Hat tip to “Milo” who served on carriers in the U.S. Navy for many years for helping research this series on the Escort carriers.
“Jeep” carrier U.S.S. Gambier Bay, CVE-73, built by Kaiser Shipyards, Vancouver, Washington
Last week’s “Steamship Sunday” post introduced us to the workhorse Escort carriers of World War II, the “Jeep” carriers or “baby flattops.” Today, we cover these often under-appreciated ships’ finest hour, the Battle of Samar, 25 October, 1944.
In 1944, a journalist traveling aboard the “Jeep” carrier U.S.S. White Plains wrote:
“A “Jeep” carrier bears the same relation to a normal naval vessel that is borne to a district of fine homes by a respectable, but struggling, working class suburb. There is a desperate effort to keep up appearances with somewhat inadequate materials and not wholly successful results.”
Thus the CVEs were looked upon as being the “poor cousins” to the larger, more prestigious CVs.
The CVEs, as the Escort Carriers were officially designated, were never intended to lead the way into combat as were their larger cousins, the CVs such as (for example) the Essex or the Hornet. In the Atlantic, the “Jeep” carriers provided air cover as they escorted merchant ship convoys carrying war materiel to the European theater. There they found their niche against the Nazi U-boats and were a major factor in driving German Admiral Dönitz’s subs from the Atlantic.
In the Pacific, Escort Carriers did yeoman’s work, ferrying aircraft to and from the war zone, replacing losses in the air groups of the Fast Carrier task forces, as well as providing extended close air support for the various Pacific island invasions from Tarawa on, also providing anti-submarine patrols and convoy escort as their Atlantic sisters did.
The “Jeeps” also provided haven for planes of the CVs during combat. The planes of the larger carriers could land on the CVEs, lessening congestion on the decks of the CVs during battle.
As they were never intended as combat ships the hulls of the CVEs were not armored. Compared to the CVs such as the Yorktown or Essex-class carriers, they were slow – 19 knots (23.75 miles per hour) top speed vs. 33 knots (41.25 miles per hour) for an Essex-class carrier. They were armed with only one 5″ gun.
In the Battle of Samar on 25 October 1944, three groups of Escort Carriers, Destroyers and Destroyer Escorts (“the Taffys” – the name of their radio call sign) fiercely fought and repelled a much larger and superior Japanese force. Goliath, meet David.
The Battle of Samar was part of the larger Battle of Leyte Gulf in the Philippines. This epic battle spanned five days and was the largest sea battle in history.
The Battle of Leyte Gulf was part of the liberation of the Philippines, returning the U.S. Army and General Douglas MacArthur to the Philippines. Samar was the nearest the Japanese came to success during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. The Japanese were turned back by the “Jeeps” of the three “Taffy” squadrons under Rear Admiral Clifton Sprague, with “Taffy 3” bearing the brunt of the battle.
Before the battle: some of the crew of Gambier Bay, CVE 73
As we saw last week, many of the “Jeep” carriers were built by Kaiser Shipyards in Vancouver, Washington. Participating in the grueling five-day battle were 18 Escort Carriers, 14 of them built in the Kaiser shipyards. Six CVEs were sunk, all of them Kaiser-built ships. Of the 13 U.S. aircraft carriers of all types lost during World War II, eight were Escort Carriers, seven of which were of the Kaiser-built Casablanca class.
U.S.S. SAINT LO (CVE 63) ║ U.S.S. WHITE PLAINS (CVE 66) ║U.S.S. KALININ BAY (CVE 68)
U.S.S. FANSHAW BAY (CVE 70) ║ U.S.S. KITKUN BAY (CVE 71) ║ U.S.S. GAMBIER BAY (CVE 73)
The “Tin Cans:”
U.S.S. HEERMANN (DD 532) ║ U.S.S. HOEL (DD 533) ║U.S.S. JOHNSTON (DD 557)
U.S.S. JOHN C. BUTLER (DE 339) ║ U.S.S. RAYMOND (DE 341) ║ U.S.S. DENNIS (DE 405) ║ U.S.S. SAMUEL B. ROBERTS (DE 413)
Rear Admiral Clifton Sprague
The Japanese realized that an American invasion of the Philippines or Formosa would cut their Empire in half and prevent vital supplies reaching the Home Islands from the south part of the empire. They decided to fight the “decisive battle” of the war wherever the Americans attacked next. If the Americans attacked the Philippines then the Japanese hoped to use the scattered elements of their fleet in a coordinated attack that might allow them to get at the vulnerable invasion fleet. In the final version of the plan Admiral Ozawa’s carriers, coming from Japan, were to drag the U.S. 3rd Fleet away from the invasion beaches in Leyte Gulf, allowing three other Japanese fleets to advance through the central Philippines to attack the invasion fleets.
