The Kurita fleet sailed from Brunei at eight o’clock in the morning on October 22—one event FRUPAC missed. The admiral appreciated the clouds that hampered Allied scout planes. Slightly after noon Kurita turned the fleet to a course just west of north to make the track off Palawan, and he altered at 6:00 p.m. to his final course. The fleet varied speed between sixteen and eighteen knots, alternating zigzag patterns, and for part of the day avoided zigzagging. Kurita’s course took him near where an Allied submarine, based on radio observations, was believed to be located. Several more were overheard on the radio. The sequence suggested a sub might actually be trailing Kurita. Jumpy lookouts reported periscopes. Around 9:00 p.m. light cruiser Yahagi made an emergency turn and fired a red flare, signaling a sub contact. Admiral Kurita considered these imponderables. The truth, about to blast the hull of his flagship, lay submerged right ahead.
Commander David H. McClintock skippered the American sub Darter. He led a mini-unit with another boat, Commander Bladen D. Claggett’s Dace, which clever sailors dubbed the “Double D’s.” They were on patrol between Palawan and the shoal area known as the “Dangerous Ground.” The boats, based in Australia, had been at sea for several weeks, and Claggett had already claimed two merchantmen from a Japanese convoy. McClintock had detected and chased Admiral Sakonju’s cruiser division but had not been able to get a good attack position. This night, McClintock had both boats riding on the surface, barely under way, signaling by lamp and megaphone to preserve radio silence. He contemplated heading home. But then, at 1:16 a.m., McClintock’s radar detected a gaggle of large ships, which resolved into two (actually three) columns of the Kurita fleet. The senior skipper passed the word to Claggett and both pursued the quarry.
Admiral Kurita’s warships were making sixteen knots, zigzagging. McClintock’s subs dashed from their port side, doing nineteen on the surface on a straight course, scrambling to get out in front. The chase went on for hours since McClintock wanted to strike from ahead—and from underwater. He sent a contact report, then two more, estimating at least eleven heavy ships (there were actually fifteen).
Aboard the Yamato radio operators overheard an urgent submarine report at 1:50 a.m. At about 4:30, Darter’s crew went for coffee; then Commander McClintock sent them to battle stations. He dived the boat, taking the Darter deep to check depth and water density, then brought her back to periscope depth. Bearing down on him, flagship Atago led the closest column of Japanese ships. Right behind her steamed heavy cruiser Takao. McClintock took quick glances through his periscope, describing what he saw to the sub’s exec, Lieutenant Commander Ernest L. Schwab. They set up torpedo firing solutions. The skipper planned to fire all six bow torpedo tubes, then swing the boat around to unleash the four tin fish in his stern tubes. He estimated the distance to target to be about 3,000 yards. Clocks registered about 5:30 a.m.
Suddenly the Japanese warships turned in a zig. The Darter needed to establish the new course and recalculate the solution. McClintock realized the enemy had turned toward him. He would be able to use torpedoes at point-blank range, less than 1,000 yards. The submariner could see a signal lamp blinking from the Atago’s bridge as he loosed his first fish. McClintock went through his sequence, then turned and emptied the stern tubes.
The sound of explosions was unmistakable, but crewmen were uncertain whether they were depth charges or torpedoes. McClintock thought torpedoes. He would never forget what he saw when he turned the periscope back to look at the Atago. “She was a mass of billowing black smoke from the number one turret to the stern. No superstructure could be seen. Bright orange flames shot out from the side along the main deck from the bow to the after turret. Cruiser was already down by the bow, which was dipping under. . . . She was definitely finished.”
From the Japanese perspective, disaster immediately overwhelmed the flagship. Rear Admiral Araki Tsutau, noticing his heavy cruiser had begun listing to starboard, ordered counterflooding of the port engine and boiler rooms, accepting that would mean a shipwide loss of power. Araki ordered full right rudder, but without electricity the rudder could not function. Then telephones died, and engineer officer Commander Domen Keizo could do nothing.
