Ken Beaton: Sinking the rising sun

Ken Beaton

Ken Beaton

What was the largest naval battle of World War II? The Battle of Leyte Gulf, which was four conflicts – the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea, Surigao Strait, Cape Engano and Samar Island – from Oct. 23-26, 1944.
Shortly after sunrise on Oct. 25, 1944 the Battle of Samar Island pitted Task Unit 77.4.3, “Taffy 3,” with three USN destroyers, four destroyer escorts and six CVE, Carrier Vehicle Escorts with naval aviators from 12 CVEs from nearby task forces, against the IJN, Imperial Japanese Navy’s, four battleships, including the Yamato with 18.1-inch guns, six heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and 11 destroyers.
Call it bravery, chutzpah, fearlessness, or true grit. Our sailors and naval aviators under the command of Rear Admiral Clifton Sprague were fully focused on their objective; protect those six escort carriers, no matter what! Between 07 to 10 Taffy 3 wrote one of the most heroic chapters in U.S. naval history.
Imagine yourself as the captain of one of the three destroyers or the four destroyer escorts firing your 5-inch guns with a range of 10 miles traveling at flank speed, 40-plus mph, to attack head-on the Japanese fleet. Our sailors were similar to an offensive lineman’s attitude, “No defensive player is going to sack my quarterback!”
Normally, a CVE’s top speed was 18 knots. When their captains saw the huge water splashes from the first salvo of 460 mm (18.1-inch) shells, there was a scene similar to Star Trek’s Scotty in the engine room, “I’m givin’ her all I can Captain!” The CVEs’ engine rooms’ “black gang” performed brilliantly! They bypassed all their ships’ steam systems into the engines. The jeep carriers were hitting the waves at close to 30 knots to distance themselves from harm’s way.
When you’re outnumbered in a fight, first distract your opponent! How? Either land a quick hard punch splattering his nose which will gush blood. Or land a quick knee to his groin. With your opponent concerned about his nose or his ability to father children. Knock him out!
At 0700 hours the USS Johnston began zigzagging while making a smokescreen for the six jeep carriers. At 0710 the Johnston’s Gunnery Officer Robert Hagen had registered several hits on the IJN’s heavy cruiser, Kumano, from their five 5-inch Mark 37 Gun Fire Control Systems. By 0715 the Kumano’s superstructure was in flames, “a bloody nose.” At 9,000 yards Johnston launched five torpedoes at the Kumano. At least two torpedoes blew off the Kumano’s bow, “the knockout punch” sinking her. The confused Japanese commanders thought they had engaged American cruisers, not “tin cans.”
At 0730 the Johnston was struck by three 14-inch shells knocking out her port (left) engine room. Moments later three 6-inch shells hit the bridge causing more casualties. While the ship found sanctuary in a squall, crewmen repaired the ship’s fire control radar. At 0820 the Johnston engaged the 36,600-ton Japanese battleship, Kongo, and scored at least 15 hits on the ship’s superstructure, splattering their opponent’s nose. Then she disappeared into a smoke screen similar to a boxer “bobbing and weaving.”
At 0840 the USS Johnston and the USS Samuel B. Roberts engaged seven Japanese destroyers. Our two ships scored numerous hits on the first three IJN destroyers causing all seven to disengage. At 0900 the USS Johnston was knocked out of the fight. Her remaining engine room was “dead.” By 0940 the ship was motionless while taking hits. At 0945 Commander Evans gave the order to abandon ship and was never seen again. A Japanese destroyer approached and the Japanese captain saluted the Johnston, “an honorable opponent,” just before she sank at 1000. Commander “Big Chief,” Evans was a ½ Cherokee and ¼ Creek Warrior from Pawnee, Oklahoma. He was awarded the Medal of Honor, posthumously. (My search was unsuccessful to discover the date of the award ceremony.)
From the days of Iron Men and Wooden Ships, 20-year-old Gunner’s Mate 3rd Class Paul H. Carr’s battle station was the Johnston’s 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 to load the last round into the breech. Carr was awarded the Silver Star, posthumously. It is rare that a U.S. Navy ship is named after an enlisted man. His parents proudly displayed his gold star in their front window.
The destroyer escort, USS Samuel B. Roberts, “the Sammy B,” (DE-413), was 306 feet in length. She was, “the destroyer escort that fought like a battleship.” At 0700 hours 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.”
Taffy 3’s sailors, ships with 450 determined naval aviators from the 18 CVEs fought like barroom brawlers. After our flyboys dropped their ordinance, they made “dummy” runs confusing the Japanese ships. They dropped everything on the enemy ships including torpedoes and depth charges. One pilot emptied his 38-caliber revolver at a Japanese ship. “Throw the kitchen sink at ‘em boys.”
The battle will be 77 years ago on Monday, Oct. 25. Our sailors and naval aviators did more than bloody Japanese noses’. They sank three heavy cruisers and a destroyer while damaging three more heavy cruisers and splashing 52 IJN aircraft. The IJN lost 10,000 sailors; 1,583 of our courageous sailors were killed in action or missing. We lost two CVEs, two destroyers and one destroyer escort. Taffy 3 was the little task force that made their superior enemy retreat in defeat.
To learn more about the “Sammy B,” you may decide to read The Spirit of the Sammy B. by RADM Robert W. Copeland (USNR) with Jack E. O’Neil. Rear Admiral Copeland was the Sammy B’s Captain in the last great sea battle in the Pacific.
FYI of the six Japanese carriers that attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the Akagi, Kaga, Soryu and Hiryu were sunk at the Battle of Midway, June 4-7, 1942; the Zuikaku was sunk during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, payback!

Comments 2 months, 3 weeks ago

Great story, Ken. I have read other articles about Captain Evans, Cherokee warrior. What an extraordinary hero in a horrendous battle.

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