Even as the damage to Taffy 3 mounted, the Japanese Goliath had failed to make quick work of the American David. Quite the opposite. The American destroyers and aircraft attacked with such vigor to the point of suicidal aggressiveness that Kurita’s warships found themselves twisting and turning to engage the tin cans while taking violent evasive action to skirt torpedoes. As mentioned before, to avoid Hoel’s torpedoes Yamato had maneuvered in such a way as to be out of the fight, effectively blinding Kurita to the action.
Zooming Wildcats and Avengers now numbering over 200 aircraft from three Taffys crisscrossed the sky like angry bees, shooting, bombing, and rocketing every ship that passed through their gunsights. It must have been an incredible scene. A chaotic battle spread out over miles…a seascape panorama filled with plumes of oily black smoke climbing up into the humid air as the rains fall here and there, multi-colored geysers splashing high into the sky, aircraft twisting, turning, diving, ships pitching and rolling and reeling as their guns blaze, small caliber rounds making long splashes as if flaying the sea with a giant whip, all with the deafening roar of a desperate battle added.
As the morning wore on aircraft in numbers ranging from single planes to groups of 20 or more were launching, attacking, landing on whatever platform was available, refueling and rearming and launching again. Many took off with no bombs just to buzz the enemy for effect. In typical ad hoc American style, the CVE Manila Bay of Taffy 2 would eventually service 11 squadrons not assigned to her, and at one point her deck was occupied by aircraft from four different jeep carriers at once. As the battle rolled on, the air attacks would become more coordinated and deadly, and play a vital role in the outcome of the action while showing that even little CVE’s could project disproportionate power against the largest and most heavily armed and armored surface ships afloat.
The time was a little after 0900 and the battle was two hours old. Kurita had been awake for 72 hours and was exhausted. Although his battleships were not seriously damaged, the Battle off Samar had already cost him the heavy cruisers Chokai, Chikuma, and Suzuya sunk outright or soon scuttled, and three more damaged, Kumano being the worst with her lost bow courtesy of the Johnston. And the air attacks were only getting worse. When word came of U.S. aircraft landing aboard Leyte, Kurita took that as a prelude to their launching devastating attacks on his weakened flotilla. In actuality it was just Sprague getting them off what he thought were soon-to-be sunk carriers. And due to confusion over what he was up against, out of contact with his fleet, and the unbelievable aggressiveness of the enemy, Kurita had lost tactical control of the battle. He did eventually learn through signals from Ozawa that Halsey had sailed off, but this still had to be a major fleet confronting him. The ferocity of the determined, concentrated attack from Taffy 3 and the losses they inflicted, plus the swarms of U.S. naval aircraft overhead, seemed to confirm this belief.
Furthermore, radio interceptors on land and in Ozawa’s fleet were picking up Kinkaid’s repeated calls for help and forwarding them to Yamato. Kurita believed they meant Halsey was already steaming towards the area, possibly moving to block his only escape through the San Bernardino Strait. Also, and many historians overlook this factor when assessing Kurita’s decisions, due to the chasing and maneuvering at battle speeds, many of his ships were running low on precious fuel. Kurita was starting to fear they may get into Leyte Gulf only to run out of gas before they could get out! At 0915 Kurita ordered a withdraw to the north to take a breath and regroup.
Then came word that another carrier fleet was closing in from the north. Kurita sailed that direction to investigate. As it turned out it was a false report whose mysterious origin has never been clarified. Whether an American ruse (doubtful) or more likely a mistake on the part of an incompetent radio team who never admitted their error, it served to further confuse the Japanese, while eating up time. And then came word over the radio of the disaster at the Surigao strait. All alone and exposed, never really understanding the miniscule size of the fleet opposing him off Samar, Kurita decided it was time to save his fleet and make it back through the San Bernardino Strait before Halsey’s fast carriers got the range.
Against all odds, the Lilliputians had beat back Japan’s most powerful surface fleet assembled since Midway. One can only imagine the feelings of relief and pride when Ziggy Sprague heard one of his sailors cry out: “Dammit, boys, they’re getting away!”
But Taffy 3’s ordeal wasn’t yet over. Later that morning, the first organized unit of Kamikaze attack planes made their debut appearance of the war. Launched from airbases on Luzon, they did as much damage to the jeep carriers as did the battlewagons’ shells. Every CVE except Fanshaw Bay was damaged. St. Lo, just renamed in honor of the men fighting at Normandy, was hit and sunk, killing 143…the first of many victims of Japan’s “Divine Wind” attacks that would just grow more numerous and desperate as the war progressed. In a fitting illustration of the three-dimensional nature of the battle, four of St. Lo’s pilots found themselves orphaned and landed on one of the newly hacked-out landing strips at Dulag on Leyte. The fliers were promptly handed carbines and assigned a foxhole from which they would help repel a Japanese infantry attack.
“I had expected to be swimming,” confided Ziggy Sprague after the Battle off Samar. Instead he and his brave Taffy 3 seamen stood at their stations and watched, first in disbelief, then relief, then jubilation as the Japanese vessels, many leaking oil and belching smoke from their wounds, disappeared back over the horizon from whence they’d so suddenly appeared that same morning. For many, though, the ordeal was just beginning. Over the next several days, more than 1,000 exhausted Taffy survivors, and many Japanese as well, some suffering burns and open wounds, others covered in oil, all dehydrated, would have to endure the terrors and anxieties of bobbing in a shark-infested ocean before being rescued. Some never were. Such was the price of war.
Brad Schaeffer is the author of the acclaimed World War II novel Of Another Time And Place.