In Honor of James D. Hornfischer

These are not pictures of the Philippine Sea, but they are of the same great ocean: the Pacific.

Self took these pictures in the small northern California coastal town of Albion.

TLSOTTCS pp. 316 – 317: The Japanese heavy cruisers are starting to overwhelm Taffy 3, pushing the smaller ships closer and closer towards the rocky coastline of Samar.

Stellar Writing

If James D. Hornfischer were still alive, I’d sign up for a master class. His command of his subject is total. He’s traced the fates of each individual ship AND crew of Taffy 3 during the morning of Oct. 25, 1944 and it is incredible. I don’t think I’ve every read anything like it. As the ships go down one by one, he shows you their fate, right down to the moment when the men slip into the water.

Chapter Thirty-Six: The Roberts Goes Down

In two hours of battle, Captain Copeland had steered his ship so adroitly that it avoided getting a single hit. When a blow finally landed, however (how long can a light destroyer keep a battleship at bay? Two hours is pretty good. You’d think help would be forthcoming from the other ships in Leyte Gulf, but no), other blows followed, in a quickening crescendo.

At the waterline, about two-thirds of the way to the stern on the port side, gaped a cavernous hole seven to ten feet high and some fifty feet long. The massive opening would have neatly garaged a semi trailer parked sideways. The number-two engine room was completely demolished. When the after fuel-oil tanks ruptured, they threw flaming oil everywhere.

As if to remind the skipper that life could get worse, a torpedo wake came bubbling in to starboard. There was no way to avoid it. As the faint white wake came straight on amidships, Copeland gripped the edge of the bridge wing and screamed, his voice cracking, “Stand by for tor — !” But one last miracle remained, it seemed. The torpedo passed just under the destroyer’s escort’s keel, missing, by the captain’s estimation, by no more than a foot.

The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors, p. 298

The USS Hoel

At 8:40 a.m., Commander Toshio Nakagawa wrote in his ship’s log, “Cruiser blows up and sinks.” This was in all probability the USS Hoel.

Six Japanese ships had cornered the Hoel and submitted her to barrage after barrage. “Boxed in by the enemy on three sides, the Hoel had no propulsive power to escape through the box’s open bottom.”

Chapter Thirty-Three is what happened to the men who were still alive on the Hoel when the ship sank.

At 8:35 a.m., Captain Kintberger ordered his men to abandon ship. The PA system was dead, so the order was given by word of mouth. Gunner’s mate first class Willard Henn passed gunnery officer Lt. Bill Sanders tangled up in some rigging. Both his legs had been blown off at the knees but he was still alive. Henn made to help him but Sanders said no, the order was to abandon ship.

Eighteen-year-old Paul Miranda jumped into the water and belatedly realized that he didn’t know how to swim. Everett Lindorff was “working the plotting table when the abandon ship order came,” and was the last man to get out of the Hoel‘s CIC. Bob Wilson, machinist, had been wounded by shrapnel and could no longer walk. He crawled over the ship’s side.

Lt. Jack Creamer, assistant gunnery officer, walked down the starboard side, helping survivors into life jackets. “All around the ship clusters of heads bobbed, survivors riding the slow, rolling swells. Creamer watched numbly as a Japanese salvo struck the sea a few hundred yards to starboard, right in the middle of a big gathering of wounded survivors.”

Several of the men reported their last sight of Captain Kintberger standing on the bridge, watching as his men hit the water.

This chapter is very, very hard to read. But Hornfischer is relentless. This is only a little past the halfway point of The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors.

The Last Run of the USS Heermann

First of all, dear blog readers, self would like to introduce this post by saying that she grew up in the Philippines and attended the best schools that Filipino money could buy. And none of those schools taught World War II.

She never even heard of the Battle of Leyte Gulf until she began reading The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors. It took her going to the States, getting graduate degrees from Stanford, and becoming a US citizen before she had access to books about World War II.

That is why reading this book by James D. Hornfischer is such an incredible experience.

Her last post was about the fatally wounded Gambier Bay. The commander of Taffy 2, Admiral Stump, has just decided not to send any of his ships into the battle, as he sees it is lost. It is left to the commander of Taffy 3, Ziggy Sprague, to beg any carriers and cruisers nearby to come to the aid of Gambier Bay.

