At 6:35 A.M., as sunrise revealed a grayed-out and hazy dawn, the most powerful concentration of naval gun power the Japanese empire had ever assembled reordered its geometry in preparation for daylight operations. Twenty-five miles to Taffy 3’s north, lookouts on the heavy cruiser Chokai and light cruiser Noshiro reported aircraft approaching. So Halsey’s planes were coming after all, Takeo Kurita must have thought. Almost simultaneously, cat-eyed lookouts on the battleship Nagato spied masts on the horizon visible here and there through the rainsqualls that dropped down from the heavens like gauzy shrouds. An eight-knot easterly wind roused low swells from the sea. From the Yamato’s gunnery platform high above the bridge, Cdr. Tonosuke Otani, Kurita’s operations officer, squinted through a range-finding telescope and spotted the flat-topped silhouettes of American aircraft carriers.
The presence of carriers meant this was not Nishimura’s squadron. Kurita could not believe his luck. Here, within gun range at last, were the fast, first-line Essex-class fleet carriers that constituted the heart of the American fleet. There looked to be six or seven of them, accompanied by what lookouts took for Baltimore-class heavy cruisers, powerful combatants only six feet shorter than South Dakota-class battleships. The imagination of Admiral Koyanagi, Kurita’s chief of staff, ran wild. He believed they faced not an escort carrier group, but four or five big carriers escorted by one or two battleships and ten or more heavy cruisers.
As Ziggy Sprague’s task unit flees eastward into the wind, its six jeep carriers scrambling their pilots and aircrews, Kurita’s Center Force begins its high-speed pursuit, its battleships firing heavy salvos at extended range.
At 6:59, loaded with rounds designed to penetrate heavy armor, the great 18.1-inch rifles of the battleship Yamato trained to starboard and opened fire on Taffy 3 at a range of nearly twenty miles. One minute later Kurita issued a fleet-wide order for a “general attack.” The Kongo turned out to the east, in fast but independent pursuit. Ahead of the Yamato to port, the six heavy cruisers of Cruiser Divisions 5 and 7 formed into a single column, trying to take the lead in the chase. Angling to the southwest, the Nagato turned her sixteen-inch rifles twenty-five degrees to port and opened fire at a range of more than twenty miles. The swift Haruna loosed fourteen-inch salvos using its crude radar set.
Apparently unaware of the speed advantage his ships held over their American prey, Kurita seemed eager for his heavy cruisers to press the fight before the Americans could escape. A more disciplined (or better-informed) commander might have drawn his ships into a single line of battle, with destroyers in the forward van to scout the enemy and maneuver for a deadly torpedo attack.
For all the strength the Japanese Center Force brought into play, its commanders were unsettled about the manner in which the battle began. In the midst of the shift to a daytime antiaircraft formation, with each captain operating at his own freewheeling discretion, confusion took command of the Center Force. Vice Adm. Matome Ugaki, commanding Kurita’s First Battleship Division, composed of the Yamato and the Nagato, observed, “each unit seemed very slow in starting actions due to uncertainty about the enemy condition.” “I feared the spirit of all-out attack at short range was lacking,” Admiral Ugaki would write.
The heavy cruisers led the Japanese charge on Taffy 3. Cruiser Division 7’s commander, Vice Adm. Kazutaka Shiraishi, was a fifty-two-year-old Nagasaki native who had not had a seagoing command since 1940. Shiraishi received Kurita’s order, “Cruiser divisions attack!” and turned his ships to the southeast, steaming at their maximum speed of thirty-five knots. Aiming to flank the American ships from the east, he radioed each of his captains in succession: “We are closing the enemy. Intend to engage to starboard.” Then—bizarrely—though a general attack had been ordered, the vanguard of any such attack, the Center Force’s two divisions of hard-hitting destroyers, led by the light cruisers Noshiro and Yahagi, were ordered to the rear. Though there were doubters in his midst, Kurita was overjoyed by his perceived good fortune in encountering American carriers. At seven o’clock the Center Force commander dispatched a message that delighted Combined Fleet Headquarters: “WE ARE ENGAGING ENEMY IN GUN BATTLE” … and then “BY HEAVEN-SENT OPPORTUNITY WE ARE DASHING TO ATTACK THE ENEMY CARRIERS. The emperor’s fleet had been handed a dreamed-for chance. Carriers were queens of the seas, mobile and lethally armed with ship-killing planes. Now it was the Imperial Japanese Navy’s turn to move on the Philippine chessboard. Its rooks had America’s queens, so Kurita thought, lined up for slaughter.
