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SCHAEFFER: The Battle Of Leyte Gulf: Part 9 – ‘The Biggest Battleship I Ever Saw!’

By  Brad
Clifton Sprague
Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Between 1941 and 1945, the United States built 78 escort carriers.  These vessels, known as “jeep carriers,” were designed for, as the designation suggests, escorting convoys and supporting landing zones by providing air cover.  Several variants were built but a typical escort carrier displaced 7,800 tons, was a little over 500 feet long, 65 feet wide, and had a top speed of just 18 knots.  It could accommodate up to 28 aircraft.  Unlike Halsey’s fleet and light carriers, the escorts had no armor below decks.  Their designation was CVE, which the crews quipped stood for “Combustible, Vulnerable, Expendable.”  The 18 jeep carriers in Adm. Kinkaid’s Seventh Fleet, all concentrated in Thomas Sprague’s TG-77.4, were armed with 235 older model F4F Wildcat fighters and 143 Avenger torpedo bombers…about the strength of one of Halsey’s carrier groups.  TG-77.4 was further subdivided into three groups call signed “Taffy.”   Taffy 3, 2, and 1 were arrayed north-to-south respectively in the waters outside the gulf some 10-20 miles apart and equidistant to the island land battle they supported.

At dawn on October 25, 1944, with a stiff morning breeze and wisps of rain as the only disturbance on deck, the sailors and airmen of Taffy 3’s jeep carriers went about their routine preparations to support the Army land forces fighting on Leyte.  If they expected to see any ships at all other than their own, it would have been elements of Task Force 34 which was supposedly out there guarding the San Bernardino Strait.  This all changed when at 0647 some twenty miles to the north, Ens. Bill Brooks flying an Avenger of the CVE St.Loon anti-submarine patrol suddenly beheld a sight that took is breath away.  He quickly reported back to the fleet what he saw: a substantial force of enemy warships was steaming down the east coast of Samar and closing fast on Taffy 3.  At first his report was greeted with incredulity until he insisted: “I can see the biggest meatball flag on the biggest battleship I ever saw!”

With Oldendorf’s battleships and cruisers giving chase to the enemy fleet to the south, Adm. Sprague’s task group was hopelessly out-gunned.   Taffy 3 that was about to bear the brunt of Kurita’s attack only had six jeep carriers, three destroyers and four smaller destroyer escorts.  None of them mounted more than five-inch guns, whereas Yamato with her nine 18.1-inchers carried the heaviest armament ever put to sea.  In fact, Yamato displaced more tonnage than all of Taffy 3’s ships combined! And she was one of several battleships and cruisers just twenty miles away.  It was a mismatch of mythic proportions.

Almost simultaneous with the scout plane’s report, the lookouts on Taffy 3’s jeep carriers spied the unmistakable pagoda-like masts of Japanese warships on the horizon.  Commanding Taffy 3 was Rear Adm. Clifton “Ziggy” Sprague (no relation to the task group commander) aboard his flagship CVE Fanshaw Bay.   Sprague reacted with complete presence of mind.  He immediately ordered his carriers to scramble all their aircraft and head east for the cover of a nearby rain squall.  Every ship was to make smoke to obscure the carriers.

Meanwhile Kurita ordered Center Force to “Close And Attack Enemy Carriers!”  without forming a cohesive line of battle, compelling them to steam pell-mell for the Americans.  Although he would later be criticized for this rash command, one can understand Kurita’s decision here.  It is tempting now, with the omniscience of the historian, to discount the fog of battle.  No one in Center Force had ever confronted jeep carriers before.  As far as Kurita or anyone else could tell from 20 miles out, the flat tops were the only kind they knew, which were the large and fast fleet and light carriers.  So that was what they had to be.

And therefore, going by scale, he mistook the destroyers for battleships and destroyer escorts for cruisers.  Had Kurita paused to move his ships into line, those fast carriers (so he thought) which were capable of over 30 knots, a full 12 knots faster than the CVEs he’d never seen, and very far out could have just gunned it and slid away. Still, amidst the consternation, the odds were heavily in Center Force’s favor.  At just before 0700, at a range of 19 miles, the big guns of Yamato opened up on Taffy 3.  The rest of Kurita’s warships followed suit, as announced by the sinister howl of large-caliber projectiles ripping through the air.

 The incoming shells hitting the water followed by enormous geysers marched ever closer to the fleeing jeep carriers.  The Japanese shells were loaded with dye packs making splashes of many colors, pink, red, purple, blue, green and yellow so each ship could identify where its rounds were falling.  This prompted one seaman aboard the CVE White Plains to exclaim “They’re shooting at us in technicolor!”  One round, possibly from Yamato, just missed the jeep carrier, but the concussion of the blast damaged her enough to make thick black smoke prompting the Japanese to think they’d sunk her, granting her a reprieve.

Realizing the gravity of the situation, Ziggy Sprague sent out an urgent plea for help.  Task group commander Thomas Sprague ordered Taffys 1 and 2 to join Taffy 3 in launching aircraft.  As there were no Japanese fighters to contend with, the American fliers in their Wildcats and Avengers, armed for whatever missions they’d been assigned that day, furiously engaged the enemy ships, dropping bombs, depth charges, torpedoes, firing rockets, and strafing top-side.  The only thing for Taffy 3’s jeep carriers to do now was make a run for the squall at flank speed.  By 0715 the carriers were under the cloudburst and, for the moment, enjoying a stay of execution as the Japanese optics couldn’t see through the rain. (Only Yamatohad radar range-finding).  But they had to keep moving, and once out from under the rain they would be easy prey.  Ziggy Sprague fully expected to see Taffy 3 obliterated.

And then something happened that defies the imagination.

Brad Schaeffer is the author of the acclaimed World War II novel Of Another Time And Place.



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