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Liveblogging World War II: October 25, 1944: WHERE OH WHERE IS TASK FORCE 34?

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

At 6:35 A.M., as sunrise revealed a grayed-out and hazy dawn, the most powerful concentration of naval gun power the Japanese empire had ever assembled reordered its geometry in preparation for daylight operations. Twenty-five miles to Taffy 3’s north, lookouts on the heavy cruiser Chokai and light cruiser Noshiro reported aircraft approaching. So Halsey’s planes were coming after all, Takeo Kurita must have thought. Almost simultaneously, cat-eyed lookouts on the battleship Nagato spied masts on the horizon visible here and there through the rainsqualls that dropped down from the heavens like gauzy shrouds. An eight-knot easterly wind roused low swells from the sea. From the Yamato’s gunnery platform high above the bridge, Cdr. Tonosuke Otani, Kurita’s operations officer, squinted through a range-finding telescope and spotted the flat-topped silhouettes of American aircraft carriers. The presence of carriers meant this was not Nishimura’s squadron. Kurita could not believe his luck. Here, within gun range at last, were the fast, first-line Essex-class fleet carriers that constituted the heart of the American fleet. There looked to be six or seven of them, accompanied by what lookouts took for Baltimore-class heavy cruisers, powerful combatants only six feet shorter than South Dakota-class battleships. The imagination of Admiral Koyanagi, Kurita’s chief of staff, ran wild. He believed they faced not an escort carrier group, but four or five big carriers escorted by one or two battleships and ten or more heavy cruisers.

At 6:59, loaded with rounds designed to penetrate heavy armor, the great 18.1-inch rifles of the battleship Yamato trained to starboard and opened fire on Taffy 3 at a range of nearly twenty miles. One minute later Kurita issued a fleet-wide order for a “general attack.” The Kongo turned out to the east, in fast but independent pursuit. Ahead of the Yamato to port, the six heavy cruisers of Cruiser Divisions 5 and 7 formed into a single column, trying to take the lead in the chase. Angling to the southwest, the Nagato turned her sixteen-inch rifles twenty-five degrees to port and opened fire at a range of more than twenty miles. The swift Haruna loosed fourteen-inch salvos using its crude radar set.

Apparently unaware of the speed advantage his ships held over their American prey, Kurita seemed eager for his heavy cruisers to press the fight before the Americans could escape. A more disciplined (or better-informed) commander might have drawn his ships into a single line of battle, with destroyers in the forward van to scout the enemy and maneuver for a deadly torpedo attack. For all the strength the Japanese Center Force brought into play, its commanders were unsettled about the manner in which the battle began. In the midst of the shift to a daytime antiaircraft formation, with each captain operating at his own freewheeling discretion, confusion took command of the Center Force. Vice Adm. Matome Ugaki, commanding Kurita’s First Battleship Division, composed of the Yamato and the Nagato, observed, “each unit seemed very slow in starting actions due to uncertainty about the enemy condition.” “I feared the spirit of all-out attack at short range was lacking,” Admiral Ugaki would write....

At seven o’clock the Center Force commander dispatched a message that delighted Combined Fleet Headquarters: “WE ARE ENGAGING ENEMY IN GUN BATTLE” … and then “BY HEAVEN-SENT OPPORTUNITY WE ARE DASHING TO ATTACK THE ENEMY CARRIERS. The emperor’s fleet had been handed a dreamed-for chance. Carriers were queens of the seas, mobile and lethally armed withR ship-killing planes. Now it was the Imperial Japanese Navy’s turn to move on the Philippine chessboard. Its rooks had America’s queens, so Kurita thought, lined up for slaughter.

As flecks of antiaircraft fire dotted the northern horizon around Bill Brooks’s Avenger, Ernest Evans emerged from his sea cabin on the destroyer Johnston and sized up Taffy 3’s predicament in an instant. Situated closest to the advancing enemy fleet, he could not have missed his ship’s consignment to quick destruction. Faced with it, Evans evidently saw no need to await orders from Commander Thomas aboard the Hoel or from Admiral Sprague. If carrier commanders traditionally saw the destroyers’ primary battle role as laying smoke screens to cover the flattops’ escape, Evans had other ideas about what he was supposed to do. Destroyers sortied. They interposed. They sacrificed themselves for the ships they were assigned to protect. Evans would do his duty for the Fanshaw Bay, the St. Lo, the Gambier Bay, the White Plains, the Kalinin Bay, and the Kitkun Bay. If that meant closing with an enemy whose guns were big enough to sink him with a single hit, so be it. He would make good on his commissioning-day promise—his warning—to his crew: the Johnston was a fighting ship. He would not back down.

Recalling his skipper’s speech in the context of the present situation, Bob Hagen, the Johnston’s gunnery officer, grew ill. As the ship’s senior lieutenant, he knew his skipper. The certainty that Evans would turn the ship into the teeth of the Japanese fleet saddled him with dread. This is an impossible situation with this skipper, Hagen thought. He’s not going to run. He doesn’t know how. Hagen practically heard the orders before his skipper delivered them. His rapid-fire sequence suggested he had rehearsed all his Navy life for a moment such as this:

All hands to general quarters. Prepare to attack major portion of the Japanese fleet. All engines ahead flank. Commence making smoke and stand by for a torpedo attack. Left full rudder.

Lt. (jg) Ellsworth Welch couldn’t help but be impressed with his skipper’s brio, his calm, his directness of action, and clarity of thought. Why didn’t I think of that? he found himself wondering. Nothing like having a pro in charge. Left full rudder meant that the ship would peel off to the north-northwest, away from the illusory sanctuary of the formation and charging toward the enemy fleet.

The order made Robert Billie, a Minnesotan, want to go to ground like a gopher. “That was the only time I ever wanted to dig a trench.” Bob Hagen ran his numbers—the fire-control computer could not help him here—and drew the same conclusion Jack Moore had on the Samuel B. Roberts: there was probably a fifty-fifty chance of survival. The long odds notwithstanding, he was in no hurry to climb up to the gun director. Though the situation seemed to demand urgent action—and indeed, he could count on his men being inside each of the five main gun mounts within about ninety seconds of going to general quarters—what was the point of hurry-up-and-wait? The gunners would have nothing to shoot at until the range to the enemy had closed from 35,000 yards to 18,000 yards, about six miles. Until then, the gunnery officer felt no immediate need to gaze upon the enemy ships through his binoculars. The shellfire put out by the Japanese force was overwhelming. Battleship main battery rounds plunged down at the Johnston, shrieking like locomotives, smacking the sea with a slap and roar and sending up towers of dye-stained seawater. At that moment Hagen had as good a view of the Japanese dreadnoughts as he cared to have. The Johnston’s gun boss contemplated the audacious path his captain had chosen and said quietly, “Please, sir, let us not go down before we fire our damn torpedoes.”