Admiral Takeo Kurita
The most important of these three fleets was Admiral Takeo Kurita’s I Striking Force. Admiral Kurita began the battle of Leyte Gulf with a powerful fleet, containing five battleships, twelve cruisers and fifteen destroyers. Among the battleships were the Musashi and her twin sister, Yamato, the largest and most heavily-armed battleships in the world. Kurita also had the older battleships Kongo, Haruna and Nagato, twelve cruisers and fifteen destroyers. This force suffered grievous losses before reaching Samar. In the two day battle of the Sibuyan Sea (23-24 October 1944), Musashi was sunk by American aircraft, two cruisers were sunk by two American subs and a third crippled. Kurita started the battle of Samar with four battleships, six cruisers and ten destroyers. Kurita and the Imperial Japanese Navy lost twelve ships in the Battle of Sibuyan Sea.
The Japanese Super-Battleship Yamato at Samar. Yamato and her sister Musashi were the largest battleships ever constructed. They were fitted with massive 18.1″ guns vs. the 16″ guns on the newest U.S. battleships. Musashi was sunk in the Battle of Sibuyan Sea two days before the Battle of Samar. Both Super-Battleships were sunk (Yamato six months later) and neither saw much action in the war. Despite their size – 72,800 tons – and heavy armament, they had an Achilles heel: they were grossly underpowered and slow. They could not keep up with the rest of the Japanese fleet in action and they burned copious quantities of fuel. Thus the Imperial Navy kept them tied up in harbor most of the time.
On the American side the bulk of the battle was fought by Admiral Sprague’s “Taffy 3,” with six Escort carriers, three Destroyers and four Destroyer Escorts. The Escort Carriers carried modern aircraft, but these were armed for ground attack with fragmentation bombs and so didn’t have many of the armour piercing bombs needed against battleships. Twelve more Escort Carriers in two groups were in the area, but the 7th Fleet’s six old battleships, the pre-war battleships salvaged from Pearl Harbor, were away to the south defending the Surigao Strait. The powerful modern carriers and fast battleships of the 3rd Fleet had been lured away with Admiral William “Bull” Halsey to the north to try and intercept Japanese Admiral Ozawa’s carriers (Battle of Cape Engano). Admiral Kinkaid, commander of the 7th Fleet, believed that Halsey had left a powerful task force (Task Force 34, Admiral Lee) to watch Kurita, but in fact this force had accompanied the 3rd Fleet north.
On the night of 24-25 October Kurita passed through the San Bernardino Straits, turned south and headed for Leyte Gulf. Soon after this, at about 5:30, he learned that Admiral Nishimura’s force had been destroyed and Admiral Shima was retreating (Battle of the Surigao Strait). He probably never received the messages Ozawa sent out announcing that the 3rd Fleet was chasing him. Kurita could justifiably believe that the main parts of both the US 3rd and 7th Fleets were somewhere in or close to Leyte Gulf.
At about dawn (6:30) Kurita found Admiral Sprague’s Taffy 3, a task force made up of six Escort Carriers, three Destroyers and four Destroyer Escorts. Kurita believed that he had found a ‘gigantic enemy task force’ containing large carriers, cruisers, destroyers and possibly battleships. He decided to abandon the charge into Leyte Gulf and turned to attack Sprague’s force. At 6:58 Yamato‘s main guns opened fire on a surface target for the first time. (This was because, as noted in the caption of the photo of Yamato above, the Super-Battleships were grossly underpowered and the Imperial Japanese Navy kept them tied up in harbor most of the time. Thus Yamato had yet to fire its guns in combat until now.)
Sprague realized that he was in trouble. At 7:01 he issued a call for help in the clear (rather than in code), ordered his aircraft into the air and headed for a nearby rain squall. Under cover of the rain he decided to try and reach the support of Taffy 2, thirty miles to the south. His Destroyers and Destroyer Escorts were ordered to attack the Japanese fleet while the carriers made their best speed south.
