Sunday, October 25, 2009

This Day in WWII History (Fitzgerald In-Law Becomes Hero in Battle off Samar)

October 25, 1944—In a 2 1/2-melee off the Philippine island of Samar, a small force of American ships, facing desperate odds, withstood a ferocious surprise attack by the vastly larger Japanese Imperial Navy and saved thousands of General Douglas MacArthur’s soldiers.

One of the many heroes in the Battle off Samar was Rear Admiral Clifton Sprague. As the husband of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s younger sister Annabel, he might seem like a footnote to students of American literature. But, as a senior naval commander in the last significant challenge to American supremacy in the South Pacific, “Ziggy” Sprague is as much a major player as his more famous in-law.

In a post the other day, I considered MacArthur’s famous “return” to the Philippines. It would be criminal, though, to remember the general’s theatrical splash into the waters off Leyte without paying similar homage to the thousands of unsung servicemen who saved his force in this unforeseen postscript.

I really had to write this when I considered historian Rick Atkinson's article "What Is Lost When Veterans Pass?". One such veteran was a neighbor, a kindly, quiet fireman. It wasn’t until years later, after he had moved away from the neighborhood, that I discovered, in his obituary, that in World War II he was one of the “tin can sailors”—a veteran of destroyer carriers—the type of vessels responsible for carrying MacArthur’s forces. I wonder now if he saw action in the last titanic naval engagement of the war?

The Battle off Samar served as the climax of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, which lasted from October 23 to 26 and became the largest naval engagement in world history. The battle-within-a-battle resulted from the Japanese high command’s desire to take advantage of the hyper-aggressive tendencies of Admiral William F. Halsey.

“Bull” Halsey was characterized by nothing so much as the desire to take the war to the enemy anywhere and everywhere. In this instance, Vice Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa’s ships would serve as a decoy to lure Halsey away while the rest of the Japanese fleet swooped down on the suddenly vulnerable US 7th Fleet, under Vice Admiral Thomas Kinkaid, that was guarding MacArthur.

The desperate Japanese plan worked even better than they expected, as Halsey not only went after the decoy fleet but did not even leave one carrier group to cover the San Bernardino Straight for Kinkaid.

On the morning of October 25, Sprague discovered, to his alarm and anger, what “that sonofabitch Halsey” had done. His flotilla, “Taffy 3,” consisting of five carriers, three destroyers and four destroyer escorts was facing a fleet that not only was twice as fast as any of their own carriers, but a foe that a foe that enjoyed a 10-to-1 advantage in firepower. The nearest American heavy units were 65 miles, or more than three hours, away.

Essentially, the American ships realized, they were doomed anyway. But Admiral Kurita, the Japanese commander, thought that he was doomed, and acted accordingly. Max Hasting’s verdict in Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45 is powerful and apropos about the Japanese high command’s responsibility for the disaster they now invited: “Their ship recognition was inept, their tactics primitive, their gunnery woeful, their spirit feeble.”

And now, Taffy 3 was turning the tables on the largest group of surface ships ever put to sea by the Land of the Rising Sun. Their actions over the next couple of hours were extraordinary:

* sinking or crippling four heavy cruisers;
* strafing Japanese gunners with air attacks; and
* bluffing with "dry runs" when ammunition ran out.

The price paid by the men of Taffy 3 was steep: the loss of approximately 1,000 men, including 100 to exhaustion and shark attacks. But by their bravery, they had bought enough time for the other two Taffy groups to return to battle.

In the end, the Japanese paid more dearly for their unexpected attack. Throughout the Battle of Leyte Gulf, they lost 4 aircraft carriers, 3 battleships, 8 cruisers, and 12 destroyers, as well as 10,000+ killed.

Never again would the Japanese Imperial Fleet engage the U.S. Naval in a large-scale operation. Moreover, MacArthur’s forces would operate with a freer hand, using the Philippines to cut off the sea lanes to Japan, thereby depriving the empire access to increasingly necessary raw materials.

For an exceptionally fine history of the Battle off Samar, I would recommend The Last of the Tin Can Sailors, by James Hornfischer. Its account is not only very sound from the larger strategic point of view, but, through extensive interviews with surviving sailors, he was able to reproduce the hellish scenes—flaming fuel, ship wreckage, acrid smoke, the moans of wounded and dying men—surmounted by ordinary young men who became extraordinary heroes in those desperate hours.

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