The Battle

DECLASSIFIED

S E C R E T 

Narrative by:
Captain V. R. Viewig
USNUSS GAMBIER BAY
Second Battle of the Philippines

With considerable detail, the captain of the CVE GAMBIER BAY tells here how that ship was lost in the Battle off Samar on 25 October 1944. He also tells of his experiences in the water and his rescue. This narrative also includes a brief account of the GAMBIER BAY’s earlier activities.

File No.         315
Copy No. _____ of three copies
Recorded:     18 December 1944
Rough Transcript: Ariancia, 20 Dec. 1944
Smooth transcript: Scherrf, 15 Nov. 1945

Captain Wright:

This is in the Office of Naval Records and Library on December 18, 1944.  This morning we have with us Captain W. V. R. Viewig of the GAMBIER BAY. The next voice that you hear will be that of Captain Viewig.

Captain Viewig:

I assumed command of the USS GAMBIER BAY, which is a Kaiser class CVE,

On the 19th of August 1944. At that time the ship was anchored in Segond Channel, Espiritu Santo, New Hebrides Island. Shortly after assuming command the ship proceeded in company with other carriers to Tulagi where it provisioned and prepared for participation in the seizure or Palau.

The GAMBIER BAY’S part in the Palau operation was to furnish aircraft for direct air support of the troops seizing the island and this operation was conducted without any enemy air or surface attacks reaching the GAMBIER BAY. Our planes did destroy many of the ground installations and in return received some AA fire which damaged some of our planes. But, as a matter of general interest, we lost not a single plane during the entire operation either from enemy action or operationally.

On completion of this operation we joined a force under Admiral Blandy which was to seize the Atoll of Ulithi. This operation is probably well known. It was extremely uneventful in that no Jap opposition was encountered and the island was taken over without any losses whatsoever.

Upon completion of the Ulithi operation the GAMBIER BAY, with the KITKUN BAY and WHITE PLAINS, proceeded towards Hollandia with a force returning  troops from the Palau operation. We gave this force air protection enroute.

After arrival at Hollandia we proceeded to Manus where we commenced preparation for the Philippine operation. The GAMBIER BAY left Manus on 8 October, with Task Group 78.2 under the command of Rear Admiral Fechteler. The GAMBIER BAY was the only carrier with this force for several days and provided principally antisubmarine protection and, in addition, furnished some utility services in the form or towing planes for ships antiaircraft gunnery training. We also took advantage of this time to exercise our fighters at fighter direction and to give our fighters a chance to do some dive bombing for practice on a sled towed by the GAMBIER BAY.

About the 11th or 12th of October, I do not recall the exact date, we joined with the KITKUN BAY and with the remainder of Task Force 73 which had come from Hollandia. These two carriers, the KITKUN BAY and the GAMBIER BAY, under the direct command of Rear Admiral Ofstie, proceeded toward Leyte rendering antisubmarine and Combat Air Patrol protection for the task force, that is Task Force 78.

This force was scheduled to land two divisions in the northern part of Leyte. Upon arrival in the general vicinity of our assigned operating area to the eastward of Samar on the evening of the 19th of October, we left the task force and joined a group, Task Group 77.4, under the command or Rear Admiral T. L. Sprague. Our first assignment was actually in Task Unit 77.4.3 under Rear Admiral C. A. F. Sprague.

Commencing with the morning of the 20th, which was the day the landings on Leyte were made and continuing until the 20th and even to the 25th, we were occupied in rendering direct air support to the landing operations and occupational movements of troops on the island of Leyte. We provided Combat the Air Patrol, antisubmarine patrol for vessels in the transport area off Leyte. In addition we provided the same services for ourselves. Our principal job, however, was to launch air strikes against enemy ground positions which we did throughout this period from the 20th to the 24th.

The period 20 to 23 October, was quite uneventful in that we receive no air attacks, and life was quite peaceful aboard ship. The 24th was routine with the exception of the fact that our early morning Combat Air Patrol managed to shoot down seven enemy planes over Leyte. However during the day and into the evening there was something ominous about the reports that were coming in about the movements of enemy ships in the eastern Philippines. It was quite obvious to me from our plots of positions of enemy forces, which were obtained from radio intercepts, that something was stirring and that the Japs were assembling a considerable force of ships including battleships and cruisers. Because of this situation, although our job was not to attack ships of this category, we realized we might perhaps be called upon to divert from our primary mission of supporting the ground operations. I had a conference the evening of the 24th, involving one executive officer, the air officer, our operations officer, the squadron commander of the squadron embarked, who was Lieutenant Commander Huxtable, commanding VC Squadron Ten.

We also had the air ordnance officer at this conference.

I was particularly concerned to make sure that we were ready in case we were called upon to launch a torpedo attack. Among other things I made sure that all our pilots were recently briefed in enemy ship identification and also in the technique of torpedo dropping. They had no recent training or experience in this and I was particularly anxious to make sure that they were at least as well briefed as could be and knew the latest thoughts and techniques pertaining to torpedo dropping. In addition, quite naturally, I made sure that our ordnance gang was fully prepared to load torpedoes on short notice.

At about 2:30 in the morning I was awakened by our communications watch officer who brought me a message indicating that the Battle of Surigao Strait was taking place. Immediately upon receipt of this message and realizing that we might have to help out, I ordered all un-obligated planes loaded with torpedoes.

To clear up what I mean by un-obligated planes: we had a routine schedule to meet for the following day and our forenoon demands for torpedo planes were such as to leave only four of a total of 11 Avengers on board without a prospective chore assigned. The torpedo loading was commenced immediately after issue of this order. Two planes were loaded with torpedoes and two more torpedoes were placed in the fully ready condition and could have been loaded in a few more minutes.

At 0500 in the morning we launched eight fighters to take up routine station over Leyte as Combat Air Patrol for the protection of our ground troops and transports. This flight was launched by catapult in complete darkness except for the lights shown by our screening vessels. There was nothing particularly eventful about this operation worthy of note.

At about 0620, as I recall it, the sun came up. It gives you an idea of how dark it was when our planes were launched. At 063O we had been at general quarters, of course, since about 0430 at the time we started the warming up of planes for the 0500 launch. At about 0630 the officer in tactical command, Rear Admiral C. A. F. Sprague sent a signal by TBS to the effect that commanding officers might secure from general quarters at discretion. I secured from general quarters and went to condition 3 but remained on the bridge as did the navigator who was working up his morning position.

At about O645 things commenced to happen. He intercepted a rather frantic voice transmission from a plane we believed was in an adjacent task unit, Task Unit 77.4.2. The gist of the massage was that the Jap fleet was there somewhere about 40 miles from his home station.  We didn’t have to wait long to get additional information. One of our own task unit’s antisubmarine patrol planes reported the presence to the northwestern, distance about 25 miles, of a Japanese fleet consisting of four battleships, eight cruisers and 13 destroyers. Almost simultaneously there reached me on the bridge a report from the radar room, and there was visible in the PPI on the bridge a force which could be nothing but enemy since we knew of no one that should be in a position 25 miles to the northwest of us. The radar plot confirmed the report from our antisubmarine patrol.

To make certain of the situation required no great amount of thought since about that time major caliber salvos commenced falling in the center of our formation. Just prior to this contact we had been on a northernly course, which as I recall it, was 040. Only a few minutes before the contact we had reversed our course and were headed in a generally southernly direction. Immediately this contact was made and identified as enemy. The officer in tactical command ordered a course change which brought us generally to the east, and was near enough to the wind to permit launching.

Without waiting for instructions I commenced launching all planes on deck since I was under immediate threat of losing everything due to a shell hit on deck and setting the planes on fire. I managed to launch all ten remaining fighters on deck and in addition, the seven torpedo planes that were on deck. Unfortunately the torpedo planes were not fully loaded with bombs or torpedoes due to the situation.

You see we had our planes loaded for missions involving direct support of shore troops and the loading for that was a combination of some planes with a hundred pound bombs and others with 500 pound general purpose bombs. Our next scheduled flight, scheduled for 1000, was an antisubmarine patrol and we were caught in the process of shifting bombs and hence some of our planes had the depth bombs in them that they would be used at 10 o’clock, some of them had nothing in them and others still had the general purpose bombs in them. Our planes, however, did much good in the air as you will find out later. They probably did delay utter catastrophe to the whole task unit.

As soon as I had completed launching the planes on deck, I started bringing up the planes from below which were the four torpedo planes which were not obligated for morning strike missions. Other planes that were brought up from the hanger deck were gassed since it was routine doctrine to keep all planes below the flight deck de-bombed and degassed for the safety of the ship.

By this time the officer in tactical command had changed course in small increments towards the south and when my planes were brought up on deck we had very little relative wind movement over the deck. According to the tables we didn’t have enough wind to launch a fully loaded and fully fueled torpedo plane. The first torpedo plane to be launched with a torpedo in it was accordingly launched with only 35 gallons of gasoline in it. This plane subsequently launched a torpedo successfully against the enemy and then, of course, was lost.

The first torpedo plane, notwithstanding the fact that it didn’t have enough wind over the deck, went of all right and I permitted the fully loading of the second one with gasoline. This was launched with a full gasoline load and torpedo in it and also took part in making an attack on the enemy.

The remaining two planes were gassed fully. One of them was brought up on deck and later on jettisoned. We had changed course a little more to the south which brought the wind almost directly astern of us and there was only a five knot relative wind over the deck and I know that was certain death for the crew to catapult it and hence I pulled the crew out of the plane and catapulted the plane without a crew just as a means of jettisoning it since we were by that time threatened with hits. Salvos were falling pretty close.

During the period from about 0710 to about 0730 the enemy main body was pretty well concentrated astern of us generally to the north of us.  Our destroyers made an attack at this time. All or our ships made smoke, Our planes in the air made attacks, repeated attacks, many of them without bombs. About this tine a rain squall intervened and that result of all these things in combination was such as to bring about a lull in the firing from the enemy force. And also a change in their relative position.

When we came out of this rain squall at about 0830 as near as I can tell the situation was essentially this: we were still in a good formation,  that is, the carriers were. As a matter of interest, there were six carriers in the formation, all equally spaced on a circle 5,000 yards in diameter, The ships were stationed in the following order, clockwise, the ST. LO was due north of the center of the circle. Other ships were in clockwise rotation separated by 60 degrees in the following order, KALININ BAY, GAMBIER BAY, KITKUN BAY, WHITE PLAINS, and FANSHAW BAY. The latter ship contained the O.T.C. and at that time was the guide.

All our destroyers, all our screen consisting of three 2,100 ton destroyers and four DE’s had already left their screening station which had been a circle outside of this inner circle of CVE’s. They had left and made their attack so that at about this time as we came out or the ruin squall, carriers were still in this circular formation. Our destroyers and destroyer-escorts were gone away from the formation; engaged in smoke-laying operations, torpedo attacks, and gun fire.

The enemy’s main body, that is, the battleships, were essentially about ten miles to the north of us. A division of cruisers of either three or four in number, probably of the TONE class, had gained station about 15 or 16,000 yards to the northeast of the formation. The wind was generally from the northeast. As a result the GAMBIER BAY and the KALININ BAY were on the exposed windward flank of the formation where our own smoke provided very little coverage between us and these cruisers to the northeast. It did offer more protection to the other ships of the formation. And the destroyer smoke and their attacks momentarily, at least, suppressed the fire from the main enemy battleship body to the north, directly to the north of us.

These cruisers then to the northeast were in an excellent position and without opposition to pour in a rather heavy fire upon the GAMBIER BAY and the KITKUN BAY which they proceeded to do without delay. However, their fire was somewhat inaccurate, not very fast, salvos were about a minute or a minute and a half apart and they did not fire a particularly large salvo, they fired four gun salvos. Apparently the Tone class were firing alternately the first two turrets and then the second two turrets rather than firing an eight-gun salvo. Why that was, I don’t know. The pattern of this four—gun salvo was rather small. Their spotting was rather methodical and enabled us to dodge salvos.