Sprague’s aircraft had a limited potential to do serious damage to the Japanese battleships. The Escort Carriers didn’t have enough storage space to carry both fragmentation bombs for ground support and a significant number of armour piercing bombs. The Japanese had no way to know that, and the American aircraft were able to force the Japanese heavy ships into frantic manoeuvres, slowing their pursuit of the carriers. The torpedo-firing destroyers were equally effective.
The U.S. ships in the Battle of Samar made smoke to help obscure them from the Japanese fleet. The smoke-making devices used by the U.S. Navy in World War II was made by a company in Emeryville, California that up until 1935 had built the Doble steam car. In this photo two screening ships of Taffy 3 take position ahead of U.S.S. Gambier Bay (CVE 73) and lay protective smoke. Increasing in volume, heavy black funnel smoke and FS smoke (white) from the Escort Carriers, Destroyers, and Destroyer Escorts obstructed the Japanese line of sight. As a result, the accuracy of the Japanese gunfire decreased significantly. The smoke screen was used to great effect by all ship’s of Taffy 3, albeit it was one of the few advantages they held. The Destroyers and Destroyer Escorts zig-zagged in and around the fleeing Escort Carriers; the hot, humid Philippine climate aided to combine the mixture of black fuel smoke and white chemical smoke, making them mix most effectively. It greatly neutralized the Japanese gunfire accuracy and was a contributing factor to the escape of Taffy 3.
The three Destroyers and four Destroyer Escorts attacked against hopeless odds. At first, U.S.S. Johnston, under her Commanding Officer, Commander Earnest Evans, steamed alone toward the Japanese. After 30 minutes under fire, the Japanese found Johnston and hit her hard, knocking out the starboard engine room, halving her speed, and taking out the two after gun mounts. Evans continued his attack and launched ten torpedoes at the enemy before retiring. As Johnston retreated, she encountered Heerman and Hoel, heading in on their attack. Evans could have continued on and no one would have ever faulted him, but instead Johnston turned back toward the enemy, making smoke to help hide her compatriots. Bringing up the rear of this naval “Charge of the Light Brigade” was the “Sammy B” as little Destroyer Escort Samuel B. Roberts was known to her crew. The “Sammy B” became known as the Destroyer Escort that fought like a battleship.
Above: the “Little Sammy B.” – the Destroyer Escort that fought like a battleship.
Below: Painting of U.S.S. Johnston, DD-557 in action at the Battle of Samar
Just after 7:20 am the cruiser Kumano was hit by a torpedo from the Johnston (DD-557). Her speed was reduced, and at 9:45 she was detached from the main fleet and ordered back through the San Bernardino Strait. This brought her into range of aircraft from the US 3rd Fleet and at around 9:45 she was attacked by SB2C dive-bombers and TBM torpedo bombers from Task Force 38. They only managed to score one near miss. A second attack early on 26 October managed three bomb hits, but the cruiser could still make 10 knots. The Kumano managed to reach safety at Manila where she underwent repairs before leaving for Japan on 5 November. Her luck now turned – her convoy was attacked by four American submarines and the cruiser was hit twice. She remained afloat and reached Dasol Bay on the Luzon coast, but on 25 November she was sunk by American aircraft.
This first destroyer attack cost the Americans dearly. Johnston was hit by three 14 inch and three 6 inch shells and Hoel was hit by shells that disabled her main engine. Hoel remained in the fight until she was unable to move and at about 8:30 her crew abandoned ship.
Above: Escort Carrier U.S.S. Gambier Bay under attack during the Battle of Samar.
Below: The fatal hit on Gambier Bay seen from U.S.S. White Plains: “This shell hit the forward engine room on the port side. It was not a direct hit into the engine room itself as no fragments entered the engine room. It was an impact explosion which opened a gap in the skin of the ship approximately 4 feet square between frames 96 and 98. The center of this hole was about 12 feet below the water line of the ship. Very rapid flooding occurred in the engine room and fire room and in about five minutes the water was up to the fire box in the boilers necessitating the securing of both boilers and No. 1 main engine at 0825.” U.S.S. Gambier Bay (CVE 73) Action Report
A little further south the Escort Carriers came under fire from the Japanese battleships. Kalinin Bay and Gambier Bay were both hit but managed to maintain their position until the Gambier Bay was hit in the forward engine room. The Destroyer Johnston attempted to distract attention from the stricken carrier but without success and Gambier Bay sank at around 8:45 am. Johnston then managed to break up a light cruiser attack on the carriers, but in the process she became their main target and was sunk. Only 141 of her 327 crewmen survived.
