James Hornfischer, and although I knew about this battle, I found out much more, and Oklahoma connections.

The entirety of Taffy 3…6 jeep carriers, 2 Fletcher class destroyers and 3 destroyer escorts…did not match the tonnage of the Yamato alone. And Yamato was joined by several other Battleships, Cruisers and destroyer task forces. The Japanese could manage much more speed than the small American ships, and their guns (18 inch for the Yamato, 14 and 8 inch for the others, out-ranged the American’s 5 inch guns by MILES. As the long range rifles (22 miles avg) began dropping shells around the carriers and destroyers, Admiral Sprague ordered the small destroyers and destroyer escorts to lay smoke and attempt to delay the inevitable. Oklahoman Harold Kite, loading a 5 inch gun on the stern of the carrier USS Fanshaw Bay, watched the tiny escort ships turning to race towards the huge enemy ships, and likened them to the horses that had raced across the plains of central Oklahoma as he was growing up, and marveled at their courage.

The closest escort ship to the Japanese fleet, the USS Johnston, was commanded by another Oklahoman…Commander Ernest E. Evans, known to his Annapolis classmates as “Chief” for his Cherokee heritage. His crew knew what they were in for. Cmdr. Evans had been there for the American defeat during the Guadalcanal campaign, and took his warrior heritage seriously.

When he took command of the Johnston, he told her crew, “This is going to be a fighting ship. I intend to go in harm’s way, and anyone who doesn’t want to go along had better get off right now. Now that I have command of a fighting ship, I will never retreat from an enemy force.”

And he didn’t. Under the fire of longer range, larger guns and other fast destroyers, he raced in close, ordering his gun crews to fire constantly, which they did with amazing effect, and launched his small ship’s torpedoes against the enemy, achieving strikes that disabled cruisers. Fighting to the end, Evans was looking after the survivors of his sinking ship when a Japanese shell destroyed the part of the superstructure he was in, and he went down with his ship.

The other American destroyers and destroyer escorts (even smaller) followed suit, delaying the Japanese ships and confusing them to the point that the Japanese thought they were actually fighting American cruisers and fast carriers…heavies in Navy parlance.

The Jeep carrier’s aircrews were launched in desperation as the battle began…armed with whatever they had…depth charges, anti-personnel bombs, but nothing that was designed to sink ships. The aircrews, flying torpedo bombers, dive bombers and fighter planes, attacked the Japanese ships with desperate ferocity. They dropped the depth charges as best they could beneath enemy ships, dropped their bombs, then came back and made runs against the enemy ships without arms because it would mean the IJN ships had to evade (and slow down) since they didn’t know there were no torpedoes or bombs on the American aircraft. One pilot, out of ammunition, flew alongside a Japanese heavy, opened his canopy, and emptied his .38 revolver into the ship’s bridge to the amazement of her crew.

The flyers then flew to a land base on Leyte and re-armed to attack again. In the end, Admiral Kurita, believing he was attacking a much larger force, ordered his massive force to turn about and retreat.

As for Halsey, who couldn’t leave even his Battleships, or even 4 of his 16 Carriers to defend the Taffy’s and the all but defenseless cargo ships in Leyte Gulf….he received a dispatch from his boss, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, asking, “Where is Task Force 34? All the world wonders.” The story is that “all the world wonders” was just jibberish added to transmissions to confuse the enemy…but the result was an angry Halsey throwing his cap to the deck and spewing a string of invectives. Of the destroyers, including the Johnston and the Samuel B. Roberts that went down in the battle? Amazingly, many of their crew were lost to sharks before they were rescued in the days hence, the result of faulty reports of their locations. So many brave heroes.

“You May Cast Off, Buck, When You Are Ready.”

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Today in History, March 11, 1942:

General Douglas MacArthur is evacuated from the Philippines at the order of President Franklin Roosevelt.  At the beginning of WWII the previous December the Japanese had invaded the Philippines; the American and Filipino forces, commanded by MacArthur, had been fighting off persistent advances ever since.  At the outset the American air forces had been almost completely destroyed on the ground, caught by surprise by the initial attacks.  Now they had been backed up to the peninsula of Bataan, and in the middle of the bay, the island of Corregidor.

General MacArthur was already quite famous when the war began; his father Arthur was also a noted American general, Douglas served in WWI and was in command in Washington, DC when protesting WWI veterans were dispersed during the Depression.  He and his father would become the first father and son to be awarded the Medal of Honor.