I maneuvered the ship alternately from one side of the base course to another as I saw that a salvo was about due to hit. One could observe that the salvos would hit some distance away and gradually creep up closer and from the spacing on the water could tell that the next one would be on if we did nothing. We would invariably turn into the direction from which the salvos were creeping and sure enough the next salvo would land right in the water where we would have been, if we hadn’t turned. The next few salvos would creep across to the other side and gradually creep back and would repeat the operation. This process lasted for, believe it or not, a half hour during which the enemy was closing constantly.

When the range was finally reduced to about 10,000 yards, we weren’t quite so lucky and we took a hit through the flight deck, followed almost immediately by a most unfortunate piece of damage which I believe was caused by a salvo which fell just short of the port side of the ship and the shell probably exploded very near the plates outside of the forward engine room. We had a hole in our port engine room as a result or this hit or, near miss which permitted rapid flooding of the engine room and made it necessary to secure. With the loss of this one engine my speed was dropped from full speed of 19 1/2 knots to about 11 knots. Of course, I dropped astern of the formation quite rapidly and the range closed at an alarming speed.

The Japs really poured it in then and we were being hit with practically every salvo, at least one shot in each salvo did damage to the ship, although there were still occasional wild salvos. During the period from this first hit, which was around 8:10 in the morning, until we sank, which was about 9:10 in the morning, we were being hit probably every other minute. The hits that went through the upper structure did very little damage since the shells did not explode inside the ship. However, those shells which hit either just short or below the water line did explode and the result was that in very short order I had a flooded after engine room. I had to secure which left the ship helpless in the water and without any power to provide water pressure.

Up to this time we had managed to keep our fires, started by the shell hits, suppressed, but when we lost water pressure, every hit was a small fire, which soon developed into a larger one. The one remaining plane on the hanger deck was hit and caught fire, the gasoline in it caught fire. I do not think that the torpedo, torpex – loaded, exploded, but I believe the gas burned at a high rate, approaching explosion.

At about 0850 with the ship helpless in the water and with this division of cruisers passing close by and other ships of the main formation passing close by on the other side and being fired at from all sides, I ordered the ship abandoned. As we were abandoning ship the enemy ships in various directions were still firing. As a matter of fact, as the ship rolled over at about 0904, as I recall it, somewhere in there, a few minutes before she completely disappeared, there was a cruiser about 2,000 yards away still pumping it in and also still missing.

After we sank, the enemy ships that had been firing on us went about their business and pursued the remainder of our formation and disappeared from sight. However, perhaps the most alarming thing of the whole operation, from my point of view, was the fact that very shortly alter we sank I observed a large Japanese ship dead in the water about three miles to the eastward. We were pretty low in the water hanging on to a life raft bouncing up and down and not feeling too well. I’m not so positive of the identification as to say that I’m entirely right. I believe it was a battle- ship of either the KONGO or FUSO class since the pagoda type structure would indicate such was the case. Personally, I did not see the stacks but an officer trained in identification is quite certain in his own mind that it was a KONGO class battleship since it had two stacks.

At any rate this ship remained dead in the water until about sunset at which time it gradually picked up steerage way to change course to the north and disappeared from sight. This ship was at all times attended by a destroyer, a two stack destroyer, which during the early hours would seem to disappear and reappear and we couldn’t quite figure out what it was doing, whether it was picking up people or what. Once the ship got underway just before sunset, this destroyer continued to circle the apparently damaged battleship.

The following day, the 26th, thank God, there was no enemy ship insight. It is a matter of conjecture with me what happened to it. We were not picked up as you can gather on the following day, in fact, towards night fall we could see the beech which we believed was Samar. We expected to be sent that way by the wind and currents. Midnight the 27th passed by without our being picked up and shortly thereafter we sighted ships which we hoped were friendly. We waited until we were entirely certain of their identity at which time I fired a Very star and received a prompt reply. Some time between midnight and daybreak in the morning the bulk of our survivors were picked up.

Personally the small group I had with me consisting of about 150 men gathered into a cluster of rafts was picked up about 4:30 in the morning, thereby making our cruise in the water of about two days‘ duration.

To go back a little bit, may I say once I got clear of the ship and was personally safe, my first thought was to assemble all the rafts into one large group. This I proceeded to do and had collected about 150 people when I observed this battleship. At that time I thought I had better quit that process since it did attract attention and the last thing in the world we wanted to do was to be captured, so I ordered the assembly of rafts discontinued and we all just laid low quietly in the water and tried to show nothing that would flash or attract attention.

As a matter of interest as to how I personally managed to get off the ship: I remained on the bridge until everyone was off the bridge and the navigator who had the deck, and I remained up there and we saw that abandoning ship process was continuing successfully and people were getting off and at that time I directed the navigator to leave the bridge and look out for himself, which he proceeded to do by clambering down the life lines which led from the open bridge.

I myself wished to make doubly sure that everyone was clear and proceeded down through the island structure. However, by this time, apparently there was a terrific fire, probably caused by the one remaining plane on the hanger deck. Smoke and hot gasses were pouring up through the island structure and I found myself in a rather embarrassing position in that I couldn’t go back up on account of the smoke which was really climbing up through that area. And about that time another salvo went through the bridge structure which urged my departure. I continued, however, down to the flight deck and when I reached there, the gasses were so hot and black that  I couldn’t see.

I managed to feel my way aft along the island structure hoping to reach the cat walk and perhaps get aft and below that way. However, instead of walking down the ladder into the cat walk gracefully, I fell into it, not being able to see and I couldn’t make out for certain where I was, in fact, I was so confused at that moment that I thought I might have gone further aft than I had and had fallen into a stack, so hot and so black were the gasses. However, I reached up instinctively.

At this time I was probably prompted solely by instincts of self-preservation and grabbed a hold of the upper edge of that I was in and pulled myself up and over and started falling and a few seconds, perhaps a fraction or a second later, I broken to clear air with water beneath me. I fell about 40 feet and hit the water with quite a smack.

I had on me at that time my helmet and my pistol which seemed to help very little since it gave me a good jab in the ribs and my helmet, being secured at the time almost choked me as I hit the water. However, I came up quite rapidly and the cold water seemed to revive me very quickly and I felt in perfectly good health except for my somewhat crippled right side which prevented my using my right arm very much.

However, I think under these circumstances the instinct of self-preservation will take care of some rather astounding damage and I had no trouble in making my way clear of the ship once I started thinking and realized I had to swim aft instead of away from the ship. I had gone over the starboard side and the ship was drifting rapidly to starboard and being set down upon me and I couldn’t swim away from it at all but swam aft.

About the time I got aft to the ship, aft to the starboard quarter, another salvo went through the ship and at that time the ship was almost ready to roll over. The port side was in the water to the extent where the hanger deck was under water. I got about 100 yards off the port quarter at which time the ship very slowly rolled over to port and very slowly sank, and there was no serious detonation.

I did take the precaution to get my rear end out of the water by putting a board under it and lying on my back but apparently that was unnecessary since there was no major explosion. I’ve told you what I did from there on in after the ship sank. I tried to assemble life rafts until I thought it imprudent on account of the nearness of enemy vessels.

In all this account I hope you will recall that all records were lost and that I am stating things purely from memory. Times may be slightly in error, but I don’t think seriously so.

As a matter of overall interest in the battle, may I say that I entered this battle with absolutely no knowledge of the fact that the enemy we en-countered had gone through San Bernardino Strait the night before. Information to this effect, if obtained by higher authority, had not been transmitted to this ship. I think that’s about all I have to say.

Capt. Wright:

Thank you very much, Captain Viewig

END

* * *

P
CVE-73
A16-3/A9-J

USS GAMBIER BAY (CVE-73)
C/O Fleet Post Office
San Francisco, California

27 November 1944

From: Executive Officer.

To: Commanding Officer.

Subject: Report of Battle.

Reference; (a) Article 948, U. S. Navy Regulation

1.           The general conduct of the ships company during the action, while abandoning ship and in the rafts, was in general excellent. The crew acted in a calm and well-disciplined manner throughout. The abandoning of the ship was accomplished rapidly and without any indication of panic.

2.           No cases deserving of censure were reported. Although no examples of heroism or extraordinary bravery were disclosed, the following men are recommended for letters of commendation for their ceaseless and unselfish efforts in aiding and comforting the wounded, both on the rafts and in rescue vessels: GALLAHER, Harold V., PhM1/1c, Ray, Allen F. HA1/c, and TRIBBETT, Raymond A. RM1/c.

3.           At the time of writing there are 133 officers and men missing or killed in action. The following parts of the ship were those where the greatest number of casualties occurred: (a) gallery deck, port side, in the vicinity of the Forward 40mm battery; (b) gallery deck, port aide, in the vicinity of the Communication Office; (c) the hanger deck. The latter being the scene of the greatest number of deaths, because of the concentration of personnel in the process of abandoning ship.

4.           The following are suggestions for the improvement of abandoning ship equipment:

(a) The use of bungs in water breakers was proven impractical. Those that withstood the shock of being dropped in the water were soon knocked out of the casks when handled in the rafts. A spigot positively fixed to the breaker is required.

(b) The buoyant material of the floater nets is made of laminated sections which pinch the occupants of the nets, causing spots subject to infection and aggravating salt water sores. The edges are so sharp as to cause, at the least, extreme discomfort. This buoyant materiel should be made in single pieces or the laminated sections should be securely bound, and all edges should have a large radius bevel.

(c) All water, food and first aid packet containers, should have external handles or loops, so that they may be towed by the rafts. When kept in the raft: they are a constant inconvenience and annoyance, particularly if wounded are aboard.

(d) Kapok life Jackets, are by far the best of the various types of personnel floating aide for the following reasons: (e) not subject to vital damage by shrapnel; (b) its shape gives more support in the water;

(e) it helps keep the body warm. Of course, Kapok jackets are too bulky to be worn at all times about the ship, particularly during action.  However it should be the practice to have one of them for each man at or near his battle station for use when abandoning ship.

R.R. Ballinger

*

PART II
“PLAY BY PLAY“ NARRATIVE”
October 25, 1944

O415 Manned all Flight Quarter Stations.

O430 Manned all General Quarter Stations.

0457 Commenced launching VF (FM-2 Fighters) by Catapult.

0505 Completed launching 8 VF (FM-2 Fighters).

0616 Sunrise.

0635 Received TBS message from OTC “Set Condition 3 at discretion of Commanding Officer”.

0637 Secured from General Quarters. Set Condition 3. Captain and Navigator on bridge.

0640 Anti-Aircraft fire observed to the Northwest.

0643 Intercepted an almost unintelligible excited VHF transmission from in ASP plane from T.U. 77.4.2 to its base to the effect that the Japanese fleet was sighted 30 miles from base. (T.U. 77.4.2 was operating 10 miles south of our position at the time.)

0644 A local ASP plane reported an enemy force consisting of 4 BB’s, 8 CA’s and/or CL‘s and 4 DD’s.

0645 A large unidentified surface force indication appeared on SG Radar bearing 300° (T) distance 23 1/2 miles.

0645 Sounded General Quarters.

0646 OTC gave signal by TBS ”Execute upon receipt 9 turn”, (making new course 130°) and ”speed 16″. Executed signal except, on orders from the Captain, engine room was directed to make maximum speed.

0647 OTC signaled by TBS “Make maximum speed possible.”

0647 All General Quarters stations were manned.

0648 The OTC commenced passing information concerning the contacts and made urgent requests for immediate assistance to C.T.G. 77.4. and Commander Support Aircraft Central Philippines. These transmissions were in voice on 2096 kilocycles Inter Commander Support Aircraft circuit. This circuit was loaded with this type of traffic throughout the engagement. Enemy “Chatter” was heard intermittently on this circuit but apparently no attempt was made to effectively Jam it.

0650 OTC gave signal over TBS “090 turn.”

0652 Order given to jettison three (3) remaining napalm bombs located on No. 5 sponson.

0654 Gun flashes observed on horizon to the Northwest and large caliber salvo splashes were seen falling near the ships on the northern side of the formation. (enemy’s initial firing range established an approximately 35,0O0 yards.)

0655 All planes on the flight deck (7 TBM-1C and 10 FM-2) turning up ready for launching.

0657 Commenced launching planes.

0705 Completed launching all planes on flight deck. (This left 4 TBM-1C aboard – all on hanger deck).

O708 Brought 1 TBM-1C up the forward elevator.