As flecks of antiaircraft fire dotted the northern horizon around Bill Brooks’s Avenger, Ernest Evans emerged from his sea cabin on the destroyer Johnston and sized up Taffy 3’s predicament in an instant. Situated closest to the advancing enemy fleet, he could not have missed his ship’s consignment to quick destruction. Faced with it, Evans evidently saw no need to await orders from Commander Thomas aboard the Hoel or from Admiral Sprague. If carrier commanders traditionally saw the destroyers’ primary battle role as laying smoke screens to cover the flattops’ escape, Evans had other ideas about what he was supposed to do. Destroyers sortied. They interposed. They sacrificed themselves for the ships they were assigned to protect. Evans would do his duty for the Fanshaw Bay, the St. Lo, the Gambier Bay, the White Plains, the Kalinin Bay, and the Kitkun Bay. If that meant closing with an enemy whose guns were big enough to sink him with a single hit, so be it. He would make good on his commissioning-day promise—his warning—to his crew: the Johnston was a fighting ship. He would not back down.
Recalling his skipper’s speech in the context of the present situation, Bob Hagen, the Johnston’s gunnery officer, grew ill. As the ship’s senior lieutenant, he knew his skipper. The certainty that Evans would turn the ship into the teeth of the Japanese fleet saddled him with dread. This is an impossible situation with this skipper, Hagen thought. He’s not going to run. He doesn’t know how.
Hagen practically heard the orders before his skipper delivered them. His rapid-fire sequence suggested he had rehearsed all his Navy life for a moment such as this.
All hands to general quarters.
Prepare to attack major portion of the Japanese fleet.
All engines ahead flank.
Commence making smoke and stand by for a torpedo attack.
Left full rudder.
Lt. (jg) Ellsworth Welch couldn’t help but be impressed with his skipper’s brio, his calm, his directness of action, and clarity of thought. Why didn’t I think of that? he found himself wondering. Nothing like having a pro in charge.
Left full rudder meant that the ship would peel off to the north-northwest, away from the illusory sanctuary of the formation and charging toward the enemy fleet. The order made Robert Billie, a Minnesotan, want to go to ground like a gopher. “That was the only time I ever wanted to dig a trench.”
Bob Hagen ran his numbers—the fire-control computer could not help him here—and drew the same conclusion Jack Moore had on the Samuel B. Roberts: there was probably a fifty-fifty chance of survival. The long odds notwithstanding, he was in no hurry to climb up to the gun director. Though the situation seemed to demand urgent action—and indeed, he could count on his men being inside each of the five main gun mounts within about ninety seconds of going to general quarters—what was the point of hurry-up-and-wait? The gunners would have nothing to shoot at until the range to the enemy had closed from 35,000 yards to 18,000 yards, about six miles. Until then, the gunnery officer felt no immediate need to gaze upon the enemy ships through his binoculars.
The shellfire put out by the Japanese force was overwhelming. Battleship main battery rounds plunged down at the Johnston, shrieking like locomotives, smacking the sea with a slap and roar and sending up towers of dye-stained seawater. At that moment Hagen had as good a view of the Japanese dreadnoughts as he cared to have.
The Johnston’s gun boss contemplated the audacious path his captain had chosen and said quietly, “Please, sir, let us not go down before we fire our damn torpedoes.”
He did not doubt that Ernest Evans would do his best. Like the other officers on the Johnston, Hagen had come to see him as “a captain who could strike fighting spirit from his men the way steel strikes spark from a flint.” Evans’s conduct impressed him indelibly. “I can see him now,” Hagen would write, “short, barrel-chested, standing on the bridge with his hands on his hips, giving out with a running fire of orders in a bull voice.”
That Evans acted on instinct, ahead of actual orders, was elemental to his constitution and his experience. The crew in turn vested their faith in the all-encompassing will of the Cherokee warrior who had sworn that he would never withdraw. And who knew, perhaps promises as portentous as his carried with them some kind of implicit magic that assured their survival. The laws of probability and the lessons of recent combat history, however, heralded a different outcome. At the Battle of Savo Island, Japanese cruisers and destroyers had needed only six minutes to annihilate an Allied cruiser column. At Midway, American dive-bombers had wiped out most of a Japanese carrier task force in four decisive minutes. Alone against heavy cruisers and battleships—cruising through shell splashes fired by vessels up to thirty-five times her size—the Johnston would have no business surviving even that long. As the Army troops at Bataan or the Marines on Wake Island could attest, Americans had been overwhelmed in battle before. The Pacific had afforded them several occasions to refight the Alamo. Now, it seemed, it was the Navy’s turn.