When the firemen received Captain Evans’s order to make smoke, they misinterpreted it as a reprimand. “But we are not making smoke,” came the defensive reply. Boiler room personnel trained hard to do anything but make smoke, lest the ship betray its location or foul its boiler tubes and require a painstaking cleaning. Evans grabbed the sound-powered phones and yelled, “I want a smoke screen, and I want it now!” On the fantail, Lt. Jesse Cochran, the assistant engineering officer and head of a repair party, had trouble getting the chemical smoke generator going. Its valves were stuck fast from saltwater corrosion. Torpedoman first class Jim O’Gorek used a big adjustable wrench and vise grips to jog them loose, while Cochran and his party set depth charges on safe and dogged down all hatches and doors on the aft part of the ship. After a minute or so of urgent wrenching, the gray concoction was billowing in the ship’s wake, hanging close to the sea in the humid monsoon-season air. As the Japanese star shells burned overhead like miniature midday suns, advancing the light of the early morning, black smoke flowed from the ship’s two stacks, turning dawn back into night. Smoke making was an act of sacrifice: the smoke flowed behind the ship that made it, shrouding everything in its wake. It gave its maker no protection. If Taffy 3 had a prayer to survive, it would depend on confusing Kurita and shielding the retreating escort carriers from view. “We were making smoke, zig-zagging and heading for the Jap fleet,” seaman John Mostowy would write, “at flank speed and alone.”...

From the bridge of the Fanshaw Bay, Ziggy Sprague took in the vicious columns of water rising around the White Plains and the other CVEs on the edge of the formation nearest the enemy and saw a terrible beauty. The splashes from the salvos rose in a rainbow of colors: red, pink, purple, green, yellow—each so dyed in order to help the enemy gunners correct the fall of their shots. In the whole horrible course of the war in four wide oceans, not once had an American aircraft carrier been sunk by gunfire from an enemy surface ship. The historic nature of Sprague’s plight was not lost on him. In the triumphant closing phase of the war against Japan, Admiral Sprague, an emissary of the world’s greatest sea power, was going to see all six of his flattops sunk by gunfire. It was certain to happen. It wouldn’t take more than fifteen minutes. There was no other possible outcome. For the kid from Rockport, the situation was beyond imagining. “I wouldn’t say it was like a bad dream, for my mind had never experienced anything from which such a nightmare could have been spun.” Once Clifton Sprague had dreamed of going to West Point, of parading on horseback before cheering crowds down his hometown thoroughfare. He had become a Navy admiral instead. Now he would have his appointment with notoriety, leading thirteen ships whose pending destruction would go down in history just as surely as they would go down to the bottomless deep of the Philippine Trench: “Neither could such dream stuff have been recalled from my reading in some history book, because nothing like this had ever happened in history.”

By any measure the mathematics of the engagement were preposterously against them. The Yamato displaced nearly seventy thousand tons. She alone matched almost exactly in weight all thirteen ships of Taffy 3. Each of her three main gun turrets weighed more than an entire Fletcher-class destroyer. Her armor belts—sixteen inches thick at the waterline and more than two feet thick on her gun turrets—were impenetrable to an American destroyer’s guns. Her nine 18.1-inch rifles were the biggest guns that ever went to sea, firing 3,200-pound shells more than twenty-six miles. Their development was so secret that even Admiral Kurita did not know their true size. The superbattleship’s secondary battery of six six-inch guns packed twice the hitting power of anything Ziggy Sprague’s largest escorts had. The ship was a great gray beast whose bulk pressed down into the ocean and possessed it, displacing enough water to raise measurably the level of a small lake. At flank speed of twenty-seven knots, the Yamato sliced the sea and drew it back around her in a roiling maelstrom, leaving a wake that capsized small boats.

The Yamato was not the only ship that completely outgunned Sprague’s task unit. The Nagato, displacing 42,850 tons, fielded eight sixteen-inch guns, and the Kongo and her sister ship the Haruna (36,600 tons) were fast frontline battleships armed with eight-gun fourteen-inch batteries. Kurita’s six heavy cruisers were thirty-five-knot killers that had a cumulative displacement equal to that of the Yamato. Finally, Kurita had two flotillas of destroyers, eleven in all, each led by a light cruiser, the Yahagi and the Noshiro (8,543 tons), with six-inch batteries. On paper each of the destroyers matched the Johnston, the Hoel, or the Heermann in speed and torpedo power if not quite in gunnery.

The only weapon in Sprague’s modest arsenal that Kurita could not match was aircraft. Each of the six American jeeps carried about thirty planes. But loaded with depth charges, antipersonnel bombs, rockets, and the machine guns in their wings—not to mention the propaganda leaflets they sometimes carried in lieu of more kinetic payloads—they were not armed for attacking heavy surface ships. A fighting force cannot be reduced to its order of battle any more than a ship’s value can be reduced to the number of guns she carries or the shaft horsepower her turbines can generate. A vessel draws life from the spirit of her crew, which derives in large part from the leadership qualities of her chiefs and officers. Morale defies quantification—and yet it weighs significantly on the ultimate lethality of the tools of war. A ship’s effectiveness is the product of thousands of bonds that develop between individual officers and crew. The bonds form and break in a chain reaction, the power of which is determined by drill, by relationships, by fortitude, faith, and values. Task force commanders can be only abstractly aware of these uncountable qualities as they exist on the particular ships under their command. The officers of the ships themselves see these qualities more clearly but still can only guess how the chemical reactions will coalesce when the real shooting starts and men begin to die. And so orders of battle are drawn up to focus on the tangibles: speed, displacement, armament, and sensors. On that score Taffy 3 scarcely even registered on the scale of force that Takeo Kurita brought against them.

Thanks to Ensign Brooks’s diligent sighting report, Admiral Sprague knew precisely what he faced. “I thought, we might as well give them all we’ve got before we go down,” he later recalled. That meant getting into position to launch planes and putting as much distance as possible between his ships and the faster Japanese. Both of those goals could be met by heading east, into the wind.

Many of Sprague’s planes had been airborne since first light, flying off before daybreak to strike targets on Leyte. Now, needing the bombs they carried, he ordered them to abort and return. He also needed help from the other two Taffies to his south. On the TBS circuit he raised the commander of Taffy 2, Rear Adm. Felix Stump, “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.” Admiral Stump got on the line, already briefed by intercepted radio transmissions, and said, “Don’t be alarmed, Ziggy, remember we’re back of you. Don’t get excited! Don’t do anything rash!” Since Stump’s Taffy 2 was the only of the three Taffies not under direct attack—Taffy 1 would be fighting off land-based Japanese aircraft most of the morning—he was best positioned to help Sprague. Still, something about his tone tended to undercut his advice. Thomas Sprague, in simultaneous command of Taffy 1 and all three Taffies, recognized that in the coming fight Ziggy Sprague should be free to decide how to conduct it. All that Thomas Sprague could do for him was cover bureaucratic bases and ask the Seventh Fleet’s commander of support aircraft for permission to launch all available torpedo bombers and “go after them.” The request was duly granted, and thereafter, according to Admiral Stump, “no orders were received from anyone during the entire day, nor were any necessary.” It was Ziggy Sprague’s battle to win or lose, “using the initiative that was required under the prevailing circumstances.”...