0709 OTC signaled by TBS “All carriers lunch all aircraft”.

0710 Launched 1 TBM (loaded with 1 torpedo). Destroyer screen deployed making smoke to cover the CVE group.

0715 – 0730 Foul weather between own task Unit and closing enemy forces momentarily checked fire and only a few salvo splashes were observed in the formation during this period.

0723 Changed course on TBS signal to the south.

0730 Picked up on SG radar two or three vessel: bearing 170° (T) distance 19 miles.

O730 Enemy force, at least six separate tracks on DRT, making approaches from 270° around to about 060°.

0731 Advance cruiser unit moving around northeast flank. Estimated speed of this unit 30 knots. Weather partially cleared between own and parts of enemy force.

0731 Salvos splashing intermittently near GAMBIER BAY, WHITE PLAINS and FANSHAW BAY under concentrated fire.

0732 Destroyer screen ordered by OTC to deliver a torpedo attack.

0733 One TBM loaded with torpedo brought up from hangar deck on forward elevator.

0734 Commenced pumping aviation gasoline to gas the plane now on the flight deck.

0738 Completed gassing and purged the gasoline systems. (Pumped inert gas in risers to all filling stations.)

0740 OTC gave TBS order to “open fire with the “pea shooters” when range is clear.

0741 Commenced firing 5″ gun at enemy cruiser 17,000 yards on port quarter. (Approximately 30 rounds expended before gun was put out of commission by near miss and three (3) hits were observed on target: one hit on forward turret, one on fantail and one on bridge. Shells were fired with fuses on safe and damage to enemy is considered slight.)

0745 Launched one TBM, enemy salvos straddling the ship.

0755-0810 Salvos fell near the ship shortly after fire was opened with the 5” gun. During this period the ship was maneuvered to avoid salvos.

0746 Changed course to 210 (T) (on this course there was not enough wind across the deck to catapult a loaded TBM).

0750 Jettisoned one TBM by catapult. (This left only 1 plane – a TBM – aboard which was on the hanger deck near the forward elevator.)

0750 Three unidentified ships sighted on horizon dead ahead of formation. Sent effective major war vessel challenge on 24” searchlight. All three ships responded immediately with correct reply. On the strength of this identification (too far away to be identified by sight), on order from the Captain, the Signal Officer sent “BT WE ARE UNDER ATTACK BT K”. The center vessel “dashed” for each word and “rogered” for the message. (It was thought by some that these ships proved to be enemy and closed and opened fire.

0800 Changed course on was signal to 200°(T).

0805 Changed course on TBS signal to 210°(T).

0810 First hit, after end of flight deck starboard side near Batt II. Fires started on flight and hangar deck – personnel casualties small.

0815 Changed course on TBS signal to 240°(T).

O820 Hit in forward (port) engine room below waterline.

0821 Two portable electric submersible pumps placed in operation. Bilge pumps started.

0825 The Captain informed OTC by TBS that ship had been hit hard and had lost one engine.

0825 Engine room flooded to burner level. Boilers secured.

0826 All loads shifted to after generators and engine room.

0827 Forward engine roan secured. Slowed to 11 knots, dropping astern and out of formation.

O837 Lost steering control forward probably as result of ruptured liquid lines by shell fragments from hit in or near the island structure.

O840 Radars went out of commission.

0840 After engine room hit – 8″ shell entered skin of ship pierced No. 3 boiler and probably lodged in the lower part of generating tubes.

0842 Water poured rapidly into after engine room from the sea. Bilge pump section taken in after engine room.

0843 All boilers secured on order of the Engineering Officer.

0845 Ship dead in water. Ordered all classified material jettisoned.

0850 Gave order to “abandon ship”. (The ship was in a sinking condition surrounded by three enemy cruisers firing at point blank range.)

0855 The Navigator, who, as Officer of the Deck, had remained with the Captain on the open bridge until then, was directed to abandon ship and did so via the starboard bridge life lines just as another salvo pierced the island structure.

0858 The Captain attempted to reach the interior of the ship via interior island structure ladder but was driven onto the flight deck then aft over the starboard side by hot block toxic smoke.

0907 Ship capsized to port.

0911 Last sign of ship disappeared from surface of the eater.

0930 – 1230 During this period the majority of the survivors assembled into seven or eight separate groups. They lashed life rafts and floater nets together and collected sections of flight deck planking and any other floating debris with sufficient positive buoyancy to support those for whom there was no room on or aboard the rafts.

At least three attacks before noon by groups of four to six TBM’s each with escorting FM’s were observed on enemy ships to the Northeast, East and Southeast. Inaccurate bursts of anti-aircraft fire was seen as these attacks were being made. With the exception of a large vessel with a destroyer standing by to the southeast, none of the enemy ships were seen by the survivors in the water. this particular ship has been definitely called a Kongo battleship by a few and not so positively identified as a heavy cruiser by others.

1300 Dive bombing attack (6-8 SBD’s and F6F’s) approached at 10 – 12000 feet altitude from the northeast, made a complete circle around to the south, and took departure to the northwest. (Presumably in pursuit of the retiring Japanese force). As this fight circled around our group intermittent but effective bursts of AA tire were observed apparently from the ship or ships damaged and dead in the water and by their escorts.

1800 Large Enemy vessel (Kongo Class BB) with a destroyer nearby in sight during the forenoon still visible and observed on a northerly heading at very slow speed (if underway at all), by some of the survivors. (Note: This ship was not seen the next morning and some survivors believe it was scuttled during the night as heavy explosions were heard during the night).

October 26, 1944.

0900 1 TBM and 1 FM, together, passed five (5) miles to the east at altitude 6000 feet. Red and green Very stars were fired and dye markers thrown in the water. The planes apparently saw none of these and continued on their northerly course.

0945 Same two planes observed at 0900 returning five (5) miles to the west on a southerly course. All attempts to attract attention were to no avail.

From time to time several groups of survivors sighted each other and closed within hailing distance.

Two men were lost to sharks during the late morning and early afternoon. Lt. Budeurs, who was lost, had taken off his trousers and was wearing only white skivvy pants when he was bitten in the buttox and died a few minutes later and was buried at sea.

1200 All groups were about equally spaced along either aide of a line bearing 260°-080°, 35-45 miles from the center of the coastline of Samar.

2230 T.G. 78.12 (2 PC’s and 5 LCI’s) sighted Very stars fired by various groups of survivors. (Note: This task group had been dispatched from Leyte Gulf to locate and rescue the survivors of the ships sunk in this engagement. They had arrived at the reported position of sinking, which was about 15 miles southeast of the estimated actual position, at 0800 26 October. This group made continual sweeps north and south with the search line running east and west until they sighted the Very stars indicated above.)

October 27, 1944

0000-0430. Ships of T.G. 78.12 picked up approximately 700 survivors from the GAMBIER BAY 15-20 miles east of Samar.

0700-1000 Search was continued by C.T.G. 78.12 and survivors from the HOEL, JOHNSTON, and ROBERTS were rescued.

1000 T.G. 78.1.2 departed for LEYTE GULF. (Note: There were no aircraft observed by either the survivors or the rescue vessels offering any effective assistance in the rescue operations.)

1200 T.G. 78.12 under attack by three Japanese dive-bombers which scored near misses on ships of the unit but did no damage.

COMMUNICATIONS

RADIO:

A11 radios functioned satisfactorily with the exception of intermittent interference noted on 2096 (ICSA – Voice) caused by atmospheric conditions. Japanese chatter was heard sporadically on this circuit and also on 37.6 (IFD) just prior to contact and during the engagement. Neither circuit was effectively jammed but the fact that the enemy evidently has a set similar to the SCR-808 is considered worthy of note.

VISUAL:

No flag hoists or light transmissions were made by this ship during the engagement except at 0750 when three unidentified vessels appeared on the horizon to the south. In the absence of any intervening screening ship these ships were challenged by the GAMBIER BAY, using the 24” searchlight, with the effective three letter major war vessel challenge. All three vessels immediately sent the proper three letter reply, repeating several times. The following message was then sent to them: “BT WE ARE UNDER ATTACK BT K”. The center vessel “dashed” and “rogered” for the message. An attempt was further made to identify the vessels’ calls by sending AA but no reply was received. (Note: These ships may have been destroyers dispatched by commander Seventh Fleet from Leyte Gulf scheduled to relieve the three destroyers in the screen of Task Unit 77.A.3. It is thought by many survivors, however, that these proved to be enemy ships and opened fire on our ship.)

INTERCEPTS:

During the entire operation the following CW circuits were guarded: Bells, Manus Fox, Task Force Common, Fleet Common. From these circuits sufficient intercept traffic was received and broken to provide plots at enemy units moving in West Philippine waters.

REGISTERED PUBLICATIONS AND OPERATION ORDERS:

All publications and devices on open shelves or otherwise loose in the Code Room and Communication Office were placed in weighted canvas bags and jettisoned either in weighted bags or throw separate1y into the ocean. Those publications contained in the safes in the Code Room, Communication Office, Air Office and in the Confidential Locker adjacent to Air Plot were left and locked therein.

CIC and RADAR:

The equipment in CIC and radars installed were standard for vessels of this class. The performance of all equipment and personnel was highly satisfactory throughout the entire engagement. The SG Radar picked up the enemy force at 47,000 yards, about the same time as did similar sets in other CVE’s of the formation. Ranges were furnished Gunnery Control for fire control purposes as the enemy cruisers closed from the northeast within range of the 5″ gun. The radars and remote PPI’s were intentionally damaged just before abandoning ship. The IFF responder was removed and dropped into the water where it sank.

USE OF SMOKE:

As has been noted elsewhere in this report all ships of the Task Unit, on orders from the OTC, made and effective volume of smoke, which undoubtedly in combination with a rain squall, adversely affected the enemy’s gunnery and caused a reduction of damage to all CVE’s of the disposition, particularly from the heavy guns in  the enemy’s main body. Smoke, however, afforded no protection to this ship from the fire of the cruisers on our eastern, windward flank.

OWN AND ENEMY TATICS:

  1. Other than the employment of all possible speed there was little that the Task Unit could do to escape an enemy force with superior firepower and speed. The OTC used his screening vessels to intervene, make smoke, and attack the heavy ships with torpedoes and 5″ guns. At the same time he ordered all carriers to make smoke and set the course to the southwest, in the direction of possible assistance from our own forces in Leyte Gulf.

  2. The enemy used fast elements of his force to encircle our force. His ships gained station on three sides of this disposition. This was an excellent maneuver to use to prevent our escape and close us it our force had been only slightly inferior in firepower and speed to his own force, but he wasted valuable time in which he might have used a division of his fast cruisers to plow directly through our vastly inferior force, sinking each escort carrier in turn, without serious risk to himself. Our planes and destroyer screen perhaps gave him the impression that our force (Partially obscured by smoke) was stronger than it actually was.

  3. What actually prompted the enemy’s decision to retire is a matter of conjecture. From our viewpoint he had no good reason. This is discussed in the special action report of 29 October by C.T.U. 77.4.3 and no doubt amplified in his latest complete action report.

  4. Due to the slow rate of fire (over a minute between salvos) and the small patterns (4 gun salvos about 25 yards in diameter) the ship was able, by maneuvering to avoid hits for a considerable period. The salvos were apparently being spotted on in increments of about one hundred yards. Course was changed about twenty degrees when it appeared that the next salvo would be “on”. Invariably the next salvo would land where we would have been had we failed to turn. The salvos would fall well clear for a few minutes and then creep closer again until a hit threatened. Another small turn by us and another series of “misses” would follow. This “snake dance” lasted about twenty-five minutes until the range closed to about 10,000 yards when the ship was first hit at about 0810.

ENGINEERING:

  1. Until forced to secure, the engineering plant functioned satisfactorily. Maximum speed was attained by changing burner tips to size 36, increasing oil pressure to 400 lbs per square inch, opening wide, steam valves in all four force draft blowers and increasing engine speed to 178 r.p.m.

  2. Blowers as installed do not furnish sufficient air for complete combustion of oil at maximum speed. Top speed might probably have been increased by two knots had there been an additional blower in each engine room.