But none of the besieged carriers have any torpedoes left. There is one who responds, though: the Heermann. The Heermann‘s captain decides to bluff (he has no torpedoes either, but what the hey). Remember the Heermann almost crashed into an American destroyer, not once but three times? It happens again here, the Heermann nearly collides with the Fanshaw Bay. Nevertheless, collision is avoided, the Heermann builds up steam and continues towards the Gambier Bay, its gun boss, Lieutenant Meadors, keeping up “a steady cadence of fire all the way in.” An eight-inch shot from a Japanese cruiser “ripped through the ship’s bow, blowing a five-foot hole in the hull and flooding the forward magazines.” Everyone in the pilothouse is killed. With chief quartermaster John P. Milley (Thank you, James D. Hornfischer, for giving us actual names instead of just saying “the chief quartermaster lay dead …”) lying dead on the deck, “the wheel was abandoned.”

A sailor named Harold Whitney grabs the wheel and tries to imitate what he’s seen his skipper do so many times. Suddenly, he feels a tug on his pant leg and looks down. The chief quartermaster John P. Milley was alive! “I’ll take it,” Milley told Whitney. “But you’re wounded,” Whitney said. “I’ll take it,” was all Milley said again. Whitney surrendered the wheel.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

9 a.m., 25 October 1944

Battle was joined at 7:30 a.m. Approximately one hour later, the USS Hoel was sunk, and the USS Johnston showed every sign of following.

End of Chapter Thirty-one:

  • As wicked as the crossfire was, a sight now commanded everyone’s attention on the Johnston’s bridge: an escort carrier, listing to port, dead in the water and taking heavy fire. It was the Gambier Bay. She had lost her boiler and could do only eleven knots.

Beginning of Chapter Thirty-two:

  • There was no telling how many ships had drawn a bead on her now. Under fire for nearly ninety minutes . . . the Gambier Bay took her first hit at 8:20 a.m., when a shell penetrated her forward engine room.

Ironically, this is when the first rescue ships sent by Admiral Stump arrive. The Gambier Bay’s signal officer opens the shutters of his lamp and blinkers, We are under attack, please help.

The rescue ships turned and withdrew to the south. Admiral Stump “had decided against risking his most capable escorts in a dicey offensive action. If the Japanese destroyed Taffy 3 and continued south, he would need them for his own defense.”

Edward Huxtable was commander of the Gambier Bay’s air group, VC-10. Seeing “the carrier taking concentrated fire from Japanese cruisers . . . Huxtable turned, descended, and leveled off in a mock torpedo attack.” Actually, he had taken off from the Gambier Bay in such a hurry that he had no time to load his bombs. “He made four” dummy runs, “each time . . . flying level with bomb bay doors open.”

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

The USS Samuel B. Roberts and the Chokai

The Chokai was unleashing withering fire from her forward eight-inch batteries. But her gunners were not targeting the Roberts. They either did not see or did not care about the small ship with the low silhouette. No shells landed near her, though the shells arcing high overhead toward the carriers — or perhaps it was the blasts of the the gun muzzles themselves — buffeted the destroyer escort with their turbulence.

Time seemed to stop, yet before Copeland knew it, the Roberts was just four thousand yards from the cruiser line, a little over two miles, and his three torpedoes were waterborne . . . On the broad ocean’s surface, four thousand yards was point blank range.

TLSOTTCS, p. 254

Skipper Bob Copeland “ordered a hard left rudder, turning the Roberts back through her own smoke and toward the carriers. Down below, Lieutenant Trowbridge brought every pound of steam pressure on line . . . The ship ran past its rated limits, to twenty-eight and a half knots and possibly beyond. As time ran down on the torpedo run — three or four minutes — Copeland indulged himself with a peek astern. Through a gap in the smoke, he was treated to the sight of a streaming column of water and flame rising from below the after-mast of what he took for an Aoba-class cruiser.”

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

Battle Is Joined

7:30 a.m. 25 October 1944, off Samar: Four Japanese heavy cruisers are making straight for six American carriers guarded only by the light destroyers of Taffy 3. “Through nearly three years of war,” no American air carrier had fallen to Japanese guns. The Japanese felt it was their moment.

You only know the true measure of a man when he is tested, and Rear Admiral Ziggy Sprague was the right man for that moment. He ordered the air carriers to head south. He drew his light destroyers around him in battle formation and headed north, to head off the enemy.

“The Americans and Japanese closed at a combined rate of more than fifty knots.”

TLSOTTCS, p. 223

Next chapter, Twenty-Six, is about the Hoel. Self looks at the Hoel’s position on the map. Oh, the Hoel is the closest to the enemy. This won’t be good.