On the flight decks of the five other escort carriers of Taffy 3, a similar dance was taking place: pilots jogging to their aircraft, radial engines turning over, a queue to the catapult forming up, and planes flinging skyward. They left their ships carrying whatever ordnance they happened to have. The aviation ordnancemen, meanwhile, pushed their wheelbarrows to the edge of the deck and dumped overboard all bombs, rockets, and other armaments that were not already loaded onto an aircraft. From the Fanshaw Bay’s plane captain’s shack, VC-68 aviation machinist’s mate Dave Lewis awoke to the sound of commotion, looked up, and saw an ordnanceman named Bob Kenny running down the flight deck shoving a two-wheeled bomb cart loaded with a hundred-pound bomb that hadn’t found a taker. Kenny was a big man, built like a football player, but Lewis had never seen him move so fast. “He was not inclined to exert himself. If he was running, I knew this was really serious.” Lt. Verling Pierson, watching the bombs going overboard, was impressed with the crew’s initiative if not entirely hopeful about its benefits. “A futile gesture, but it gave them something to do.” As the pilots readily appreciated, it was probably more dangerous to remain aboard the fuel- and explosive-laden jeep carrier than to take off and glide-bomb a Japanese capital ship. As Leonard Moser, a plane captain on the Fanshaw Bay, was changing a carburetor on a VC-68 aircraft, half a dozen pilots hovered nearby, coveting a chance to climb into that cockpit and get their tails off the ship. The aviation machinist’s mate finished the job, then climbed up into the cockpit. “What are you doing?” one of the pilots asked.

“I’m going to check this damn engine out,” Moser said, “and then go find a hole to hide in.” The pilot said that he would do his own engine check this time, thank you very much. Moser stepped aside. “He got in, started it up, and took off with a cold motor. My helper didn’t even have all of the cowling on. That pilot was glad to leave.”

About fifteen minutes had passed since the Japanese had been sighted. The six jeep carriers of Taffy 3 had most of their available planes in the air. The pilots and their aircrew were on their own. They would see what they could do against Kurita’s onrushing leviathans....

With salvos from the pursuing Japanese battleships and cruisers landing close around Taffy 3’s carriers in all directions, Sprague got on the TBS circuit at 7:16 A.M. and ordered the screen commander, William Thomas, aboard the Hoel, “Stand by to form two torpedo groups, big boys in one group and little fellas in another group.” There was little anguish in the decision to send the small ships to almost certain destruction. Under the impossible circumstances, there was nothing else for them to do....

Clyde Burnett had been around the fleet long enough to know a hopeless situation when he saw one. The hourglass that measured the reasonable life expectancy of a lone destroyer charging a hostile squadron of battleships and cruisers had run out and emptied long ago. As the distance between the Johnston and her target closed, the chief boatswain’s mate took in the sight of shell splashes from enemy battleships all around his destroyer and told the members of his repair party to lie down on deck. He felt sure they were about to take a hit. When Bob Hagen first opened fire, the range was eighteen thousand yards. As the range closed—fifteen thousand, then twelve—with Japanese shells straddling the destroyer, Captain Evans ordered, “Stand by for torpedo attack.” The twelve-man surface search team in the fishtailing destroyer’s CIC, under executive officer Lt. Elton Stirling, relayed the range, bearing, course, and speed of targets to the bridge and the torpedo crew, while the other twelve-man section, the air search team, watched and waited. Closing to ten thousand yards under a crossfire this heavy was as unlikely as a man staying dry while sprinting through a driving rain. Miraculously, the ship made it. Impossibly, she was not hit. The target cruiser was steaming forty degrees off the Johnston’s starboard bow. At ten thousand yards the Johnston was within the outer limit of torpedo range. To maximize their reach, Lt. Jack Bechdel, the torpedo officer, ordered the fish set on their slowest speed setting, just twenty-seven knots. As torpedoman first class Jim O’Gorek supervised the mount crews and stood by with a wooden mallet that could be used to fire the torpedoes if their igniters failed, two torpedomen, Thomas Sullivan and John Moran, cranked mount number one to starboard and trained it to 110 degrees relative to the ship’s heading, just abaft of the beam. Mount two, manned by Red Benjamin and Frank Gillis, was rotated out to 125 degrees relative. As soon as the range was good, Captain Evans shouted, “Fire torpedoes!”...

Destroyermen have this in common with submariners: they experience no greater suspense than while counting the seconds to their torpedoes’ time of impact. Jack Bechdel’s calculations were seldom wrong. Captain Evans and everyone else in the pilothouse listened to the countdown. They had shot their one spread; the ship carried ten torpedoes and no more. Bob Hagen’s good work in the gun director notwithstanding, this was their best and only chance to sink an enemy ship. At 7:24 lookouts on the Kumano reported three torpedo tracks close off the starboard bow. Knifing through the water at more than thirty knots, the ship was traveling too fast to evade. The Kumano could not make the turn. Between squalls and smoke Ellsworth Welch saw a bright flash and the long, dark form of a ship lift out of the water slightly, as if punched from below by an enormous fist. Torpedo explosions sounded different than gun blasts. Five-inch guns stung the eardrums with their sharp, concussive bark, throwing out shock waves that patted the clothes. Torpedo explosions were deeper and heavier—basso reverberations that could be felt in the sternum as readily as heard with the ears. The men of the Johnston felt a deep thrummp— some felt a second one, and then a third. The Johnston whipped through thickets of smoke, emerging long enough for Lieutenant Welch and others on deck to see a tall column of water rising beside the Japanese heavy cruiser, which appeared to be burning furiously astern. One torpedo from the Johnston struck the Kumano in the bow, ripping it clear away. The crippled cruiser fell out of line, limping along at fourteen knots. The Kumano could still stand and jab, but with a broken bow she could not hold her place in column in a rapid running fight.

Admiral Shiraishi ordered the Suzuya to come alongside, and he transferred his flag to her. The Suzuya was not fit to resume pursuit either. Near misses from aircraft bombs had ruptured her after fuel tanks, contaminating some eight hundred tons of precious fuel with seawater, starting fires that would burn into the afternoon, and restricting the cruiser’s speed to just twenty-four knots, no faster than the lumbering battleship Nagato. With his transfer to the crippled ship, Shiraishi took himself out of the battle. He may have had no other choice. He did not wish to hold back the two ships of Cruiser Division 7 that could still make chase. The Tone and the Chikuma sped past, joining Cruiser Division 5’s Haguro and Chokai in pursuit of Sprague’s carriers....