  3. Flooding of both engine rooms required the simultaneous use of all available pumps. The capacity of these pumps was not great enough to control the flooding of the machinery spaces. It is recommended that a main drain suction be installed on auxiliary circulating pumps thereby increasing the total output of pumps which could be used to control flooding.

MEDICAL:

  1. When General Quarters sounded, all four battle dressing stations, sick bay, Chief’s Quarters, conditioning room, after mess hall, made preparations to receive and treat casualties. Two of the battle dressing stations (Chief’s Quarters and conditioning room) treated casualties; the other two were wiped out before patients could be brought to them. The station in the conditioning room treated a small number of casualties before it was destroyed. In both the active stations, treatment, because of limited time, consisted of administration of morphine, control of hemorrhage, and the bandaging of wounds. By far the greater number of casualties were treated by shipmates nearby or by themselves; all hands had been carefully instructed in the administration of morphine, hemorrhage, control and bandaging.

  2. In the water, after abandoning ship, first aid use continued by medical department personnel and then men and officers in the various groups. For the first twenty-four hours none of the personnel were excessively uncomfortable although a number of the severely wounded died. Lack of food and water was not a problem for this period of time, even among the wounded. After approximately thirty hours, a large number of the injured and many of the uninjured became thirsty and kept asking for water. It was at this time that restraint of many men to prevent them from drinking salt water became a serious problem. A small number of men became delirious; as time passed the number of these men increased and it was with difficulty that they were kept with their groups and prevented from drowning themselves. Several of these men had to be restrained from injuring the wounded and other members of their groups.

  3. There were only isolated cases of attacks by sharks, although the majority of the groups had sharks in their vicinity. The two known attacks were on men with white skivvies or no clothes on at all. Both victims died within a few hours.

  4. The length of time spent in the water varied from forty to forty-eight hours. Although suffering from sun, immersion, exposure and exhaustion most of the survivors were in good condition; a great many, however, developed ulcers on the anterior surfaces of the legs which were slow in healing but caused no difficulty in walking.

  5. The importance of extensive training of all personnel in the fundamentals of first aid cannot be too strongly emphasized. This vessel held first aid lectures daily. The fact that the great majority of casualties either administered first aid to themselves or were treated by shipmates speaks for itself; many of the injured owe their lives to the first aid training of their shipmates. Control of hemorrhage administration of morphine and bandaging must be taught to all men aboard ship. In this action, as in many others, the easy accessibility of morphine and its free use on the wounded is of great importance.

  6. Personnel on life rafts found the medical kits satisfactory in every way except for the difficulty in keeping the contents dry once the containers were opened.

  7. Since none of the men, except some of the wounded, required water for about twenty-four hours, it may be concluded that conservation of emergency rations on hand may be effected by not issuing any for the first twenty-four hours. Hunger was never a problem.

  8. Since morphine and drinking water are the most necessary items in the water, the following is suggested as a means of having each man carry his own supply: a belt with one or two (if possible) light canteens on it, and having two pockets in the front, one of which to contain a pack of morphine syrettes and the other water tight can containing twenty-four malted milk tablets.

RECOMMENDATIONS AND CONCLUSION:

  1. In both the fast and escort carrier task forces, the practice of conducting dawn and dusk short range air searches characteristic of our peace-time maneuvers has gradually gone into discard until such searches have become the exception rather than the rule. Shore based searches and intelligence from other sources have been relied upon to provide all vital strategic information; and further, radar is being depended upon to a high degree to prevent tactical surprise.

  2. It is therefore recommended that:

(a) All carrier task units operation independently maintain a dawn and dusk search of 360° to a distance of at least fifty (50) miles.

(b) At least one ship with SH (or better) radar be assigned to each carrier task unit.

  1. This task unit (even though unsupported) could have raised havoc with the enemy if it bad had but an hours warning of impending contact. The advantage to the side able to effect tactical SURPRISE has been impressively demonstrated once more.

  2. From the fragments of information available, it would appear that the enemy was able to steam through San Bernardino strait and proceed toward Leyte unreported and undetected until first men, reported, and engaged by this Task Unit. That this could be possible seems incredible at first. However, after further thought in the matter it appears that the divided chains of command for the Naval Forces in and near the Philippines for this operation may have been conducive to producing just such a situation. To guard against the possible occurrence of such a situation in the future, it may prove desirable to have all naval unite (Including all air units operating over the water and all submarines) responsible to a single Naval Commander. He should be in the combat zone, actively directing and tracking the movements of all major surface units, and initiating and coordinating all search operations (including those by air and submarine,). Such a Naval Commander could best evaluate and disseminate vital strategic information if not compelled to maintain radio silence.

  3. The following are observations of the survivors regarding lifesaving and abandon ship equipment during the 40 odd hour period in the water. Remedial suggestions are noted after each deficiency or malfunction of equipments:

(a) Not a single water breaker on any raft retained potable fresh water not- withstanding the fact that all breakers had been refilled with fresh water only two days previously. The spigots were not adequate, they were either knocked loose when the rafts were dropped to the water or accidently kicked loose by personnel in the raft. The fresh water was either lost or contaminated by the sea. Here reliable and more sturdy water containers should be provided without delay. As a suggestion, individual sealed metal cans (similar to those in aviation personnel’s emergency rations) placed in a larger metal can might prove adequate. This would permit consumption of entire cans thus leaving no part of a can or breaker having once been opened exposed to the possibility of sea eater being mixed with the fresh.

(b) There were many severely sounded who died in the water who might have survived had they not remained immersed in the salt water. There were a few rubber life rafts among the survivors and these were used to carry as many of those wounded as possible. Recommend at least four three man rafts per three hundred men aboard. These rafts to be released from special metal containers placed along the sides of the ship with the regular rafts.

(c) In practically all the rafts the canvas bands and lines holding the grating in the bottom and life lines around the perimeter gave way shortly after they were in the water. These bands and lines should be tested and replaced frequently enough to prevent failure. In most cases extra line was used to re-lash the bottom gratings. Extra lengths of line of various size could always be used.

(d) For additional assurance that every man has a small amount of water, food and medical supplies the pockets on the kapok life jacket might be altered to securely carry a first aid packet and individual emergency rations. Also a recess be provided to contain a canteen which is easily accessible to be removed the change the water at frequent intervals.

(e) In all floater nets there were cases of increased irritation and resulting salt water sores caused by rubbing of the cylindrical buoyant components directly against the individuals in the net. This was very annoying and added to the discomfort of all concerned. If the size and shape of the buoyant components were altered to resemble a football, the irritant effects of contact would be eliminated.

  1. The following suggestions are offered to increase efficiency of the damage control method: on this type vessel:

(a) Install in damage control center a remote control panel for the sprinkling system. This panel should be identical and in addition to those two already mounted on the hangar deck.

(b) Install an MC system with provision for shifting to emergency battery power with outlets at all repair party stations and at damage control center. (This would be in addition to the 21MC)

  1. The Executive Officer‘s relentless enforcement of the provision that all men carry life jackets and wear full length clothing at all times in a combat zone in responsible in no small measure for the high percentage of survivors. A few men who discarded items of clothing in the water suffered most severely from sunburn and immersion.

R.R. Ballinger

* * *

In Harms Way –   The Saga of the Gambier Bay

By Barrett Tillman

Reprinted with permission of the author (1/2014)

Visit his Website at http://www.btillman.com/

1USS Gambier Bay, straddled by large calibre rounds
from VADM Kurita’s surface force –  25 October 1944

(Painting is by C.G. Evers, reproduced with permission of the U.S. Naval Institute)

*

Supported by the Seventh Fleet, Army troops landed on Leyte Island in the central Philippines 20 October 1944. The invasion sparked one of the largest naval-air battles in history. The sprawling three-day engagement passed into history as the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

On the morning of 25 October Task Group 77.4.3 – six escort carriers, three destroyers and four destroyer escorts – was caught off Samar by a Japanese battleship-cruiser force totaling 23 men-of-war. It was the only occasion when U.S. carriers were engaged by enemy surface combatants. Taffy Three, under RADM Clifton A. Sprague, conducted a magnificent defense but sustained severe casualties. In four hours, two CVEs were sunk (one by a Kamikaze) and three escorts were lost. Only one CVE escaped damage.

Aided by aircraft of nearby Taffy One and Two, Sprague’s outnumbered, outgunned group passed into American naval legend. This account of Gambier Bay‘s ordeal is dedicated to all CVE sailors and aviators who fought “The Battle of the Taffies.”

It was nearly 0630 when the sun broke over the eastern rim of the Philippine Sea. The quickly-gathering daylight revealed a one-third cumulus cloud cover but the sea remained calm. An easterly breeze of 6-8 knots was blowing, with occasional gusts to 15 knots within the scattered rain squalls.

2

USS Gambier Bay CVE-73 commissioned 24 December 1943.
Kaiser-built Casablanca class: 20-30 aircraft, 7800 tons,

156 x 20 x 6.85 metres  (513 x 65 x 22.5 feet)
two reciprocating steam engines, 9000ihp, 19 knots

 

In USS Gambier Bay (CVE-73) sailors and airmen prepared for the escort carrier’s 303rd day since commissioning. Attention was focused upon supporting the army troops who had gone ashore on Leyte five days before, 20 October 1944. Composite Squadron 10 had launched eight FM-2s at 0500 for CAP over Leyte. In aerology, LEUT Rannie Odum and his crew expected another of those hot, humid days when smoke and haze lay low in the air.

Up on the bridge, CAPT Walter V.R. Viewig was joined by the navigator, CMDR George Gelhorn. A couple of minutes later, at 0637, the skipper received authorization from RADM Clifton A. Sprague to stand down from GQ. Sprague commanded the force of six CVEs and escorts officially known is Task Group 77.4.3, but which passed into history for its call sign, “Taffy Three”.

Viewig passed the word to secure and set Condition Three. All over the ship, men loosened lifejackets, removed helmets, got up to head for chow. Others, not yet on duty, returned to their bunks for a bit more sleep.

At 0640 some men were just sitting down to breakfast and others were standing in line. Topside, lookouts were pointing their glasses to the north-west, where something seemed to be happening just over the horizon. Bursts of anti-aircraft fire were observed in that quadrant. It was a puzzling development. A few men speculated that other American ships were firing at friendly aircraft; it happened all too often.

3

4

A Grumman TBM Avenger (top) was the first to raise the alarm and attack the enemy.
The TBM was a Grumman TBF torpedo reconnaissance aircraft
built by General Motors. The FM Wildcat fighter was a Grumman F4-F,
also built by General Motors

 

But other strange occurrences also were happening. Down in the radio shack, the duty crew monitored a peculiar, almost unintelligible VHF transmission. Apparently it came from a Taffy Two Avenger on anti-sub patrol; something about many Japanese ships sighted 30 miles from base. If true, it was a startling development. Not only had there been no word of any such enemy force, but the contact report, if accurate, placed the Japanese only 20 miles away. Taffy Three at that moment was about 10 miles north of Taffy Two.

A minute later the transmission was repeated, and this time there was no doubt of what the TBM pilot said. ENS Hans Jensen of VC-20 off Kadashan Bay (CVE-76) accurately reported what he saw: four Japanese battleships, eight cruisers and numerous destroyers. He was heard to say he was being fired upon – hence the AA bursts – and he was attacking a cruiser with his bombs.

The radio watch heard Fanshaw Bay (CVE-70) relay RADM Sprague’s plea: “Check identification.” Everyone who heard the transmission knew what the Taffy Three CO must be thinking. It wasn’t unusual for U.S. ships to fire at U.S. aircraft, but seldom had American planes accidentally bombed their own ships. Perhaps Jensen’s contact was Task Force 34, the contingency battle line to be formed in case of a surface engagement, or an element of VADM Pete Mitscher’s fast carrier Task Force 38.

Pagoda Masts

Almost simultaneously Jensen said, “BBs have pagoda masts,” and lookouts in several Taffy Three ships spotted the distinctive superstructures of enemy warships. Down in CIC, LTJG Bill Cuming’s radar operators noticed new blips on the surface-search SG scope. Whatever this force was, it was a big one. And it was close; bearing 300 degrees true at 23½ miles.

