Taffy 3 showed courage in face of impossible odds

Ken Beaton

Ken Beaton

Is Taffy 3 a triple-layer dark chocolate candy bar with the delicious molasses center? No! On Oct. 25, 1944 east of Samar Island during the Philippines’ liberation between 07:00 and 10:00 the United States Navy’s ships and sailors of Task Unit 77.4.3 (Taffy 3), under the command of Rear Admiral Clifton Sprague, wrote one of the most heroic chapters in Naval History. Call it bravery, chutzpah, fearlessness, or true grit. The sailors of Taffy 3 were fully focused on their objective; protect those six escort carriers, no matter what!

The Japanese Center Force consisted of four battleships, six heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, 11 destroyers and 30 aircraft. Taffy 3 had six escort carriers, three destroyers, four destroyer escorts and 400 aircraft from Taffy 1, 2, 3.

Imagine yourself as one of the seven American captains firing 5-inch guns with a range of 10 miles traveling at flank speed to attack 23 Japanese ships with guns up to 460 mm with a range of 25 miles! Our sailors were similar to an offensive lineman’s attitude, “No defensive player is going to lay a hand on my quarterback!”

The “jeep” escort carriers traveled at 18 knots. When their captains saw the huge water splashes from the first salvo of 460 mm shells (18.1 inches), there was a scene from Star Trek with Scotty in the engine room saying, “I’m givin’ her all I can, Captain!” Those jeep carriers were hitting the waves at close to 30 knots to distance themselves from harm’s way.

Three hundred and sixty three days earlier, Oct. 27, 1943, at the USS Johnston commissioning, Commander Ernest E. Evans quoted John Paul Jones, “This is going to be a fighting ship. I intend to go in harm’s way, and anybody who doesn’t want to go along had better get off right now.”

At 07:00 hours the USS Johnston began zigzagging and making a smokescreen for the jeep carriers. At 07:10 Gunnery Officer Robert Hagen registered several hits on the heavy cruiser, Kumano, from the ship’s five 5-inch Mark 37 Gun Fire Control Systems. At 07:15 Hagen had the Kumano’s superstructure in flames and smoke. At 9,000 yards she launched 10 torpedoes at the Kumano. At least two blew off the Kumano’s bow. The confused Japanese commanders thought they had engaged with American cruisers.

At 07:30 the Johnston was struck by three 14-inch shells knocking out the port (left) engine room. Moments later three 6-inch shells hit the bridge causing more casualties. While the ship found sanctuary in a squall, the crew repaired the ship’s fire control radar.

At 08:20 the Johnston engaged the 36,600-ton Japanese battleship, Kongo, to score at least 15 hits on the ship’s superstructure, similar to splattering an opponent’s nose, then disappeared in a smoke screen.

At 08:40 the Johnston and the USS Hagen engaged seven Japanese destroyers. The Johnston and Hagen scored numerous hits on the first three Japanese destroyers causing the other four to disengage the Americans. At 09:00 the Johnston was knocked out of the fight. Her remaining engine room was “dead.” By 09:40 the ship was motionless while taking hits. At 09:45 Captain Evans gave the order to abandon ship and was never seen again. A Japanese destroyer approached and saluted the Johnston, “an honorable opponent,” before the Johnson sank at 10:00. Captain Evans was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously.

The destroyer escort, USS Samuel B. Roberts, “the Sammy B,” (DE-413), was 306 feet. It was the “destroyer escort that fought like a battleship.” Lieutenant Commander Robert W. Copeland announced to her mostly teenage crew, “This will be a fight against overwhelming odds from which survival cannot be expected. We will do what damage we can.” Sammy B. was a fighting machine.

From the tradition of Iron Men and Wooden Ships, 20-year-old Gunner’s Mate 3rd Class Paul H. Carr’s battle station was the aft 5-inch gun mount. During the 35-minute battle, Carr fired a round every 6.6 seconds before the breech overheated and exploded. He was found dying at his station. He begged for help loading the last round into the breech. Carr was awarded the Silver Star, posthumously. His parents proudly displayed his gold star in their living room window.

The USS Copeland (FFG-25), USS Evans (DE-1023), USS Clifton Sprague (FFG-16), and USS Carr (FFG-52) were ships named after three officers and an enlisted man. The USS Hoel (DDG-13), USS Johnston (DD-821) and USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58) were named after three sunken ships outgunned and outnumbered.

Taffy 3’s sailors and ships with 400 brave pilots from Taffy 1, 2 and 3 fought like barroom brawlers. The pilots kept the Imperial Japanese Navy confused. Pilots without ordinance made “dummy” runs confusing enemy ships. Pilots dropped everything on the Japanese ships including depth charges. One Naval aviator emptied a .38 revolver at a Japanese ship. “Throw everything at ‘em, boys.”

Oct. 25, 1944 was more than 72 years ago. Our sailors and aviators sunk three heavy cruisers, damaged three heavy cruisers and a destroyer while splashing 52 aircraft. Thousands of Japanese sailors were lost; 1,583 of our courageous boys were killed in action or missing.

Seventy-three years ago today, the Sammy B. was undergoing sea trials to be commissioned on April 28, 1944, only to be sunk in six months. You may decide to read “The Spirit of the Sammy B.” by RADM Robert W. Copeland (USNR) with Jack E. O’Neil.


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