WITHOUT A TORPEDO, ALL that VC-10 commander Edward Huxtable could do was bluff. Having done it once, now he did it again, turning back to the west above a thin cloud layer at two thousand feet. Though the skipper no longer saw any Wildcats around, he decided this wasn’t the time to insist on by-the-book tactics. About two and a half miles out, the cruisers opened up a terrific barrage of antiaircraft fire. Huxtable bore in on the trailing ship’s starboard bow, hoping to draw its fire from the other planes of his flight. Ensign Crocker, armed with two light rockets, followed him in. On the intercom Huxtable told the others to concentrate on the lead cruisers. Finishing his run, he pulled out to the left and patrolled ahead of the cruiser line, tracking their movements. The ships turned to the northeast, and Huxtable relayed that information to Admiral Sprague. So much smoke and rain covered the waters between the antagonists that Huxtable thought for a moment that the Japanese had lost sight of their quarry. Commander Huxtable had lost track of his fighter escorts after the first run, but VC-10’s Wildcat jocks found useful employment long after the Avengers dropped their ordnance.

Starting at eight thousand feet, Ens. Joseph McGraw began a series of steep strafing runs at a battleship. He made eleven in all, then three more on a Tone-class heavy cruiser. Ensign Lischer and seven others from the Gambier Bay spotted a pair of destroyers and winged over to strafe. Lt. Richard Roby made a pair of runs on the tin cans before getting separated from the other fighters amid the squalls. Lischer and Roby made their separate ways to joining a northbound flight of Avengers and Wildcats led by the Kitkun Bay’s Lt. Cdr. Richard L. Fowler. Roby knew the Japanese were to the east, but Fowler evidently didn’t have radio contact. Roby pulled alongside Fowler’s Avenger and gestured as if to say, They’re over there. Fowler swung off to the east and found Japanese cruisers almost immediately. After making his runs on the destroyers, Dick Roby found that two of his four .50-caliber guns were either jammed or empty. He made several runs at the cruisers until his ammunition ran out. Thereafter he continued diving on the ships without ammunition. Roby didn’t try to stay with Fowler. The Gambier Bay lieutenant lost him after the first pass as the planes continued their mad whirling dance over the Japanese fleet. While making dry runs, Roby’s practice was to look for an Avenger with its torpedo bay doors open. Roby would line up ahead of the TBM, hoping its pilot really had a torpedo. As often as not, the Avenger pilot was bluffing as doggedly as Roby was. Even if both planes ran in and pulled out without shooting or dropping anything, they might draw fire from other planes and force their targets into sharp turns to avoid the apparent threat. As far as Ziggy Sprague was concerned, slowing the enemy’s pursuit was nearly as good as planting an actual torpedo into his ships.

Owing to the frequency with which they turned to avoid air attacks both phantom and real, the cruisers’ angle of chase was ajar to Taffy 3’s line of retreat. The distance was not closing as fast as Kurita would have liked. From the bridge of the Yamato, Admiral Ugaki was impressed by the courage of the U.S. pilots, who had been pestering and bluffing the Japanese task group since they first found them roughly twenty minutes after the fleets spotted each other. Ugaki counted airplanes taking off from the American carriers in the distance—he figured at least thirty planes attacked his battleship while he was closing with his enemy. “The rate of hits was quite good and most of the damages our cruisers sustained were due to them,” he would later write. Admiral Kurita was doubtless frustrated by the imperative his ships faced to separate and scatter when confronted with such a persistent air attack. Their flak was perhaps more effective as a spectacle than as a defense. Each time Dick Roby emerged from the clouds, he was treated to a variety show of antiaircraft ordnance. “They were shooting the craziest combinations at us you’ve ever seen.” Star shells burst into white clouds and spat phosphorus chunks in every direction....

Like so many other Wildcat pilots, Roby lost track of how many dry runs he made before his gas tanks grew light. Without ammunition, he could still make himself useful. But without fuel, his morning was over. Roby too headed for Tacloban....

It had to be only a matter of time before Japanese shells broke not water but steel and drew men’s blood. Ernest Evans and the officers of the Johnston had scarcely stolen a moment to celebrate their torpedo hits when the destroyer walked into a double salvo of enemy shells. Running through her own smoke to return to station with the carriers, the destroyer was rocked by a dizzying series of blasts. Bob Hagen saw and felt the impact from the gun director. On the highest point on the ship, movements were amplified. The impact seemed to shove the destroyer sideways. All across the Johnston’s 376 ½-foot length, men were knocked off their feet. “It was like a puppy being smacked by a truck.” The first three rounds to hit the destroyer came from a battleship, probably the Kongo. The first one, a fourteen-inch shell, nearly fifteen hundred pounds, fell in a ripping arc and struck, opening a three-by-six-foot hole in the main deck, blowing out the plumbing and main drain from the ship’s head, tearing up the machine shop, penetrating down into the after engine room, and exploding against the bulky iron housing of the port-side propeller shaft’s main reduction gears—one of the few pieces of hardware on a destroyer substantial enough to detonate a hard-headed armor-piercing round. The second shell punched through the deck and slashed critical electrical cables and steam lines before detonating against the main steam turbine in the after engine room. Belowdecks aft the Johnston was plunged into darkness. The third large shell demolished the source of the heat itself, striking a boiler in the after fireroom and extinguishing by concussion its oil-burning flames. With that hit the port-side screw stopped spinning, and the Johnston’s thirty-six-knot speed was cut in half. What the shell failed to do instantly, high-pressure superheated steam from shattered boiler pipes did with substantially less mercy. Not a man in the after fireroom survived the 840-degree bath that followed.

A moment later there came a sound like a whole load of sheet metal dropping onto a hard floor as the destroyer absorbed the blast of a smaller salvo. The first six-inch shell—from the Yamato’s secondary battery, or perhaps a light cruiser—holed the number-two exhaust stack, detonating underneath the director platform and twisting it upward on both sides of the uptake. Two other shells slammed into the port bridge wing, igniting a forty-millimeter magazine, which burned and popped smokily with the runaway bursts of antiaircraft shells. Just seconds before impact Lieutenants DiGardi and Welch had left the bridge wing and entered the pilothouse to carry out Captain Evans’s most recent course-change order. They were just in time. An explosion propelled Welch forward into a pile of the wounded and the dead. He picked himself up, dazed, and tended to the injured. Ed Block was in shock, missing a large chunk of his right shoulder. The coxswain’s left shoulder was dislocated, an eardrum punctured. With small pieces of shrapnel lodged between his eyes, under his chin, and in his right eye, Block stumbled through the pilothouse hatch, past DiGardi, and crumpled against a gray metal bulkhead....

