The USS Gambier Bay and the other ships and aircraft of “Taffy 3,” aided by planes of “Taffy 2”, gallantly fought and stopped the powerful Japanese Center Force, and inflicted significant losses on the enemy. However, the Gambier Bay was heavily damaged in this action; she capsized at 0907 on October 25, 1944, and sank just four minutes later. More than 130 of her crew were lost with the ship and nearly 800 survivors were then rescued by Task Group 78.12.
The Gambier Bay received four battle stars for service in World War II and shared in the award of the Presidential Unit Citation to “Taffy 3” for extraordinary heroism in the Battle off Samar.
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SEARCH AND RESCUE
Following the “BATTLE OFF SAMAR” on 25 October 1944, A Task Force was organized for the purpose of search and rescue of survivors of American ships that were sunk.
The details of the search and rescue are taken from the pages of the book, “MacArthur’s Amphibious Navy”, written by Admiral Daniel E. Barbey.
At 1500 on the day of the battle, Captain Charles Adair showed me an intercepted dispatch from a plane which reported groups of men hanging to rafts and debris in the waters off Samar. Apparently no ships were in the area. Adair proposed we organize a rescue group of our amphibious craft and suggested LCIs would be particularly suitable because of their bow ramps.
A priority dispatch was immediately sent to Commander Seventh Fleet (Admiral Kincaid) requesting approval of our rescue mission. Adair assembled two PCS and five LCIs. Medical personnel and supplies were sent aboard. In an hour they were formed into a task group and ready to depart for the rescue area about 125 miles away. (Lieutenant Commander James A. Baxter, U.S. Naval Reserve was the commanding Officer of PC 623).
No reply to our dispatch to Commander Seventh Fleet having been received by 1600, a second dispatch was sent off urging immediate approval and Captain Tarbuck was sent by boat to the Seventh Fleet flagship, the WASATCH, about a mile away to get action.
An hour later the rescue plan was approved and Baxter’s small task force was underway. They will always be gratefully remembered by the more than eleven hundred survivors they picked up. Extracts from the logs of all but one of these ships are used to tell the story. Unfortunately, the log of the LCI-34 could not be found in the archives.
25 OCTOBER 1944 (Wednesday)
1600 PC-623 Task Group 78.12 formed, consisting of: PC-623 (flagship), PC-1119, LCIs 34, 71, 337, 340 and 341 to search for survivors.
1806 PC-623 One medical officer, Lieutenant (jg) Lucas, and one PHM, 1c Wattengel, came aboard.
26 OCTOBER 1944 (Thursday)
0400 PC-623 Task group proceeding to area to conduct search for naval survivors.
0650 PC-623 LCI’s 340 and 341 unable to make 10 knots and dropped back, best speed 9 knots.
0621 LCI-341 Fanned out in line formation abreast with 1000 yard intervals between ships. Commenced search for survivors.
0623 PC-623 Sunrise.
0810 PC-623 Increased interval to 2000 yards, better visibility.
0910 PC-623 Sighted several planes and ships. Unable to contact due to sun and distance. Have received no, repeat no, information relating to survivors.
1049 LCI-71 Passed through oil slick.
1400 LCI-341 Three friendly seaplanes passed abeam two miles.
1445 LCI-71 Sighted airplane belly tank off port bow, distance 50 yards.
1445 LCI-71 Sighted three unidentified aircraft dead ahead.
1500 PC-623 Passed through heavy oil slick.
1645 LCI-340 Sighted object in water. It appears to be a survivor.
1659 PC-1119 Sighted 50-caliber ammo box; also 2 belly tanks and numerous boxes.
1700 LCI-340 Picked up Japanese survivor. He was kept afloat by holding on to a wooden box. Survivor was stripped for firearms but none were found. All papers and valuables were taken in custody by the |Commanding Officer. Survivor was then given medical attention, food, water, and placed under guard.
1700 PC-623 Maneuvered to recover objects in water (Japanese).
1716 LCI-341 All ships coming about to search area thoroughly.
1812 LCI-341 General Quarters: Ack-ack off port bow.
1820 LCI-341 Sunset. Darkened ship.
1848 LCI-341 Secured from General Quarters.
2127 LCI-337 Sighted much debris and heavy oil slick. Completed investigation of objects in water. No sign of life.
2220 PC-623 Sighted red, white and green flares bearing 270 degrees T.
2247 PC-623 Sighted several rafts of survivors.
2300 LCI-337 Arrived in survivor area, cruised and maneuvered as necessary to pick up men in water.
2335 PC-623 Lying to, to receive survivors.
2335 LCI-340 Received radio message to proceed to vicinity of PC-623 to pick up American survivors.
27 OCTOBER 1944 (Friday)
0025 PC-1119 Sighted 3 rafts containing U.S. Navy survivors.
0030 LCI-71 Sighted first survivors and picked them up.
0030 PC-1119 Commenced taking aboard U.S. Navy survivors.
0330 LCI-341 Survivors sighted in water, stopped engines. Hoisted out small boat.
0055 LCI-337 Survivors sighted and rescued on starboard hand.
0058 LCI-341 First survivors aboard from (GAMBIER BAY).
0055 LCI-337 Survivor sighted and rescued on starboard hand.
0115 LCI-71 Continued picking up survivors, a few at a time.
0121 LCI-341 Steaming at slow speeds, picking up survivors.
0122 LCI-340 Picked up lone survivor, American from CVE-73. He was given immediate medical attention, dry clothing, food and drink.