As if that wasn’t enough, radio monitors overheard garbled transmissions on the same frequency as LEUT Bill Buderus’s fighter direction channel. They quickly recognised the unintelligible voices as Japanese.

All this information came to Walt Viewig within two minutes. Its strength was overwhelming; there was no room for doubt. At 0645, Viewig ordered Gambier Bay to General Quarters and called up maximum speed. At 0647, all battle stations were re-manned and ready.

Something, something, had gone terribly wrong.

At the same moment the klaxon sent sailors and airmen scrambling to their battle stations in Gambier Bay, another officer was issuing another order. VADM Takeo Kurita and his flagship Yamato, one of the two largest battleships ever built, flashed the word to his armada, “General attack.”

5

HIJMS Yamato, the biggest (72,800 tons) warship afloat in 1944,
mounted  nine x 460mm (18 inch) plus six x 155 mm (6.2 inch),
12 x 12.7 mm (5.1 inch)  guns and 146 x 25 mm cannon.
She measured 263 x 38.7 x 11 metres  (863 x 127 x 36 feet).
Her 12 Kampon boilers fed four turbines that delivered 150,000 SHP to four shafts,
giving a maximum speed of about 27 knots

 

Kurita and his lookouts optimistically believed they had trapped one of Mitscher’s fast carrier task groups. Many of his junior officers cheered and fought back tears of joy. They believed they had been presented “a heaven-sent opportunity” to destroy a major portion of the U.S. Navy.

Takeo Kurita needed all the good fortune he could obtain. A highly experienced officer with a firm background in destroyers and cruisers, he had been roughly handled in the previous two days. U.S. submarines and air strikes had deprived him of Yamato‘s sister, Musashi, plus two cruisers and several destroyers sunk or turned back. Yet even these losses left Kurita with the still-formidable force of four battleships, six heavy and two light cruisers, with eleven destroyers.

Three-Pronged Thrust

This force, transiting San Bernardino Strait the night of the 24th-25th, was the center of a three-pronged Japanese attempt to engage and destroy American invasion shipping in Leyte Gulf. The southern prong was destroyed in a surface engagement that same night, but the northern force, “the bait which the Imperial Navy assessed ADML W.F. Halsey could not ignore” worked to perfection. ComThirdFleet took the fast carriers north to engage the four remaining enemy CVs off Cape Engano, leaving Kurita a clear shot at the Seventh Fleet units now in his path. VADM Ozawa’s flattops were almost empty shells, with few aircraft or fully-trained aviators. But Halsey didn’t know that. He intended to finish the last of Imperial Japan’s carriers.

VADM Thomas C. Kinkaid, ComSeventhFleet, therefore had no indication of the danger which his CVE groups (not to mention the troop transports) faced off Samar. Such was the situation at 0645 when two surprised admirals, Clifton Sprague and Takeo Kurita, suddenly learned of one another’s presence.

6

The Battle of Leyte Gulf

VC-10′s skipper, LCDR Ed Huxtable, was sitting alone in Gambier Bay‘s wardroom when GQ sounded. His immediate thought was, “Here’s another hop to the Sulu Sea.” But if that were the case, there was time enough to wait for a slice of toast and some fruit juice before reporting to the ready room. Just then, LTJG John Holland, the squadron personnel officer, rushed in. Using the term then in vogue for squadron COs, Holland said, “Captain, you’d better get up to the ready room in a hurry. They’re already manning the planes.”

No longer hungry, Huxtable followed Holland into the passageway at a dead run. He asked what was happening. “I don’t know,” Holland replied, “but all hell must be busting loose.”

That was how most Gambier Bay personnel learned of the situation-waiting for breakfast. Rannie Odum was reaching for a glass of tomato juice when the alarm sounded. He wondered “should I or shouldn’t I,” and decided he shouldn’t. He left for his battle station without getting anything to drink. AMM2/c Charlie Westbrook, the 25-year-old gunner in LTJG Bob Crocker’s TBM crew, was one of the lucky ones. He had actually started to eat when the gong went off. Grabbing his gear from his locker, Westbrook detoured long enough to shake his radioman out of the bunk, but the radioman was too groggy to respond and Westbrook wasted no more time trying to rouse him. Westbrook dashed up to the flight deck and saw four TBMs lined up, ready for launch. One spare crew was standing nearby and Westbrook grabbed the radioman and shoved him into Crocker’s plane. No ordnance had been loaded but while waiting for launch, ordnance-men quickly attached two rockets under each wing.

Other pilots and aircrew were scrambling for their planes, too. Ed Huxtable found his intelligence officer, LEUT Vereen Bell, suited up ready to go, anxious as ever to fly a mission. However, the situation remained unclear. Hux was still under the impression that a strike to the Sulu Sea was being hastily organized and told the ACIO, “You’d better stay here.” Nobody else was in the ready room and the CO wanted someone there to coordinate things.

Hux snatched up his plotting board and dashed topside. He found ENS R.B. “Tuffy” Barrows sitting in the fourth Avenger and motioned Barrows to jump out. While buckling in, Hux asked plane captain Jerry Gutzweiler if he had a bomb load. Gutzweiler said “no” and Hux told him to call the air officer, LCDR E.E. “Buzz” Borries, about getting some ordnance. None of the TBMs had started engines yet, so there was apparently time enough for arming.

Gutzweiler called Borries on the voice tube at the base of the island, relaying Huxtable’s request. Looking over his shoulder, Hux saw the air officer move forward and speak briefly to CAPT Viewig. The captain immediately made a sweeping motion with one arm and seemed to say “Get ‘em off.”

Hux was wondering what the rush was all about when he heard “what seemed to be a rifle shot next to my left ear”. He snapped his head around just in time to see a salvo of shells explode not far from White Plains (CVE-66). The urgency was now clear.

First Salvo

Kurita had opened fire at 0658 and that first salvo landed before 0659. The final countdown had started for Gambier Bay.

Curiously, many men were unaware of their circumstances. When the first shells started falling, several gunners looked up, squinting for a glimpse of the Japanese bombers they thought must be overhead. It was even longer before some of those below decks learned what was happening.

Even some of the men in communications didn’t immediately have a full grasp of the situation. In CIC one talker called up to the bridge, just as the first enemy shells were fired, that the radar contact was confusing. He theorized that it might be an ionized cloud. Viewig, with characteristic coolness, replied, “That’s the first cloud I’ve seen with a nine-gun salvo.”

In the five minutes before 0700, events accelerated at a fantastic pace. The seven Avengers and ten Wildcats on deck started their engines and began taxiing into position for launch. Gun  flashes were visible on the north-western horizon as the Japanese ships commenced fire and multi-colored splashes fell astern of the CVE formation.

In the midst of this frantic activity, Walt Viewig was conforming to the orders issued by Clifton Sprague. At 0657 Taffy Three had turned due east and commenced launching. It was not directly into the wind, but near enough to permit flight operations. Task group speed was first set at 16 knots and then at flank speed: between 17 and 18 knots for the CVEs.

7

8CAPT W.V.R. (Bowser) Viewig (top) CO Gambier Bay and
RADM C.A.F. (Clifton) Sprague, Commander TG 77.4.1, Taffy Three,
in
Fanshaw Bay

 

Then, having done all he could for the moment, Clifton Sprague did the next best thing. He screamed for help on the Inter-Commander Support Aircraft circuit. This plain-language voice broadcast notified every level of the Seventh Fleet of Taffy Three’s grim situation. It was. Sprague would recall, “the ultimate in desperate circumstances.”

Indeed it was. Sprague’s six CVEs formed a 2,500-yard circle with the three DDs and four DEs on an outer circle 6,000 yards from the center. Kurita’s 23 ships, deployed in five formations to the north-west, outnumbered Taffy Three nearly two-to-one. But that was the least consideration. Almost any six of the Japanese ships should have been enough to destroy Sprague’s unit in 60 minutes.

But this was a gunfight, conducted at relatively close range by powerful men-of-war against thin-hulled escorts which were never intended for anything remotely approaching such a situation. Only once before had an aircraft carrier come under the guns of a surface force; off Norway in June 1940 when the British Glorious was caught by the German battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. They sank Glorious and her two attendant destroyers in less than two hours.

Taffy Three was on the short end of every yardstick; outnumbered, outweighed, outranged and apparently out of luck. But if Sprague’s ships couldn’t trade gunfire with the enemy, perhaps they could blind him for awhile. Employing the favorite tactic of every outgunned admiral, Sprague ordered all ships to start laying smoke screens.

Launch All Aircraft

During the eight minutes from 0657 to 0705, Gambier Bay launched all 17 planes on deck. With the wind quartering from port, it was a little tricky, and the enemy salvos were falling closer. Some of the Wildcats skidded across the deck as nearby explosions jarred the CVE’s light hull. But they all made it off.

LEUT Dick Roby’s division, LTJG Rocky Phillips, LEUT Gene Seitz and ENS Chuck Dugan, which had been standing by as the duty flight, was the first airborne. Dugan had barely started to crank up his wheels when he got his first look at the Japanese force closing from astern. His reaction was typical, “Oh, shit!”

Two destroyers were cutting in from the starboard quarter, and since they presented the most immediate threat, Roby took his four fighters down to strafe. Each pilot made three or four passes, pushing the gunnery runs low and making abrupt high-G pullouts. Dugan made four passes, recovering so steeply that he blacked out each time. Fearful of diving into the water, he trimmed his Wildcat for climb and recovered consciousness each time nose-high, heading into the 1500-foot clouds.

The combined firepower of 16 .50-calibers was formidable. The tubby FMs bored in low and close, the dark grey forms of the destroyers looming larger in their gunsights as tracers lanced out in both directions. Motes of white light played over the superstructures as the heavy bullets hammered against steel plates.

Dick Roby lost contact with his three pilots after the second pass at the two DDs. But it was enough. Both ships heeled hard over, reversed course, and headed away from Taffy Three, at least temporarily. Roby then sought some company and joined a formation of five Avengers and two Wildcats. They were from Kitkun Bay (CVE-71), led by VC-5 skipper CMDR R.L. Fowler. An Annapolis classmate of Ed Huxtable, Fowler was senior squadron commander in Taffy Three.

As well as possible, he established himself as strike director. There remained little coordination for the first 90 minutes, however. Roby stayed with the Kitkun Bay planes, straffing to suppress flak and draw as much firepower away from the TBMs as possible.

Meanwhile, VC-10′s bombers were getting into the battle, but many had been launched too hastily for arming. Most of those with ordnance had 500-lb bombs or depth charges. A few had five-inch rockets. None of the first seven Avengers had a torpedo, the weapon they really needed.

Attack Immediately

Huxtable was fourth off and gained the lead by the time he came round the standard 180 degrees turn which pointed his planes back toward the Japanese ships. In his Arizona drawl he called RADM Sprague to report his flight airborne, “Bendix, this is Catnip Lead. What are our orders?  Over.” Fanshaw Bay snapped back, “Attack immediately!”

The seven Avengers were flying under very low ceiling as the task group approached a rain squall. As Hux led his flight on a westerly heading he broke out into better visibility over the destroyer escorts and climbed for a bit more altitude. Visible through the gloom was what appeared to be four enemy cruisers and behind them, four battleships. Hux sized up the situation and decided to utilize the reduced visibility to better advantage. He turned back over the carriers and rolled out on a course he figured would take his flight over the hostile cruisers. Hux knew that he had no ordnance and was uncertain what the others had, if anything. But he figured “at least we’d give the Japs a scare.”

9

HIJMS Chikuma, a Tone class heavy cruiser: 15,200 tons, 198 x 18.5 x 6.4 metres
(649 x 61 21 feet) 8 x 20.3 cm (8 inch), 8 x 12.7 cm (5 inch) 12 x 25 mm guns,
12 torpedo tubes, six aircraft, eight boilers, 152,000 SHP, 35 knots, 850 crew

 

The flight broke into the clear again, broad on the starboard beam of the four cruisers, sailing line astern. They were Kumano, Suzuya, Chikuma and Tone: each displacing 11,000-to-13,000 tons and mounting eight to ten 20 cm (8-inch) guns. The Japanese spotted the TBMs almost immediately and opened a torrent of AA fire. Huxtable’s crews saw the red “golf balls” curling toward them at deceptively slow speed, then accelerating as tracers always seem to do. Most passed under the Avengers.