American morale was already suffering, and the President did not want an additional blow of MacArthur being taken prisoner when the Philippines fell, which was a foregone conclusion at this point.  So he ordered MacArthur to evacuate to Australia, leaving General Jonathan Wainwright in command of the fall.

MacArthur had the choice to leave by submarine, aircraft, or by PT (patrol torpedo) boat.  He knew and trusted the commander of PT squadron 3, Lieutenant John D. Bulkeley, so he chose to leave by boat.

On the evening of March 11, 1942, Lt. Bulkeley’s PT-41 was alongside the north pier at Corregidor with General MacArthur and his family aboard, when the General looked to the Lieutenant and said, “You may cast off, Buck, when you are ready.”  Thus began a 600 mile run to Mindanao through minefields and enemy infested waters which MacArthur would later liken to a ride in a cement mixer.  Almost everyone was seasick.  Bulkeley would meet up with the remainder of his PT squadron, their decks filled with gasoline drums so they could make the trip.  It was a harrowing journey; from Mindanao MacArthur and his staff would continue the journey by air.

The journey, how it came to be, and it’s aftermath are all worth more detail.  But for this post, I can’t help but focus on MacArthur’s words as he set sail from his defeat in Manila Bay…

“You may cast off, Buck, when you are ready.”

General MacArthur was an intelligent, educated man, a West Point graduate and a fast climber through the ranks.  What was in his mind as he escaped one of the worst military defeats in American history that day?  The MacArthur family was also already a significant part of Philippine history.  Nearly forty-four years earlier, in 1898 during the Spanish-American War, Arthur MacArthur had been victorious during the Battle of Manila.  He would then command during the Philippine-American War and become the Military Governor General of the Philippines until he got sideways when the Civilian Governor of the Philippines, William Howard Taft.

At the outset of the Spanish-American War, the Philippines were a Spanish possession.  The war was significant because with it, America would become a player on the world stage, defeating one of the European colonial powers.

With the Battle of Manila Bay on May 1, 1898, the US Navy would show it’s mettle in easily defeating the Spanish fleet stationed there.  Admiral George Dewey commanded the US Asiatic Fleet from the bridge of his flagship, the USS Olympia.  As they approached the Spanish ships, Dewey spoke a now famous phrase to the commander of the Olympia, Captain Charles Gridley…

“You may fire when ready, Gridley.”

To enter Manila Bay from the South China Sea, Admiral Dewey and his fleet would have sailed past the island which guarded the entrance to the bay, Corregidor.  Hours before his famous victory, Admiral Dewey would have sailed within a few hundred yards of where MacArthur would stand in 1942, having lost all Dewey had gained.  In his mind’s eye, was he watching the Olympia pass by?

“You may cast off, Buck, when you are ready.”

“These Proceedings…Are Closed.”  Historic Connections 

Today in History, September 2: 1945 – A Japanese delegation signs surrender documents aboard the Battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, bringing WWII to an end. Even after atomic bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (more people were killed in bombings by B-29’s in other bombings, ironically) killing tens of thousands, the Japanese military only came to terms with defeat after much gnashing of teeth, threats of assassinating each other and finally a direct order from the Emperor himself, who was mortified by the suffering of his people. 

 A couple of interesting asides to the story. In the first photo you will notice an American flag, framed “backwards” as to appear to be flying, mounted on the bulkhead of the Missouri. The flag had flown at the mast of Commodore Matthew C. Perry’s flagship in 1853 as he made his second visit to Tokyo, which resulted in the closed nation of Japan trading with westerners for the first time in 200 years. The flag had been flown by special courier from the States especially for the surrender ceremony. 

 This detail seemed so fantastic to me that I had to research it until I found confirmation from the Naval History and Heritage Command’s website. Perry was the younger brother of Oliver Hazard Perry, helped advance the steam powered US Navy, and fought in the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War in addition to his Japanese exploits. A replica of the Perry flag is positioned in the same location aboard the Missouri, which is now docked in Pearl Harbor near the USS Arizona. 

 Another sad point I found was that on September 2, 1945, as Gen. MacArthur concluded the surrender with the words, “Let us pray that peace be now restored to the world and that God will preserve it always. These proceedings are closed”, Ho Chi Minh, who had cooperated with the Japanese occupation of “Vietnam” during the war, was participating in declaring the independence of the “Democratic Republic of Vietnam” in North Vietnam. This would lead to the Indochina Wars and eventually to American involvement in the Vietnam War. It seems it never ended.