Four of the Darter’s torpedoes had struck home. One, near the bow, merely damaged storerooms, but the second strike hit the number one boiler room, broke steam lines, started fires, and opened the vessel’s seams. Junior officers’ quarters began to flood. The number six boiler room caught the third hit, with such force that the bulkhead buckled between it and the adjacent boiler room and the flames roared through. Above it lay one of the cruiser’s torpedo mounts. Its own fish had to be jettisoned, save for one that stuck and threatened to ignite from the heat. The last torpedo hit with the ship’s list already increased to thirty-two degrees, flooding the aft generator room, shorting out transformers, filling a propeller shaft, and sending a muck of seawater and oil through the crew’s quarters.
There could be no question of saving the Atago. She sank in just eighteen minutes. Commanders barely had time to summon destroyers Kishinami and Asashimo to take off the crew. Radiomen did have the time necessary to destroy Atago’s code machines and lock most secret material securely in spaces beneath the waterline. Remaining communications material would be sealed in weighted sacks and thrown overboard.
When sailors were summoned topside, water had begun pouring into the number five turret, killing crewmen there, and the list increased to fifty-four degrees, more than halfway toward leaving the cruiser on her beam ends. Admiral Kurita and his staff decamped amid this disaster, swimming to the Kishinami. Kurita was among the first over the side. Amazingly, skipper Araki managed to save 43 officers, 667 petty officers and sailors, and 2 civilians. Commander Domen was not among them, nor were 18 other officers and 340 men. Kurita later sent a destroyer back to ensure that none of those sacks of classified documents had survived. None were found.
Behind the flagship, heavy cruiser Takao suffered two torpedo hits. These opened large gashes in the ship’s hull, but the wounds were less grievous and Captain Onoda Sutejiro’s damage-control efforts were more successful. Though the engines stopped, the steering was lost, and the ship listed to the starboard side, Onoda was able to right the vessel, and the crew restored power and steerage. Only 33 sailors were killed and another 30 injured. Destroyers Asashimo and Naganami stood by, mounting depth-charge attacks on the Darter. The Asashimo rescued 5 sailors who were thrown overboard by the explosions. Combined Fleet sent the Mitsu Maru and torpedo boat Hiyodori from Brunei to assist.
Meanwhile, on the other flank Commander Claggett’s Dace got in her own knocks. The boat had used up the fish in her stern torpedo room in previous operations. Claggett listened to the sounds of the Darter’s battle with the enemy until 5:54 a.m., when the opposite flank column of warships entered his danger zone. Claggett thought he had a Kongo-class battleship; she was actually Captain Oe Ranji’s heavy cruiser Maya. The Dace loosed half a dozen torpedoes. Four of them hit, and the Maya began to break up almost immediately, capsizing in just seven minutes. Under the circumstances, it is astonishing that 769 sailors—more than 70 percent of the crew—were saved. Much of that had to do with destroyer Shimakaze, which reacted immediately and closed with the hapless cruiser, so that sailors could begin evacuating down makeshift gangways. The 29 seriously wounded men were sheathed in bamboo carriers. Fortunately the sea was calm.
At a certain point, the Darter, convinced the Japanese counterattacks were only going through the motions, returned to periscope depth. Commander McClintock found the Takao immobile, with assisting ships around her. Late in the day she seemed to come to life. If he got another crack, the submariner thought, he might finish her off. Bladen Claggett was of the same mind. In daylight, Japanese destroyers fended off their attempts to maneuver. The next night McClintock, seeing Takao had gotten under way, still slowly, decided to run in on the surface. The Dangerous Ground lived up to its name. Darter suddenly stuck fast on a reef known as Bombay Shoal. Hours of efforts failed to dislodge the boat. Commander Claggett abandoned his pursuit of the Takao to come to the rescue of McClintock and his crew.
After dawn, a JNAF scout found the two subs and identified one as hard aground. At that point the Dace, full with two crews, had to flee. Once the Takao neared Brunei, Captain Onoda sent Naganami and Hiyodori back to see what they could find. The intelligence taken from the boat included blueprints, instruction books, ordnance items, communications procedures, and radio and radar material. American sailors had destroyed their code materials, so the take lacked the dimension of the equivalent Japanese loss of sub I-1 off Guadalcanal in 1943, but it still amounted to a windfall for the Imperial Navy.