As his ship sped to the northwest, alone against the Japanese fleet, Ernest Evans had no illusions that the Johnston’s five-inch main battery would do much damage. He knew that his only chance to send Japanese iron to the bottom of the Philippine Trench was to get close enough to fire his ten torpedoes, mounted in two quintuple mounts amidships, and plant a little torpex into their underbellies. Until then, all he could do was make his best speed and blow out as much smoke as his boilers were capable of making.
When the firemen received Captain Evans’s order to make smoke, they misinterpreted it as a reprimand. “But we are not making smoke,” came the defensive reply. Boiler room personnel trained hard to do anything but make smoke, lest the ship betray its location or foul its boiler tubes and require a painstaking cleaning. Evans grabbed the sound-powered phones and yelled, “I want a smoke screen, and I want it now!”
On the fantail, Lt. Jesse Cochran, the assistant engineering officer and head of a repair party, had trouble getting the chemical smoke generator going. Its valves were stuck fast from saltwater corrosion. Torpedoman first class Jim O’Gorek used a big adjustable wrench and vise grips to jog them loose, while Cochran and his party set depth charges on safe and dogged down all hatches and doors on the aft part of the ship. After a minute or so of urgent wrenching, the gray concoction was billowing in the ship’s wake, hanging close to the sea in the humid monsoon-season air. As the Japanese star shells burned overhead like miniature midday suns, advancing the light of the early morning, black smoke flowed from the ship’s two stacks, turning dawn back into night.
Smoke making was an act of sacrifice: the smoke flowed behind the ship that made it, shrouding everything in its wake. It gave its maker no protection. If Taffy 3 had a prayer to survive, it would depend on confusing Kurita and shielding the retreating escort carriers from view. “We were making smoke, zig-zagging and heading for the Jap fleet,” seaman John Mostowy would write, “at flank speed and alone.”
As the Johnston came around to port on Captain Evans’s order, taking a northwesterly course toward the Japanese fleet, seaman first class Bill Mercer pulled on a kapok life jacket. He was fastening it tight when a seaman named Gorman asked him if he was scared. Mercer, a Texan, said hell yeah, he was scared. In fact, his heart was thumping so hard beneath his ribs that he feared the Japanese might hear it. The only words Gorman could find in reply were a strange non sequitur: “This is fun.”
To quartermaster Neil Dethlefs, the situation seemed like the work of a cruel and uncaring universe. He had been on the Johnston for only three weeks. Not long ago he had been working aboard the hull repair ship Prometheus at Tulagi when the Johnston entered the harbor flashing signal lights requesting a replacement for a quartermaster who had trouble with seasickness. Dethlefs and another quartermaster on the Prometheus fit the job description, so they cut a deck of cards to determine who had to go. Dethlefs pulled an eight to his colleague’s king and dutifully reported to his yeoman for transfer to the destroyer. The bitter thought seized him now: he had arrived aboard the Johnston just in time to get himself killed.
As Captain Evans rang up flank speed, officer of the deck Lt. Ed DiGardi knew the Johnston wasn’t ready for an extended high-speed engagement. The fuel report indicated that the ship had only 12,000 gallons of fuel oil. At standard cruising speed, the ship burned 500 gallons an hour. But at a flank speed of thirty-six knots, the rate jumped to 5,000 gallons an hour. In just over two hours the tanks would be bone dry. The ship would go dead in the water, whether it was hit or not. Lieutenant DiGardi told the engineering officer, Lt. Joe Worling, to do what the engineer already knew had to be done: mix the oil with the 10,000 gallons of diesel fuel the ship carried in separate tanks. Though engineers hated the way the dirty-burning grog fouled the delicate boiler tubes and required a painstaking cleanout, there was no alternative in these desperate circumstances.
Not everyone was entirely despondent. Looking down to the bridge from the gun director, Bob Hagen swore that he could see Captain Evans’s “heart grinning” as he led his ship into the fight.
From the bridge of the Fanshaw Bay, Ziggy Sprague took in the vicious columns of water rising around the White Plains and the other CVEs on the edge of the formation nearest the enemy and saw a terrible beauty. The splashes from the salvos rose in a rainbow of colors: red, pink, purple, green, yellow—each so dyed in order to help the enemy gunners correct the fall of their shots.
