FACT: One of the U.S. Navy's Most Heroic Stands Was at Leyte Gulf
An air strike from Admiral Stump’s Taffy 2 accounted for the cruiser Chikuma. Stump claimed that his torpedo bombers scored hits on two cruisers. Tone’s action report states that Chikuma was “knocked out” by a torpedo attack at 8:53.
Kurita lost two cruisers but still had more than enough firepower to sink what was left of Taffy 3. His battleships and cruisers had been firing at the American escort carriers since before 8 am. Kalinin Bay received a direct hit at 7:50. Fanshaw Bay was hit by four 8-inch shells with a loss of three killed and 20 wounded. White Plains was damaged by a 6-inch salvo, and Kitkun Bay had several men wounded by shell fragments. Kalinin Bay was hit by no fewer than 13 8-inch shells and almost certainly would have gone down if it had not been for the determination of her damage control team. Holes below the waterline were plugged, power was restored, and steering control was done by hand from far below decks. The carrier remained afloat.
Nobody aboard any of Taffy 3’s carriers or escort vessels had any idea that Admiral Kurita’s destroyer attack, which had been short-circuited by Johnston, was the last Japanese offensive action of the morning. At 9:25, while he was preoccupied with dodging torpedoes on the bridge of Fanshaw Bay, Sprague heard one of his signalmen shout, “Goddammit boys, they’re getting away!”
Sprague looked to see what all the shouting was about. “I could not believe my eyes, but it looked as if the whole Japanese fleet was retiring.” He admitted, “It took a whole series of reports from circling planes to convince me.”
It was true. Kurita had decided to break off action. At 9:25, he ordered: “Rendezvous, my course north, speed 20.” His intention was to regroup his scattered warships and take stock of damage before resuming course toward Leyte Gulf. But as the morning went on, and as he thought about the air and surface attacks he had suffered at the hands of Taffy 3, the prospect of going back toward Leyte Gulf became less appealing.
Kurita hovered in the vicinity of the morning’s battle for more than 31/2 hours, changing course several times—from due north to west to southwest to west again, then back to southwest, and finally to due north. At about 1:10 pm, it was apparent that he was heading away from the Leyte landing beaches and the vulnerable American transport craft offshore, which had been his intended target early that morning.
Kurita’s decision to withdraw was based on a lack of solid information. No one was able to give him any reliable information on the true makeup of Taffy 3. His staff officers kept insisting that it must be a part of Admiral Halsey’s Third Fleet and that the escort carriers were either Ranger-class or Independence-class aircraft carriers. Also, the optical rangefinders aboard the Japanese ships were not able to track Taffy 3’s carriers. Some reports stated that the escort carriers were making 30 knots, possibly an optical illusion. The little escort carriers were built on Liberty Ship hulls and had an optimistic top speed of about 18 knots.
To make a bad situation even worse, Yamato’s two spotter planes failed to return; they had been sent out to reconnoiter Leyte Gulf. Their loss deprived Kurita of a vital source of information. A report that the admiral did receive at 9:45 only added to his confusion. A mysterious enemy task force was spotted only 113 miles north of Suluan Island, off the coast of Samar. And the plain language calls for help—there was more than one—made him fear the worst. After the war, he admitted that he had been influenced in deciding to withdraw by hearing this plain-language transmission, which led him to believe that powerful American surface units were on the way to reinforce the ships he was attacking.
Kurita had received a severe beating from Halsey’s Third Fleet the day before and had no desire to repeat the encounter. From what he knew, as well as from what he imagined, he might very well be doing just that if he remained off Samar. At 12:36, Kurita signalled Tokyo: “First Striking force has abandoned penetration of Leyte anchorage. Is proceeding north searching for enemy task force. Will engage decisively, then pass through San Bernadino Strait.” The enemy task force he was searching for did not exist. This was the mysterious fleet that was reported at 9:45.
Sprague had no insight into Kurita’s motives. He only knew that a large Japanese fleet, which by rights should have sunk his entire force and gone on to attack the landing force at Leyte Gulf, had inexplicably turned away. The battle was summed up by one historian: “In a running fight lasting almost two hours and a half, six escort carriers and their screen of three destroyers and four destroyer escorts, aided by planes from Stump’s escort carrier unit, has stopped Kurita’s powerful Center Force, and inflicted greater loss than they sustained.”
Sprague himself had this to say about what had happened off Samar. “The failure of the enemy main body and encircling light forces to completely wipe out all vessels of this task unit can be attributed to our successful smoke screen, our torpedo counterattack, continuous harassment of enemy by bomb, torpedo and strafing air attacks, timely maneuvers, and the definite partiality of Almighty God.”
The action for Taffy 3 that day was not over. At about 10:50, five kamikazes from an air base on Luzon attacked Sprague’s carriers while they were recovering aircraft. The suicide planes approached at low altitude and never showed up on radar. Kitkun Bay was badly damaged by a bomb from one of the Japanese aircraft, although the kamikaze itself bounded off the port catwalk and splashed harmlessly into the sea.