Abruptly Hux came hard left and went for the last cruiser in line, leaving the other pilots to pick their own targets. He glanced at his airspeed indicator and saw the needle passing through 190 knots, but held to his shallow dive till 3,000 yards out. At that range the AA fire was “getting just too hot”. The CO broke left and paralleled the formation, heading astern. He then made a wide circling turn to port, passing ahead of the cruiser column and made another approach from starboard. Hux levelled off about 3,500 yards out, intending to evaluate the situation and report to Sprague again, but five multi-colored flak bursts appeared only 150 yards ahead of his Avenger. The enemy gunners had his range and elevation but slightly overestimated the deflection. He flew through the smoke of the middle burst.

It was obvious that the Japanese were gaining on the carriers. If the task group remained on its easterly heading it would soon be over­run. Huxtable called Bendix and informed the OTC that his best course was south. Then he called Gambier Bay and got the assistant air ops officer, LCDR Elmo Waring. Buzz Borries was busy with flight operations, leaving Waring to handle communications. Waring suggested that the airborne planes head for newly-won Tacloban airfield on Leyte to pick up ordnance. But it was nearly 100 miles to Tacloban on Leyte’s northeast coast. With plenty of fuel remaining, Hux and the others elected to remain and harass the Japanese as much as possible.

Like Huxtable, ENS Paul Bennett had no bombs or rockets for his TBM. He did what he could by making two straffing passes, one at a battleship and another at a cruiser. He then broke off and headed south towards Taffy Two, hoping to get aboard a carrier and pick up some ordnance before returning to the battle. Most of the others also were making dry runs by now. Dick Roby called Waring and asked about prospects of landing on any Taffy Three flight deck to rearm. The reply was emphatic, “You’re not getting aboard any of these ships.” There was too much to do merely getting spare planes in the air to think about recovering those already launched. Roby had to head for the beach; his fuel was down to only 30 gallons.

Ammo Zero

Chuck Dugan also was out of ammo. After shooting up the two destroyers he joined Huxtable and tried to divert some AA fire by strafing a Fuso-class battleship. That was the last of his .50-caliber load. “I doubt if I scratched the paint,” he recalled. He joined Tony Osborne’s TBM, and the two flew along in loose formation for several moments. Each was waiting for the other to make the first move, and gradually they realized both were without any ammo or ordnance. Like Roby, Dugan set course for Tacloban.

At 0715 the carriers had entered a providential rain squall which, combined with the smoke screen produced by the destroyers, temporarily hid the force from effective Japanese gunnery spotting. During the several minutes spent in this very welcome cover, Clifton Sprague took Huxtable’s advice and altered course more southward, from 090 degrees to 119 degrees. This temporarily caused Kurita’s gunfire to fall wide of the mark.

Borries also used the unexpected reprieve. He had the first torpedo-armed Avenger brought up from the hangar deck where ordnance men had been removing the “fish” from their racks. Gambier Bay had nine aerial torpedoes aboard, but it took time to check and load each one. The one-ton weapons had to be removed from their racks, laid on a dolly and lugged to the waiting TBM. Air pressure, alcohol and rudder throws had to be inspected and depth setting fixed. Then each had to be hoisted into an Avenger’s bomb bay. To ordnance man Nordeen “Skinny” Iverson, it seemed to take forever just to get the first torpedo loaded. As soon as that job was done, the VC-10 ordnance crew quickly went aft to fetch another. Three more Avengers remained aboard, and they all needed to be armed with torpedoes.

A call had gone to the ready room for the more experienced torpedo pilots to man Gambier Bay‘s last remaining planes, regardless of who was on the flight ops list for the day. LTJGs Bill Gallagher, Bob Weatherholt and Hank Pyzdrowski were the first to respond.

The first torpedo-armed TBM was brought up on the flight deck at 0708. In the haste and confusion there had been no time to service it; only 35 gallons of gas were in the tanks. Gallagher was to fly it and he had two very clear choices. He could make an attack, which would mean a water landing from fuel exhaustion or he could head for Taffy Two, refuel, then come back.

It was obvious Gallagher had already made up his mind. The big, jovial Bostonian had barely cleared the flight deck when he turned back towards the Japanese. He kept his Avenger almost at deck level and made straight for the threatening cruiser column, watched by numerous sailors from Gambier Bay. Joining a TBM from another squadron, he initiated a torpedo attack, knowing he would run out of fuel in a few minutes.

Pickled Fish Ran True

Bill Gallagher had made his choice and he stuck to it. Keeping low, he opened his bomb bay doors and pressed through a tremendous concentration of anti-aircraft fire. He pickled his fish, which was seen to run hot, straight and normal. Circling nearby, still drawing off some of the flak, Ed Huxtable saw the third cruiser take a torpedo aft and turn out of formation. She made a full circle and rejoined the column at the rear, proceeding at reduced speed. Nobody could say for certain that Gallagher’s torpedo was the one that connected, but Hux thought it likely.

Running on fumes, Gallagher found Huxtable and joined formation. The Japanese AA had scored repeated hits on his TBM, which was streaming a thick plume of smoke from the engine. The two Avengers briefly flew together and Hux pointed over his shoulder, gesturing for Bill to head for the beach.

Gallagher had everything a torpedo pilot needed-skill and courage, a weapon and a target. Everything but luck. Even if he had enough fuel, which he didn’t, he could not have made it. He ditched his flak-riddled TBM near the task group. Another pilot saw the crew float in life rafts but neither Bill Gallagher nor his crewmen, L. Holly and George Saint, were ever seen again.

Hux and the remaining TBMs continued their dry runs, diving into the flak to split the AA defenses. They made their pullouts with bomb bay doors open to simulate a genuine attack. The Japanese were kept guessing as to which runs were “wet” and which were “dry”. About this time, 0715, Sprague ordered his destroyers to initiate torpedo attacks against the vastly superior enemy force. They were upwind of the CVEs and therefore on the leeward side of their own smoke screen. During one of his numerous dummy runs, Hux looked down to see the DDs and DEs turn into the attack. A former destroyer man himself, he “really felt for them”.

10

USS Hoel DD533: Fletcher class Destroyer: 2700 tons, 114 x 1 x 5.4 metres
(376 x 39 x 18 feet), five x 12.7cm (5 inch), four x 28mm (1.1 inch),
four x 20 mm guns, 10 x 21 inch torpedo tubes, 60,000 SHP,
two shafts, 38 knots, 273 crew

 

In perhaps the most gallant action in the history of the U.S. Navy, the three DDs and four DEs took on nearly two dozen enemy ships, concentrating on the cruisers and battleships. In the next two hours three of them, Hoel (DD-533), Johnston (DD-557) and Roberts (DE-413), were shot to battered, flaming, sinking derelicts. But they worked a not-so-minor miracle.

One of their torpedoes struck the cruiser Kumano, slowing her down. More importantly, however, the prolonged series of bold attacks diverted much of the enemy’s attention from the CVEs. Kurita’s flagship, the mighty Yamato, was forced out of gun range by a spread of destroyer torpedoes. During the ten minutes it took Kurita to evade the threat, Yamato‘s huge guns were put out of effective range.

It was nearly 0730 when the first CVEs began to emerge from the blessed cover of the rain squall. During the previous 15 minutes the task group had altered course between south-east and south-west, hoping to throw off the Japanese spotters even more. But as visibility improved again, a new menace showed itself.

The four cruisers Huxtable and several others had been harrying for almost half an hour were now pulling well ahead of the main enemy force, obviously attempting to circle around Sprague’s port quarter and cut off his retreat. Eight-inch salvos began falling nearby – the cruisers were getting the range. Sprague went on the air again and ordered the Taffy Three planes to concentrate on the four fast ships threatening to hem in the little task group.

11

USS Samuel B Roberts DE413: John C Butler class Destroyer Escort: 1745 tons,
93 x 11 x 4.1 metres (306 x 37 x 13 feet), two 12.7 cm (5 inch), two twin 40 mm
AA guns, three 21 inch torpedo tubes, one hedgehog, eight depth charge throwers,
two boilers, 12,000 SHP,  two shafts, 24 knots, 201 crew

 

The rest of the Japanese armada, thrown off balance by the destroyers’ bold and persistent attacks, was as yet not the major threat. Kurita had made a serious mistake in ordering general attack, for he lost tactical control of his force. Instead of cutting the corner of Sprague’s arcing turn to the south, most of Kurita’s ships continued the stern chase and followed the same general track as their targets. As the CVEs emerged from the squall line, Gambier Bay‘s second torpedo-armed Avenger was brought up to the flight deck. Unlike Gallagher’s TBM, this one was quickly filled with enough fuel to remain on station. Then the avgas lines were purged by pumping an inert gas to all fuelling stations to neutralise much of the potential fire hazard.

Last Launch: 0745

The TBM was manned by LTJG Bob Weatherholt’s crew and launched at 0745. Weatherholt didn’t know it at the time but he would be the last pilot to ever launch from Gambier Bay. Rather than jump on the first target which presented itself, “Weatherbird” lit a cigarette and evaluated the setup. When an FM joined up and the pilot radioed that he would cover the TBM in its approach, Weatherholt held back for a moment. “Let me finish my cigarette,” he said. Then he attacked, the second and last VC-10 aviator to drop a torpedo in combat. The result of his attack was unobserved.

Most of the Taffy Three aircraft now were airborne. Those just getting off were forced to launch with a quartering or following wind. A fully-loaded TBM could not safely launch under these conditions, but one partially armed or without ordnance could make it. The Wildcats had relatively little trouble.

Hank Pyzdrowski’s plane was the third to be armed with a torpedo and it was brought up on the forward elevator. Hank taxied into position on the cat and waited for the bridle to be attached. Then, following Catapult Officer LTJG Bob Krida’s directions as more shell splashes burst close aboard, he ran up his engine and waited for the familiar jolt.

Nothing Happened

Running before the wind, Gambier Bay at that moment could not generate enough wind over the deck. Krida had ordered the cat crew to stand down, waiting for a change in course which he hoped would bring more favorable launch conditions. Several minutes later, Krida and Pyzdrowski were ready to try again, but once more it looked too risky and the launch officer aborted the attempt. Preparing for a third try, Hank ordered his two crewmen, ARM2/c Jerry Fauls and AMM3/c Bob Jensen, out of the plane. Professionally, it reduced the aircraft weight by more than 300 pounds, and since this was to be a torpedo attack, there was little the air crewmen could do with their two machine guns. Personally, Hank didn’t want his long-time crewmen aboard on such a hazardous launch.

Alone in his TBM, Pyzdrowski exchanged ritualistic signals with Krida for the third time. Krida looked forward, watching the bow’s upward movement in the swell, judging the relative wind. Then he shook his head and gave Hank the “cut” signal. It was no use. On the ship’s course of 210 degrees, with the wind from the port quarter at best, there simply wasn’t enough lift for eight tons of Avenger, fuel and torpedo. Hank climbed out of his plane and watched it flung off the bow into the water as the cat was fired.

Standing by the island, Pyzdrowski noted the varied colors of the shell splashes; pastel shades of green, yellow and pink. Several carriers were being near-missed. But Viewig and the other captains were “chasing salvos”, steering for the previous splashes in order to confuse Japanese gunnery spotters. It was nearly 0800, almost an hour since the enemy opened fire, and almost 30 minutes since the first shells had landed close. Other than splinter damage, however, the six CVEs remained unharmed.

Up Spirits

Pyzdrowski finally tired of watching pyrotechnics and went below to his locker with his roommate, LEUT George Bisbee. He figured this was as good a time as any to break out the 10 bottles of whiskey he had stashed away. Actually, there was a considerable quantity of booze in Gambier Bay. The crew’s official ration of beer was kept locked in the brig: 400 cases of Olympia. Unofficially, many officers had private stocks. Ed Huxtable and LTJG John Holland had brought seven cases of whiskey aboard and Buzz Borries had a case, all stashed in one locker. Quite unknown to Borries, Hux and Holland had managed to work their way through all of their own liquor and half of Buzz’s.