In the whole horrible course of the war in four wide oceans, not once had an American aircraft carrier been sunk by gunfire from an enemy surface ship. The historic nature of Sprague’s plight was not lost on him. In the triumphant closing phase of the war against Japan, Admiral Sprague, an emissary of the world’s greatest sea power, was going to see all six of his flattops sunk by gunfire. It was certain to happen. It wouldn’t take more than fifteen minutes. There was no other possible outcome.
For the kid from Rockport, the situation was beyond imagining. “I wouldn’t say it was like a bad dream, for my mind had never experienced anything from which such a nightmare could have been spun.” Once Clifton Sprague had dreamed of going to West Point, of parading on horseback before cheering crowds down his hometown thoroughfare. He had become a Navy admiral instead. Now he would have his appointment with notoriety, leading thirteen ships whose pending destruction would go down in history just as surely as they would go down to the bottomless deep of the Philippine Trench: “Neither could such dream stuff have been recalled from my reading in some history book, because nothing like this had ever happened in history.”
By any measure the mathematics of the engagement were preposterously against them. The Yamato displaced nearly seventy thousand tons. She alone matched almost exactly in weight all thirteen ships of Taffy 3. Each of her three main gun turrets weighed more than an entire Fletcher-class destroyer. Her armor belts—sixteen inches thick at the waterline and more than two feet thick on her gun turrets—were impenetrable to an American destroyer’s guns. Her nine 18.1-inch rifles were the biggest guns that ever went to sea, firing 3,200-pound shells more than twenty-six miles. Their development was so secret that even Admiral Kurita did not know their true size. The superbattleship’s secondary battery of six six-inch guns packed twice the hitting power of anything Ziggy Sprague’s largest escorts had. The ship was a great gray beast whose bulk pressed down into the ocean and possessed it, displacing enough water to raise measurably the level of a small lake. At flank speed of twenty-seven knots, the Yamato sliced the sea and drew it back around her in a roiling maelstrom, leaving a wake that capsized small boats.
The Yamato was not the only ship that completely outgunned Sprague’s task unit. The Nagato, displacing 42,850 tons, fielded eight sixteen-inch guns, and the Kongo and her sister ship the Haruna (36,600 tons) were fast frontline battleships armed with eight-gun fourteen-inch batteries. Kurita’s six heavy cruisers were thirty-five-knot killers that had a cumulative displacement equal to that of the Yamato. Finally, Kurita had two flotillas of destroyers, eleven in all, each led by a light cruiser, the Yahagi and the Noshiro (8,543 tons), with six-inch batteries. On paper each of the destroyers matched the Johnston, the Hoel, or the Heermann in speed and torpedo power if not quite in gunnery. The only weapon in Sprague’s modest arsenal that Kurita could not match was aircraft. Each of the six American jeeps carried about thirty planes. But loaded with depth charges, antipersonnel bombs, rockets, and the machine guns in their wings—not to mention the propaganda leaflets they sometimes carried in lieu of more kinetic payloads—they were not armed for attacking heavy surface ships.
A fighting force cannot be reduced to its order of battle any more than a ship’s value can be reduced to the number of guns she carries or the shaft horsepower her turbines can generate. A vessel draws life from the spirit of her crew, which derives in large part from the leadership qualities of her chiefs and officers. Morale defies quantification—and yet it weighs significantly on the ultimate lethality of the tools of war. A ship’s effectiveness is the product of thousands of bonds that develop between individual officers and crew. The bonds form and break in a chain reaction, the power of which is determined by drill, by relationships, by fortitude, faith, and values. Task force commanders can be only abstractly aware of these uncountable qualities as they exist on the particular ships under their command. The officers of the ships themselves see these qualities more clearly but still can only guess how the chemical reactions will coalesce when the real shooting starts and men begin to die. And so orders of battle are drawn up to focus on the tangibles: speed, displacement, armament, and sensors. On that score Taffy 3 scarcely even registered on the scale of force that Takeo Kurita brought against them.
Thanks to Ensign Brooks’s diligent sighting report, Admiral Sprague knew precisely what he faced. “I thought, we might as well give them all we’ve got before we go down,” he later recalled. That meant getting into position to launch planes and putting as much distance as possible between his ships and the faster Japanese. Both of those goals could be met by heading east, into the wind.
