FACT: One of the U.S. Navy's Most Heroic Stands Was at Leyte Gulf
Evans also gave the word to begin a torpedo attack. Sprague had ordered all three destroyers to attack with their torpedoes, and Johnston would go in with Heermann and Hoel. Because Johnston was closest to the enemy, she was the first to attack, closing to within 10,000 yards of Kumano. She fired her full complement of 10 torpedoes, which were observed to run hot, straight, and normal. When all torpedoes had been fired, Evans reversed course and retired behind a smokescreen.
“Two and possibly three heavy underwater explosions were heard by two officers,” reported another officer from Johnston, “at the time our torpedoes were scheduled to hit.” The leading enemy cruiser emerged from the smoke about a minute later, her stern section burning furiously. Most reports mention two or three torpedoes striking Kumano, but Kurita acknowledged only one hit from an American destroyer. Kumano dropped out of the fight. The heavy cruiser Suzuya, which had been hit by bombs and was traveling at a speed of 20 knots, also withdrew.
At 7:30, Johnston was finally hit by three 14-inch shells and three 6-inch shells. These hits knocked out the after fire room and engine room, cut all power to the steering engine and the three after 5-inch guns, and rendered the gyrocompass useless. The ship’s speed was reduced to 17 knots. Its radar antenna snapped off its mast, crashing into the bridge and killing three officers. All of Evans’ clothes above his waist were blown off, along with two fingers of his left hand. Many sailors stationed below decks were killed.
But the destroyer did not sink, and all stations answered “aye” to bridge inquiries. The same rain squall that covered the escort carriers now passed over Johnston, giving her crew about 10 minutes to repair some of the damage. Japanese gunners depended on optical rangefinders, and their shooting tended to be ineffective when their target was obscured by rain, clouds, or smoke. Three of Johnston’s 5-inch guns would be back in action in a short time.
Hoel’s target was the battleship Kongo. Hoel’s captain, Commander Leon S. Kintberger, began firing at the enemy battleship at 14,000 yards. Kongo fired back, hitting Hoel’s bridge and knocking out all voice and radio communication. Two minutes after opening fire with her 5-inch guns, Hoel launched a half-salvo of five torpedoes at the battleship. Kongo managed to avoid the torpedoes by making a hard left turn at 7:33.
American torpedoes were not fast and were easily avoided. However, the evasive action not only slowed the advance of the Japanese warships but also created confusion. Admiral Kurita himself said, “Major units [warships] were separating all the time because of the destroyer torpedo attacks.” He realized that he was losing more tactical control every time his ships had to turn to avoid Taffy 3’s torpedoes.
While her torpedoes were still running their course, Hoel was struck by several heavy caliber shells. The destroyer’s port engine was knocked out along with three guns, and the rudder was jammed hard right. Before her rudder could be brought amidships, Hoel found herself heading straight for Kongo. While steering was being corrected, her number one and two guns continued to fire at targets of opportunity.
Even though the destroyer was badly damaged, Kintberger did not withdraw from the battle. He fired the rest of his torpedoes at the heavy cruiser Haguro, the leading ship in the straggling cruiser column. All five torpedoes ran straight toward their target, and “large columns of water were observed to rise from the cruiser at about the time scheduled for the torpedo run.” Japanese records do not confirm that any of Hoel’s torpedoes struck the cruiser.
After launching the last of his torpedoes, Kintberger did his best to withdraw to the southwest, away from the enemy’s big guns. But the destroyer only had one engine, the battleship Kongo was only 8,000 yards off his port beam, and heavy cruisers were only 7,000 yards off his starboard quarter. Hoel was boxed in and did not have enough speed to get away.
“Every Japanese ship within range took a crack at her,” according to one report. Hoel zigzagged for over an hour, and her two bow guns fired about 500 rounds of 5-inch ammunition at whatever enemy ship seemed the most menacing. At the same time, she received more than 40 hits herself, 5-inch, 8-inch, and even 16-inch. The shells were armor piercing, and some went right through without exploding. But these unexploded shells punched the destroyer full of holes, including many below the waterline. The Japanese heavy cruisers passed close enough that Hoel’s crew was able to observe their antiaircraft gunners at work.
At 8:30, an 8-inch shell knocked out the remaining engine, leaving Hoel dead in the water. The ship began flooding and settling by the stern. Kintberger saw no alternative to giving the order, “Prepare to abandon ship.” Some crewmen stayed behind to make sure that no explosion would occur—No. 1 magazine was on fire—while the destroyer was being abandoned. At 8:55, after all the men left the ship, Hoel finally rolled over and sank. Japanese ships continued firing at her until the end.
The last of the three American destroyers, Heermann, did not hear the order to join Hoel and Johnston in the torpedo attack. She had been busy screening the escort carriers and just did not get the word. The order finally did get through at 7:50, and Heermann went charging off at full speed through the carrier formation, or what was left of it. Visibility was not the best, owing to both the smoke and the rain. The destroyer’s captain, Commander Amos T. Hathaway, had his hands full. Twice Hathaway had to signal his engine room to go to emergency astern to avoid a collision. As it was, Heermann narrowly missed both Hoel and the destroyer escort Samuel B. Roberts.