Ahead of the stricken Johnston loomed a large rain cloud whose gray-black mass offered sanctuary from the relentless roar and slap of the Japanese salvos. The fury of the bombardment was worthy of Neptune himself. But the rain drifting across the water inspired hope that the god of the oceans knew mercy as well as wrath. The squall’s gray tendrils fell to the sea, dragged to their source by the friction of falling precipitation. His crew might enjoy it for only a few brief minutes, for the squall appeared to be moving faster than the ship was: on a single working screw, just seventeen knots. But Evans would take what shelter he could get. Already the squalls were sheltering Ziggy Sprague and his CVEs racing south as fast as their engines could shove them. Ernest Evans steered the Johnston south, running for the rain....

The White House staffers gathered in the Map Room were jolted from their work by the bracing immediacy of the uncoded, plain-language plea. Most of the Navy’s operational communications were routinely copied to them. They scanned them for compelling news and shared it with their higher-ups as it came. As the Battle off Samar was beginning, around dinnertime on October 24, Washington time, the Map Room staff received this message meant for Admiral Halsey: ENEMY FORCES ATTACKING OUR FORCES COMPOSED OF FOUR BATTLESHIPS, EIGHT CRUISERS AND X OTHER SHIPS. REQUEST LEE PROCEED TOP SPEED COVER LEYTE. REQUEST IMMEDIATE STRIKE BY FAST CARRIERS. A world removed from the fighting, at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, it wasn’t clear who had sent it. The staffers’ best guess was that it had come from the Seventh Fleet’s amphibious commander, Rear Adm. Daniel Barbey, whose group seemed most prone to needing emergency assistance. No matter who it had come from, they were certain the transmission required the president’s personal attention. The message was typed up in short order and submitted to Franklin D. Roosevelt as part of a briefing on the Philippines situation. Though it is not known what he did or said upon receiving the briefing, the president was sufficiently intrigued by the unfolding events off Samar to request updates as the night progressed....

When Holmes saw the report of the developing situation off Samar, he was astounded. He telephoned fleet intelligence officer Capt. Edwin T. Layton to ask about the location of Task Force 34’s battleships. Holmes figured the battlewagons were already guarding San Bernardino Strait. Absent specific confirmation from Halsey, Layton was less willing to assume Lee’s heavies had been detached. As it happened, Admiral Nimitz shared Captain Layton’s outlook. He did not know for sure whether TF 34 had been created per Halsey’s earlier battle plan. Though it seemed sensible enough, until now he hadn’t seen fit to ask. The commander in chief hated to be seen as second-guessing his theater commanders. At 6:48 that morning Halsey had been stunned to discover that Kinkaid was assuming the actuality of a contingency—the detachment of Task Force 34. Halsey ended the mystery of his battleships’ whereabouts at 7:02, when he responded to the Seventh Fleet commander’s 4:12 A.M. request for confirmation that the battleships were guarding San Bernardino Strait. Halsey told him, “NEGATIVE. TASK FORCE 34 IS WITH CARRIER GROUPS ENGAGING ENEMY CARRIER FORCE.

That message took the customary two-hour trip around Robin Hood’s barn and the Manus receiving station before reaching Kinkaid. By the time it did, the Seventh Fleet commander had already transmitted a string of desperate messages indicating his own surprise at the impending disaster. At 7:07 Kinkaid informed Halsey in uncoded English that Taffy 3 was taking fire from Japanese battleships and cruisers. That message reached Halsey at 8:22. At 7:27 Kinkaid radioed Halsey, “Request Lee proceed at top speed to cover Leyte; request immediate strike by fast carriers.” The tenor of Kinkaid’s pleas grew increasingly shrill. At 7:39: “Fast battleships urgently needed immediately at Leyte Gulf.” At 8:29: “My situation is critical. Fast battleships and support by air strike may be able to prevent enemy from destroying [escort carriers] and entering Leyte.”

For Nimitz, that was enough. Bewildered by the evident short-circuiting of communications between the Third and Seventh Fleets, he composed a straightforward inquiry to Halsey: “Where is TF 34?” A radioman on Nimitz’s staff saw the implicit emphasis and repeated the interrogatory phrase, “Where is—” Then the message was passed to an ensign responsible for encoding it, a process that involved inserting nonsense phrases at the beginning and end of a dispatch, on either side of a double consonant, so as to confound unauthorized recipients. Thus the message that the Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet, transmitted to Halsey’s radio department aboard the New Jersey read, TURKEY TROTS TO WATER GG WHERE IS RPT WHERE IS TASK FORCE THIRTY-FOUR RR THE WORLD WONDERS. To this day the world wonders whether the Third Fleet radioman who received this message aboard the New Jersey was scholar enough to know that the phrase “The world wonders” appears in Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” commemorating a battle against long odds that was fought that very day, October 25, in a different century. The world wonders too whether he gave Chester Nimitz credit for the same literary acuity, recognizing with a grin CINCPAC’s historical flourish, uncannily suited to the circumstances, and assuming the reference was part of the message intended for Halsey.

All the world knows for sure about the formulation and transmission of the query is that Halsey received it with the tail-end padding intact and took it as an armor-piercing broadside of sarcasm. Reeling from the thought that his gentlemanly commander in chief had just insulted him, Halsey whipped his baseball cap from his head and chucked it to the deck, cursing bitterly. He had just ordered Ching Lee’s battleships to prepare for action against Ozawa’s aircraft carriers. Now he had no choice but to recall them. As Halsey raged, his chief of staff, Mick Carney, said, “Stop it! What the hell’s the matter with you? Pull yourself together.” Tempers cooled. Orders flew. And slowly, all too slowly, the majestic leviathans that comprised Admiral Lee’s battle line pulled out of formation and swung around to a heading of 180 degrees. It was a gesture more than anything else. Fast though they were, the battleships weren’t swift enough to cover the two-hundred-mile distance in time to do Ziggy Sprague any good....

The Haruna’s gunnery officer, Cdr. Masao Gondaira, saw the sleek lines of his antagonist and believed he was dueling a heavy cruiser. Harold Whitney had fewer illusions as he played a pointless game of hide-and-seek with the inbound bombardment: “The guns of the leading Jap blazed, and I could see three little dots, looking like rusty spots in the sky, coming directly at me. The little rusty spots came on, and I ducked behind the wing of the bridge, a little thin piece of metal that wouldn’t stop a. 45-caliber pistol slug.” The first salvos missed, slapping the sea in a ladder pattern three hundred yards long. Whitney looked up and saw that the ship’s signal halyards had been cut in two and the rangefinder had been lopped off. As he was looking up, something smaller hit them—a small shell or maybe some shrapnel—and wooden splinters flew, the remnants of the motor whaleboat blown from its davits. Lieutenant Meadors’s five main battery crews fired some 260 shells at the battleship. From close range, four to eight thousand yards away, Meadors watched his shells explode all along the ship’s menacing form. It was anyone’s guess what damage the fifty-four-pound rounds did to the armored giant.

