Two of Taffy 3’s destroyers, Hoel and Heerman, moved in to shield the withdrawing carriers with smoke. But the third Fletcher-class vessel, Johnston, skippered by Lt. Cmdr. Earnest E. Evans, faced with enemy ships whose gun turrets weighed more than his entire destroyer, didn’t bother to wait for orders; he turned his ship around and at flank speed charged straight at the Japanese behemoths.
Evans, who was three-fourths Cherokee and nicknamed “Chief,” knew his ten torpedoes offered the best chance to do serious damage. This meant he had to close the distance to within five miles…but that almost at point-blank range of the enemy’s big guns. He went in anyway. It was, as historian Jonathan Parshall called it, “an act of bravery that almost beggars the imagination.” Inspired by Evans’ example. Ziggy Sprague then ordered Hoel and Heermann to join the already charging Johnston with the command “Small boys, attack!” Amidst a deluge of screaming shells coming at him, Lt. Cmdr. Evans ordered his crew to chase splashes in a gamble the enemy gunners wouldn’t target the same spot twice while the destroyer plowed ahead to close the range.
Having somehow survived its suicide run in, the Johnston launched a spread of ten torpedoes at the cruiser Kumano and then peeled off to open the range while making smoke. At least two fish slammed into the target, tearing the bow right off the Japanese warship. Amazingly, first blood had been drawn by the Americans. The heavy cruiser Suzuya slid beside the wounded Kumano to assist. She made an easy target and was soon set upon by an Avenger whose torpedo took out one of her propellers. Later up to 30 bombers would come down on her as she tried to escape at reduced speed. A near-miss detonated one of her torpedoes and she eventually sank at 1322 that day. Cmdr. Evans’ little tin can was responsible for taking two heavy cruisers out of the fight.
The Johnston’s brazen attack, and the damage she inflicted, further convinced Kurita that he was up against a force of fleet carriers and heavy warships. No way a mere destroyer would be so bold or take out a capital ship like that. At 0730, Johnston’s luck ran out. As if swatting away a pesky fly, the battleship Kongo hit the fleeing tin can with three 14-inch shells, followed by three 6.1-inch shells from Yamato. Although the damage from Kongo’s big guns was severe, one would expect a salvo of such power to blow a destroyer to pieces. But luck was on Taffy 3’s side as the Japanese gunners were making a mistake. They were firing armor-piercing rather than high explosive rounds from their main guns.
Essential armament when engaging thickly armored battleships and cruisers, the shells were often passing right through the smaller, thin-skinned American vessels before exploding, paradoxically inflicting less damage than would be expected. The Yamato’s smaller caliber secondary guns by contrast made a complete slaughterhouse of the Johnston’s bridge and splinters scythed down many on deck. Capt. Evans was severely wounded. Although badly damaged, she wasn’t blown apart and so the Johnston still had some fight left in her even as Yamato was dutifully recording the sinking of a “cruiser.”
At 0730 Hoel was next to be pummeled, also taken under fire by Kongo’s main batteries. Hoel, taking several hits, managed to launch half her torpedoes at Yamato before racing for the cover of another rain squall. She didn’t make it. After firing her spread the destroyer was blasted with high caliber shells and disabled. At 0855 Hoel rolled over and sank; only 80 of her 235 crew survived. Her skipper, Cmdr. Leon Kintberger, would lament: “Fully cognizant of the inevitable result of engaging such vastly superior forces, these men performed their assigned duties coolly and efficiently until their ship was shot from under them.” She was the first American ship to go under. But her torpedoes, even though missing Yamato, had a profound impact on the tactical situation. The superbattleship’s skipper, Adm. Ugaki (to whom Kurita had turned over the helm), turned away from Hoel’s torpedoes rather than toward them to make a smaller target. By the time the threat passed, Yamato, and thus Kurita, had steamed so far away from the action that Kurita couldn’t discern what was happening. Yamato launched a float plane to try and see what was what, but with predictable results in a sky filled with U.S. Wildcats. It was shot down in minutes, so Kurita had to wait for Yamato to come about and catch up with the rest of Center Force, adding to the chaos.