0142 LCI-337 Survivor aboard.
0156 LCI-340 Pulled seven life rafts that were tied together alongside and started taking survivors of CVE-73 aboard.
0215 LCI-337 Sighted floating life raft. Rescued group of survivors.
0235 LCI-341 Life raft alongside. Taking aboard survivors. Sixteen men.
0247 LCI-340 Completed taking on survivors from seven rafts. (Approximately 110 U.S. Navy survivors). Some of the survivors were badly wounded and were given all the medical attention that this ship was able to give.
0335 LCI-71 Picked up 144 men from several life rafts.
0345 PC-1119 Finished taking aboard 183 Navy survivors. Names, rank, serial number as per list forwarded to SOPA (Senior Officer Present Afloat).
0348 PC-623 Detached PC-1119 to return to San Pedro Bay (Leyte Gulf) as they had 200 survivors aboard, instructing them to make full report to CTF Commander Seventh Amphibious Force.
0415 LCI-341 Reported number of survivors on board at this time are 36, many of which have shrapnel injuries and suffering from exposure.
0622 LCI-340 Daylight came and we proceeded to continue the search for survivors.
0654 LCI-337 Four survivors sighted and rescued. One man apparently dead.
0745 LCI-337 Rescued approximately 58 survivors in a group from DD-533.
0800 PC-623 Standing by taking on survivors from DE- 413.
0830 LCI-341 Life raft alongside, took aboard 36 men, survivors of USS Hoel.
0839 PC-623 Sighted more survivors from DD-533. Some were taken aboard.
0840 LCI-337 Maneuvering to pick up survivors.
0849 PC-623 Picking up survivors from DD-557.
0900 LCI-337 Rescued survivor from DD-557.
0904 LCI-341 Picked up life raft with 11 men aboard. Survivors USS Johnston. Continued to pick up scattered survivors.
0905 LCI-337 Rescued 5 survivors from USS Johnston (DD-557).
0920 PC-623 Pumped 5,000 gallons fuel overboard to lighten ship. The PC-623 had aboard 260 survivors. The fuel was pumped overboard to compensate for the added weight of the survivors.
0925 LCI-71 Eight more survivors picked up.
0930 LCI-71 Underway with 175 survivors aboard.
0930 LCI-337 Large group of survivors aboard, approximately 85 men.
0930 LCI-340 Rescued 13 men from life raft in position: Lat. 12 degrees 06’30” N. Long. 125 degrees 42″ E. Men were given all the medical attention that this ship could render. Attempted to give all survivors dry clothing, bunks, warm food, and drink. A number of these men were badly injured and were from DD-557.
0936 LCI-341 Completed search. Total number reported aboard 90 men. Impossible to get complete list names due to very crowded conditions and physical conditions of men. Fell into column formation, course 150 degrees T.
0945 LCI-337 Sounded General Quarters. Sighted one enemy plane off bow. Identified as “Betty” bomber.
0952 LCI-341 Enemy planes made run on ships, strafing, but doing no damage. Secured from General Quarters.
1130 LCI-341 Fell out of formation to investigate debris.
1140 LCI-341 Returned to formation.
1200 PC-623 Steaming as before on course 150 degrees T. Report was made that Capt. Viewig, Cdr. Thomas (DD-533), Lt. Comdr. R. Copeland (DE-413) had been picked up.
1806 PC-623 C/S to 9.2 knots. Count was made of survivors aboard inaccurate. 260 men and one dead.
1840 LCI-337 Along port side of USS DE-47. Doctor came aboard.
1955 LCI–341 C/C 309 degrees T. Standing into Leyte Gulf.
2000 LCI-340 Five officers from CVE-73 picked up: Lt. Comdr. J. A. Samders, USNR, Lt. W. Stringer, 2400 USNR, Lt. (J.g.) A.S. Young, Ens. L.L. Epping, USNR and Ens. A.W. Betsang, USNR. Also 98 men from the CVE-73 and 18 men from the DD-557.
28 OCTOBER 1944 (Saturday)
0150 LCI-71 Dropped anchor near hospital ship.
0231 PC-623 Boats alongside for debarkation of survivors.
0345 LCI-71 Small boats began coming alongside to transfer survivors.
0350 L|CI-341 Small boats alongside to transfer survivors to hospital ships.
0401 LCI-340 Transferred Japanese survivor to small boat with all his possessions for transportation to the USS AGC-9.
0645 LCI-340 Started transferring American survivors to small boats for transportation to hospital ships for treatment. The hospital ships were the USS LSTs 266 and 464.
0850 LCI-337 LCM alongside to transfer wounded men to hospital ship, LST-464, a converted hospital ship. Stretcher cases only.
0942 LCI-71 Last of survivors transferred from Ship.
The sequence of events recorded in the abbreviated style of ships’ logs gives no hint of the drama that must have prevailed in the rescue area. The survivors were in shark infested-waters, clinging to rafts and debris, some for periods of forty hours; some were wounded; all were chilled at night and under a torrid sun during the day, hoarding their Verys signal lights, seeing planes overhead but themselves unseen.
Through the daylight hours of 25 October, Baxter’s small task force searched the battle area without success. Current and wind had carried the survivors away. It was the Verys signal, fired at night, that finally guided the task force in the proper direction and to rescue 1,153 men. It was an outstanding search and rescue operation which has received little recognition.
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NOTE The more than 1100 survivors of GAMBIER BAY, HOEL, JOHNSTON, and SAMUEL B. ROBERTS will be forever grateful for the efforts put forth by this small RESCUE TASK GROUP, made up from ships of MacArthur’s Amphibious Navy and their diligent efforts to save as many of us as possible.
Our thanks to TASK GROUP 78.12.
Posted with permission from NavSource online.