Judging by the smoke and flame that wreathed the battlewagon’s towering superstructure, it was reasonable to think the destroyer was giving back a little bit of the hell that had engulfed the bridges of the Johnston and the Hoel shortly before. From what Meadors could see, the effect was considerable. About four minutes went by during which the Haruna lay broadside to the destroyer but did not fire at all. While all this was happening, the Heermann’s seven torpedoes bubbled on their course. The last three had been fired without the aid of mechanical rangefinding. Whitney took ranges from the surface radar and relayed them to Owens, who calmly turned the dials on the torpedo mount. With a sudden release of compressed air, the torpedoes were on their way.

It took less than ten minutes for Hathaway’s destroyer to fire seven torpedoes at a heavy cruiser, change course toward the battleship line, engage the lead vessel with main batteries, fire three more torpedoes, and turn to speed away. Few warships in history had ever spent ten minutes more productively. At 8:03 Hathaway returned to the pilothouse from the open-air bridge and raised Ziggy Sprague on the TBS radio. His message was remarkable for its professional nonchalance: “My exercise is completed. Over.” Hathaway wondered at his own choice of words until he recognized his instinct that the Japanese might be eavesdropping on the circuit, in which event there was no need to inform them that his ship had fired the last of its torpedoes.

Shortly thereafter, as if to reward Amos Townsend Hathaway for his brio and dash—the only destroyer captain in history to engage directly four battleships supported by heavy cruisers and live to tell the tale—a cloud of black smoke boiled up near the stern of the Haruna, beneath its hindmost fourteen-inch turret. The visual evidence was followed closely by a deep blast rumbling across the water. A torpedo from the Heermann’s final spread of three appeared to have scored.

Ironically, however, it may have been the first fan of torpedoes, all seven of which seemed to miss, that did Ziggy Sprague the most good. They sizzled off to the north, missing their intended target, the cruiser. Continuing on, they approached the battleship Yamato. At 7:56 a lookout on Kurita’s flagship signaled the warning, “WATCH OUT FOR TORPEDO TRACKS.” Then the Nagato spotted three tracks approaching to starboard. Duly warned, the vessel’s commander, Adm. Yuji Kobe, ordered a hard turn to port. As the wakes of the torpedoes passed alongside the Nagato to starboard, the battleship opened fire on a “cruiser”—probably the Heermann— at a close range of 9,400 yards. All of a sudden two more torpedoes were seen approaching the Yamato to port. The helmsman turned her rudder hard over to port, putting the superbattleship on a northward course, away from its quarry, so as to present the smallest possible profile to the torpedoes. It was a panicked decision. Admiral Ugaki should have turned toward the torpedoes, combing their tracks in pursuit rather than in retreat. For ten decisive minutes—“it felt like a month to me,” wrote Ugaki—the parallel spreads hemmed in the great ship, pinning her into an outbound course.

The instinct for survival demonstrated by the Yamato’s commander seemed to put the lie to any notion that the Center Force was on a one-way mission, driven by the “heavenly guidance” that Admiral Toyoda had invoked from Combined Fleet Headquarters. At the moment of decision the officers of the Yamato succumbed to the universal impulse to save their ship. They held the course north until the torpedoes’ alcohol reservoirs burned dry. By the time the undersea missiles ceased their pursuit, disappearing into the four-thousand-fathom depths of the Philippine Trench, Ugaki had taken the Yamato’s sixty-nine-foot-long guns, and the Center Force’s brain trust, clear out of the battle. In the engagement’s first minute, Kurita had forfeited control of his fleet by ordering a hurried general attack. Now, having fallen back more than thirty thousand yards from the fleeing escort carriers, he lost what limited ability he retained to command and direct his force....

It was preposterous to send a destroyer escort against an enemy’s main surface fleet. They didn’t do it on paper at the Naval War College, and it had not happened in the whole course of the war leading up to October 25. As the Dennis and the Raymond sortied, Bob Copeland’s ship was fighting like a true hunter-killer, bidding to take down a heavy cruiser on the open sea. The Hoel had fired two salvos of five torpedoes each. The Heermann had fired seven, then three. If Copeland was lucky, the Samuel B. Roberts would soon be in position to fire her single salvo of three. In a quieter time, in Hawaii, before the ship’s departure for the far reaches of the western Pacific combat zone, the admiral who commanded U.S. destroyer forces in the Pacific had informed Copeland that he had recommended replacing the Roberts’s torpedo tubes with a new forty-millimeter gun mount. Copeland had surprised even himself with the tenor of his refusal: “Admiral, someday somebody is going to forget we’re boys and send us over to do a man’s work. If I’m ever sent to do a man’s work, I want a man’s weapons.” Then Copeland smiled a little. “Admiral, as far as my ship is concerned, the torpedo tubes will be removed over my dead body.” Due either to Copeland’s persuasive skills or to lack of follow-through by the bureaucracy, the Samuel B. Roberts left Pearl Harbor with her one triple torpedo mount in place. Now her captain had a chance to do what no destroyer escort had done before and actually use them against an enemy heavy....

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 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, racing toward the cruisers on Bob Roberts’s improvised firing solution. On the broad ocean’s surface four thousand yards was point-blank range. Copeland, his ship as yet unscathed, 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 deck shook from the twin turbines’ whining, roaring labors. 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 steaming column of water and flame rising from below the after mast.... Possibly it was the Chokai....

ZIGGY SPRAGUE’S FLATTOPS SHOULD have been run down and butchered like antelope on the steppe, but they continued to elude that seemingly predestined fate. At 8:10 A.M. Sprague’s carriers were on a southwesterly heading, fleeing with the wind. The cruiser column led by the Tone, followed by the Chikuma, the Haguro, and the Chokai, was to Sprague’s northeast, running south, working a clockwise circular course toward the southwest. The aggression of the screening ships and the doggedness of the pilots were making their mark. Eighty minutes into the pursuit, the Japanese still had not overtaken them for slaughter, their thirteen-knot speed advantage notwithstanding. Every time a pursuing cruiser had to veer from course to avoid a TBM approaching with torpedo bay doors open, Sprague won valuable time. Every time a Wildcat pilot rattled a cruiser’s pilothouse, sending officers diving to the deck, it delayed course-change orders and frustrated the concentration of spotters peering through their binoculars. As his carriers plodded along on a course of 205 degrees to the south-southwest, Sprague could scarcely believe his luck up to this point.

At 8:14 Felix Stump heard him on the radio saying, “We have been straddled for the last half hour. We have not been hit yet. Their shooting is very bad.”