Ziggy Sprague coolly measured what would become a steadily shifting matrix of variables—enemy course headings, patterns of wind and squalls, the effectiveness of his own ships’ evasions and protective smoke laying and the effect of the enemy fire—and instinctively planned his escape. He ordered his ships to turn from their northerly course to an eastward one, on heading 090. Three factors recommended that course: first, it was directly away from the Japanese fleet; second, it brought a strong wind rushing from bow to stern over his carrier decks—an apparent headwind of twenty-two knots was necessary to get a fully loaded Avenger airborne, even with catapult assistance; and third, it took him toward open ocean, where he could hope for the intervention not only of rainsqualls but perhaps also of other American ships. “I wanted to pull the enemy out where somebody could smack him,” he would write; either Oldendorf or Halsey, wherever they were, could handle that job. “If we were going to expend ourselves I wanted to make it count.”
At 6:50 Sprague flipped on the TBS radio and ordered the skippers of his command, “Signal execute on receipt. Shackle baker uncle easy unshackle turn.” Between the words shackle and unshackle was the coded numerical heading Sprague intended to follow. Baker Uncle Easy were the encoded integers for a heading of 090. All as one, the helmsmen on twelve of Taffy 3’s thirteen ships turned to the right, bringing their ships on an eastward heading. Sprague also passed the order to begin making smoke for concealment. Aboard the jeep carriers, flight deck crews raced to ready their planes for launch.
It took only five minutes to turn the six nimble carriers onto a windward course. Sprague ordered, “Launch all planes as soon as possible,” then hedged against the long-shot possibility that the fleet opposing him might yet be friendly: “Caution all pilots to identify all ships before attacking.” The roar and colorful splashes of incoming shells, however, all but removed that distant possibility.
Many of Sprague’s planes had been airborne since first light, flying off before daybreak to strike targets on Leyte. Now, needing the bombs they carried, he ordered them to abort and return. He also needed help from the other two Taffies to his south. On the TBS circuit he raised the commander of Taffy 2, Rear Adm. Felix Stump, “Come in please. Come in please…. To any or all: We have enemy fleet consisting of BBs and cruisers fifteen miles astern closing us. We are being fired on.”
Admiral Stump got on the line, already briefed by intercepted radio transmissions, and said, “Don’t be alarmed, Ziggy, remember we’re back of you. Don’t get excited! Don’t do anything rash!” Since Stump’s Taffy 2 was the only of the three Taffies not under direct attack—Taffy 1 would be fighting off land-based Japanese aircraft most of the morning—he was best positioned to help Sprague. Still, something about his tone tended to undercut his advice.
Thomas Sprague, in simultaneous command of Taffy 1 and all three Taffies, recognized that in the coming fight Ziggy Sprague should be free to decide how to conduct it. All that Thomas Sprague could do for him was cover bureaucratic bases and ask the Seventh Fleet’s commander of support aircraft for permission to launch all available torpedo bombers and “go after them.” The request was duly granted, and thereafter, according to Admiral Stump, “no orders were received from anyone during the entire day, nor were any necessary.” It was Ziggy Sprague’s battle to win or lose, “using the initiative that was required under the prevailing circumstances.”
Ziggy Sprague knew that help was a long way off. What he didn’t know was that Jesse Oldendorf’s battleships, idling in Leyte Gulf after their historic victory in Surigao Strait, would be kept from coming to his assistance because Admiral Kinkaid feared the Southern Force might turn around and attack again through Surigao Strait. Though one might question the wisdom of ensuring against a contingent disaster when a very real one was already at hand, the cold fact of October 25 was that Admiral Sprague, the ships and men of Taffy 3, and their brothers to their south, would have no help from the overwhelming naval power marshaled to their north and south. They were on their own.
Sprague’s moves in the crucible of imminent combat were swift but not rash. One trait of good commanders is that they make simple decisions at the right times and without delay. Sprague was an instinctive and forceful decision maker. He played golf in a hurry. He didn’t line up his putts. He just walked up to the ball and hit it. When he met his future wife, Annabel, he knew immediately he would marry her. At Pearl Harbor he knew right away what to do with the few weapons he had on the Tangier. On the morning of October 25, with an overwhelming Japanese task force pressing down on him, he saw instantly the surest route to his slim hope of survival. If he did not completely resign himself to dying, he at least accepted the reasonable certainty of an imminent swim. If no assistance came from other ships, Sprague would settle for the intervention of a heavenly being of whom during quieter periods of his life he had asked, and to whom he had given, relatively little.