12

Gambier Bay, making smoke and straddled by large calibre rounds

 

Hank read the combination of the lock to Bisbee, who was working the dial. After three attempts, Bisbee’s fingers still hadn’t the touch. Finally Hank opened the locker himself and began passing out bottles to those in the room. Bisbee, Vee Bell, LTJG Owen Wheeler and one or two other VC-10 stalwarts pulled some mattresses together to form a protective teepee of sorts (in case shell fragments penetrated the hull) and sat cross legged, exchanging swigs from several bottles. Before long, the lethal circumstances began to look a bit less formidable. Or at least more tolerable.

Topside, things didn’t look quite so rosy. By now the five separate enemy columns had Taffy Three inside almost a full hemisphere, from due west through northeast. As the threat increased and enemy gunnery improved with steadily diminishing range, Clifton Sprague issued an order of last resort, “Open fire with the pea-shooters when range is clear.” Gambier Bay had no need to await such an order. At 0741 CWO Frank Hughes’ gun crew in the stern went into action. They trained their 5/38-inch gun to port, sighting on the lead enemy ship 17,000 yards off the port quarter. She was Chikuma, a fast 11,200-ton cruiser mounting eight 8-inch guns. Down in CIC the surface-search radar plotted Hughes’ target at 8½ miles as the 5-inch mount opened fire. But the tracking worked both ways, as the radar operators also could see the Japanese shells in mid-flight, headed towards Taffy Three.

Minutes later, up on the bridge, another development was taking shape. Two or three unidentified ships had appeared hull-down on the horizon, off to port. The signals chief was tall, lanky Andy Lindow, who squinted through his binoculars and tentatively identified the middle ship as a cruiser. He couldn’t be sure of the others.

There was one way to find out. Lindow directed one of his signalmen, Carroll Smith, to flash the major warship challenge on his big 24-inch searchlight. The unidentified ships immediately responded with the correct reply.

Chief Lindow’s heart almost skipped a beat. “Friendly ships to port,” he cried.
“Good,” CAPT Viewig replied. “Tell them we’re under attack.”

Lindow told Smith to send it, and the venetian-blind shutters on the circular light opened and shut in a series of dashes and dots. The message began with dash dot dot dot-pause-dash. The Baker Tare identifier. Then the four-word message, “We are under attack,” followed by Baker Tare King for end of message. Lindow saw the centre vessel “dash” in acknowledgement for each word. At the end of the message it blinked, “Roger”.

Then The Newcomers Fired At Gambier Bay.

They were more Japanese cruisers, rushing down from the north after following Sprague’s turn south out of the rain squall. It had taken this long for their superior speed to make up the lost distance. Taffy Three was now surrounded on three sides by the faster enemy force.

First Hit: 0800

It was now 0800. After nearly an hour of almost incessant firing, the Japanese landed their first hit on the CVE force. Kalinin Bay (CVE-68), pounding along off Gambier Bay‘s starboard quarter, took an eight-inch shell in the starboard side of the hangar deck just as she launched her last Wildcat. Taffy Three was running hard to the southwest. Since the wind was from the northeast, the carriers’ funnel and chemical smoke afforded almost no screen for Kalinin Bay or Gambier Bay, the two rear­most ships in the circular disposition. RADM Sprague had brought the group’s course around successively to the southwestern quadrant as the four intrusive cruisers had gained headway and turned his flank. Base course was altered frequently as the situation changed, and this tactic, combined with each individual ship’s salvo chasing, resulted in a zigzag track which only slowed the already-impeded rate of advance.

But there was no other choice. Even running straight ahead, the CVEs had at least a six-knot disadvantage to the slowest Japanese ships. Shortly before 0800, when the troublesome cruiser quartet was 13,000 yards to the northeast, Frank Hughes’ gun crew was firing at the lead ship. The 5/38-inch shells snapped out across 6½ nautical miles towards the target, and in a few minutes they had the range. Observers in Gambier Bay clearly saw three flashes on the target’s superstructure, indicating direct hits. The cruisers kept coming, however, maintaining “a heavy and disastrous fire” from their combined three dozen 8-inchers.

At the same time, the enemy battleships’ salvos were falling closer astern. Their dye-tinted splashes provided spotting information for gunnery officers to call the fall of shot and make corrections. But the battlewagons remained the secondary threat. The cruisers were the real danger.

On the bridge, Walt Viewig calmly watched the situation developing. He noted with a professional eye that the cruisers were firing four-gun salvos in unusually small patterns. He estimated that the four shells always fell within a 25-yard circle, with about 60 seconds between each salvo. Navigator George Gellhorn, who was actually responsible for directing the zigzag course changes to avoid being hit, saw that the Japanese fire director was methodically “walking” his salvos toward Gambier Bay in 100-yard steps. Such regularity made Gellhorn’s job easier. Just when it seemed certain the next salvo would land directly on top of Gambier Bay, he altered course two points. The next salvo then landed where the ship had been a minute before.

Small Course Changes

By using small course changes, Gellhorn made it more difficult for the enemy to notice the change. When they did, the plotting began again from scratch. The first close shells had fallen about 0730, and Gellhorn’s subtle evasive tactics had kept Gambier Bay from all but shrapnel damage for over half an hour. But by 0810 the deadly cruisers had closed to 10,000 yards and they straddled CVE-73 with a well-placed salvo. An eight-inch shell went through the after portion of the flight deck on the starboard side near Batt II. Fires flared topside and on the hangar deck.

There were few personnel casualties, however, and the fires were controlled. Five minutes later, Clifton Sprague took Taffy Three back more to the south-southwest. Evasive action was now relatively ineffective. Clearly exposed to Japanese gunfire, Gambier Bay became the primary target. At 0820 she was hit again, holed below the waterline in the forward engine room. The assistant engineering officer, LEUT Al Hirtin, took immediate measures to handle the seawater gushing into the compartment. Two portable electric submersible pumps were put into operation but Hartin feared they would not be enough. He also had the bilge pumps turned on.

For five minutes the men in the engineering spaces watched the level of seawater continue to rise. It was no use. Hartin called up to the bridge that the pumps were incapable of handling the deluge into the engine room, and added that he would almost certainly have to shut down in a few minutes. He was right. As the seawater continued to rise, the engine room was flooded to burner level. Hartin ordered his men to secure the boilers and prepare to evacuate the compartment. At this same time, 0825, Viewig informed Sprague over TBS that Gambier Bay “had been hit hard and had lost one engine”. All loads were shifted to the after generators and engine room. Hartin’s crew secured the forward engine room, evacuating the flooded space and dogging the hatches behind them as they left. The ship slowed to 11 knots, dropping astern of the other CVEs and out of formation.

Big Trouble

If anyone aboard still harbored thoughts of escaping, all such hope was lost when Gambier Bay fell out of line. Andy Lindow, still on the signal bridge, “knew we were in big trouble”. The ship was listing to port, afire aft and within easy gun range of the cruisers. Though VC-10 pilots were still in the area making repeated runs on the Japanese ships, many had by now expended even their machine gun ammunition. Looking down from his Avenger, Ed Huxtable (CO VC-10) saw one CVE afire and listing to port. According to the position of the ship, he thought it was White Plains (CVE-66). But in the prolonged radical maneuvering the disposition’s axis rotation had shifted.

Hux didn’t know it at that moment, but he was looking at his own ship. Until now Gambier Bay had been almost completely unsupported, as the escorts were busy attacking the Japanese and making smoke screens around the force. The destroyers Johnston (DD-557) and Heermann (DD-532) now made a valiant attempt to distract the enemy’s attention. Johnston had already taken three heavy hits, which had reduced power and knocked out three guns. Undaunted, her skipper, CMDR Ernest E. Evans, noted Gambier Bay was drawing a torrent of shellfire from the lead ship and dashed to within 6,000 yards of the big cruiser. Johnston fired her remaining five-inchers, gaining several hits.

Chikuma ignored the lone destroyer and continued to direct her eight-inch guns at the little carrier. Johnston was fortunate to have survived as long as she did; in another 90 minutes she would be sunk. Heermann as yet was undamaged and closed Gambier Bay from starboard, commencing a harassing fire at Chikuma from 12,000 yards. Oddly, Chikuma responded to this more distant intruder and turned in a tight circle, trailing her churning white wake in the dark blue water. While turning, she directed part of her battery toward the destroyer.

13

Chikuma, shortly after receiving a torpedo hit
The Tone class cruiser sank about 0900 after repeated aerial torpedo hits

 

But only temporarily. At almost the same time the two destroyers made their desperate charge, Gambier Bay was hit again, repeatedly. A hit near the island severed liquid lines to the steering motor and another opened circuit breakers on the main electrical distribution panel. The latter prevented re-establishment of steering control from any position in the ship. Three minutes later the after engine room was pierced by an eight-inch shell which holed number three boiler and probably lodged in the lower part of the generating tubes. Water deluged the compartment, and like Al Hartin 20 minutes before, senior engineer LCDR Jim Sanders tried to compensate with bilge pump suction. It was a losing battle.

CIC Loses Power

In CIC things came to a halt, too. The radar operators had tracked the tormenting Japanese ships to about 15,000 yards. But with loss of steam pressure, the after engine room generators ceased to supply power and most electrical systems failed. The exec, CDR Richard “Smiley” Ballinger, keeping an eye on things in the most vital compartments, poked his head in CIC. “It’s time to go for a walk,” he said. Bill Buderus, Bill Cuming and their crews began to file out, waiting in the passageway. Gambier Bay was now the focal point of the combined fire from three heavy cruisers, a light cruiser and a destroyer. A heavy-calibre hit in the stern had knocked the five-incher out of commission, forcing the crew off the gun deck. At 0843 chief engineer Jim Sanders secured all boilers and Gambier Bay began coasting to a stop. She was now completely helpless, without defensive armament and unable to maneuver.

From the open bridge recognition officer Murray Sacks attempted to identify six of the enemy ships near enough to recognise details. He recorded them as a Tone cruiser, a single-stack destroyer, an Atago cruiser, an Aoba or Mogami cruiser, a two-stack DD and a Kongo battleship. He was largely correct. Though there were no single-stack destroyers and Mogami- and Aoba­-class bore little resemblance, the other descriptions proved accurate.

To most Gambier Bay sailors, the identity of their assailants made no difference. The only thing that mattered was the fact that their ship was being systematically perforated by numerous shells. Unknowingly, however, the Japanese had loaded the wrong type of ordnance for use against thin-skinned CVEs. Kurita was prepared to fight a major surface battle and his ships were loaded with armour-piercing projectiles designed to penetrate thick steel and explode inside a warship’s hull. The 3/8-inch plate on the CVEs offered virtually no resistance to armour-piercing shells; consequently, few of them detonated.

Serious Casualties

Still, shells exploding close aboard caused some serious personnel casualties. In the parachute rigging loft between the hangar deck and flight deck, flight surgeon W.H. Stewart was tending the injured. He asked rigger Tony Potochniak and a buddy, G.C. Phillips, to help him move a mortally-wounded man whose legs were nearly severed. Potochniak and Phillips, standing on either side of the doctor, had just leaned down to pick up the man when a large shell fragment penetrated the hull and struck LEUT Harold Fleischer in the back of the neck. He was killed instantly. Potochniak went out to the port catwalk and Phillips disappeared to starboard.

Now certain Gambier Bay was going down, Potochniak began cutting retaining wire to free some of the life rafts on the catwalk. On the hangar deck there had been no lights since the power failed. A shell exploded near the spot Al Hartin was standing with several of his forward engine room personnel. Hartin was knocked down, stunned, and slowly realised many of the men around him were dead. Then he noticed his own injuries – a broken right arm and knee. He dragged the body of one man out to the catwalk with him, unable to tell in the darkness whether the casualty was alive or dead.

Skinny Iverson, at 34, the “old man” of the ordnance crew, was also on the hangar deck. He had just helped load the fourth torpedo into the last Avenger when flight operations ceased. The TBM was on the forward elevator, which had jammed about three feet up, and the plane was set afire by shell fragments. Seeing this, Iverson and several others prepared to go over the side. They didn’t want to be around when that torpedo went off. At 0845 Gambier Bay was dead in the water, listing to port and burning amidships.