Admiral Kurita tended to see another reason for his inability to close for the kill—his opponents were swift fleet carriers and cruisers, able to outrun him on their own. Kurita watched his ships fail to close the range and knew he could not afford to chase them forever. He had his own fuel shortages to worry about.

For all Kurita knew, this was the U.S. Third Fleet. Just fifteen hours ago Halsey’s and Mitscher’s planes had sunk one of Japan’s two greatest battleships, the Musashi. Aboard her sister ship, the Yamato, there was disagreement about where the Third Fleet was. The Japanese had heard Kinkaid’s pleas for help from heavy American ships. Though Admiral Shiraishi on the Kumano had reason to know otherwise, having sighted “light carriers” and recorded that fact in his log, he failed to report it to superiors. And so Kurita continued to believe that his opponents were larger, faster, and more capable than they actually were. He had no idea how desperate his enemy was.

Though neither Ziggy Sprague nor his captains had any reason to know it, the best way to turn back the Japanese onslaught was for their torpedoless tin cans and their weaponless airplanes to keep the bluff going.....

Taking a sustained battering from the Johnston’s five-inch gun crews, the second Japanese ship in column, a destroyer, also turned west and fled with the Yahagi. The next three destroyers did the same. Hagen was dumbstruck with joy at the Japanese withdrawal. Evans was too. According to Hagen, “Commander Evans, feeling like the skipper of a battleship, was so elated he could hardly talk. He strutted across his bridge and chortled, ‘Now I’ve seen everything!’” Evans and Hagen might have been less amazed had they known the real reason the Japanese column withdrew. It was not the Johnston’s gunnery that drove them off, but the fact that they had finished launching their torpedo attack at the carriers and were turning to reform. Still, Captain Evans’s audacious interception of Kimura’s squadron probably encouraged the Japanese skippers to release their famed Long Lance torpedoes at extreme range and from an unfavorable angle astern their fleeing targets. Either Kimura didn’t have the stomach, faced with the Johnston’s tireless gunnery, to close to killing range, or he, like other Japanese commanders, believed his quarry were fast fleet carriers that could not be run down in any event.

The fog of war was so thick that neither side knew exactly what was happening at any given moment. But it was only the Japanese who were moved to pure fantasy. Somehow Admiral Ugaki on the Yamato acquired the hyperbolic notion that the Tenth Destroyer Squadron’s halfhearted attack had “accomplished the great feat of sinking three carriers, one cruiser, and one destroyer.”...

Kurita did not yet enjoy the clear vision of hindsight. He had seen his proudest ships battered and sunk by an American air assault. By continuing south, he would only beg for more of it. His staff had intercepted a message from Capt. Richard F. Whitehead, the Seventh Fleet’s Commander of Support Aircraft, inviting all orphaned jeep carrier pilots to land at Tacloban. Kurita was worried about steaming too close to the aerial striking power that was surely now gathering ashore. His own pleas for air support had gone unanswered. The help he expected from the Imperial Army’s First and Second Air Fleets on Luzon—so central to the planning of the Sho-1 plan to begin with—never came.

Beneath unguarded skies the mighty Musashi had become a glorified target barge. Lack of air cover had cost Kurita several valuable heavy cruisers, the fastest blades in his rack of swords. He had left Brunei with ten of them, and he was down to six before he ever turned the corner coming out of San Bernardino Strait. Now he had only two. The Chokai, the Chikuma, and the Suzuya had succumbed to the audacious American air attacks. The Kumano was unfit for pursuit after the torpedo hit from the Johnston. Though the morning’s assaults did not come in well-organized waves like those that had struck him the previous afternoon, they were incessant and persistent, like angry hornets. He did not cherish the idea of moving closer to their hive. Kurita wasn’t sure how he would re-form and enter Leyte Gulf in any event. The Center Force was strung out and scattered across some thirty miles of ocean. Reassembling into battle formation would take time that he probably did not have.

From his expansive flag quarters aboard the Yamato, he did not know what his cruiser skippers knew: that they opposed mere escort carriers, and that they had nearly succeeded in cutting off Sprague’s flight, forcing the Americans toward shore, where they could be encircled and destroyed in passing by the rest of the Center Force. Their transmissions to him had been short and cryptic. Wisps of partial knowledge, they had offered little on which to base a well-informed decision.

Kurita was in no position to know these things for himself. The Yamato’s emergency turn to avoid the Heermann’s torpedoes had taken the flagship northward and largely out of the battle at a critical juncture. The floatplanes he had catapulted to reconnoiter the American force had never been heard from again. Since he did not know what his own task force faced, it is unsurprising that he also did not know that Ozawa’s decoy force had thoroughly succeeded in fooling Halsey. For all Kurita knew, Halsey was right here under his guns. His apparent inability to overtake the American carriers owed itself, he thought, to the fact that they were none other than those of the swift Third Fleet. What other explanation could there be? He had loosed his ships into a general attack, an oceangoing foxhunt rolling over the Pacific swells. He had sought to destroy their flight decks and prevent them from launching planes. In that he had failed.

These anxieties preyed upon a mind that was thoroughly battle-fatigued. Kurita hadn’t slept in three days, ever since the Atago had been torpedoed out from under him in the Palawan Passage on October 23. Fished from the sea and relocated to the Yamato, he had witnessed on the following afternoon the destruction of Japan’s proudest dreadnought, the Musashi. He had struggled with the decision to withdraw before sunset on the twenty-fourth, then turned around again and by night threaded his large formation through the perilous San Bernardino Strait. The next morning the unexpected windfall of American aircraft carriers coming under his guns further taxed his powers of analysis and command. Now even that coveted prize threatened to elude him, though he had gotten reports claiming that several U.S. flattops, including one of the “Enterprise class,” had been sunk along with two heavy cruisers and some destroyers.

But truth was cruelly at variance with Kurita’s weary senses.

As an American historian would wryly note, “Outfought by pygmies, he yet thought he had conquered giants.” Now Kurita had to decide whether he should press his luck, gather his scattered force, and enter Leyte Gulf. He calculated that the transports he was to sink were, in all likelihood, empty of their valuable cargoes. On the radio he had heard Admiral Kinkaid’s plain-language calls for help. The Seventh Fleet commander’s 8:29 plea—“My situation is critical. Fast battleships and support by air strike may be able prevent enemy from destroying [escort carriers] and entering Leyte”— had been retransmitted by Allied radio units in the Admiralty Islands and intercepted by the Japanese on Formosa at 9:05. But Kurita did not see this as the signal of opportunity that it was. Like a defeated man, he perceived his enemy’s every act as evidence of its strength and ingenuity. Nishimura’s group had been destroyed. Was his next?