Following the Hoel, the Heermann made her own torpedo run at the Haruna while exchanging gunfire with Chikuma. Heermann’s skipper, Cmdr. Amos Hathaway, turned to his officer of the deck, Lt. “Buck” Newsome, and said: “Buck, we need a bugler to sound the charge!” There’s dispute as to whether his fish found their marks, but no doubt the destroyer caused consternation among the Japanese while drawing fire away from the jeep carriers. She continued to engage one heavy ship after another like a mongoose tormenting a pride of flailing lions. Heermann also proved to be a lucky ship. Despite being targeted by many enemy guns from all sides, Hathaway’s violent maneuvering avoided hits; he was awarded the Navy Cross for his cool under fire.
Amazingly, the little 1,250-ton escort destroyer Samuel B. Roberts now joined the fray. With only two five-inch guns and three torpedoes, her skipper, Lt. Cmdr. Robert Copeland, announced to the crew: “This will be a fight against overwhelming odds, from which survival cannot be expected. We will do what damage we can.” Under cover of smoke and rain, she headed straight for the cruiser Chokai. As she passed the mangled Johnston limping back from her attack on the Kumano, sailors aboard the Roberts saw Lt. Cmdr. Evans on Johnston’s bridge directing damage control. The wounded Evans turned and saluted the Roberts as she went in. The Roberts let loose three torpedoes, one of which blew a hole in Chokai. For the next hour, this tiny vessel designed for anti-submarine duty, not for exchanging broadsides with cruisers and battleships 10 to 30 times her size, expended over 600 rounds of five-inch shells, setting the cruiser Chikuma’s bridge afire. The Roberts was so close in among the enemy that several of the Japanese ships’ main batteries couldn’t depress their aim low enough to hit her and their shells passed overhead. But then Kongo got the range and blasted this little destroyer escort with 14-inch shells, sending her to the bottom with 90 of her brave crew. Copeland survived and was also awarded the Navy Cross for his incredible actions that day. And the Roberts would thence forth be remembered in Navy lore as “the destroyer escort that fought like a battleship.”
By now the rest of the destroyer escorts, Dennis, John C. Butler, and Raymond, were in the fight launching torpedoes and firing at any Japanese ship they saw no matter how big, while the little jeep carriers were sailing southeast as fast as their underpowered engines could take them. Ziggy Sprague figured that if Taffy 3 was in the Japanese sights then at least he could lure them away from the beaches and buy time for whatever warships were on the way either from Kinkaid or Halsey. Fearing the worst, he’d ordered his aircraft should make for the fresh land bases on Leyte or the CVEs of the other Taffys.
Moving out from the squall they were well within range of Kurita’s heavy guns and were taking hits. At 0750 the CVEs Kalinin Bay and White Plains were smashed by shells. By 0810 the burning Gambier Bay was dead in the water and foundering. (The Nagato’s log recorded the sinking of an “Independence-class light carrier.”) When Kurita’s destroyers raced in to make a torpedo run, once again the mauled but still defiant Johnston moved out front to engage with the two five-inch guns she had left and fought so hard she threw off their aim, sparing the jeep carriers. But this was it for Johnston and her brave crew. She was torn apart by a fusillade of large-caliber shells fired from five surrounding enemy ships and at 0945 Evans gave the order to abandon ship. At 1010 the Johnston went under, taking 186 of her crew to the bottom. Although he went over the rail with his men, Evans, possibly succumbing to his wounds while in the shark-infested waters, was never seen again; he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
Throughout the chaotic morning, Kinkaid had been sending urgent messages to Halsey requesting immediate support. One message shortly after 0800, sent in plain language, read: “My situation is critical. Fast battleships and support by air strikes may be able to keep enemy from destroying CVES and entering Leyte.” Then at 0822, Kinkaid radioed: “Fast Battleships are Urgently Needed Immediately at Leyte Gulf”. Another at 0905 pleaded: “Need Fast Battleships and Air Support.” Then at 1005: “Who is guarding San Bernardino Strait?” Meanwhile, at Pearl Harbor 3,000 miles away, Nimitz, reading these same distress calls with growing concern, sent out his own message whose acerbic tone would sting Halsey to the core: “Where is, repeat where is Task Force Thirty-Four? The world wonders.” Fuming at the terse rebuke, Halsey ordered his fast battleships and some carriers to disengage from Ozawa’s force and head for Leyte, although by then he was so out of position there was no way he could get there in time to help. Taffy 3, indeed all of TG 77.4, and the beaches of Leyte, were on their own for now.
Brad Schaeffer is the author of the acclaimed World War II novel Of Another Time And Place.