Walt Viewig was still on the bridge but knew the situation was hopeless. He ordered all classified material thrown overboard. Signalman chief Andy Lindow had nothing more to occupy himself.

Glancing about, he took in the scene: thick smoke tinged with orange flame rising from the flight deck, the worsening port list, the pack of bloodthirsty cruisers closing in for the kill. Lindow turned to Buzz Borries and said, “We’d better think about getting the boys off.”

0850 – Abandon Ship

Almost as if in response, Viewig arrived at the same decision. He told everyone to pass the word. Abandon ship. It was 0850, only 40 minutes after the first hit and not quite two hours since Kurita had opened fire. To the skipper, it seemed “as a bad dream of a few minutes’ duration.” All over the listing, burning ship men made their way topside and overboard as best they could.

Many, like Viewig’s yeoman Harry Fudge, simply jumped from the deck. Fudge went in feet first and estimated he plunged to a depth of 60 feet. Disoriented, he thought he was inverted so he turned over to head for the “surface”. Actually, he was headed down, not up. It seemed he was under water for several minutes; his lungs were “on fire”. Then Fudge felt himself propelled in the right direction. Borries, the star athlete from Annapolis, had jumped at almost the same moment and noticed Fudge’s predicament. When they broke surface, Fudge gasped in great gulps of air and nearly passed out from the dramatic oxygen influx. Borries inflated the yeoman’s lifebelt for him and the two began swimming.

Fighter director Bill Buderus saved several men from probable drowning when he directed them away from the ship’s side towards a raft. He ordered them to grab hold and kick the raft a good distance away, beyond the inevitable suction caused by a sinking ship. A good swimmer, Buderus refused to climb into the raft himself and was content to cling to one side as his little group pushed farther away from the doomed carrier.

Short of fuel, Gambier Bay‘s surviving VC-10 Wildcats land ashore at the Tacloban emergency field.

Hank Pyzdrowski, who had been left aboard after his TBM was jettisoned, headed aft. He waited with LSO LTJG Bill McClendon, until things looked their gloomiest. Finally Mac said, “We’d better get off. The ship is going to turn.” Both men went down a rope hand over hand and swam away on a diagonal from the starboard quarter.

The ship was now listing rapidly to port. When Al Hartin made his way to the port forward 20 mm sponson, the catwalk was only about six feet off the water. In shock and pain from his multiple injuries, Hartin dragged the man he had brought up from the hangar deck with him into the sea. Only then did he notice the man was dead.

A few men had the time and presence of mind to gather up various supplies before leaving the ship. One was W.H. Sparrow, a photographer’s mate who threw together a packet of medical equipment. His foresight would prove valuable, particularly since Doc Stewart had been killed.

In five minutes most of the crew was in the water. A line of heads was strung out behind the ship, looking like a collection of coconuts floating in the wake. Gambier Bay‘s forward motion had not quite dissipated before abandon ship had been completed.

At 0855 Viewig ordered George Gellhorn off. The navigator went down the starboard side of the bridge via a lifeline and hit the water just as another salvo pierced the island structure. He identified a Mogami cruiser 2,000 yards away. She was still firing at the CVE, taking a parallel course, compounding the noise, fright and confusion.

Yet amidst the terror there were little vignettes of humor. Dick Ballinger was swimming away from the ship with one young sailor who saw some reason for optimism. “Commander, this means 30 days survivor’s leave, doesn’t it?”

ACMM Walt Flanders, the quiet, competent chief of Repair I, was among the last to abandon ship. He was standing on the flight deck with only three or four others, preparing to jump, when he saw Stewards Mate John Lovett standing at the deck edge. Lovett was looking down to the water where the catwalk had been blasted away. Although wearing a life jacket, he was reluctant to jump. He kept saying, “Ah, can’t swim, ah, can’t swim.”

Flanders knew Lovett had no chance if he remained on the ship and pushed him overboard. A strong swimmer, Flanders quickly followed and swam steadily away. He passed several swimmers, pulling ahead of most until he was nearly exhausted. Then he stopped to shake the salt water from his eyes and look back. He saw Lovett cruise past him at a steady clip, still loudly insisting, “Ah, can’t swim, ah, can’t swim.”

Last Man Off

As far as anyone knew, Walt Viewig was the last man to leave Gambier Bay alive. Three minutes after he sent George Gellhorn over the side, Viewig attempted to reach the interior of the ship via the island structure ladders but was driven back by the hot, black toxic smoke and diverted onto the flight deck. The skipper made his way aft and went down the starboard side, which was now well canted out of the water. He shortly joined Dick Ballinger, so both senior officers were in the same group of survivors.

In the next several minutes the men began taking stock. They were in the midst of a hostile battle fleet, swimming in shark-infested water, entirely without friendly support. Some life rafts and numerous floater nets had been dropped overboard and the injured or non-swimmers were pulled onto these platforms. One was Merrill Kuster, the talker who had helped pass the word to abandon ship. He had jumped overboard, came up near a raft and was hauled aboard.

However, not all the wounded or poor swimmers were near any rafts. Skinny Iverson helped keep two young sailors afloat until help arrived. A strong swimmer from his childhood in northern Idaho, he had grown up swimming in Lake Coeur d’Alene.

The torpedo-armed TBM which Iverson and other VC-l0 personnel had loaded was a main source of worry. Everyone who knew the Avenger was left on the hangar deck near the spreading fires swam as far from the ship as possible. Moments later the 2,000 lb torpedo exploded and the TBM with large parts of the forward elevator were blown high in the air. Then bombs and stowed torpedoes began exploding in their storage lockers. Little Gambier Bay was rocked visibly by the detonations as her insides turned into a flaming oven.

Minutes ater, at 0907, she capsized to Port.

With her keel exposed to the sky, the men nearest to her could clearly see the underwater damage she had sustained. Several shell holes were visible and the port screw was gone, evidently carried away by the heavy-calibre hit aft. Harry Fudge, the captain’s yeoman, recalled that the skipper estimated the ship had taken nine 14- or 16-inch hits from battleships and 28 six- or eight-inch shells from cruisers. Of these, probably a half-dozen were fatal, mainly those that flooded and wrecked the engine rooms.

Gambier Bay remained floating inverted for only four minutes before succumbing. Her hull was so evenly perforated that she dropped straight down without rolling to either side or dipping her bow or stern.

It was one hour and one minute after the first hit. From that day at Astoria, Oregon, when she was commissioned, to this Wednesday off Samar, her career had lasted three days less than ten months.

A Brief Cheer

When the last of the hull disappeared, a peculiar thing happened. Amid the sound of firing from Japanese ships, a ragged, irregular cheer went up from several of the groups of survivors. Most of the men were plank owners. Gambier Bay had been their first and only home in the Navy. Those who shouted a brief cheer for their little carrier were expressing in the only way possible that they were still proud of her. More than a few had tears in their eyes, and not from the salt water.

The Japanese fired at Gambier Bay almost till the moment she sank, but in the general pursuit of other Taffy Three ships, their attention was turned to the south. For the next few minutes the Gambier Bay sailors were treated to a spectacle they never expected: a closeup view of the enemy.

Battleships and cruisers passed within a mile on either side of Gambier Bay‘s grave. At least one cruiser and a couple of destroyers went through the swimmers at slow speed. It was one of those eerie, unexpected moments which sometimes occur even in modern war.

Enemy Compassion

Several survivors were close enough to the enemy ships to hear sailors talking on deck. One was Lou Rice, a 21-year-old radar operator. Clinging to a wooden wheel chock, Rice watched a cruiser pass by so close that he was lifted in the swell of its bow wave. He distinctly heard several Japanese conversing. Then his insides went cold as he saw one sailor uncover a machine gun and point it at the Americans in the water. It wasn’t unexpected; tales of enemy atrocities were common.

Then, incredibly, Rice saw an officer shove the bloodthirsty sailor away from the gun. None of Rice’s group was fired upon.

Other men had similar experiences and some reported something even more unexpected. Several survivors looked up in astonishment as Japanese officers and men on one ship saluted while cruising past. Hank Pyzdrowski, floating in his mae west, looked up at a destroyer and saw numerous enemy sailors lining the rail. Many of them also saluted their opponents. In retrospect, Pyzdrowski thought that such uncharacteristic chivalry was born of mutual hardship. “They knew we’d had it,” he said, “and so had they.”

Kurita Withdraws

For, incredible as it seemed, the Japanese at that moment were withdrawing. Admiral Kurita was convinced by the exceptional aggressiveness of the Taffy Three destroyers and aircraft from Taffy Two and Three that he was up against a fast carrier task force. He had seen three of his cruisers crippled or brought dead in the water, including Suzuya, which was sinking. Poor communications deprived him of knowledge about the success of Chikuma, Tone and Haguro, which had closed Gambier Bay to point-blank range. Still behind the fight in Yamato, Kurita elected to quit just when he had the battle won.

VADM Takeo Kurita ordered withdrawal at 0911.

At 0911, exactly the same time Gambier Bay went down, VADM Takeo Kurita ordered his fleet to withdraw.

Though Gambier Bay was gone, she had played a role in one of the most astonishing victories in naval history. Even with her air group dispersed and her crew adrift nearly 40 miles from shore, she remained part of the winning Taffy Three team.

Rescue Delayed

Few of her aviators or sailors felt like winners at that moment, however. More than 700 men survived the battle off Samar, formed into seven or eight large groups. Most expected early rescue, but as morning turned to afternoon the wait lengthened.

Not until 1530 did Seventh Fleet order a search. Reasons for the delay still are unknown, but apparently a complex communications system and pressing combat considerations were involved. Destroyer escorts, acting upon erroneous information from VADM Kincaid’s command, spent more than 24 hours searching the wrong areas. The major effort departed San Pedro Bay at 1835 the 25th: five LCIs and two PCs under LCDR R.E. Sargent of LCI (Rocket) Group 20.

During the morning of the 26th Gambier Bay survivors saw an FM/TBM search team about five miles off. Signal flares and dye marker failed to attract the planes, either outbound or on their return leg 45 minutes later. It was a bitter disappointment, especially as wounds, exposure and sharks were taking their toll.

At 2230 PC-623 was nearing the search area when flares were seen 18 to 20 miles west. In 90 minutes the rescue group was among the survivors, who had drifted 30 miles in 39 hours. Rescue operations continued until 1000 the 27th, when the last survivors of Taffy Three were picked up. In all, the seven rescue vessels retrieved 1,150 men, the majority 10 miles from Tugnug Point on Samar.

Acknowledgements

This article was researched during the 1977 Philippine tour conducted by the Gambier Bay Survivors Association. Many veterans of the ship’s company and VC-10 contributed their recollections, ostensibly for a book, but space considerations limited coverage to the Battle off Samar.

The following individuals provided information for this portion of the CVE-73/VC-10 story: RADM Richard Ballinger, USN (Ret); Charles J. Dugan; ACM Walter B. Flanders, USN (Ret); LCDR Leon Fletcher, USNR(R); Harry Fudge; Jerome P. Gutzweiler; Albert E. Hartin; A.C. Johnson; Anthony Potochniak; Henry A. Pyzdrowski; Lou Rice and Richard W. Roby.

Since the 1977 reunion trip, at least three contributors have passed away (by June 1986): Andy Lindow, Rannie Odum and CAPT Edward J. Huxtable. If anyone epitomized the dedication and teamwork inherent to Gambier Bay, it was Hux. Our sincerest thanks to all.

At length it was possible to count noses, and 122 Gambier Bay men were missing or known dead. The survivors were transferred to hospital ships and transports at San Pedro for the trip home, enjoying merely being alive.

VC-10 would re-form, still under the popular Ed Huxtable, for a short second tour in Fanshaw Bay (CVE-70). The squadron had the pleasure of being present at war’s end. But for the majority of Gambier Bay‘s crew, the war ended that night 40-plus years ago. What has remained is the enduring friendship of men who have been family to one another for four decades. That camaraderie is perhaps their greatest victory of all.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~