He grew anxious, expecting powerful American reinforcements to rally to Kinkaid’s call at any moment.... Further exertion was beyond Takeo Kurita. The Japanese admiral had been pressed to his physical and emotional limits. At 9:11 on the morning of October 25, he took stock of everything he knew and did not know and issued this order to his far-flung squadron: Rendezvous, my course north, speed 20. The commander of Cruiser Division 7 logged the message as “All ships reassemble.” The Haguro’s signal department heard “Gradually reassemble.” Semantics aside, there was no mistaking the intent to withdraw. The Yamato turned to port and headed north.

Admiral Kimura received the withdrawal order just as his Yahagi and accompanying destroyers were again bearing down on the enemy carriers. Though the Johnston’s interdiction was gallant, it was Kurita who finally spared the jeeps. For a second time Kimura’s destroyers heeled around and headed north. At 9:20 the Tone and the Haguro, nearly in position to eviscerate Taffy 3 from point-blank range, turned in column and followed suit. At 9:25 the Kongo stopped the hunt and took her smoking fourteen-inch guns out of the battle. Five minutes later the Haruna broke off her freelancing assault on Taffy 2’s northernmost elements. Rendezvous, my course north. The mighty Center Force was going home.

The Hoel had sunk first. The Gambier Bay went down at 9:07. The Roberts followed an hour later. Now came the Johnston’s turn. The first ship into the fight was the last to go down. Her luck had been the improbable stuff of dime novels or Hollywood fantasies: the solo charge in the battle’s opening minutes, firing guns and torpedoes into the teeth of multiple enemy broadsides, wheeling under fire to escape, taking devastating hits from battleship shells, withdrawing, returning to action against the destroyer column, and fending off the last Japanese effort to sink Clifton Sprague’s carriers. Her final destruction was not ensured until after the foe she had suicidally charged had turned and run for cover....

Of the ten heavy cruisers that left Brunei, only three, the Tone, the Haguro, and the Kumano, made it back through San Bernardino Strait. Total Japanese losses are estimated to be around eleven thousand men. Admiral Kurita’s reputation lay in tatters following his timid performance on the brink of victory off Samar. Owing in part to the endless inscrutability of his motives—he was exhausted and confused in his thinking; he was unclear that his objective could be achieved; he feared too many U.S. planes were gathering at Tacloban; Kinkaid’s pleas had spooked him into believing powerful reinforcements were on the way; he was low on fuel; he was regrouping to attack another American fleet—he has never been given the benefit of the doubt....

In no small part due to the smoke roiling from the stacks and sterns of the U.S. ships, the Japanese were nearly unanimous in mistaking Ziggy Sprague’s task unit for something considerably more powerful than it really was. Kurita would describe Taffy 3 in his own action report as a “gigantic enemy task force including six or seven carriers accompanied by many cruisers and destroyers.” Watching his first salvos roar off just before seven A.M.—the first time the mighty Yamato had ever fired on an enemy ship—Battleship Division 1’s Admiral Ugaki saw an American vessel smoking and believed the battleship’s opening broadside had sunk her. After the air raids started, the Japanese perceived “salvos of medium-caliber guns” hitting near the Yamato. That no ship in Sprague’s fleet boasted medium-caliber weaponry—as the six- or eight-inch guns of cruisers were generally called—revealed the extent of Kurita’s bewilderment.

In a landscape of tropical squalls and enemy smoke, he was not at all certain what to make of the fleet that had materialized unexpectedly on the southern horizon. Clearly by late 1944, however, hard experience had equipped both the Americans and the Japanese to appreciate the new rules of naval combat in the aircraft-carrier age. By the time the jeep carriers of Taffy 2 mustered their air groups and began launching big strikes against the Center Force after eight A.M., and once Tacloban’s airstrip had been organized as a makeshift staging ground, Kurita was facing air assaults from more than a dozen escort carriers, or the rough equivalent of four or five fleet carriers. No matter how overmatched the Americans were at Samar, no matter how dashing their screening ships were in intercepting the superior force during the critical first ninety minutes of the unlikely battle, the strength of the U.S. forces that Kurita confronted was more formidable than many analysts have allowed. It does nothing to diminish the valor of the tin can sailors aboard Taffy 3’s destroyers and destroyer escorts, or of the gallant aviators and airedales who flew on that day, to say that Kurita’s ultimate victory was by no means assured, and that withdrawing in the face of continuous and savage air assault was perhaps the prudent thing to do.

An assessment offered by Ziggy Sprague has the beauty and inescapable merit of simplicity: of Kurita’s decision to withdraw, he wrote to Admiral Fitch in 1947, “I… stated [to Admiral Nimitz] that the main reason they turned north was that they were receiving too much damage to continue and I am still of that opinion and cold analysis will eventually confirm it.”...

In 1984 Hank Pyzdrowski, the VC-10 Avenger pilot and executive director of the Gambier Bay’s Heritage Foundation, received a letter with a Japanese postmark: “Dear Sirs,” it began, I have the honor to write the Men of the Gambier Bay as the ex-Commanding Officer of the Tone, heavy cruiser of the Imperial Japanese Navy, who fought against bravest shipmates of the Gambier Bay in the United States Navy, off Samar island in the morning of October 25, 1944. The correspondent, Capt. Haruo Mayuzumi, in neat cursive script blocked off on graph paper, recited his naval curriculum vitae, then, rather than discuss the battle from a personal standpoint, launched into a technical discussion of Japanese naval gunnery.

It seemed strange, a chilly disquisition that would warm only a gunner’s mate’s heart: after explaining, complete with charts, graphs, and diagrams, how the caps of Japanese shells were engineered to break away so as to maximize their killing effect while traveling under water, he wrote, “I am very grateful when I read The Men of the Gambier Bay [by Edwin P. Hoyt] and knew some effect of 8” 91-A.P. of my ship.” But Mayuzumi was more than a technician. He showed flashes of mercy and humanity too. He recalled that while firing on the sinking Gambier Bay,

my fire control officer did never direct his gun fire to the spot in which many men were waiting to come down by Jacob’s ladders. My young midshipman … was whole-heartedly sending fire to the outside of the engine room. Suddenly many crew and passengers gathered near life boats near engine room. I immediately ordered “Ceasefire.” The midshipman soon ordered to aim [at] the forecastle where no person could be seen…. I saw you brave men, under gunfire and the flame, calmly waited the turn to go down by Jacob’s ladders.… I now eagerly pray good luck to all brave men of the Gambier Bay.

The survivors’ groups took it upon themselves to remember their dead and celebrate their victory, in part because no one else would do it for them, least of all, for a time, the U.S. Navy. But ultimately it was the Navy’s decision to commission a ship in their own skipper’s honor that brought the Samuel B. Roberts survivors together and catalyzed their first efforts to hold a reunion.... In 1982 the christening of an Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate in Bob Copeland’s name helped show them the benefits of remembrance...