There was a flash and a crrrump and a whistling hail of metal that killed most of the men in the wheelhouse immediately. Lt. Earl Nason, quartermaster Herbert Doubrava, fire-controllman Marcellino Dilello, and soundman Otto Kumpunen were gone in an instant. A surreal cloud of green-dyed mist settled over the carnage.

TLSOTTCS, pp. 224 – 225

Watching from the Yamato, Admiral Kurita records in his ship’s log: Cruiser observed blowing up and sinking.

But there are men still alive on the Hoel! Oh my bacon, the men see the “smoking gray-black wreck” of the Johnston “crawling south,” its skipper, Evans, still giving orders.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

Checking In with the USS Johnston

This destroyer is sure to be sunk, because its skipper had his crew get as close as possible to the enemy line so that they could get their torpedoes within firing range. Once the destroyer’s entire rack of 10 torpedoes had been emptied, they still had to thread a line of Japanese battleships and hope to make their escape.

The next few chapters followed the pilots who had catapulted from the widely zigzagging US carriers (some unfortunately with empty bomb bays because there had not been time to load them). At the end of the last chapter, one of these pilots dips through a hole in the cloud cover and sees an American destroyer being chased down by a line of enemy battleships. The destroyer is crippled and limping. The pilot didn’t know it, but this was the USS Johnston, whose crew we had just met a few chapters ago, after they had accomplished their daring mission

Chapter Twenty-Three brings us back to the Johnston, describing what is happening on the ship. In one word: carnage. Half the people we met in earlier chapters are dead. The skipper tells his gun crew they will have to sight “manually.” Uh. Since one of the crew was still sitting in his gun mount, but without a head, this was a very terrifying prospect. Nevertheless, it was done.

Back in the mount, Hollenbaugh stood on the gun captain’s platform, head poking up from the turret, shouting bearings to Bobby Chastain to guide his rotation of the gun, and ranges to Samuel Moody to determine how high to elevate it . . . Chastain and Moody turned and elevated their gun by turning brass-handled wheels on either side of the mount. They cranked them furiously back and forth as the ship veered and the guns barked and Hollenbaugh relayed ranges.

The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors, p. 209

Then a squall arises and Evans, the skipper (who btw was Cherokee, and at 41 the oldest man on the ship), tries to steer his damaged ship to follow the squall, “but the squall appeared to be moving faster than the ship was.” And there the chapter ends.

This is all tremendously exciting (and gut-churning) and readers owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to James D. Hornfischer for bringing such excellent writing skills to the description of this battle. You know, self grew up in the Philippines, lived in it for the first 21 years of her life, and had never heard of the Battle of Leyte Gulf. What a crying shame. Next time she’s home, she’ll make for Samar to see if there is a memorial there.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

Rear Admiral Clifton “Ziggy” Sprague

His ears stick out, like Jughead in those Archie comics. His hair is thinning, and he has a professorial kind of face.

He was the commander of Taffy 3, the name the navy gave to the 13 ships under his command, whose function was to escort six air carriers. Each carrier carried a complement of 30 planes; he had to get them into the air as soon as possible.

His first command after he knew his unit was under attack was order his ships to head eastward, on heading 090. That would bring “a strong wind rushing from bow to stern over his carrier decks — he needed a headwind of twenty-two knots to get a fully-loaded Avenger airborne.” And there was a chance that, if he headed east for open water, the other commanders could come to his aid.

He radioed his command. “All as one, the helmsmen of twelve of Taffy 3’s thirteen ships turned to the right, bringing their ships on an eastward heading.” So did the carriers.

The pilots scrambled to get into their planes.

Sprague issued an alert: Come in please. Come in please . . . To any or all: We have enemy fleet consisting of BBs and cruisers fifteen miles astern closing us. We are being fired on.

NOTE: Admiral Sprague has a memorial in San Diego. See various likenesses of him on Instagram.

“The Words of a True Flyboy”

“The air group is the only reason for the carrier’s existence. Remember that . . . Their comfort and efficiency is our major concern . . . A carrier, offensively, you know, is no better than the air group it supports.” — Rear Admiral Thomas L. Sprague, Commander, Task Group 77.4

The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors, by James D. Hornfischer

Sprague’s Escort Carrier Group — which included Taffy 1, Taffy 2, and Taffy 3, the “Tin Cans” of the title, went down in history for their role in the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

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