While Admiral Kurita’s ships shot down American planes, destroyed Johnston and Samuel B. Roberts, and severely damaged Hoel and Heerman, the Japanese Admiral was amazed by the audacity of the American attacks. Pilots of the American planes, when they ran out of ammunition and bombs, buzzed the bridges of the Japanese ships firing hand guns at Japanese sailors and officers on the bridge! Lt. Cdr. Robert Copeland, CO of Samuel B. Roberts, upon receiving Admiral Sprague’s orders to attack addressed his crew thusly:
“This will be a fight against overwhelming odds from which survival cannot be expected. We will do what damage we can.”
The fight taken to the Japanese by the Americans earned the awe of the Japanese. When “Sammy B.” sank, the commander of a nearby Japanese ship stepped outside of the bridge to salute the survivors in the water.
The Japanese cruiser Chikuma was hit by a torpedo at around 8:54. It was a sign that Sprague’s men were getting closer to help that this torpedo was probably launched by an aircraft from Admiral Felix B. Stump’s Task Group 77.4.2. The Japanese cruisers’ engine rooms flooded, and the ship came to a halt. She was unable to respond when Kurita decided to withdraw from battle, and was left alone. She sank during the day with the loss of most of her crew. Another 100 were rescued by the destroyer Nowaki, but that ship was lost on the night of 25-26 October with the loss of all hands.
Tone and Chikuma, followed by Chokai and Kumano, making 32 knots and followed closely by the battleships Yamato and Haruna, surged toward the retreating American carriers. Gambier Bay was the last carrier in line, nearest the advancing Japanese.
At 08:40, Tone found the range. As 8-inch shells plastered the ocean around Gambier Bay, her lone 5-inch weapon opened fire on the Japanese cruiser, to no effect. At 08:47, the first shell struck Gambier Bay in the starboard engine room. The second hit the fueled aircraft in the hangar deck. Battleship shells passed through her without exploding, since the thin steel she was made of wasn’t enough to stop them, a benefit had her other wounds not been so grievous. By 09:00 she was dead in the water as Tone, Chikuma and Chokai closed in. Her men fought the sea and the enemy fire to save their ship and died at their stations. At 09:07, Gambier Bay capsized and sank under the combined fire of the three heavy cruisers, leaving 800 survivors struggling in the water. She was the only American aircraft carrier ever sunk in a surface engagement. As she slipped beneath the waves, her surviving airplanes headed toward the newly-liberated field at Tacloban, to refuel and rearm and return to the battle.
As the Japanese cruisers moved closer, U.S.S. White Plains opened fire with her 5-inch “popgun,” and scored six hits on Chokai from 11,700 yards, maximum range, one of which exploded the cruiser’s starboard torpedoes and sank her. No other U.S. aircraft carrier ever sank an enemy combat vessel by gunfire.
By this time Kurita was rather losing his grip on the battle. The slow Yamato was some way behind his cruisers and visibility was poor. Kurita wasn’t aware of the damage to three of his cruisers, and had lost sight of the carriers. At 9:11, believing that he had won a major victory over a squadron of fleet carriers, Kurita ordered his surviving ships to withdraw from the battle.
At about 10:50 a near miss on the cruiser Suzuya detonated the torpedoes in the starboard forward torpedo tubes. This set off a fire made worse when more of her torpedoes exploded at around 11:00. Damage control measures failed and at about 12 noon a series of ammunition explosions began. The ship was abandoned at 1:00 pm and sank twenty minutes later.
Above: IJN heavy Cruiser Suzuya at the Battle of Samar. Below: the miss that was as good as a hit. A near-miss from a U.S. bomb caused the torpedoes in Suzuya’s starboard forward torpedo tubes to explode, which in turn caused further torpedo explosions, followed by ammunition explosions, dooming the ship.
Taffy 2 and Taffy 1 launched their aircraft against the enemy fleet, to the same effect as the attacks by Taffy 3. The combination of the audacious destroyer attacks and the hounding of his fleet by aircraft convinced Admiral Kurita that he faced the main part of the American fleet. Never a believer in the possibility of success in this battle, Kurita decided that honor had been served, and American ships had been sunk. Incredibly, at 09:45, when he could have sailed on into Leyte Gulf completely unopposed by any force capable of stopping him and sunk the entire American invasion fleet, Kurita turned around and re-entered San Bernardino Strait. By 10:30, the Battle of Samar was over. When Admiral Sprague realized the Japanese were retiring, he turned to the Captain of Fanshaw Bay and said “I expected to be swimming by now, with any luck.”
