FACT: One of the U.S. Navy's Most Heroic Stands Was at Leyte Gulf
Samuel B. Roberts was hit at about the same time and received three more in rapid succession. At about 9 am, her captain, Commander R.W. Copeland, reported a “tremendous explosion” with the impact of two 14-inch shells fired by Kongo. The explosion blew a long, jagged hole 30 or 40 feet long and about seven to 10 feet high in the destroyer escort’s port side, right at the waterline. It wiped out No. 2 engine room, burst the after fuel tanks, and started fires on the fantail. The order to abandon ship was given at 9:10. Samuel B. Roberts rolled over and sank at 10:05. Of her crew of eight officers and 170 men, three officers and 86 men were killed, missing, or died of wounds.
Gambier Bay managed to outmaneuver everything the Japanese fired at her for about 30 minutes. The carrier changed course every time an enemy salvo fell, confusing enemy gunners and making them correct their aim. From 7:41 to 8:10, the range between Gambier Bay and the enemy cruisers decreased from 17,000 yards to 10,000 yards.
At 8:10, the escort carrier received her first hit, which started fires on the flight deck and in the hangars. From that point, she was hit continuously. The forward port engine room was holed below the waterline, flooding the forward spaces and causing the engine room to be abandoned. The ship slowed to 11 knots and dropped astern of the rest of the group.
Johnston reentered the fight at about this time. Commander Evans saw what was happening to Gambier Bay and told his gunnery officer to begin firing on the nearest cruiser, which happened to be Chikuma. His idea was to draw her fire away from the escort carrier. “We closed to 6,000 and scored five hits,” according to Johnston’s gunnery officer, but the tactic did not work. Chikuma ignored the destroyer and kept firing at Gambier Bay. Johnston’s gunnery officer thought it was stupid for Chikuma to concentrate on the escort carrier. “He could have sunk us both.”
Heermann also did her best to distract Chikuma, but she had no luck either. Although the big cruiser did shift some of her fire to Heermann and managed to hit the destroyer, her primary target continued to be Gambier Bay. Steering was knocked out, radar was disabled, and the carrier’s engine room flooded. By 8:45, Gambier Bay was dead in the water and sinking.
Five minutes later, the order was given to abandon ship. Chikuma and another cruiser kept firing, killing men in the water with shell fragments, until the carrier finally capsized and sank at 9:07.
After Gambier Bay sank, Johnston turned her attention to Japanese destroyers that were moving into position to attack the escort carriers. The destroyers were sighted when they were still more than 10,000 yards away. Johnston immediately opened fire on the leader, which was actually the light cruiser Yahagi. The enemy fired right back, hitting Johnston several times, according to one account. Johnston hit Yahagi about 12 times, and the cruiser turned 90 degrees to starboard to get into position to fire torpedoes.
Yahagi fired seven torpedoes at 9:05, and the Japanese destroyers began launching shortly afterward. They were too far away from their target. The nearest carrier, Kalinin Bay, was 10,500 yards distant. The squadron commander’s decision to launch torpedoes was premature; he was rattled by Johnston’s determined attack. The Japanese action report states, “Three enemy carriers and one cruiser were enveloped in black smoke and observed to sink one after the other” as a result of the attack. This was nothing but wishful thinking.
Actually, the torpedoes had no effect at all—every one missed. One was deflected by an accurate shot—some would say a lucky shot—from St. Lo’s 5-inch gun. Another was detonated by strafing from one of St. Lo’s Avengers. The others were evaded, their runs toward the escort carriers so long that the targets had more than enough time to get out of the way.
“Thus,” according to historian Samuel Eliot Morison, “one damaged destroyer, which had expended all her torpedoes and lost one engine, managed to delay, badger, and disconcert a Japanese destroyer squadron.”
Johnston’s captain, Commander Evans, was absolutely elated over what he had accomplished. “Now I’ve seen everything,” he chuckled.
But Evans did not have much time to celebrate. After the Japanese destroyer squadron fired its torpedoes, it turned its attention to Johnston. The destroyer was hit by what has been described as “an avalanche of shells.” All power and communications were lost, and only the No. 4 5-inch gun, which was being operated manually, could return fire.
“There were two cruisers on our port, another dead ahead of us, and several destroyers on our starboard side,” one of Johnston’s officers recounted. And the Japanese destroyers circled around her, shooting at her “like Indians attacking a prairie schooner.” At 9:40, Johnston went dead in the water. Five minutes later Evans gave the order to abandon ship. When the destroyer went down shortly after 10:10, the captain of one of the Japanese destroyers saluted. It was one of the few acts of gallantry shown that morning.
Losses were not entirely one sided. The cruiser Chokai was hit by a 5-inch shell, possibly from White Plains, which set off eight of the ship’s Long Lance torpedoes. The resulting explosion knocked out the cruiser’s rudder and damaged her engines, slowing her down and causing her to drop out of formation. A flight of Avengers completed the damage, scoring five bomb hits amidships, one hit and two near-misses near the stern, and three hits on the bow. One of the pilots observed the heavy cruiser “to go about 500 yards, blow up and sink within five minutes.” A report from Haguro puts the cruiser’s sinking at 9:30.