Above: After being hit by a kamikaze, Escort Carrier St. Lô burns. She was one of six Kaiser-built CVEs sunk in the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Below: A kamikaze attack on a U.S. ship elsewhere during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, October, 1944.
Taffy 3’s ordeal wasn’t yet over. At 10:50, just as the Suzuya was being attacked, nine kamikaze aircraft attacked the task group, in one of the first organized suicide attacks of the war. Most of the kamikazes were destroyed or missed, but one hit the Escort Carrier St. Lô, triggering explosions that sank her. A second kamikaze attack twenty minutes later did more damage to other ships but failed to sink anything.
It took Kurita about two hours to regroup. He then turned south with his remaining fifteen ships in an attempt to reach Leyte Gulf, the original target of his operation. At 11:40 one of his lookouts reported sighting a battleship and destroyers. The fleet turned aside to chase this phantom before turning south again. At around 12:30, when only forty five miles from Leyte Gulf, Kurita decided that it wasn’t worth risking the destruction of his fleet just to sink empty transport ships. He had also received reports that an American carrier task force had been sighted 113 miles north of the gulf, and he now decided to turn north to deal with this.
U.S. Navy sailors being rescued, Battle of Samar. These sailors were from one the “Tin Cans,” a Destroyer or Destroyer Escort that was sunk at Samar. The photo was taken by U.S. Army Private William Roof. The ship from which ship these men are from is not identified. The bravery of the crews on the “Tin Cans” in this battle was nothing less than astounding, and is a story in itself. The story is well covered in the book “Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors.”
In fact Halsey’s carriers were still far to the north. All morning Halsey had been receiving urgent calls for help, but had refused to turn back. In the resulting Battle of Cape Engano Halsey sank all four of Ozawa’s carriers. At around 11:00 he ordered one of his carrier groups to turn south, and his fourth carrier group, which was some way to the east, was also directed towards Kurita. This fourth task group was first to come into range and during the afternoon it launched two attacks on Kurita’s fleet. After spending all afternoon looking for the American carriers Kurita retired to the eastern end of the San Bernardino Strait at 6 pm. He was under orders to wait for dark and try and fight a night battle, but at 9:25, with fuel short, he decided to retreat west through the straits. He would suffer further air attack on 26 October, but the main fighting in Leyte Gulf was over.
Kurita has since been blamed for his decisions to withdraw from combat at 9:11 and to turn back from Leyte Gulf at 12:30. Both can be defended using the information available to Kurita at the time, but he later believed the second decision to have been a mistake. If Kurita had advanced into Leyte Gulf then his fleet would almost certainly have been destroyed – if not by Kinkaid’s Escort Carriers and old battleships then by the 3rd Fleet. All he could have achieved was the destruction of empty transport ships, and perhaps a damaging bombardment of the U.S. troops on Leyte, but neither would have altered the eventual course of the fighting in the Philippines.
Had the Battle Off Samar gone differently, had Kurita’s fleet surged past the survivors of sunken ships struggling in the waters off Samar and gone on to destroy the invasion fleet, the sinking of the cruisers in the Palawan Passage, the sinking of Musashi in the Sibuyan Sea, the destruction of the Southern Force in Surigao Strait, the sinking of the carriers off Cape Engano – all would have been for nought. The sacrifice by “Democracy’s Navy,” the reservist sailors and small ships that were not supposed to face such a battle force, had stopped the greatest surface fleet the Japanese ever sent to sea and prevailed. It was the U.S. Navy’s finest hour.
Halsey’s carriers did sink the useless Japanese carriers; Halsey himself narrowly missed sinking his career by his failure to leave Task Force 34 in Leyte Gulf. The U.S. Navy quietly passed its verdict on its most famous sailor of the war in the fact that while after the war there was a Spruance class of Destroyers, there was never a Halsey class of anything.
Of the 11 U.S. carriers of all types lost during the war, six were Escort Carriers. Despite the important role of the these ships during the war and the outstanding achievements of several individual CVEs, such as U.S.S. Guadalcanal’s capture of U-505, the first enemy ship taken on the high seas by the U.S. Navy since the War of 1812, not one of these modest but frequently heroic ships was preserved for historic display. When the U.S.S. George Washington, CV-73, was launched, the survivors of Gambier Bay asked her to take on the tradition of their ship, which the mighty attack carrier was proud to do.
Part of the U.S. fleet in Leyte Gulf, October, 1944